Famed neuroscientist, philosopher, and atheist Sam Harris, in his Letter To A Christian Nation, wrote:
Consider the question of slavery. The entire civilized world now agrees that slavery is an
abomination….Consult the Bible, and you will discover that the creator of the universe
clearly expects us to keep slaves.
What is he talking about? He goes on to reference Leviticus 25:44-46:
Your male and female slaves are to be from the nations around you; you may purchase
male and female slaves. You may also purchase them from the foreigners staying with
you, or from their families living among you—those born in your land. These may
become your property. You may leave them to your sons after you to inherit as
property; you can make them slaves for life. But concerning your brothers, the
Israelites, you must not rule over one another harshly.
There are a lot of difficult words there. Slaves. Purchase. Property.
"You keep using that word—I do not think it means what you think it means." - Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
Although Sam Harris is a smart guy and respected philosopher, he is not a theologian. As I wrote in a previous post, correctly interpreting the Bible takes thought, care, and certain considerations.
One such consideration is that the Old Testament was originally written mostly in ancient Hebrew. What we read in English is a translation, and translations aren't always perfect because the meanings of words tend to evolve over time. For example, when Americans think of the word "slave", we immediately recall the unimaginable horror of the kidnapping, abuse and forced labor of African Americans in the antebellum South. It's important to remember that in the time of the Old Testament, that hadn't happened yet. Our modern definition of slavery is based on our experience of what slavery means in our time and in our culture.
Slavery was a much different construct in ancient Israel. In fact, even the word that the Bible uses for "slave" didn't carry the same negative connotation it does today. The Hebrew word that is translated into English as "slave" is 'ebed, which is related to work, and is better translated as a type of "servanthood."(1) As J.A. Motyer writes, "Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only servanthood."(2)
What exactly was an 'ebed?
The temptation to read the Old Testament narratives through the lens of our modern cultural experience is incredibly difficult to resist. However, we must remember that we are talking about a period in history where people were not independent like they are today. Sons and daughters didn't go off to college at eighteen and start careers. People generally lived as families in small villages where their main livelihood was growing things like grain, lentils, and beans. If the crops failed, the whole family could potentially starve to death. (3)
In such cases, individual family members could enter into a contractual agreement working as a servant for another family to pay off a debt. This servanthood was not based on race, and it was voluntary and temporary. An 'ebed was given food, shelter, legal rights, and protection from mistreatment. After seven years, they were released from debt and servitude and given a generous gift of flocks, wine, and grain. (4) It wasn't an ideal situation, but it was a way for people to avoid destitution and actually come up and out of poverty.
Old Testament scholar John Goldingay wrote, “There is nothing inherently lowly or undignified about being an ‘ebed”. (5) In actuality, this type of servanthood wasn’t much different than being a paid employee in our cash-based society.
It's interesting to note that Abraham was called God's 'ebed, (Isaiah 41:9) and he was also called God's friend (James 2:23). That's not exactly the picture of slavery we think of today.
What about the "purchase" of slaves as "property" from surrounding nations?
Again, words matter here. In Hebrew, the terms for "selling" and "buying" were not necessarily associated with attaining for money. For example, the same word translated "purchase" in Leviticus 25, is the Hebrew word qanah, which means "acquire." It is used in Genesis 4:1 when Eve gives birth and says, "With the help of the Lord I have "gotten" (qanah) a man." In Ruth 4:10, it is also used to describe Boaz "acquiring" Ruth as his wife. If you have ever read the breathtaking love story of Boaz and Ruth, there is no implication that it was anything but a partnership, and not a master/slave type relationship.
According to Leviticus 19:33,34, Israelites were expected to love foreigners and not oppress them. The laws found in Exodus 21 protect all servants from mistreatment, not just Israelites. In ancient Israel, kidnapping a person for any reason was forbidden and human trafficking was punishable by death.(6) This type of "chattel" slavery is not what Leviticus 25 is talking about. Paul Copan wrote:
Serving within Israelite households was to be a safe haven for any foreigner; it was not
to be an oppressive setting, but offered economic and social stability. (7)
Nowhere in the Bible is slavery condoned or expected. Paul Copan notes that if the anti-kidnapping, anti-harm, and anti-slave-return laws from the Old Testament would have been followed in the antebellum South, slavery would never have arisen in America. (8)
For a concise and easy to remember "quick answer" to this question, see my previous post,5 Apologetics Questions Every Christian Should Learn to Answer.
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(1) Peter Williams, Does the Bible Support Slavery?, Lecture, The Lanier Theological Library, Houston, October 30, 2015
(2) J.A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus (IVP Academic, 2005) p. 239
(4) Deuteronomy 15:12-18
(5) John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (IVP Academic, 2009) p. 460
(6) Exodus 21:16
(7) Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster? (Baker Books, 2011) p. 144
(8) Ibid, 132
1/2/2017 03:43:45 pm
This is an interesting consideration. Thankyou for addressing it. What about the contrast implied when saying, " you may make slaves of them (strangers who sojourn with them) but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule one over another ruthlessly." I read it several times and it's difficult to conclude that He's not implying that strangers can be "ruled over" but Israelites cannot.
1/2/2017 10:05:11 pm
These are great questions, Terre. It's tough to cover all the nuance in one blog post, but if you continue reading the Leviticus 25 verse, you will see that even the foreigner had a chance to work himself out of debt and become prosperous. The "foreigner" was more like an illegal immigrant who wasn't willing to abide by Israel's covenant with God. This did put them in a lower social rank than Israelite servants, but overall, Leviticus 25 was concerned with stopping generational cycles of poverty within Israel. Granted, it wasn't a perfect system, but it was completely unique among the surrounding cultures in that it showed concern for the well-being of foreign servants. Compared with other Near Eastern law codes, the Old Testament guidelines are exponentially more humane and merciful.
7/12/2017 11:07:36 am
7/12/2017 11:53:13 am
Thanks Dolphy. I'm very intrigued by this comment you made about the "moral relativism and cognitive dissonance at play in more literalist strands of Evangelicalism."
7/12/2017 12:28:09 pm
Thanks for responding Alisa!
7/12/2017 12:41:54 pm
Thanks Dolphy. You wrote, "I do appeal to a common, shared and innate morality." Where does that come from? Is it objective or subjective?
7/12/2017 01:31:27 pm
According to a great deal of scientific research on the subject, it appears that these behavioral boundaries are objective realities in all but a very small segment of the population (psychopaths, sociopaths and some with severe cognitive disorders). But didn't Paul at least infer this, in a primitive sense, in Romans 2?
7/12/2017 01:42:05 pm
Having behaviors in common doesn't make them objective... it simply defines them. But if you say morality IS objective, then what is the standard of objectivity by which to say something is objectively wrong or objectively right?
7/12/2017 02:13:15 pm
Well, now we are debating language. "Objective" is defined most simply as "not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts" Perhaps you wish to use another definition? That one works for me.
7/12/2017 02:24:12 pm
"Objective morality" is defined as morality that is independent of the observer. It's true in objective reality. Even your definition says, "not influenced by personal feelings." Then you go on to define it as "innate," which indicates personal feeling. Every definition you've given leads me to conclude that you believe morality is subjective.. have I gotten that right?
7/12/2017 02:47:30 pm
That is incorrect. I mean innate as in inborn, biological.
7/12/2017 05:03:53 pm
Ok thanks... that's what I was trying to get at. So we both agree that morality is objective. (Even though all your descriptions so far have fallen under the definition of subjective morality.) Yes the fact that we all have this innate sense is true (as in Romans 2).... BUT that isn't the *standard.* That's the *definition* of what people believe to be moral. It can't be the *standard,* because the minute two people disagree on what that standard is, it becomes subjective. Your opinion vs. my opinion.
7/12/2017 06:59:12 pm
Yes morality and the subject of good and evil are objective. I have explained several times how we understand morality, objectively, in the world. It isn't fuzzy.
7/12/2017 07:12:00 pm
PS) my valuation of why this act I described is in fact evil, is not based on my fear of being labeled a heretic if I question the Bible (subjective fear of being abandoned or ostracized by a community)
7/12/2017 10:38:17 pm
You keep describing what humans agree is moral ("how we understand morality,") but haven't yet answered my question... what is the objective standard outside of humans by which they come to those conclusions. You are describing the "what" but not the reason for the "ought." Not sure we're gonna get anywhere unless you can answer that.
7/13/2017 09:02:28 am
Good discussion, Alisa and thanks again for responding. These are important subjects.
7/13/2017 09:53:33 am
I did not ask you a new question, Dolphy. The definition of "objective" is that it is outside of a person, independent of any kind of opinion or preference. I'm glad you are open to viewing that objective standard as God's nature, but by definition, that is independent of faith—not a conclusion reached by faith. You don't seem to understand what an objective moral standard is, and I've tried to the best of my ability to explain. Even atheists understand that if they don't appeal to a standard outside of themselves, objective morality doesn't exist. I've watched many debates in which they've been forced to admit this. Even Sam Harris tries to define that standard as "human flourishing," but again, that is simply a description of morality, not a reason for the "ought."
7/13/2017 12:03:16 pm
Thanks for the dialogue, Alisa. You are one stubborn lady, and for that I give you major props!
7/13/2017 12:17:55 pm
Thanks Dolphy. I'll end with this:
7/13/2017 12:44:59 pm
Edit opening line: I meant "TENACIOUS", not stubborn! Poor choice of words on my part!
7/14/2017 08:17:58 am
7/14/2017 08:59:06 am
I'm not avoiding it.. I'm trying to show you that you are trusting your own subjective sense of morality to stand in judgment over God—who is the very standard by which we can even know good or evil. But I'll indulge you.
7/14/2017 01:54:15 pm
There are a LOT of gymnastics required to explain away the plain meaning of that text.
11/30/2020 02:21:03 pm
5/7/2021 11:37:19 pm
Hi Meg the passage in Numbers 31:17-18 this study bible website also helps to understand the difficult passages in the bible --> https://www.gotquestions.org/Numbers-31-17-Midianites.html
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