The Bible on Slavery

The bible is widely known among theists and non-theists alike, to condone slavery, misogyny and homophobia.  The common excuse is that it was the custom of the time but this only goes further to prove that far from being a historically accurate document, the bible is merely a reflection of the social norms of the time and written in the interests of maintaining the status-quo (and oh how it’s supporters have tried).  Over the next few posts. I will be taking a closer look at where and how the bible endorses these abominable aspects of human society, and where and how they are whitewashed by moderates who cherry pick its ideals as it suits their tastes.  I aim to highlight how this book no longer has a place in civilised society and how it should be discarded.

Deeply held beliefs are difficult to let go of and it is not for any of us to decide what another person does or does not believe.  What is for us to observe though, in the media rich western hemisphere, we seem more to easily fall into the trap of believing only that which confirms our preconceptions, than less.  I fail to see why non-believers are socially prohibited from having a negative view of any religion.  If we raise an objection after consideration of what we are being asked to just accept at face value, we are labelled as ‘militant’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘close-minded’ but we are sometimes as guilty of acting on our preconceptions as they are.  Having met one ranting door-knocker, we instantly go on the defensive the moment the subject is raised in any way, but it is easy to think ill-of a stranger we do not know.  It is also very easy to dismiss a stranger as foolish (yes, I picked that word on purpose), without any consideration of why they believe as they do because we don’t know them, not really.  I try not to fall into those traps but we all have them, it is part of what makes us human, after all.  What is not easy, is to understand why otherwise sensible people subscribe to this bronze-aged ghost story as ‘true’.  Nor is it easy to understand why they will only abandon those parts which they either don’t like or don’t know about as there is little in the bible now, which is compatible with modern western morality.  It is one thing to presuppose about flowers blooming in summer and grass being green as these are events we have learned from experience and observation.  What we should not be doing is assuming that every Christian is a bible waving fanatic, simply because we have had the misfortune of meeting one or two of the more persistent individuals.

In Ender’s Game by (the fantastic) Orson Scott Card (one of my favourites if you can’t already tell), the eleven year old Andrew Wigin is manipulated into committing genocide by the adults who commissioned his birth and view his skills and his imagination as a resource at their disposal.  He is deliberately blinkered into doing harm to the race of aliens known as the Formics by having his exposure to the truth and the facts severely limited and not being equipped to think critically.   Ender was written to be a child genius so there was no lack of intelligence to be blamed in this.  The only way he was able to achieve his goal was to know his enemy well enough to stop hating them.  He, as a child, had been taught to hate and hate an entire alien race he knew virtually nothing about. Aside from this book being a fantastic read that I would recommend to anyone, it really does highlight the danger and the harm that can be done with the indoctrination of children to not think critically.  It would not be nearly as frightening if I did not know that children really ARE being indoctrinated to hate and refused access to differing ideas and the facts.

Slavery entails ownership of one person by another.  Historically they were largely obtained through warfare and a regulated practice of it was permitted in the bible especially in the Old Testament. Stating that Israelite slaves, could not be sold on, were to be released after six years and given a full provision afterwards, does not mean that they were not really slaves. It was also permissible for a debtor to sell himself and his family into slavery to their creditors.   Foreigners were not so lucky.  They were enslaved for life with no hope of release and could be bought and sold like property. Christianity has no claim to magnanimity over this issue and slavery is slavery. To under-play the role that Christianity has played in it is blind and immature.

The introduction of the Wikipedia begins by claiming that the Bible used the Hebrew word, ‘ebed’ for slavery really translates better into English as ‘servant or hired worker.  I am not a Hebrew speaker so tried to verify this with several on-line translators and was not successful.  None that I tried recognised the word ‘ebed’ and the translation of servant gave me the translation in Hebrew script as משרת/שכיר. If anyone can give an accurate translation of this I would be grateful.  The stumble at the first hurdle has led me to doubt the validity of the rest of the article.  As it is, there has been a very favourable gloss painted over the whole issue.

The Bible nowhere explicitly condemns slavery, but allowed a regulated practice of it, especially under the Old Testament.

The lack of outright condemnation of slavery, and indeed the regulations laid down for the practice of slavery, has allowed its supporters to use the bible in its defence.  The definition of slavery is ownership of one person by another and compulsion into labour. The Genesis story, Curse of Ham, has often been given as a reason for the enslavement of the Canaanites but how does the narrative of one man’s misdeeds justify the actual enslavement of an entire race? It has been argued that ‘Ham, the father of’ was added later and paint’s Canaan as the culprit but this still does not sufficiently answer the question.  I would argue that  the ambiguity of ‘uncovering the nakedness of Noah’ could also mean showing the man as a normal imperfect human, given the metaphorical nature of the text but that is hardly a crime and let alone one worthy of slavery.  There have been discussions between scholars and theologians regarding the true meaning of the afore-mentioned crime but that is assuming that the bible is a true and accurate account of history WHICH IT ISN’T.

“…American pro-slavery apologists, claims have been made that the negroes, the descendants of Ham, lost their freedom from the abominable wickedness of their progenitor. Many racist Americans thus referred to the descendants of black slaves as the children of Ham; throughout history, a few Christians, like Jerome, even took up the racist notion that black people inherently had a soul as black as [their] body.

The Bible is extremely similar to both the code of Hammurabi in its rules and regulations, and the civilisation of ancient Greece and Rome. In fact the three are almost identical. Persia had a huge influence on Greece and Rome in turn was so enamoured of the greek culture that they emulated nearly every aspect and adopted its mythology.  Is it really any surprise, then, that the bible is so similar? I filled four sides of A4 with notes on the Hammurabi slave laws and they do not make pleasant reading.  There are several rules laid down concerning the treatment of slaves but this in no way ratifies the fact that it endorses slavery in the first place.  It was acceptable to beat a slave severely with a stick but not to the point where they were unable to rise from their beds or resultant in permanent injury. The killing of a male slave through premeditation or otherwise was punishable by death while a female slave was only worth her purchase price.  I view even laying down rules as an act of advocation for the practice don’t you?  The bible was written by MEN who KEPT slaves in a time when it was acceptable to do so.  They would not then arrange it so they would have to give those slaves up and anyone with an ounce of common sense can see this.  We acknowledge that slavery was acceptable at the time as there are other, and more reliable, sources confirming it.  If we are not to judge the practices of the past by the rules and morals of the present, then surely the rule works both ways: we should not then condone these abhorrent practices in the 21st century BECAUSE they were acceptable in the past. When I say ‘we’, in this case I mean all of us as a species, and not just individuals or demographics.  By subscription to a belief system centred on the Bible and similar texts, the human race is still willing to ignore at best and condone at worst, the practice.  Consider how long it has taken the west to give it up as inhumane?



2 thoughts on “The Bible on Slavery

  1. Anna,

    I think you would like to read Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity. Here is a link

    What we know as Christianity today took its intial shape within the decaying Roman Empire, a society based on slavery. Slavery was a class system of exploitation just as modern wage slavery is today.

    American black chattel slavery had its own unique characteristics. But Chrsitianity played a prominent role in both. The black American slave became Christian which raised a huge contradiction because his slave master was also Christian.


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