“The Bible is a radically pro-slavery
document. Slave-owners waved Bibles over their heads during the
Civil War and justified it.”
(Anti-Christian Activist Dan Savage
addressing High School Students, for the National Scholastic Press
Association, April 13, 2012, quoted at Filibuster
Is this very common accusation valid, arguable, or just plain slander?
Can these people be genuinely unaware the abolitionists "waved
Bibles over their heads during the Civil War"? Which side did in
truth hold the Bible high ground? The atheists and the defenders of Southern
slavery have formed an unholy alliance, agreeing that the Bible
upholds slavery as a just institution:
"Did the Christian apologists for slavery in the
antebellum South have the advantage over the abolitionists when it
came to their debates bates on the subject of slavery? Again, there
is no question:
"'The God-fearing southern people turned to the Bible to
justify slavery, very, and the Bible did not disappoint them. Their
theologians rent the abolitionists, at least on the essentials, in
their war of biblical exegesis. . .Thornwell and his fellow southern
divines argued-and, I regret to say, demonstrated-that the Old
Testament established slavery as ordained of God and that Jesus, who
spoke not one word against it and did not exclude slaveholders from
the church, reaffirmed the sanction.'" (Douglas
Wilson. Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on
Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (Kindle Locations
Is this an accurate characterization of the Bible evidence? From the time of the bruising struggle over the abolition of
slavery that led to the American Civil War, interpreters have
collected and segregated the Bible evidence favorable to their side
and trumpeted that slice of the whole as 'what the Bible says about
slavery.' Abolitionists insisted the Bible leaves no choice for the
Christian but abolition, whereas the defenders of the
racist South alleged the Bible authors found nothing wrong or
questionable in this nearly universal (before Christianity) human
institution. This page aims to restore the sundered whole.
Moses did not invent slavery. This near-universal human
institution was a legacy of brute force and hard-heartedness toward
those facing hunger or insolvency. When one warring tribe over-ran another,
they held it for an act of mercy to spare the lives of the civilian
populace. Instead, they took them as merchandise. Another route into
slavery was debt; when a debtor could not repay, he himself was made
repayment. Moses' law seeks to limit and ameliorate this ubiquitous
institution, without abolishing it. Certainly no one was ever obliged by the
law to buy a slave. Moses enslaved none but the improvident
thief, while he liberated millions from slavery.
The 'red-states' which championed slavery in the years prior to
the Civil War have taken upon themselves the mantle of 'Christian
conservatives,' leading to an unfortunate eclipse of the thinking of
those Northern Christians whose denominations upheld abolition. What
those people saw in the Bible is strangely overlooked, though they were right. Nothing is
more common than to hear from atheists, 'The Bible sees nothing
wrong in slavery.' This simply isn't so.
For purposes of this web-page, slavery is defined as that which
is made illegal by the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
"Involuntary" servitude presupposes lack of consent on the part of the laborer whose services are
coerced, often without compensation; in the American South, this condition
was generally life-long, a permanent affliction to those so unfortunate
as to have fallen under it. Some people claim this practice is
Biblical. As proof, they point to the occurrence of the word 'slave' in
the Bible (though the older King James translation renders words like 'doulos'
as 'servant' or 'bond-servant,' not by way of 'softening,' but rather in
realization that persons so designated are not necessarily in any
condition of permanent, life-long servitude). Is slavery Biblical, really?
In the Mosaic law, involuntary servitude by Hebrews is term-limited to six years:
“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the LORD against you, and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’
“If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the LORD has blessed you with, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today.
. . It shall not seem hard to you when you send him away free from you; for he has been worth a double hired servant in serving you six years. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.”
“Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.”
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty to them: that every man should set free his male and female slave—a Hebrew man or woman—that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage. Now when all the princes and all the people, who had entered into the covenant, heard that everyone should set free his male and female slaves, that no one should keep them in bondage anymore, they obeyed and let them go. But afterward they changed their minds and made the male and female slaves return, whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male and female slaves.
Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, “At the end of seven years let every man set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to him; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you.” But your fathers did not obey Me nor incline their ear. Then you recently turned and did what was right in My sight—every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. Then you turned around and profaned My name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom he had set at liberty, at their pleasure, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.’
“Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and every one to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,’ says the LORD—‘to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine! And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth. And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it—the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf—I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth. And I will give Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army which has gone back from you. Behold, I will command,’ says the LORD, ‘and cause them to return to this city. They will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.’”
This provision limiting the term of involuntary servitude to six
years falls short of total and immediate abolition, but also falls well short of
the unquestioning support for slavery claimed by atheists. If the Bible were
the platform of a political party, as some seem to take it to be, it would
be good news for slaves, not bad news. The reader will notice in these texts a process of 'back-stopping.' A Hebrew who
falls into debt slavery must be freed after six years, and must
not leave empty-handed. However if the provisions of the Mosaic law
were followed perfectly, things would not have come to this point
because when he first fell into difficulties, his neighbors would have obeyed the injunction to
"open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs."
The ideal is for none of the congregation to be slaves, but the law
also makes provision to rescue those who have fallen into this state. The
law's rebuke to people who enslave their brethren is, knock it off:
“There were also those who said, 'We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children; and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards.'
“And I became very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. After serious thought, I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, “Each of you is exacting usury from his brother.” So I called a great assembly against them. And I said to them, “According to our ability we have redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations. Now indeed, will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?”
“Then they were silenced and found nothing to say. Then I said, 'What you are doing is not good.'”
However, it may be they did not stop. It is only
fair to Moses to recognize that if his law had been followed to the
letter, there would have been no Jewish slaves awaiting liberation
at six-year intervals, because the indigent debtor's neighbors would
have 'opened their hands wide.' There is yet another back-stop in the form of the Jubilee as will be
In early America, indentured servitude was limited by law to a term of six years. Wonder where they got that idea? Going back to the days of King Alfred the Great, the influence of Mosaic law on English law is perceptible. Alfred prefaces his legislation with, "The Lord spoke these words to Moses, and thus said, 'I am the Lord your God.'" (Internet History Sourcebook, The Anglo-Saxon Dooms). Even if what follows bears no discernible resemblance, in terminology or effect, to Moses, the clear intent is to pattern English law after Hebraic. Alfred is the one who drags Moses into it, not biased observers. While Anglo-Saxon law can diverge very far from Hebraic, prescribing the death penalty for theft which Moses never does, at times there is a confluence. So when we see six or seven year limitations in a code arising from English or early American law, the resemblance to the Sabbatical cycle is so pressing and immediate as to suggest patterning. And what do you know, there is just such a law in Moses. The only difference is that Moses' Sabbatical cycle runs from a fixed point, the seven-year Sabbath, while the Gentile laws often take a rolling start.
It seems clear that the reason indentured servitude was generally limited to six years in early America, is because Moses so limited the allowable term of service. These contracts were a common way for aspiring immigrants to pay for the cost of the sea voyage, otherwise out of reach. Arriving in the New World, they would then be obliged to work with no compensation other than room and board for the agreed-upon term. Having repaid the cost of transport, they then regained their freedom. However early on this reasonable law got entangled with extraneous considerations. Moses never legislated this protection for 'white' people, and not others! The concepts 'black' and 'white' do not come from Moses and are not translateable into his law system. Moses, the husband of an Ethiopian wife, cannot be blamed for this jumble, nor for the failure of American state legislatures to apply his safeguards against oppression to certain categories of people. We do not live under Moses' law, but neither are we free to ignore it. They ignored it, or rather translated it into an alien vocabulary, for no other reason than greed.
Confronted with this time-limit of six years, atheists reply, 'So
what? It's still slavery.' 'So what'? Would it really have made no
difference if those Africans brought to this country in
chains aboard slave ships went free after a term of service limited
to six years? It is grating, like fingernails on a chalk-board, to hear people comparing 'Roman slavery,' 'Hebrew slavery,' and
'American slavery,' as if there really were such a thing as Hebrew
slavery, and these were three species of one common genus. But we do
not, in English, use the word 'slavery' to refer to a labor contract
limited to six years duration. There are baseball players with longer
contracts! The accusation that the atheists and the neo-Confederates make: that the Bible is
pro-slavery,— is devoid of merit.
In recent years,
nominally Christian defenders of slavery, including Douglas Wilson, have revived the works of
Robert Lewis Dabney, a virulently racist Southern defender of the
institution, who repeats the atheist accusation:
Really, John Wesley and Francis Asbury were Jacobins? This rabid,
hysterical tone is characteristic of this author, who is a great
favorite of modern defenders of slavery like Douglas Wilson. According
to Dabney, abolitionists are all "secret infidels:" "While we well
know that to secret infidels and rationalists, as all Abolitionists
are, this has no weight, to every mind which reverences the
inspiration of the Old Testament it is conclusive." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Dabney's Defense of Virginia and the South, Kindle location
1741). It is an odd accusation for a man whose plea is that the
Bible's "six years" might as well be sixty, or a hundred. If the Bible is pro-slavery, then why is it a criminal offense
under the law of Moses to hold your neighbor in bondage for more
than six years?
Confronted with this undeniable fact, slavery defenders scurry
to and fro, looking for loop-holes. Such there are: voluntary
servitude, with which this web-page is not concerned, is not so
term-limited, and foreigners receive a lesser level of protection.
Might it be possible to show that a native-born white American
counts as an Israelite for purposes of Moses' law, whereas a
native-born black American does not? Let the racists show you their
wares; we fought a Civil War over this point, and some people in the
modern era, like Douglas Wilson, want to revive these arguments.
They are not, however, sound arguments; some of them are laughable, and the
atheists might be embarrassed to discover what kind of drivel they
will be expected to propound as sound Biblical interpretation.
People can put up with a lot if they see a light at the end of
the tunnel. Here in Maine, German prisoners of war worked on the
potato farms during World War II. This situation was amicable
enough: the farmers liked the free labor, and the captured soldiers
did not mind working. Reportedly, when the song 'Don't Fence Me In' came on the radio, they would stop what they were doing and listen. Evidently they knew enough English to realize it was 'their' song. They knew they were stuck in the camps for the
duration, but once the war was over, they would be going home and
picking up their lives where they left off. It would have made a
meaningful difference if the men had had reason to believe that
they, and their descendants after them, would be working for these same potato farmers and their descendants,
uncompensated, down to the last human generation. Moses' six-year limitation is not a small or
inconsequential check on the evil of slavery. Why atheists cannot realize this is beyond me.
As Thomas Aquinas summarizes the matter, a Hebrew slave is a hireling; and
usually in American English, when we use the word 'slavery,' we are
not thinking of a person hired:
"As stated above, no Jew could own a Jew as a slave
absolutely: but only in a restricted sense, as a hireling for a
fixed time. And in this way the Law permitted that through stress of
poverty a man might sell his son or daughter. This is shown by the
very words of the Law, where we read: “If any man sell his daughter
to be a servant, she shall not go out as bondwomen are wont to go
out.” Moreover, in this way a man might sell not only his son, but
even himself, rather as a hireling than as a slave, according to
Leviticus 25:39,40: “If thy brother, constrained by poverty, sell
himself to thee, thou shalt not oppress him with the service of
bondservants: but he shall be as a hireling and a sojourner.”
(Summa Theologica, Volume 2, The First Part of the Second Part,
One of the abolitionist pamphlets I've uploaded to the Thriceholy
library makes this point:
"If the Mosaic law is to be resorted to in justification of slavery, let us take the whole of it as it was given by the inspired law-giver; and let not the hapless servant be deprived of its lenient provisions in his favor. If we are to be Jews and not Christians, let us at least be consistent Jews, and conform literally to all the instructions of our law-giver."
(Evan Lewis, 'An Address to
Christians of All Denominations').
This is a valid point. If you're going to keep the Mosaic law, then keep the whole of it:
"For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one
point, he is guilty of all." (James 2:10). If American
slave-holders had obeyed Moses' injunctions, they would have let
these people go after six years of service, loaded down with
gifts and provisions. Did they do that? No! Then why claim that
Moses supports an institution which flouts his law?
Economist Karl Max realized that restricting the term of servitude fundamentally changes the deal, from slavery to free labor: "On this assumption, labor-power can appear upon the market as a commodity, only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labor-power it is, offers it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammelled owner of his capacity for labor, i.e., of his person. . .The continuance of this relation demands that the owner of the labor-power should sell it only for a definite period, for if he were to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. He must constantly look upon his labor-power as his own property, his own commodity, and this he can only do by placing it at the disposal of the buyer temporarily, for a definite period of time. By this means alone can he avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it." (Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1, Part 2, Kindle location 2427 of 45237). I do not quote this authority because I consider him reliable; he is the least well-informed and trustworthy of the economists, ask the Venezuelans. But people get so mesmerized by a word, 'servitude,' and indeed some translators think they are being forthright by always translating as 'slavery,' even where the
English word 'slavery' is not applicable, that they convince themselves no possible limit on terms of service can be more than trivial.
"This is so much the case that I do not know whether by
the English laws, but certainly by some Continental laws, the
maximum time is fixed for which a man is allowed to sell his
laboring power. If allowed to do so for any indefinite period
whatever, slavery would be immediately restored. Such a sale, if it
comprised his lifetime, for example, would make him at once the
lifelong slave of his employer." (Karl Marx,
Wages, Price and Profit, Chapter VII, Complete Works, Kindle
As Marx realized, a time-limit is definitional, not trivial. Moses is not opposed to employment, but he is opposed to slavery, which he considers oppression. Where is slavery
condemned in the Bible? Right here. If there were nothing wrong with
slavery, it would not be term-limited.
Pro-slavery Southerner Robert Lewis Dabney realizes that, in the Bible, slavery is
term-limited to six years, but finds in this fact exculpation rather
than condemnation for the South. Let us revive his argument: if
slavery were inherently wrong, then even ten minutes would be
unacceptable, much less six years. If slavery is allowed for six
years, showing there is nothing inherently wrong with this way of
doing business, then surely sixty years cannot be wrong either. But
one must wonder, can the term 'slavery' be made to apply to a term
of servitude measured in minutes? When the Northern states
emancipated the few slaves held within their territory, they did so
gradually, over the course of several decades. A schedule was set
forth prescribing when persons born after a certain date were to
emancipated. No doubt, had the South not seceded and started the
Civil War, the more populous North would ultimately have imposed
such a gradualistic scheme of emancipation upon the South.
According to Dabney's logic, such a scheme of emancipation itself
demonstrates the intrinsic rightness of slavery!:
"It is also to be noted that the scheme of gradual
emancipation, upon which the whole North acted, obviously recognizes
the property of the master in his slave as legitimate in itself. It
only touches it, (because private rights are here required to give
place to publick interest,) in the case of those born after a
certain day." (Dabney, Robert Lewis. Dabney's Defense of
Virginia and the South, Annotated. (Kindle Locations 1025-1027).
Booker House Publishing, Incorporated.)
When everything, even a program to eliminate slavery over the
course the time, actually proves the intrinsic rightness of slavery,
is it not apparent there is a problem? The question of exploitation
is all about times, amounts, and circumstances. If it is lawful to
pay a worker ten dollars an hour, this does not prove the intrinsic
rightness of the ten dollar wage, so that one could just as well pay
ten dollars a week. The time served is the whole point! There is
nothing intrinsically wrong with employment, but according to the
Bible, a labor contract extending in excess of six years is
exploitive, and illegal. The American South never recognized this
Let's play with Dabney's logical principle a bit: the laws of all
American states allow for incarceration of certain persons, such as
bank robbers. Therefore, American law vindicates incarceration,
proclaiming it to be no moral evil, not intrinsically. If it were
perceived to be evil in itself, it would never be permitted at all.
Therefore, it is righteous for private persons to incarcerate other
private persons, under whatever circumstances they please; is it not
obvious that American criminal law encourages this? Who can be so
gullible as to fall for this transparent sophistry?
What happened to a slave who did not want to be released after six years? He could stay:
“And if it happens that he says to
you, ‘I will not go away from you,’ because he loves you and
your house, since he prospers with you, then you shall take an
awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be
your servant forever. Also to your female servant you shall do
“But if the servant
plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I
will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the
judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost,
and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall
serve him forever.”
You encounter nowadays a narrative that avers abolitionists were always few in number, a marginal presence in the church: "Christians today can easily romanticize or overemphasize the role Christians had in abolition. Very few Christians actively opposed slavery, and they did so amid sharp resistance from other Christians." (Tisby, Jemar (2019-01-22). The Color of Compromise (p. 253). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.). Don't be taken in. Abolitionists numbered in their ranks
heavy-weights like John Wesley,
an immensely popular and influential figure, who himself lived
in America for a time. In Stalinist Russia, Leon Trotsky had
to be air-brushed out of all the old Bolshevik group photos;
he was there, but ideology dictates that he cannot have been
there. So he became the man who wasn't there. In a similar vein, you will not see an
index listing for John Wesley in Ibram X. Kendi's history, 'Stamped from the
Beginning;' but he was there. Why is he so dangerous, and so
disruptive to their narrative?:
Wesley's prophetic voice did not go unheeded by his ministers,
though they were unable to make any headway against slavery south of
the Mason-Dixon line. They did try: "The preachers deplored with the
deepest sympathy their unhappy condition, especially their
enslavement to sin and Satan; and while they labored unsuccessfully
by all prudent means to effect their disenthralment from their civil
bondage, they were amply rewarded for their evangelical efforts to
raise them from their moral degradation, by seeing thousands of
them happily converted to God. . .While, therefore, the voice of the
preachers was not heard in favor of emancipation from their civil
bondage, nor their remonstrances, against the evils of slavery
heeded, the voice of truth addressed to the understandings and
consciences of the slaves themselves, was often heard with believing
and obedient hearts. . ." (Dr. Bangs, History of the Methodist
Episcopal Church, quoted in Charles Colcock Jones, The Religious
Instruction of the Negroes in the United States, p. 38).
The situation of the voluntary slave whose ear is pierced by an awl falls outside the scope of this web-page as it is
not a case of involuntary servitude. Atheists condemn this provision
nevertheless on grounds that it allows slavery. At some point
however one must ask what is being contended for in the term
'slavery,' if what is meant is not a condition which was not chosen.
In addition, 'Canaanite' slaves are mentioned in the Old
Testament, and some apologists for slavery think here they spy
opportunity. God commanded the Canaanites, not to be enslaved, but
to be extirpated, expelled from the land; however, this did not happen entirely.
An example is the situation of the Gibeonites, narrated in Joshua
9:3-25. This community was allowed to remain, under its own customs, not
enslaved to private parties, but subject to corvee labor to the state. There is no provision for
this situation in the law, it is the result of human improvisation.
How was it regulated?— by treaty? Some people imagine, because this
category of persons is unknown to the law, they are outside the law,
like untouchables, and can be treated however one pleases. However God is no
respecter of persons; none is outside the protection of the law.
The Year of Jubilee
America has a 'Jubilee Day,' in commemoration of January 1, 1863,
though it is not now much observed. Why would America have a 'Jubilee
Day,' when, as every atheist knows, the concept of abolition came out of
the secular enlightenment?
According to Moses' law, at the end of every forty-ninth year a Jubilee was to
"Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee
to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family."
Any Hebrews that were at that time in a condition of bondage
“If one of your brethren becomes
poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him,
like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.
Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that
your brother may live with you. You shall not lend him your
money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit. I am the
LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give
you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
“And if one of your brethren
who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you—he and his children with him—and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God.”
A Jubilee year would not occur more than once in a man's lifetime;
it is a back-stop if the other provisions were honored in the breach.
Again, as in the prior passages, the children of Israel are
admonished not to let a brother Israelite fall into poverty; but
failing that, and failing his liberation at the six-year mark as
already noted, he is to be freed without fail at the year of
Jubilee. This 'back-stopping' in the Mosaic law can seem like
inconsistency, and leads some interpreters to reason like this: 'If
you take Moses literally ('open your hand wide'), then there would
be no slaves; but there plainly are slaves, as there are provisions
for freeing them at the Jubilee; therefore Moses cannot really have
meant what he first said, and slavery is upheld.' There is no reason
to think he did not mean it, yet there are still provisions for
contrary outcomes, and not only because, historically, the Mosaic
law was honored largely in the breach; the children of Israel did
not even get monotheism right, much less freeing the slaves. Suppose
the community is too poor to help; suppose they 'open their hand
wide' and nothing but air falls out. These consecutive 'back-stops'
catch those fallen through the cracks.
It was also obligatory that any Hebrew who fell into the
possession of a heathen owner be redeemed, but failing that, he went
free in the year of Jubilee:
"Now if a sojourner or stranger close to you becomes rich, and one of your brethren who dwells by him becomes poor, and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner close to you, or to a member of the stranger’s family, after he is sold he may be redeemed again. One of his brothers may redeem him; or his uncle or his uncle’s son may redeem him; or anyone who is near of kin to him in his family may redeem him; or if he is able he may redeem himself. Thus he shall reckon with him who bought him: The price of his release shall be according to the number of years, from the year that he was sold to him until the Year of Jubilee; it shall be according to the time of a hired servant for him. If there are still many years remaining, according to them he shall repay the price of his redemption from the money with which he was bought. And if there remain but a few years until the Year of Jubilee, then he shall reckon with him, and according to his years he shall repay him the price of his redemption. He shall be with him as a yearly hired servant, and he shall not rule with rigor over him in your sight. And if he is not redeemed in these years, then he shall be released in the Year of Jubilee—he and his children with him. For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God."
The Jubilee promise is to "all the inhabitants [of the land]," (KJV) which
on its face includes resident aliens. The word 'inhabitant' does not specify
religion; it simply means whoever is sitting around there, whether Jew or
Gentile: "As for the Jebusites the inhabitants [yashab 03427] of Jerusalem,
the children of Judah could not drive them out: but the Jebusites dwell
 with the children of Judah at Jerusalem unto this day." (Joshua
15:63). To say "all the inhabitants" does not leave anyone out. It is simplest, and
best, to suppose that "all the inhabitants" means "all the inhabitants," however astonishing
some find it. Philo identifies the subjects of the Jubilee, fairly comprehensively, as all things,
animate and inanimate: "For the fiftieth year, as the year of Pentecost
or the Jubilee, is called remission in the giving forth of the law, as
then all things are given their liberty, whether living or inanimate."
(Philo Judaeus, Questions and Answers in Genesis, Book 3, Question 39).
It is objected that, as will be seen, Leviticus promises foreign slaves as a
possession "for ever:" "And ye shall take them as an inheritance
for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession;
they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the
children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with
rigor." (Leviticus 25:46 KJV). As should be apparent, though,
what is promised "for ever" is not the services of each
individual bondsman, because human beings do not live here on
this earth "for ever." It is of a succession of
individuals that it is said, "they shall be your bondmen for
ever." If this is said of a self-reproducing cohort, why is
it necessary to keep making additions through purchase?: ". . .of them
shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids." (25:44). Who will be your servants
"for ever"? Not Pedro, Max and Sam, but foreigners. If someone protests that the Jubilee
represents economic suicide, and laments as they watch their foreign
slaves walk out the door at the fiftieth year, Moses reassures
them, 'Don't worry, there are always plenty more where those came
By design the polity of Israel retained few resident aliens,
owing to concerns about idolatrous proselytizing. What is
in view is a continuous process of importation, a 'guest worker' program.
This allowance to import slaves obtained abroad and to purchase resident aliens offered for sale
will provide a source of labor "for ever," even while
individuals are removed from this pool at each recurring
Jubilee. The point is that Israel will not run out of slaves,
in case anyone is concerned there will be a 'labor
shortage,' because they can keep replenishing this pool, not that those who
are in the pool remain "for ever." If someone wonders, 'Who will
pick the lettuce?' The answer might be, 'Mexicans. We have a
guest worker program.' This does not require each individual
Mexican to do nothing in his life but pick lettuce. The Jubilee is for "all
the inhabitants," not only the native-born or the circumcised.
Jew owned by Jew
Jew owned by Gentile
Gentile owned by Jew
The first two categories are discouraged ('open your hand wide').
It is a defeat for Moses if they happen at all; not so the third. This is
not an equal deal; the Jew is not treated like the Gentile. In the New Testament, we will watch
these categories collapse: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither
bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
(Galatians 3:28). Forty-nine years is a long time to wait for freedom. But as will
be seen, there was a 'fast-track' for those prepared to trust the
God of Israel, who led His people out of bitter bondage in Egypt.
Was the Jubilee year scrupulously observed by the Jews? It would
appear not. The Babylonian Talmud suggests that this is
part of the reason the Jews are in exile: "As a punishment for
incest, idolatry, and non-observance of the years of release and
jubilee exile comes to the world, they [the Jews] are exiled, and
others come and dwell in their place, for it is said, for all these
abominations have the men of the land done, etc.; and it is written,
and the land is defiled. . ." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath,
Folio 33a). These laws, alas, were theory rather than fact. The debt-release
of the sabbatical years and the Jubilee
requires the moneyed interests to take a hit in deference to the
interests of the powerless. The prophets never stopped
calling for it:
"Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose
the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the
oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the
poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that
thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine
health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go
before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward." (Isaiah
The political difficulties are apparent: the people who
benefit from the Jubilee are the poor and oppressed, while the high and
mighty suffer a pay cut. But you cannot blame Moses for trying.
The Mosaic law enslaves no one except the improvident thief; to the
contrary, it frees the slaves, if enforced. God cannot be blamed for man's
disobedience. While it seems obedience was fitful rather than punctilious,
those minded to obey the law never entirely forgot these ordinances. At a
time when the heathen Roman authorities were persecuting those who
practiced the Jewish faith, Rabbi Eleazar b. Perata was accused of
such practice, in part because he had freed a slave, presumably at
"When they brought up R. Eleazar b. Perata [ for his
trial] they asked him, 'Why have you been studying [the Torah] and
why have you been stealing?' He answered, 'If one is a scholar he is
not a robber, if a robber he is not a scholar, and as I am not the
one I am neither the other.' 'Why then,' they rejoined,' are you
titled Master?' 'I,' replied he, 'am a Master of Weavers.' Then they
brought him two coils and asked, 'Which is for the warp and which
for the woof?' A miracle occurred and a female-bee came and sat on
the warp and a male-bee came and sat on the woof. 'This,' said he,
'is of the warp and that of the woof.' . . .'And why did you let
your slave go free?' He replied, 'No such thing ever happened.'"
(Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 17b.)
To be sure he denies it, but he also denied being a 'Master' of
the law, pretending instead to mastery of weaving, although the bees
had to show him which was which. Freeing a slave was evidence for
practice of the Jewish faith, just as surely as the thirteen amendment was evidence
for Christian practice in this nation. The prophet Isaiah promises a great Jubilee:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me;
because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the
meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim
liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them
that are bound;
“To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD,
and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty
for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise
for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of
righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be
So far is Jesus from restricting or rescinding Moses' institution
of the Jubilee that He applies this very passage to Himself:
"And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.' And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears."
Some expositors have suggested that He meant this announcement as the proclamation of a literal or
earthly Jubilee, but I would think He had in the mind the greater
Jubilee. The earthly slave-masters who have seized hold of God's people,
such as Pharaoh of Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and the Southern
slave-driver, are essentially weak and feeble in that they can only
control the bodies of their captives, they cannot enter into their
minds. No one need awaken the minds of the oppressed brick-makers in
Egypt to the fact of their oppression. However, Satan is a more subtle
slave-master in that he rules with the consent of the governed; he
convinces his subjects he is their liberator. They sign up willingly
because they have been persuaded that service to him means liberation
from stultifying regulations. Moreover, enrollment in his service means
eternal loss, not the earthly loss of slavery to the Egyptian. The earthly
slave-driver, after he has ruined your life, can do no worse to you; his kingdom ends at death.
But Jesus, while proclaiming liberty from the more dangerous and demeaning service,
is in no way discounting or discouraging the lesser, earthly, periodic
Jubilee Moses enjoined.
The Sabbath cycle was not, in God's eyes, an afterthought or an
unimportant detail of the ceremonial law. Israel will observe the
sabbath cycle, one way or another: "And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia,
to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years."
(2 Chronicles 36:20-21).
When slavery was institutionalized in the American Southland, it required extraordinary legal
protection, including the demand, underscored by the infamous Dred Scott decision, that everybody in
the community, whether pro-slavery or anti-slavery, indifferent or concerned,
North or South, must stand ready at every
moment to serve in a posse to return an escaped slave to his master.
Otherwise, slavery is untenable, because this form of 'property' comes equipped with
two legs and a brain, perfectly competent to make a quick getaway.
Where is the 'Fugitive Slave' provision of the Mosaic law? There
isn't any. To the contrary, there is this:
“You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you.
He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him.”
This is the Fugitive Slave Non-Return Act. In its literal and
natural sense, it requires the only servitude existing in Israel
to be essentially voluntary; if a master is so oppressive the
servant would rather flee from his home and people than serve
him, then the slave cannot be returned. Even though the Romans
were not kind to their slaves, similar circumstances are
recorded in Rome; at times, slaves serving under oppressive
masters were able to petition the courts to release them and
transfer them to other, more benevolent, masters. At this, the pro-slavery side
gets ready. . .for fun with brackets. Time to attach conditions and
exclusions, not stated in the text, to this otherwise benign and
Certainly one must concede, not only in Bible interpretation but
in everyday speech and communication, that there may be 'unstated
conditions' which can reasonably be surmised to obtain, but which
were not specified. However the power to insert bracketed material
at will is also the power to make the Bible say what you want it to
say. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, say that Jesus Christ is
a created being; so what do they do with Colossians 1:16, which
says, "For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and
that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or
dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created
through Him and for Him?" This: ". . .because by means of him all
[other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth. . ."
(New World Translation). So the power to add bracketed material,
while it cannot be denied out of hand, can no more be left to free
exercise at will. The burden of proof must rest upon those who wish
to add such material, for instance restricting Deuteronomy 23:15 to
some constricted [bracketed] population, to show that it really does belong
there. Was this passage applicable only to heathen slaves who escaped to
Israel? Some of the Rabbis thought so: "A slave of R. Hisda's escaped to the Cutheans
[Samaritans]. He sent word to them that they should return him. . .But, they retorted, it is written, 'Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a servant'?) He sent to them to say: That refers to a slave who escapes from abroad to Eretz Israel, as explained by R. Ahi son of R. Josiah."
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, Folio 45a).
Philo Judaeus, while pursuing his own allegorical agenda, touches
upon this passage, without seeming to be aware it pertains only to
a slave fleeing a heathen master: "Now, indeed, you are the slave of cruel and
intolerable masters, who are within yourself, and who look upon it
as a law never to set any one free; but if you run away and escape
from them, then the master who loves slaves will receive you in a
good hope of freedom, and will not surrender you any more to your
former companions, having learnt from Moses that necessary doctrine
and lesson, 'Not to give up a servant to his master who has escaped
from his master unto him; for he shall dwell with him in any place
which shall please him.'" (Philo Judaeus, Allegorical
Interpretation, Book III, Chapter LXIX). He thinks it has
something to do with escaping a cruel task-master,
Certainly however there is no restriction requiring the fugitive
slaves to come from the neighborhood. Were there, in antiquity, sanctuary cites, where fugitive slaves
could resort, without fear of extradition? Of course; Rome was,
early on, one of them:
"Then, lest the size of the city might be of no avail,
in order to augment the population, according to the ancient policy
of the founders of cities, who, after drawing together to them an
obscure and mean multitude, used to feign that their offspring
sprung out of the earth, he opened as a sanctuary, a place which is
now enclosed as you go down "to the two groves." Hither fled from
the neighboring states, without distinction whether freemen or
slaves, crowds of all sorts, desirous of change: and this was the
first accession of strength to their rising greatness." (Livy,
History of Rome, Book I, Chapter 8).
The implication that Jerusalem was such a sanctuary city is made by
Tacitus, who is ordinarily a reliable historian but in treating of Jewish
issues counts as an anti-semitic writer whose information is not
especially reliable: "The scum and refuse of other nations, renouncing the
religion of their country, flocked in crowds to Jerusalem, enriching the
place with gifts and offerings." (Tacitus, Extracts From the Fifth Book of
Tacitus Respecting the Jews, Kindle location 620, Arguments of Celsus,
Porphyry, and the Emperor Julian, Against the Christians, Thomas Taylor).
Realizing that Moses' law specifically prohibits the return of a fugitive
slave, one must marvel at the presumption of the Supreme Court in
mandating, against conscience, rank disobedience.
Realizing that taking Moses at his word in this single instance is the
death knell for slavery, Robert Lewis Dabney thunders, ". . .this is
absurd; it is trivial child's play." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Dabney's
Defense of Virginia and the South, Kindle location 1547). The
bracketed information he prefers is that the slave must have escaped from
a heathen, not an Israelite, master, though as far as the text is
concerned this is pure invention. He explains that we know Moses'
refusal to return a fugitive slave cannot be taken literally
because, "It takes away with one hand what it professed to give with
the other." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Dabney's Defense of Virginia and
the South, Kindle location 1547). In other words, because the law of
Moses endorses slavery, therefore Moses cannot have intended to bar
the forcible return of the auto-absconded property. They call this
form of argumentation petitio principii, or arguing in a circle.
Their only way to salvage the situation is to insert exclusions
nowhere mentioned in the text. What is this but to make the law into
silly putty? Rousas J. Rushdoony, while far from a reliable
commentator on the law, was honest enough to realize this provision
meant there could be no involuntary Israelite servitude (except the
case of a thief sold to make restitution): "Thus, the only kind of
slavery permitted is voluntary slavery, as Deuteronomy 23:15-16
makes very clear. . .A runaway slave thus cannot be restored to his
master: he is free to go." (R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of
Biblical Law, Volume I, Commandment VI, Section 11, Kindle location 8147); "The
biblical law recognizes voluntary slavery, because there are men who
prefer security to freedom, but it strictly forbids involuntary
servitude except as a punishment." (R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes
of Biblical Law, Volume I, Third Commandment, Kindle location 3570).
The Bible is not against employment, but it is anti-slavery. Where
falls the dividing line? Slavery is oppression, but people are free
to enter into voluntary employment contracts. Where does this
freedom stop? The length of the contract, and whether it can be
terminated by one only, or both parties, are factors in deciding.
Christians must do what is fair and right: "Masters, give your
bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a
Master in heaven." (Colossians 4:1). What is the criterion? How do
we know what is "just and fair"? What is the highest and best
standard? To the slavers, the answer is obvious: pagan law is
highest and best; surely the apostles understood that. But if they
really mean that, they should get ready to welcome homosexuality, uncondemned by pagan law. Moses is better.
The law of Moses came down in fire and smoke on Mount Sinai; it
reveals the divine mind in a way no other law code can rival. Some
of the pagan law codes do claim inspiration by one pagan idol or
another, which is a negative recommendation, not a positive one.
It is necessary for believers in exile to obey the laws of the
country, because without law men would devour one another, as even the
Rabbis conceded: "Did Samuel not state that the law of the State is
law?" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Kamma,
113a.) But it is ultimately not
advisable to elevate man's law above God's, and no apostle ever so intended.
The prophet Jeremiah issues a blanket condemnation of those who use their neighbor's services
without paying him wages:
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness
and his chambers by injustice, who uses his neighbor’s service without wages
and gives him nothing for his work. . .”
The 'Fun with Brackets' crew gets to work on this passage, and explains that, of courses, it does not
mean you ought to pay slaves for their services. . .because, silly, those are the people whose services you
use without paying wages! It's not clear that Jeremiah intended any
exemption, however. In pagan Roman literature, we read about slaves
diligently saving up their wages until they had enough to purchase
their own freedom. We do not read so much about slaves in the American
Southland saving up their nothing until they had a big pile of the
stuff, and were even embarrassed about what to do with all of it.
Moses allows a man to sell his daughter into a lower grade of marriage:
“And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.”
At with slavery generally, Moses did not invent this institution;
however he regularized it and ameliorated its worst abuses, giving
the woman some measure of legal standing and rights as a wife. Some people
start with the assumption that Moses' code is an ideal law code,
bringing a new society into being, starting from scratch. It is no
more that than is any other law code. In a similar vein is Deuteronomy 21:11-14:
"And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife;
Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;
And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.
And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her."
These women are in a legal shadow-land; they cannot be sold, they are
not chattel slaves. On the other hand their condition is not enviable,
because they did not choose it. God is placing humane limitations on a harsh
Some pagan thinkers, such as Aristotle, were not convinced the
slave is fully human. This is not a point on which Job needed
instruction: "If I have despised the cause of my male or female
servant when they complained against me, what then shall I do when
God rises up? When He punishes, how shall I answer Him? Did not He
who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same One fashion us
in the womb?" (Job 31:13-15).
It is not distinctive to Moses,' i.e. God's,
law code that it deals with the real world; it's in the nature of things
that civil legislation does not make a utopia spring up in a dry and
barren land, but rather seeks to correct, as far as possible, situations
and circumstances that arise in the real world, fallen and sullied as it
is. Modern-day defenders of slavery, like Douglas Wilson, perceive any
acknowledgement that slavery exists in the law as blanket approval:
"Do we really think that no atheists have ever read through the entire Old Testament? Are they not permitted to notice what they read there? A second really bad thing that Christian apologists can do is upbraid Christians in history for doing things of such a nature that their rebukes would apply equally well to some Old Testament saint doing exactly what Moses said he could do."
(Douglas Wilson, Blog and Mablog, retrieved May 1,
Atheists, incidentally, in my experience, very rarely read Moses'
legislation at all, and are customarily benumbed and perplexed when
informed that it limits Hebrew slavery to six years; they are
relying in bottom-crawlers like Wilson for their (second-hand)
information about the law's demands, and they have been informed
that the Bible finds nothing wrong with slavery at all. But if that
is the case, then why is it term-limited to six years? One thing Moses says an Old
Testament saint can do is divorce his wife: "When a man hath taken a
wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour
in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let
him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and
send her out of his house." (Deuteronomy 24:1). Does this contradict Malachi 2:16 (atheists just love 'Bible contradictions')?: “'For the Lord God of Israel says
that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,' Says the Lord of hosts.”
Not at all! Moses did not say that a man must divorce his wife, or
really ought to think about doing it, because divorce is a good
thing. Rather, the law says that, if this happens, then that must
happen. A divorced woman must have her legal status defined. A
Hebrew man should not fall into slavery at all, because his
neighbors should open wide their hands; but if they do not, then
other things happen, other dominoes fall. That is the nature of
civil legislation. Things happen, people fall into debt, they lose
their land, the law-giver must make arrangements to clean up the
mess, and Moses does. He is the slaves' liberator.
We hear, "The churches, as everyone knows, opposed the abolition
of slavery as long as they dared. . ." (Bertrand Russell, Has
Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? Why I am
not a Christian, Kindle location 782). Does everyone know this, or only
those suffering under the disadvantage of having received an
education under atheist auspices? We learn
from Douglas Wilson, a modern defender of the peculiar institution,
that the abolitionists ". . .were in turn driven by a zealous hatred
of the Word of God." (Douglas Wilson, Black & Tan, Kindle location
598). Who is driven by a zealous hatred for the Word of God, and who
seeks, modestly and reverently, to obey? Judge for yourself:
One passage where atheist critics of the Bible see
the unqualified acceptance of slavery is Exodus 21:20-21:
“And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”
Killing a slave deliberately is, by Moses, considered murder. This was
revolutionary for its time and place: "Sarna writes, 'This law— the
protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters— is found
nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern
legislation. It represents a qualitative transformation in social
and human values.'" (Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention?,
edited by Daniel I. Block, Kindle location 3836). However, if death
was not immediate, leaving no question as to responsibility,
the benefit of the doubt went to the master. The atheist objects: the slave-owner is not allowed to kill his slave outright, but if
he beats him to within an inch of his life so that he dies within a few
days, he gets away with murder, unless some other cause intervened. On the
plus side of the ledger, if the assaulted slave survives but is maimed, he
receives his freedom in exchange for the outrage he endured:
“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth."
The free and unrestrained use of physical punishment was a
glaring feature of American slavery, noticed both by outside observers and by those
who had survived the system, like Frederick Douglass:
"A mere look, word, or motion,— a mistake, accident, or want of power,— are
all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,— one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself;
and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while
plowing, break a plow,— or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is
owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped."
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,
The law of Moses was not proclaimed as a universal law applicable
to all people at all times and in all places. To the contrary, it
was ordained for a specific people in a specific place: "When ye
come into the land. . ." What portions of the law are even
applicable to Jews in the diaspora, especially after the destruction
of the temple entailing the discontinuance of its court of final
appeal, is a knotty problem. The reader of the Koran and Hadith will recall
Mohammed's indignation at rabbis who covered Mosaic punishments with
their finger; but taken strictly on its own terms, the law does not
say 'everywhere' and 'at all times,' but "when ye come into the
land. . ." This provision forbidding slave-murder in Exodus
21:20 is better than Roman pagan law, which allowed a slave-owner to
kill his slave, without consequences, even if he died right there
on the spot. While Moses' law is an improvement on paganism, it is still not yet God's perfect
will. Pagan Roman law gave the murdered slave no justice:
"Even slaves have the right of refuge at the statue of a god; and although the law allows anything in dealing with a slave, yet in dealing with a human being there is an extreme which the right common to all living creatures refuses to allow. Who did not hate Vedius Pollio even more than his own slaves did, because he would fatten his lampreys on human blood, and order those who had for some reason incurred his displeasure to be thrown into his fishpond — or why not say his snake-preserve? The monster! He deserved to die a thousand deaths, whether he threw his slaves as food to lampreys he meant to eat, or whether he kept lampreys only to feed them on such food!"
(Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 'On Mercy,'
One must fervently hope this tale of Vedius Pollio feeding his
slaves to his lampreys to fatten them is an urban legend, but it is reported
also by Cassius Dio and Tertullian. Is it
really possible for human nature to sink so low? In any event,
if he did it, what he did wasn't illegal under Roman law; thankfully it was
under Moses' law. Christians must interpret Moses' law through
the lens of Jesus' teaching; it is surprising they would ever do
otherwise. In those cases where Moses, taken by himself, might
be interpreted as allowing less than to love one's neighbor as
oneself, he should not be taken by himself but as explicated by
Jesus. On the crucial point, "Who is my neighbor?"— Jesus addressed
this point expressly, and His verdict is binding on those under
Another argument the atheists advance to prove the
Bible supports slavery is the parable of the disappointed
master who beats with "many stripes" the wayward slave:
"But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken;
the lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.
And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes."
This, they say, proves beyond question that the Bible finds
nothing wrong with slavery and teaches that slave-masters ought to beat their
slaves. But they are not reading a parable in the way a parable ought to be read.
The master who returns, God, certainly has the right to beat his
unfaithful servants, because He is the potter and they are the clay. That the human master who stands in for Him
beats his unprofitable servant is a fact of life, not
a moral imperative. For example, consider the parable of the
"And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;
saying, there was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:
and there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.
And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, though I fear not God, nor regard man;
yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith." (Luke 18:1-5).
The moral of this story is not, 'Judges should be unjust,' nor
even 'God is an unjust judge.' Rather the logic runs, 'If even an
unjust human judge is swayed by persistence, so much more will the just
Judge give way to persistent prayer.' The atheists who make this argument
misunderstand how a parable works: a parable need not set forth the
behavior it describes as morally exemplary. The parable of the unprofitable
servant does not so much as address the question, 'Should human masters beat
their slaves?', much less does it answer it.
Kidnapping a man in order to sell him into slavery was a capital
“He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”
"If a man is found kidnapping any of his brethren of the
children of Israel, and mistreats him or sells him, then that
kidnapper shall die; and you shall put away the evil from among
Joseph M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship
The New Testament concurs that this is a grave offense:
"Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;.
. ." (1 Timothy 1:9-10).
When Europeans made contact with Africa during the era of
discovery, they found there human beings held in slavery, an
institution which a thousand years of Christian civilization had
pushed into the background in Europe. As they began buying up this novel
merchandise, not available at home, at some point it became apparent that the slaves
being shipped to the New World were not persons long ago fallen into this
condition, but persons specially stolen for
the purpose. The European slave-ships were offering valuable goods in
exchange for slaves. This market demand elicited a supply,
which came from needless wars and skirmishes that would not otherwise
have occurred without the imperative to collect slaves for
trade. Indeed some traffickers even grabbed people at random who were walking along the road.
'Man-stealing' or kidnapping, reducing free persons into a
condition of slavery, was never legal, not under Moses' law, not
even under the laws of the pagans. Yet that was how the American Southerners
had got their slaves. Even in the unenlightened law-courts of pagan Rome, these waylaid kidnap victims could have
petitioned to regain their freedom. How their bad title ever turned into good title, the
apologists for Southern slavery could never explain.
Foreigners for Sale
This provision of Moses' law, which allows foreigners who are not
part of the covenant people to be held in slavery and sold as
slaves, as a possession, is the crux of the atheists' case
that the Bible does, after all, allow slavery. The defenders of ante-bellum
Southern slavery also latched onto this exception, as they proceeded
to hold in perpetual servitude people who were both native-born
Americans and Christians:
“And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor.”
One should ask the atheists, why sweep right on by the general
rule and focus on the exception? Some nations, like contemporary
Saudi Arabia, incorporate a huge force of foreign workers, who are
offered no path to citizenship. Was ancient Israel like that? So
long as Israel adhered even distantly to Moses' law, it cannot have
been like the atheists imagine, a slave society with a huge foreign
population. Moses divided the land, by lot, between the tribes. At
every Jubilee, the deck was shuffled and re-dealt; Israel, so long
as it was compliant with the Mosaic law, was a nation of family
farmers. It was an agricultural society, with no room for plantation
agriculture in the system of land tenure specified by law. The
population of foreign slaves must always have been small. We are
majoring in the minor here, while ignoring completely Moses'
enlightened six-year term limit servitude by Hebrew citizens.
The pattern is often seen; the Athenians kept as slaves, not
Athenians, but Thracians, Thessalians, and other foreigners. This exemption,
of the neighbors, is not natural and inevitable, but hard-fought and hard-won.
Curbing slavery is an incremental advance toward ending it. Once upon a time,
Athenians would look out the window and see their next-door
neighbors being led off into slavery, because they could not pay
their debts. Solon eradicated this scandal, just as Moses closed it
down for the Hebrew nation. Nothing is more common than to hear today that
the ancients saw nothing wrong with slavery: "Missing in this
analysis is any ambivalence regarding slavery. . .No shame attended
this brutal business." (Nell Irvin Painter, The
History of White People, pp. 312-332). From this modern
analysis, one would never know there was a Solon. To put slavery off-limits
to the native-born Athenian or Roman already shows "ambivalence" at
a minimum. If there is nothing wrong with it, then why is it wrong for us?
That there is a higher standard for the near neighbor than for the
far is familiar from many law codes, including the Mosaic; but its
standing once the middle wall of partition has been broken down is
already becoming ambivalent: "For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath
broken down the middle wall of partition between us;. . ."
(Ephesians 2:14). The concept that slavery is wrong did not go
unexpressed in classical antiquity, though it did go unrealized and
unfulfilled: "The first explicit statement which may be cited with
certainty was uttered by a sophist, Gorgias' pupil Alcidamas writing
probably not very long before Aristotle (c. 370 B.C.): 'God made all
men free; Nature has made none a slave.'"
(Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, p.
As Clement of Alexandria realized,
race or nationality should not be any excuse, ". . .and at the same
time teaching not to wrong any one belonging to another race, and
bring him under the yoke, when there is no other cause to allege
than difference of race, which is no cause at all, being neither
wickedness or the effect of wickedness." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book II, Chapter XVIII). Why stop at
Solon's half-way house? Why did Solon stop there, why did Moses? Lack of reciprocity is an issue; Solon could prohibit Athenians from
owning Thracians, but not Thracians from enslaving any captive
Athenians who fell into their hands. The terrible logic of war is
that, whatever one side does, the other must also do, even if
repugnant; the Allies bombed German population centers, not because
that was their preference, but because the Axis bombed English cities.
So, to recapitulate: 1.) Moses restricted labor contracts to six
years, but only for Israelites, not foreigners; and 2.) the New
Testament advanced the Israelite/foreigner distinction not one inch
beyond Moses,— this is not only false, but known by all to be false,—
however, 3.) Christians are not obligated to live under the Mosaic
legislation; true, but if called upon by civic duty to act as a
legislator, whether this function is claimed by the public directly
or by representation, the Christian cannot advance a legislative
scheme which falls short of the Mosaic in the matter of equity.
This asymmetry in the Mosaic legislation between Israelites and
foreigners is not an isolated instance. Foreigners are exempted from certain protections of the Mosaic
law, including not only the six-year limit on slavery, but the prohibition against
usury and forgiveness of loans at the Sabbatical. Why is this? Does God hate foreigners? No, He is no respecter
of persons. But the Israelites and the foreigners cannot meet on
common ground on these points. Suppose a neighboring country staged
a raid, invaded Israel and took many prisoners. What are the
prospects for a prisoner swap, if it were already a known custom
that Israel will release its prisoners at the next Sabbatical year,
while those taken by the foreign army have no guaranteed release
date whatsoever? A man bound to six years of labor cannot have the same
market value as one bound to life-long servitude. Shall we swap
ten-to-one? Under such circumstances, for Israel to adopt the
'law of nations,' i.e., the law of the foreigners themselves, as the basis
for dealing with them, will provide a more solid and fair basis for
negotiation. How can a banker extricate himself from a web of
financial obligations owed to peers both foreign and domestic, in which he finds himself entwined, some of which will be erased at the next
Sabbatical, whereas debts owed to foreigners are erased never? Other
things being equal, the banker who may charge interest, and who need
not forgive debt at the Sabbatical, i.e. the foreigner exempt from
the law of Moses, will bankrupt the Israelite banker who must
observe these rules.
Modernist interpreters insist the extraordinary protections of
the Mosaic law are unworkable, and thus can only have been ideal,
but God plainly did not so intend them. However to work and work
fairly, some degree of reciprocity is desirable. A lop-sided outcome is not God's intent in
defining 'oppression' by reference to these rules, rather this
outcome ensures that the oppressors come out on top. Where
everybody is playing by the same rules, things can be done in accord
with God's will and justice achieved,
but where there is no reciprocity, the children of Israel would only be
left at a disadvantage in their dealings with outsiders, and money left
flowing unstemmed from the country to the outside.
What Robert Lewis Dabney and his ilk seek to do is to make a new, parallel law out
of these exemptions and exceptions, studiously avoiding to notice
the main point. Moreover, words which originally meant 'foreigner'
and 'stranger' come in time to mean 'proselyte,' because from the
times of Abraham, that is what these people were in process of
becoming. 'Foreigner' is not a permanent category, because it is
considered desirable that these newcomers should be brought under
the wings of the Shekinah. But if the international market-place
prices the foreign slaves in expectation the buyer will receive a
lifetime's worth of coerced labor, but the Israelite buyer only
receives six years, then a trade imbalance arises. Some buyers, like
the empress Theodora, buy slaves precisely in order to liberate
them, receiving nothing for their money, but most buyers cannot afford to do this;
for the legislator to require them to do so is a touch utopian. It is
understood that a free market can adjust to the law of Moses, that
the real estate market will 'price in' the fact that properties will
be re-sorted at the Jubilee. It is not unworkable. Though German
higher critics like Wellhausen insisted this was an ideal law code
which had never been of any practical application, this is not the
case. But the international market cannot adjust to restrictions
binding on only some buyers, it cannot 'price in' periodic
liberations seen only in some locales.
Since Moses is only commissioned to legislate for one nation, not
for the whole world, the foreigners who fall outside his legal writ
will have to be exempted from some of its provisions, though as will
be seen, in the case of slavery, only from the release at the
Sabbatical, not from the Jubilee. Moses' economic law is not utopian
or pie-in-the-sky, though it will rapidly become so if only some
participants in the market-place are expected to play by those rules and
others are not. And so, in some cases, commercial dealings with
foreigners are exempted and allowed to take place according to the
rules as defined by the 'law of nations.' Dabney and his ilk
thereupon pounce upon the exceptions, as if they proved that God
does not really intend to bring justice and equity to the slave.
Rather God's will is seen most perfectly where His freedom to
legislate is unhindered.
It is true that the children of Israel are permitted to keep heathen slaves, exceeding the
otherwise applicable six-year limit. These are the long waiters who
must endure up to forty-nine years of servitude; some of these people might
not live so long as to see freedom. At this, the atheists exult. But other considerations, often
over-looked, go along with this arrangement. Who is a neighbor, and who is a
stranger? Any stranger or sojourner who wanted to join the people of
God was free to do so. The racist Dabney is firmly convinced the difference between
Israel and the Gentiles was a matter of blood and race; is that what
the Bible says?:
Sometimes even to the unregenerate heart, a glimmer of the truth
can dawn: "For here their great prophet [Moses] himself had taught
them that. . .the alien must be treated in all humane respects as a
fellow-citizen, under a lively and sympathetic sense of their own
sufferings when they were oppressed aliens in Egypt."
(Robert Lewis Dabney, Dabney's Defense of Virginia and the South, Kindle location
2314). The Southern defense of slavery falls upon the
distinction between the Israelite and the foreigner, holding with
Judge Taney that a black man can never be a fellow-citizen; but here
we see even Dabney, the hardest-hearted of the exclusionists, begin
to realize that God is no respecter of persons! The insight, alas, passed without consequence.
Under the Old Testament, by and large any sojourners in the
nation of Israel who remained outside the covenant people of God
themselves chose that status. Entry was open to them, even to slaves, as is encouraged
if not required by passages like Exodus 12:44: "But every man’s servant that is
bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat
thereof." Once they had joined the congregation, Moses' protections
covered these new-comers as well as the native-born. One formula of emancipation
acknowledges the power of this new status: "R. Joshua b. Levi said: If a servant puts on phylacteries
in the presence of his master, he becomes a free man."
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, 40a). The pro-slavery side assumes that
membership in the people of God is in consequence of ethnicity, not
confession: "But let it be noted that the peculiar mitigations of
slavery affected only slaves of Hebrew blood, not Gentiles."
(Robert Lewis Dabney, Defense of Virginia and the South, Kindle location
1495), but this is not scriptural nor could be long sustained.
Abraham had set a precedent: "And all the men of his house, born in the house, and
bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him."
(Genesis 17:27). Why? This was, and remained, the command of God: "And he
that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child
in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money
of any stranger, which is not of thy seed." (Genesis 17:12). This is the
token of the covenant. Oddly enough, pro-slavery apologist Robert Lewis Dabney
actually insists upon this point, without realizing that in so doing he is
eliminating the category of 'foreign slaves:' ". . .the circumcision
of the slaves was God's act, and not Abraham's. God knows all
things." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Defense of Virginia and the South,
Kindle location 1303). Some Jewish sources perceive the people Abraham
acquired as essentially proselytes, as if Abraham were a traveling
evangelist: "'And the souls they had gotten in Haran' (Gen. xii. 5).
These are they who had been made proselytes. Whoever attracts a Gentile
and proselytizes him is as much as if he had created him. Abraham did so
to men and Sarah to women." (Bereshith Midrash Rabbah, Hebraic
Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala, Kindle
location 4285). If it is indeed God's will for slaves to be
brought into the covenant, then foreign slaves in Israel cease to be
such, embarking instead upon the 'up to six years then free' track. A conflict
thus arose between the rising Christian
majority of the Roman empire and Jewish slave-owners, who persisted
in the good deed of circumcising their slaves, even if the slaves
had been Christians, and instructing them in the faith. Through fear of this engrained custom of Jewish
slave-owners proselytizing their non-Jewish slaves, several of the
later emperors legislated against Jewish ownership of Christian
"Jewish teachers cited biblical texts to support the view that a
Jewish master should circumcise his Gentile slaves. If the slaves
disagreed, it was a common opinion that they should be given a year
to think the matter over. If they still refused, they should be sold
to a pagan master. . .The circumcision of slaves had played an
important part in the spread of the Jewish faith and the conspicuous
numbers of Jewish freedmen. By circumcision, slaves were 'brought
under the wings of the Shekinah.'" (Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and
Christians, p. 296).
"R. Joshua b. Levi said: If a man bought a slave from an idolater,
and the slave refused to be circumcised, he may bear with him for twelve
months. [If by that time he had] not been circumcised, he must re-sell
him to idolaters." (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 48b). However, the
formerly heathen slave does not enter into the covenant immediately upon
circumcision (if male): "R. Hisda said: A heathen slave [owned by a Jew]
may marry his daughter and his mother, for he has lost the status of a
heathen, but has not yet attained that of a Jew." (Babylonian Talmud,
Sanhedrin 58b). Baptism also was required to complete the
[formerly] pagan slave's entry into membership in the people of God: "Rabbah quoted
against R. Nahman: If [an Israelite] bought slaves from a heathen, who
had been circumcised but not immersed, and similarly with the children
of female slaves, who had been circumcised but not immersed, their
spittle and the place where they tread in the street are unclean, but
others declare that they are clean." (Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah,
57a-b). Given the hostility of Christian, and Muslim, publics, towards the
Israelite custom of awarding freedom to slaves subsequent to
conversion to Judaism, not to mention the costliness of the transaction, it ceased to be practiced, in the interests of
maintaining civic peace:
"At the first acquisition of an adult Gentile bondman by
an Israelite owner, the Talmud teaches that the bondman should be
consulted with respect to becoming circumcised, and that, if he
persistently refuses during a space of twelve months to undergo the
rite, the owner should return him to the Gentile owner. It seems
that to circumcise and convert him against his will is of no avail.
But later authorities (especially in Christian countries; see ReMA's
gloss on Shulhan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 267, 4) assert that the
Israelite, in purchasing the bondman, may specially contract not to
introduce him into Judaism; and that 'now and here' such a contract
would be presumed in all cases, because Jews are not permitted to
make converts." (Jewish Encyclopedia, Article Slavery).
However this later reluctance to follow out the letter of the law
cannot be projected back onto Moses. The law as written is clear. From the outset, the commonwealth of Israel has
always accepted heathen converts, from the mixed multitude who went out from
Egypt with the people of God, even those whose awakening may be
self-interested. The assumption 'once a foreigner, always a
foreigner' tracks with neither the Bible design nor with practice.
The Babylonian Talmud is quite late, dating from an era not only
far removed from Moses but also subsequent to the apostles. Though
it carries no authority with Christians, it is encouraging to
realize some of the Rabbis thought the point of purchasing a
heathen slave in the first place is, not to keep him outside of the
congregation forever, but rather precisely the opposite, to bring him under the wings of
“Said R. Jeremiah to R. Zera: It was
taught, 'We may buy of them cattle, menservants and maidservants,—
is this to be applied to a Jewish servant or to a heathen servant
also?— Said he in reply: According to common sense, a Jewish
servant [is meant]; for were it to apply to a heathen servant,
what [meritorious] use could he make of him? When Rabin came, he
said in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: It may even apply to a
heathen servant; because he brings him under the wings of the
(Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 13b).
Even failing the foreign slave's conversion to Judaism, under Moses' law, the standard of behavior toward
strangers dwelling in the land was not 'anything goes,' but fair
treatment. Though not covered by the six-year term-limit
protecting the congregation, these people were by no means fair game
for plunder or "men-stealing":
"And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God."
What is the relevance of this oft-cited point to Southern slavery? The
Southern slaves were neither heathen nor foreigners; after the
importation of slaves was prohibited early in the life of the
Republic, the bulk of the slave population were native-born. By any rational
civil standard, they were citizens not foreigners. Neither were they heathen. When
Africans were brought to this country, they initially practiced a variety
of religions, mostly animist but some few Muslims. Partly owing to
the mingling of different languages and cultures, these religions
did not survive as ongoing concerns. By the time of the Civil War
the slave population was Christian: these people were not heathen,
they were the people of God just as much as were their owners, if
indeed these wicked slave-owners can be counted such. So why did the
Southern slave-owners refer to this provision of the law, when the
slaves whose condition of servitude they wished to prolong to infinity were
neither foreigners nor heathens? What is the relevance? The relevance seems to be, that
if the Bible allows some loop-hole somewhere through which some
people at some time were lawfully held in bondage, then let's drive a steam locomotive through that little gap,
perhaps it will get bigger.
The abolitionists originally made their case against this
inhuman institution on the grounds of Christian charity. But when the
pro-slavery side came back with the law of Moses, they replied,
'Fine, let's go there. If we are to live under the law of Moses,
though not placed under this yoke by the council at Jerusalem (Acts
15), when may we expect the Jubilee?' Certainly a Jubilee would have
been the death knell of Southern slavery, because Congress had
already closed the door to African slave importation. Going
'shopping' to foreign nations to replenish the slaves liberated by the Jubilee,
as allowed but not required by Leviticus, was
not going to happen. But it turned out the South did not really
want to live under the law of Moses after all. When the Jubilee
came, it came at the hands of a racist Northern general carrying the Emancipation Proclamation, not at the
hands of Southern enthusiasts for the law of Moses:
"Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the Jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,
While we were marching through Georgia."
(Marching Through Georgia)
Who is a neighbor, and who is a foreigner? Jesus addressed this very question, so it is
perplexing that any of those who say they follow him do not know the
answer by heart:
"And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor?
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?
And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise."
It is a genuine mystery how there can be any Christian who does
not know that this is how Jesus answered this very important legal
question, or knows the answer but does not feel bound by it. Who is
your neighbor? There is no one who is not. "Christ's point is that love must
transcend nationality, race, and religion." (Parable of the Good
Samaritan, The Parables of Jesus, James Montgomery Boice, p. 180). If
the neighbor is, potentially, everyone, then who is the foreigner? Who
does not fall under the protection of the law against slavery?
Even the unwilling must admit,
"Moreover, it must be observed that, in the second
passage, they are commanded to love strangers and foreigners as
themselves. Hence it appears that the name of neighbor is not
confined to our kindred, or such other persons with whom we are
nearly connected, but extends to the whole human race; as Christ
shows in the person of the Samaritan, who had compassion on an
unknown man, and performed towards him the duties of humanity
neglected by a Jew, and even a Levite. (Luke 10:30.)"
(John Calvin, The Harmony of the Law, Volume
3, Four Last Books of Moses, Eighth Commandment, p. 95).
Thus in Christian interpretation of the Law, there can be no option
to say, 'this protection of the Law shields my tribe, not that other
tribe.' Jesus ruled it out. The people who call themselves 'theonomists'
take everything in the Bible as if it were civil legislation,
regardless of whether the author's evident intent is to legislate,
as opposed to presenting moral exhortation, theological instruction,
or gospel proclamation, etc. This is their stated principle: "The
Gospels themselves were seen in the early centuries as books of law,
since they were the words of a King. . .The royal word is always a
law-word, and as such is a inescapable part of the body of law." (Rousas
J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume I, Appendix, Kindle
location 22408). They should follow their own stated procedure, confused as
it is, and let Jesus legislate on the matter of, who is the neighbor! Moses
uses the word 'neighbor,' but does not define it, leaving it open to
interpretation. The Pharisees/Rabbis defined it one way, Jesus
another. It is strange that some Christians see it as a toss-up,
which interpretation to follow. The legislator has spoken; the law's protections are universal.
It's intriguing to realize that the Pharisees' name, for other
Pharisees, was just 'neighbor:'
"They called themselves merely Chaberim (חֲבֵרִים), “neighbours,”
this term being, in the language of the Mishna and of ancient
Rabbinical literature in general, exactly identical with that of
(Schürer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in
the Time of Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 10110-10111). Capella
To the Pharisee, the 'neighbor' was another Pharisee. So the Lord's
parable must have stung like a stick in the eye, indicating that they
would have to widen that out. Did the founders of American slavery not know
the Bible limited the term of servitude to six years? Who did they think the 'neighbor' was?
Of course they knew. They were aware of the provisions of
the Mosaic law limiting servitude to a period of six years, and
incorporated that limitation into their laws on indentured servitude. .
.for white people. For black people, there was no such limitation. Why? If
someone today who thinks the Bible permits life-long involuntary servitude will please
explain to me the logic of that distinction, without using any racist
categories, I would be much obliged. African-Americans, it turns out, were
foreigners even if native-born, and heathen even if baptized Christians.
This is willful defiance, nullification not interpretation.
There is a modern religion for which these issues are central.
Fueled by a just indignation against slavery and strangely
incomplete information about history, the Nation of Islam saw fit to
discard the religion which freed humanity from the scourge of
slavery in favor of a religion whose founder was a slave-owner:
The pro-slavery side may object: It is easy enough to find fault
with Southern chattel slavery, which in no way conformed to Moses'
law; the fact that those blameless people had been held in hopeless, lifelong
bondage for generations, watching multiple Sabbaticals and Jubilees
pass unobserved, was more than enough to justify the demand for
their immediate emancipation. But the abolitionists' proposal going
forward was not to reinstitute the Mosaic system of periodic
liberation, rather the thirteenth amendment forbids plunging persons
who are not criminals into the state of involuntary servitude, for
any term whatever. Is this not to 'improve' upon the Bible? What
rationale can be offered, not for a Jubilee which is solidly Biblical, but for the thirteenth amendment? According to Jesus, there are provisions of the Mosaic law which
are there because the people were unteachable:
“They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”
He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
In other words the provisions of Moses' law do not represent
God's perfect and unchanging will, but are in some measure a
compromise between God's will and what was possible to a particular
people at a particular time. This is not my interpretation, but the Lord's.
The reader of Moses' law notices also that it is written for a
pastoral and agrarian people; a contemporary sea-faring nation might
have required different laws. Slavery is a near-universal human
institution; the most efficient labor-saving device ever invented is
to force somebody else to do all the work, and this 'discovery' has
been made many times by many different people. Any constitution
establishing an island of freedom within a slave world will
encounter the problem of the interface between the two. This principle explains the limited
permission for involuntary servitude allowed by the Mosaic law. Though, as
shown, this permission was narrowly circumscribed with strict limits
imposed as to the term of service, unwilling service nevertheless was allowed for a
Servitude was in no case mandated, however, except for the
improvident thief; Moses requires the unwilling servant to be freed at the
Sabbatical year, he does not require him to have been bound to service
in the first place. Thus it is in error to say that Moses' law institutes six-year labor contracts.
Although the early American states provided legal protection for
indentured servitude for a term of up to six years, the Christian who follows Jesus' precepts
need not go down that road, even bound and circumscribed as Moses leaves it. We can follow our Lawgiver more closely: our
bankruptcy laws allow for a rolling Jubilee, which makes a better
fit to a credit economy, causing less disruption than a fixed
Jubilee year. So debtor slavery, which Moses strongly discouraged ('open your hand'), can be eradicated.
The plainest and simplest interpretation of these provisions frees the slaves
at the recurring Sabbatical year; however, some interpreters demur:
"The manumission of Jewish slaves took place in the
seventh year of their bondage, whenever that might be, and bears no
reference to the Sabbatical year, with which, indeed, some of its
provisions could not easily have been compatible (Deuteronomy
15:14)." (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services,
If so, this would eke the full six years' service out of each
slave. Unfortunately there is no living tradition of the enforcement
of these provisions of Moses' law, because they were very often simply not enforced.
We can do better also with civilian war captives, who were the vast ocean of supply for
the pagan Roman slave machine: the Geneva convention protects their safety and property, so they are not left with
the forlorn and only hope their lives will be spared for the slave-market. In setting up
these arrangements we obey Jesus' precepts and also honor both the letter and the spirit
of Moses' Jubilee. The Romans' preferred legal argument in favor of slavery,
that it was a act of benevolence to spare the civilian populace's
life, never found much traction with ethicists in Christendom, who
realized that the conqueror has no right to slaughter the conquered
population in the first place:
"The authors of our public law, guided by ancient
histories, without confining themselves to cases of strict
necessity, have fallen into very great errors. They have adopted
tyrannical and arbitrary principles, by supposing the conquerors to
be invested with I know not what right to kill: thence they have
drawn consequences as terrible as the very principle, and
established maxims which the conquerors themselves, when possessed
of the least grain of sense, never presumed to follow. . .From the
right of killing in the case of conquest, politicians have drawn that
of reducing to slavery — a consequence as ill-grounded as the
principle." (Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Kindle
The Christian idea of the rights and obligations of the conqueror
tore down the scaffolding upon which the legal defense of slavery in
Roman law rested. Why this legal argument was so popular for so long
is unclear; all it ever accomplished, by grounding the 'right' to
slavery in lawless violence, was to hold this unjust servitude over
until a greater spasm of violence by the indignant slaves brought it
to a close: "Over the rest of the people, if there were any that
consented not to the war, and over the children of the captives
themselves, or the possessions of either, he [the conqueror] has no
power; and so can have, by virtue of conquest, no lawful title
himself to dominion over them, or derive it to his posterity; but is
an aggressor, if he attempts upon their properties, and thereby puts
himself in a state of war against them, and has no better a
right of principality, he, nor any of his successors, than Hingar,
or Hubba, the Danes, had here in England; or Spartacus, had he
conquered Italy, would have had; which is to have their yoke cast
off, as soon as God shall give those under the subjection courage
and opportunity to do it. Thus, notwithstanding whatever title the
kings of Assyria had over Judah, by the sword, God assisted Hezekiah
to throw off the dominion of that conquering empire." (John Locke,
Two Treatises of Government, page 65, Kindle location 3421). The
thirteenth amendment is the way to obey the Bible. The people who made these
arrangements were not 'better' than the Bible; they learned how to be good from the Bible.
There is one case in which Moses' law requires a man to be sold
"If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft."
The thief must make restitution. But if he cannot, he himself
must be the restitution. Since the thirteenth amendment does not
prohibit chain gangs or other similar ventures, this case falls
outside our sphere of concern. Those in prison have not had their
liberty stolen from them, rather they themselves forfeited it, when
they did whatever it is they did that landed them in prison. The system of convict
servitude was greatly abused in the Southern states after the Civil War, because the convicts were over-worked with great cruelty and inhumanity, but this was an abuse of an institution in itself lawful, as was not the case with slavery itself. However Moses only allows servitude in specified cases, with a stringent term limit.
What has this got to do with Southern chattel slavery? We think of a country like
Australia as taking its rise from a penal colony. But certain Southern states were peopled at first with a population likewise transported, from England and Ireland, without assent. The Jamestown plantation was founded as a profit-making enterprise. The profit potential was clearly there, but the reality too often involved famine and Indian massacres. The colonists were dying of New World diseases whose etiologies they did not understand. (These diseases were not caused, directly, by climate, nor were people from hot climates immune. Mosquito netting is cheap and would have helped, but who knew?) As the pool of voluntary immigrants dried up, in desperation, the supervisors turned to convict labor. These convicts were often enough guilty of nothing more than vagrancy,— i.e., simple poverty. In principle such a system might claim to stand up to Biblical scrutiny, but poverty is no crime under the law of Moses.
Some try to trace African chattel slavery to this origin, which is no more than to muddy the waters, because the kidnapped Africans were not criminals, nor was any restriction put on their term of service at the point of sale. The King of Dahomey was not selling indentured servants. Purchasing African labor at the source was an early experiment in globalism, showing what a unitary world market in labor could achieve by way of levelling.
The central story-line of the larger of the two testaments
revolves around the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt. The New
Testament does not lose interest in this theme, but paints it on a larger canvas: "There is no
more basic word in the Bible than redemption. The Geek word for
redemption means to loose. Redemption means to be released from bondage.
The very heart of our understanding what salvation is all about is
release from bondage. The Israelites are a picture of us. They were
in bondage." (D. A. Carson, editor, The Scriptures Testify about Me:
Jesus and the Gospel in the Old Testament, Kindle location 518). In
light of the crucial importance of Israel's history, it is perplexing
that some people have managed to talk themselves into believing the
Bible is a pro-slavery tract. If slavery is a good thing, why was
leading the Israelites out from slavery also a good thing?
Though they entered Egypt as invited guests, by the time of the
exodus the Jews had fallen into harsh and bitter bondage:
"And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them."
God heard their cries with indignation:
"And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant.
Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments: And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians."
This is not a side narrative branching off from the main story-line
of the Bible, it is the main story-line: "Our deliverance from under the
yoke of sin is strikingly typified in the going up of Israel from Egypt
and so also was the victory of our Lord over the powers of death and
hell. The Exodus should therefore be earnestly remembered by Christian
hearts. . .is it not written of the hosts above that they sing the song
of Moses the servant of God, and of the Lamb?" (Charles Spurgeon,
Treasury of David, Psalm 114, Kindle location 62225). The children of
Israel in Egypt groaned under the weight of unjust oppression. It is
hard to see how even a Douglas Wilson could recast the Exodus story into
a tale of honorable Egyptian slave-owners unfairly despoiled of their
lawful possessions. At its heart, the Bible is anti-slavery; when it
gets down to cases, it is written from the slaves' perspective, not the
It did not escape the notice of the African slaves in America that the Old Testament is the story of a slave population
liberated by God. For some reason this inescapable fact still escapes the
notice of the atheists. Upon their departure, the Israelites spoiled the
"And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty:
but every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians."
What was this, opportunistic plunder? No, fair compensation for unpaid wages:
"It happened again that the Egyptians summoned Israel
before Alexander of Macedonia, demanding from them the gold and
silver which they had borrowed from them at the time of their
exodus. As it reads [Ex. xii. 36]: 'And the Lord hath given the
people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, so that they gave unto
them what they required; and they emptied out Egypt.' And Gbiah b.
Psisa requested from the sages permission to be the advocate of the
defendant Israel, with the same reason mentioned above. He got this
permission, and did so. Then he said to them: What is your evidence?
And their answer was: From your Torah. Then said he: I in defense will also bring my evidence from the same, which reads [ibid. 40]:
'Now the time of the residence of the children of Israel, which they
dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.' Hence I demand
of you the wages for the labor of six hundred thousand men whom your
parents compelled to work for them all the time they were in Egypt."
(The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume XVI,
Chapter XI, Tract Sanhedrin, Chapter, Kindle location 64432).
The atheists are opposed in principle to restitution: ". .
.nevertheless it is true that we have commands called divine, which,
like that to the Israelites on their departure out of Egypt to purloin
vessels of gold, are scarcely less revolting to an enlightened moral
feeling, than the thefts of the Grecian Hermes." (David Friedrich
Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Introduction, Chapter
14, p. 74). In God's view, it's only fair.
Other Bible narratives include the story of Joseph, sold into
slavery by his treacherous brothers. If the Bible were a book
written from the slave-owner's perspective, filled with stories of
righteous owners putting slaves in their place, the racist and
atheist case could be understood, but it is not. The Bible's
perspective on slavery is that of the slave, not that of his master.
The Essenes were a Jewish sect not in receipt of the New Testament or
the good news of God in Christ. Though lacking any scripture but the Old
Testament, they reportedly rejected slavery:
"And they do not use the ministrations of slaves, looking upon the possession
of servants or slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature,
for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness
of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of all evil, having subdued
some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker."
(Philo Judaeus, On the Contemplative Life, Chapter
"Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or breastplates, or shields; no makers of arms or of military engines; no one, in short, attending to any employment whatever connected with war, or even to any of those occupations even in peace which are easily perverted to wicked purposes; for they are utterly ignorant of all traffic, and of all commercial dealings, and of all navigation, but they repudiate and keep aloof from everything which can possibly afford any inducement to covetousness; and there is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, aiding one another with a reciprocal interchange of good offices; and they condemn masters, not only as unjust, inasmuch as they corrupt the very principle of equality, but likewise as impious, because they destroy the ordinances of nature, which generated them all equally, and brought them up like a mother, as if they were all legitimate brethren, not in name only, but in reality and truth."
(Philo Judaeus, Every Good Man is Free, Chapter XII).
There is a book of the New Testament devoted to smoothing over the situation of a run-away slave
who came to know the Lord. Paul sends Onesimus, the slave, back to his
Christian master Philemon:
"I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides."
Taken literally the "no longer as a slave" of verse 16
would suggest that Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free, however
he may not mean it literally. Verse 16 does make clear that Paul
perceives an incongruity between being a "slave" and being a
"brother," and he expects Philemon to
receive Onesimus as "a brother beloved." If he perceived no
incongruity, why not say, 'receive him back as a slave and as a
brother'? Instead he says, "no longer as a slave."
Unlike the Supreme Court justices who rendered the monstrous Dred Scott decision, Paul is not
scandalized that a slave fled from his master; he does not want
Philemon to punish him for it, though Philemon had the right in law
and custom to do so: "But there was a certain Campanian in the army, a
runaway Roman slave named Spendius, a man of extraordinary physical
strength and reckless courage in the field. Alarmed lest his master
should recover possession of him, and he should be put to death with
torture, in accordance with the laws of Rome, this man exerted himself
to the utmost in word and deed to break off the arrangement with the
Carthaginians." (Polybius, The Histories, Book I, Chapter 69, Kindle
location 2080). This is not what Paul wants. Paul wants Philemon to receive the returning
run-away "as myself." He expects Philemon to do even more than this:
"Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that
you will do even more than I say." (Philemon 1:21). What is this
"more"? Some readers perceive a hint: "Paul expresses confidence
that Philemon will do even more than Paul asks, perhaps a hint that
Philemon should grant Onesimus his freedom (vv. 20-21). (Introducing the
New Testament, D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Kindle location 2070).
Moses' law did not require the community to return an escaped
slave: “You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him."
(Exodus 23:15-16). Whether Paul respected civil enactments
comparable to that upheld by the Dred Scott decision or not, he did
ultimately speed Onesimus on his way back to his master.
Nevertheless he does not send him back as a slave but as a brother.
The New Testament does not contain any direct command for
Christians slave-owners to free all their slaves, or for Christian
citizens to work for the abolition of slavery. Those who ponder what
it means for Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother may yet
feel led in those directions. The general provisions of
Christian morality: the command to do unto others as you would have
them do unto you,— leave no room for this cruel
institution, which no one chooses for himself. No one in classical antiquity
was under any illusion on this score; Plato gives an analogy of a
slave-owner transported to the wilderness with his slaves. What will
he expect them to do? Kill him, of course:
"What is your illustration?
"The case of rich individuals in cities who possess many slaves.
. .You know that they live securely and have nothing to apprehend from their servants?
"What should they fear?
"Nothing. But do you observe the reason of this?
"Yes; the reason is, that the whole city is leagued together for the protection of each individual.
"Very true, I said. But imagine one of these owners, the master say of some fifty slaves, together with his family and property and slaves, carried off by a god into the wilderness, where there are no freemen to help him—will he not be in an agony of fear lest he and his wife and children should be put to death by his slaves?"
(Plato, Republic, Book IX).
Slave-owners have always feared from their slaves what John
Brown delivered. If their security arrangements fail them, the
slave-owner cannot expect gratitude and good-will. This is not an
institution that can be defended by the Golden Rule. As the author asks in
one of the anti-slavery tracts I've uploaded,
"If we fulfill the injunction of our religion, to do to others as we would wish them to do unto us — if we love our neighbor as ourselves, can we consign him and his posterity to hopeless and interminable slavery?"
(Evan Lewis, 'An Address to
Christians of All Denominations, On the Inconsistency of Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membership.')
To ask that question is also to answer it; it can be answered only one way.
Even the pagans of classical antiquity felt it was a civic and philanthropic duty
to free slaves: "'Do we not free our slaves chiefly for the express
purpose of making out of them as many citizens as possible?'"
(Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LVI, Chapter 7.6).
John Chrysostom points out that slavery is by definition a departure
from the law of love: "Wherefore, having said, “The first and great
commandment is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” he added, “and the
second — (He leaves it not in silence, but sets it down also) — is like
unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”. . .Yea, and if this
were duly observed, there would be neither slave nor free, neither ruler
nor ruled, neither rich nor poor, neither small nor great; nor would
any devil then ever have been known: I say not, Satan only, but whatever other such spirit there be, nay, rather were
there a hundred or ten thousand such, they would have no power, while
love existed." (John Chrysostom, Homily 32 on 1 Corinthians 12:27,
Chapter 11, ECF 1_12, p. 435).
To argue the contrary, the racist Dabney explains that
African-Americans are so mentally deficient and morally depraved
that it would be harmful rather than beneficial to indulge their
"The whole reasoning of the Abolitionists proceeds on
the absurd idea, that any caprice or vain desire we might entertain
towards our fellowman, if we were in his place, and he in ours, must
be the rule of our conduct towards him, whether the desire would be
in itself right or not. This absurdity has been illustrated by a
thousand instances. On this rule, a parent who, were he a child
again, would be wayward and self-indulgent, commits a clear sin in
restraining or punishing the waywardness of his child, for this is
doing the opposite of what he would wish were he again the child.
. .In a word, whatever ill-regulated desire we are conscious of
having, or of being likely to have, in reversed circumstances, that
desire we are bound to make the rule of our action in granting the
parallel caprice of any other man, be he bore, beggar, highwayman,
or what not. On this understanding, the Golden Rule would become
anything but golden; it would be a rule of iniquity; for instead of
making impartial equity our regulating principle, it would make the
accidents of man's criminal caprice the law of his acts. It would
become every man's duty to enable all other men to do whatever his
own sinful heart, mutatis mutandis, might prompt." (Dabney,
Robert Lewis. Dabney's Defense of Virginia and the South, Annotated.
(Kindle Locations 2330-2340). Booker House Publishing,
Ambrose speaks of captives whom the church had redeemed, people
bought back from slavery:
"The highest kind of liberality is, to redeem captives,
to save them from the hands of their enemies, to snatch men from
death, and, most of all, women from shame, to restore children to
their parents, parents to their children, and, to give back a
citizen to his country. This was recognized when Thrace and Illyria
were so terribly devastated. How many captives were then for sale
all over the world! Could one but call them together, their number
would have surpassed that of a whole province. Yet there were some
who would have sent back into slavery those whom the Church had
redeemed. . .It is then a special quality of liberality to redeem
captives, especially from barbarian enemies who are moved by no
spark of human feeling to show mercy, except so far as avarice has
preserved it with a view to redemption." (Ambrose, On the Duties of
the Clergy, Book 2, Chapter 15, Sections 70-71).
Apparently this instance was controversial, but it was done and
it was understood to be a good thing. The atheists' case that the New Testament is pro-slavery demands much of the
reader's indulgence: when Paul tells Philemon to receive back his run-away slave "no longer as a slave,"
of course he does not mean that the way it sounds. But if he did not mean what he said,
what did he mean?
Christian ethics is upside-down by the world's standards. The carnal man, when he is injured
unjustly, wants pay-back. But this is not what Christians are called to:
"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
When New Testament authors counsel Christian slaves to serve their masters faithfully, this is sometimes
taken as a confident endorsement of the slave system. After all, if these authors thought slavery in any way unjust,
they would surely not recommend the slaves to excel at their work:
"Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;
With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:
Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him."
What might surprise some people is that this advice is exactly the same if it is stipulated that the
master is unjust:
"Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.
For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed."
(1 Peter 2:18-24).
This is what Jesus did; He was not crucified justly, for crimes He had committed. He was innocent of the
charge of blasphemy, yet He suffered patiently.
Good and gentle masters were not unknown, even amongst the
pagans; the pagan moralist Cicero was, not only a benevolent owner,
but a good friend, to his slave Tiro. Although Tiro suffered the same
intangible harms from slavery as any field hand,— loss of personal liberty,
deprivation of civil rights,— it would be misleading to suggest
his life was a living Hell. His employment as Cicero's literary
assistant was all inside work. The system was as good to Tiro as it possibly could be to anyone. 'Good' does not here mean that
the pagan Cicero was on the highway to heaven; of course he was not, that is not how you get there;
but as a master he was far preferable to others. But obedience was
owed even to the worst. Why? Did Peter not understand how miserable
life could be for a slave suffering under the lashes of a cruel
master? No, but because turning the other cheek is what Christians
do, in imitation of their head. People misinterpret who interpret
turning the other cheek to mean, 'I deserved that slap.'
Bad masters were not unknown to antiquity either, like Vedius
Pollio, who fed wayward slaves to the lampreys in his fish-pond.
Seneca tells the well-known story:
"When one of his slaves had broken a crystal cup, Vedius
ordered him to be seized and doomed him to die, but in an
extraordinary way he ordered him to be thrown to the huge lampreys,
which he kept in a fish-pond. Who would not suppose that he did this
merely for display? It was really out of cruelty. The lad slipped
from his captors and fled to Caesar's feet, begging only that he
might die some other way — anything but being eaten. Caesar, shocked
by such an innovation in cruelty, ordered that the boy be pardoned,
and, besides, that all the crystal cups be broken before his eyes
and that the fish-pond be filled up." (Lucius
Annaeus Seneca, On Wrath, Book III).
Vedius Pollio's conduct did not meet with social approval, and
the emperor Augustus was so indignant he resorted to extra-judicial
humiliation. Why not simply let the law take its course? Because
Vedius Pollio had broken no law; slaves had no legal protection for
their rights. I'm always surprised when people say that Roman
slavery was benign. It could be, but could also be horrendous.
Interpreters who are assuming that, if Peter or Paul were to sit
down and draft a law code, it would include precisely the same
omissions as did Roman law, are assuming something major. Why would
they depart from Moses at this point? Why start with the idea that
the slave's life is worthless, when Moses did not so account it?
Those interpreters who assume that Peter and Paul were in fact
writing civil law in their letters to the churches, are making a
Not everyone likes the ethic of 'turn the other cheek;' Tom Paine
accused the maxim of "assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a
spaniel." (Tom Paine, The Age of Reason, p. 172). Like today's atheists,
the Deist Tom Paine wanted to claim that you don't need revealed
religion to be moral, because the moral guidance that comes from nature
is sufficient: "As to the fragments of morality that are irregularly and
thinly scattered in those books, they make no part of this pretended
thing called revealed religion. They are the natural dictates of
conscience and the bonds by which society is held together, and without
which it cannot exist; and are nearly the same in all religions and in
all societies." (Tom Paine, The Age of Reason, p. 171). His argument
implodes immediately when he reaches this thing which is not the same, because most
human societies and most systems of ethics do not encourage a wronged
person to turn the other cheek. Callicles thought it was the part of a slave to suffer
injury without being able to retaliate: "For the suffering of injustice
is not the part of a man, but of a slave, who indeed had better die than
live; since when he is wronged and trampled upon, he is unable to help
himself, or any other about whom he cares." (Plato, 'Gorgias').
However you can't take it away from Christians:
That the reciprocal advice to slave-masters: that they should treat their
slaves as Onesimus, as brothers, no longer as slaves,— would have
undermined and subverted the institution of slavery as it then existed
is freely admitted by pro-slavery apologists like Douglas Wilson. If
they had done that,— really done it, not continued with the status
quo while saying they were doing it,— nothing recognizable as slavery
would have remained. The Bible is not opposed to employment, but only to
slavery, because it is oppression. That one party, the employer,
exercises authority over another, is not the problem with such
arrangements, but an inevitable corollary of them. Moses' law, which is not
binding upon Christians as civil law, regulates out of existence the
oppressive features of servitude, such as life-long tenure and
involuntariness. It cannot be assumed that the New Testament authors had
done a U-turn and begun to believe these were good things. Thinking it is so
rests on assumptions, — such as that the New Testament authors would
have rebuffed an employer's legitimate expectation of obedience unless
everything else about the deal was according to Hoyle, — which cannot
be proven and are almost certainly incorrect. This is not the way they
reasoned about justice and injustice.
There was a faction within the infant Christian church that
wanted to see the law of Moses imposed on all new believers. What
aspect of the law was important to these 'Judaizers:' the dietary
laws? circumcision? or the laws against economic oppression,
including the law protecting the life of the slave? Under Moses,
Vedius Pollio would have received, not social embarrassment from a
paternalistic emperor, but judicial punishment: "And if a man beats
his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his
hand, he shall surely be punished." (Exodus
21:20). Paul contended earnestly against this Judaizing tendency, even
telling the Galatians that, if they consented to receive
circumcision, they were lost. Is Paul conceding that Vedius Pollio
was in the right, as he was in the eyes of Roman law? At this point
enter the 'neoConfederate' defenders of American antebellum slavery,
who reason like so: Paul, speaking to people who lived under a pagan
law code as reflected in issues of economic justice, did not insist
that these people rise up in rebellion, as Zealots, to overthrow the
pagan government, thus enabling them to jettison the pagan law code
in favor of Moses' law. He would not have so acted, they say, unless
he conceded the moral superiority of pagan law to Mosaic law. Therefore,
when Christians find themselves in a position to draft civil law (as
ultimately we all do, in a democracy), they should look to pagan
prototypes rather than Moses.
According to the pagan satirist Juvenal, Roman proselytes who
converted to Judaism were taught to "despise" Roman law: "Some
children get a Sabbath-fearing father. These kids worship nothing
but clouds and the divinity of the sky. They think pork, which their
father would not eat, no different than human flesh. Soon they even
give up their foreskin. Moreover, they are accustomed to despise
Roman laws. They learn the Jewish code, preserve, and reverence
whatever the secret book of Moses hands down."
(Juvenal, Satires 14.96-106, quoted p. 257, Race and Ethnicity in
the Classical World, Kennedy, Roy, and Goldman). This is
already a tendentious exaggeration, because Philo Judaeus does not
confirm that Jews living the diaspora were ever taught to despise the
civil law. They were in fact taught to obey the laws applicable in
their jurisdiction, just as Paul taught his new converts. But not
because the pagan laws were held to be intrinsically superior to the
This is the error. Paul does not concede the moral superiority of
paganism over Mosaic legislation. Moses' law is assumed, by Paul as
well as by everybody else in the church, to reflect divine insight, as pagan law
does not. If believers ever found themselves in a position to draft their own
legislation, should they respect Moses' six-year limitation to the
term of servitude, or not? Why not, when that is the Biblical
standard of equity? However, the people are not to resort to violence. Did
Paul think that what was liable to happen to Vedius Pollio's slaves
was justice? No, why would he, when Moses did not allow it? By the
reckoning of the Mosaic law, these slaves were innocent crime victims. So what are they to do? They
are to turn the other cheek. The detractors say, if you turn the other cheek, you are
conceding the aggressor's moral right to slap you. No, you are not. Obeying
the government in power is not a concession that this government is
the best of all possible governments.
The New Testament authors, as representatives of a small, persecuted sect within the empire, were not in a position
to dictate terms to the world. What terms they might have dictated had they been in such a position is
open to dispute. Would it have included a six-year term limit to
servitude, as Moses instituted? Given that Christianity was so wildly
successful, and ended by conquering the world within a few generations,
the observer looking backward might assume, of course they were in a
position to legislated for the world. Jesus Himself said, "My kingdom is not of this world"
(John 18:36); the church is not a sovereign state nor a civil government nor an interest group cemented
around a political program. But once the church became strong under Constantine,
Christians politicians began to make small, incremental changes to
this ubiquitous and universal ancient institution. The snail's pace they adopted was
lazy and cowardly, to be sure. First they demanded respect for slave marriages. Then they made
other changes, until ultimately the institution was no longer
This New Testament advice would be the same whether the apostles
thought slavery just or unjust. Paul encourages his enslaved readers
to claim their freedom if possible: "Art thou called being a
servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it
rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the
Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is
Christ’s servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men."
(1 Corinthians 7:21). If this is not within reach, they are to "care not."
These principles neither condemn the slave system nor endorse it. Robert
Lewis Dabney, greatly admired by modern defenders of slavery like Douglas
Wilson, simply cannot conceive that God would ever expect His people
to encounter and endure injustice. Not only that, he believes that
anyone who suffers injustice is a criminal!:
"Here, then, we have God, himself, the Angel Jehovah,
who can be no other than the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ,
commanding this fugitive to return into the relation of domestic
slavery, and submit to it. Can that relation be in itself sinful? To
assert this, would make our adorable Saviour particeps criminis − (a
participant in the crime). He cannot have required a soul to return
into a sinful state." (Dabney, Robert Lewis. Dabney's Defense of Virginia and the
South, Annotated. (Kindle Location 1333). Booker House
The victim is in some sense, a "participant in the crime," but
who has ever followed Dabney in condemning the victim and assigning
guilt indiscriminately to all parties involved? Incredibly, he
assumes that, if slavery is wrong. . .then slaves must be criminals!
There is never any moral turpitude in suffering injustice. God no
more validates slavery by sending Hagar back than he validates
concubinage, and even Dabney and his ilk are capable of
understanding that this is not God's perfect will for mankind, by
sending her back to a living circumstance where she holds the rank
of secondary wife. Did God make Joseph a "participant in the crime" when
his brothers treacherously sold him into slavery?
When the Word of God came in to this world, He took the "form of a servant:"
"But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him
the form of a servant [μορφην δουλου,
form of a slave], and was made in the likeness of men:. . ." (Philippians 2:7).
Someone might say, 'Yes, but that is just high-flown language, all men are as slaves before God, Jesus, a carpenter,
never held the civil status of a slave.' This is true but He was sold for
the same price as a slave is valued, thirty pieces of silver: "And I said
unto them, If ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear. So
they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver.' (Zechariah 11:12).
This is the restitution price for a slave: "If the
ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant; he shall give unto their
master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned." (Exodus 21:32). Free-born Roman citizens were
exempt from crucifixion, which thus became a punishment the Roman writers think
of as especially fit for a slave: "The cruelty even of men in private
station has been avenged by the hands of slaves despite their certain
risk of crucifixion. . ." (Seneca, Essay on Mercy, 1. xxvi.). Juvenal
reports the mistress of the house crying, "Crucify that slave!"
(Juvenal, Satires, Book VI, 219). So Jesus, while not a slave by legal status, was
sold for money at the valuation of a slave and suffered the death of a slave.
"For the mystery of Christ is in peril of being disbelieved
by reason of the intensity of its marvellousness: God was in human
nature, and in our estate He that is over all creation; the Invisible,
visible by reason of flesh; He that is out of Heaven and from above in
likeness of things earthy; the Impalpable subject to touch; He that is
in His own Nature Free in bondman's form; He Who blesseth the creation
was made subject to curse, among the transgressors All-Righteousness,
and in guise of death Life." (Clement of Alexandria, That Christ is
One, by Way of Dispute with Hermias, p. 249).
Seeing humanity divided into slave and free, the living God, in
becoming incarnate, chose one side of that man-made divide. We Christians
worship a risen and ascended slave.
Sometimes it comes as a surprise to learn what passage the other
side considers to be their killer verses, the text from which there
is no appeal:
“Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed.
And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited are believers and beloved. Teach and exhort these things.”
(1 Timothy 6:1-2).
It's First Timothy 6:1! But why? Paul goes out of his way to explain what his concern is:
that the name of God and His doctrine be not blasphemed, i.e.,
spoken against. He is expressing a prudential concern about the well-being and good
reputation of the church. From whence comes the threat? Well, let us
suppose some new believers pick up Moses' law and read the section
where Israelites are promised liberty after six years of servitude.
'We are the Israel of God! Didn't Paul himself say so?' (Galatians
6:16). Well, yes, but politics is the art of the possible, and that
is not possible; proclaiming liberty to the captives would be
suicidal. Atheists wonder why the church did not launch a violent
revolution against slavery, even knowing that slave rebellions in
that era tended to end in mass crucifixions. Besides the church is
not called to violence; her instructions were delivered in the
Sermon on the Mount. 'Oh, so you mean we are the Israel of God, but
we're not really the Israel of God?' We are, but this is not our
homeland. And, should the Lord tarry, just wait.
Defenders of slavery take Peter and Paul's instructions to slaves
in the pagan Roman empire as proof that Peter and Paul acknowledged
the moral superiority of pagan law over Mosaic law. Thus easily we
eject the Mosaic provisions for the Sabbatical and the Jubilee! But
not only do Peter and Paul never acknowledge the moral superiority
of pagan law over Mosaic law, this is not even the question under
Some people say you must not criticize a
slave-owner, modern or ancient, because he is faithful and beloved; he is a church member in good standing
and thus above criticism:
Really, you cannot criticize a church member in good standing?
Does Paul hesitate to criticize the Corinthians for their lack of
etiquette and consideration during church suppers? Who ever said
that church membership is a certificate of moral impeccability? We
are all sinners saved by grace; who among us is without fault? In Acts 8:13
Simon Magus is said to have "believed," but he was not above
criticism. Who is? Mightn't the compromises one makes with a harsh and unbending
reality leave a few scars? Some of the Nazarene denomination believe they have
achieved perfect sanctification in this life, but even they do not
believe there is any church composed only of morally perfect beings.
There is always room for improvement. To make expulsion from the
church the maximal cap to ethical striving,— that you must not
under any circumstances try to do better than the bare minimum
sufficient to prevent you from being thrown out, is a fit ethic for
slackers; no wonder these churches celebrate alcohol use.
Many today cannot fathom how radical politics could be in
antiquity. John Dominic Crossan built up a publishing enterprise on
the premise that ancient Rome was a static, unchanging agricultural society,
just like medieval China. But it was not. When Cicero was consul, Catiline and his associates conspired to effect a Bolshevik
revolution, a Sabbatical and a Jubilee rolled into one, promising
that all debts would be forgiven, the slate wiped clean. The
Bolshevik revolution might have been effected in 63 B.C., not 1917.
But the Roman 'Deep State' would not allow it; they tattled. To the
end of his life, Cicero believed there was one unindicted
co-conspirator who escaped the net: Julius Caesar. Caesar escaped
prosecution at that time, though he was later murdered. Caesar was a
bit pink, not a deep-dyed commie like Catiline. Even that paler shade was too much to
allow him to lead a normal life-span. And so, no, the apostles could
not do what White claims they could have done, commanding slaves to be
freed; Rome would have crushed them, as White himself realizes, even while
flinging down the impossible demand. There was a limit to how much reform
the system would tolerate. Paul was not free to free the slaves. He was free
to jawbone Philemon. Ancient observers of Christianity, like the
pagan Celsus, noticed that the demographics of the early church
skewed very low. There were lots on slaves sitting in the pews, not
many slave-owners. Perhaps they did not like being jawboned.
Where did this rubric come from, that you cannot criticize a church member
in good standing? From sacerdotalism, I suspect. Douglas Wilson, who
invented all of this, learned the good news about Christianity
from G. K. Chesterton, a Roman Catholic. The historic progression
ran like so: already in New Testament times, there was a system of
church discipline; those leading flagrantly immoral lives were
ushered out the door of the church. Gradually, a penitential system grew up,
which became almost an alternative legal system. The people who wrote it thought they
were contributing something positive; if the people in Moses' day had
benefited from the promulgation of a law code, doesn't the church
deserve the same? To be sure canon law was an odd system of law;
what law code assigns prayers as penalties? People felt reassured to have a set path laid out showing
the way back when they had strayed. In time a controversy grew up in
the church. Under persecution some people had apostatized, some had
handed over the scriptures. Certainly none of us can be sure how we
will react under torture, and some people just couldn't take it. But
then, when the heat was off, they pleaded for restitution. Some
people, like Tertullian and Novatian, often thought to be
purists or rigorists, while realizing our God is a long-suffering
and merciful God, did not really think the penitential system was of
much use under these circumstances. The bishop of Rome, Callistus,
however, promised all and sundry that yes, your neighborhood priest really can
forgive your sin! Even apostasy! Adultery, no problem! Every sin, mortal or venial, though the mortal may
take a bit longer. This grandiose promise is sometimes described as
if it were milder or more compassionate than what the rigorists were
saying, but a more accurate description might be Promethean. A man,
who is a mere man, a priest, though priests are not known
under the New Covenant, took it upon himself to forgive sin, and
once he did so, then the door to heaven was flung wide open. He had that power, you see;
he was the door-keeper. What the priest has pronounced clean, how
dare you to find fault? If the forgiven penitent walks right out from the confessional
and gets run over by a bus, up to heaven he flies! Or maybe
purgatory; oh well. Church membership is a good thing, and a
Biblical thing; but how it rose from a minor concern to the main
ethical regulative principle is by taking a side trip through Roman
Catholic sacerdotalism. The church membership rolls are maintained by human
beings, and thus they cannot be the same as the inhabitant census of
Because no system of social discipline can possibly have such power.
The priest does not admit you onto the glory train.
Even the devil does not know a man's own inward thoughts; how can
the priest? Church discipline is not an alternative law, nor any
guarantee of future glory. This the heart of Douglas Wilson's defense
of slavery: if slave-owners can be church members, and they can
according to the New Testament, then there can be nothing wrong with
slavery, neither when it was impossible to remove it, nor even once it
became possible. To his mind, it is actually wicked to criticize
people for a circumstance which does not automatically result in
ejection from the church. This minimalist rubric is laid out in the recent
manifesto against 'Social Justice:'
"WE AFFIRM that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in
the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness.
Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.
"WE DENY that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed
on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or
call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments."
(Manifesto Against 'Social Justice').
Notice that this document is saying that a Christian
cannot be reprimanded for possessing explosives in his home, because
the Bible does not explicitly say that you cannot keep explosives in
your home. Nor for smoking crack. Should we go in search of general principles, we might
find them; but that's not good enough. Or maybe it is good enough,
in some cases. This regulative principle was never intended to be followed
consistently. The innocent reader of the manifesto might suspect he is
encountering a pietistic sect which promotes quietism. But everybody
knows modern evangelicalism is anything but, there could hardly be a
more highly politicized form of the faith. But is it their politics,
not other people's politics. Other people's politics are a
distraction, not so much from the gospel, as from pursing their own
As we have seen, Moses' law mandates a six-year time limit to
Israelite servitude. The defenders of slavery leave unexplained why
there should be any mandatory cut-off to an arrangement so innocent
and benign. Moses is not done; there's more in the pipe-line. Bible provisions regulating working hours and
conditions relevant in this connection include a
mandatory weekly day off:
"‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."
Ameliorating the working and living conditions of slaves does not
in any way legitimate foreign institutions. People are mesmerized by a
word, 'slavery,' even if hedged about by so many restrictions that
it no longer means an involuntary condition of any great length. May
I suggest using the word 'servitude'? Or even better, 'employment.' Neither the Bible nor any
sensible moralist objects to employment; terms and conditions
matter. The ideal of the Mosaic law is the independent, self-sufficient
family farmer: "And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under
his vine and his fig tree, from Dan as far as Beersheba, all the
days of Solomon." (1 Kings 4:25). But employment, if not oppressive,
is not forbidden.
Throughout the Christian centuries, Christian reformers have
addressed the 'incidentals' of slavery, such as the brutal and
dehumanizing practice the Romans had of setting slaves called
'gladiators' at each other's throats. He ended it, unfortunately
along with his own life:
"HONORIUS, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a
stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome.
The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance.
A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic
life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired
to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited,
he went himself into the stadium, and, stepping down into the arena,
endeavored to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against
one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant. and
inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody
deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death.
"When the admirable emperor was informed of this he
numbered Telemachus in the array of victorious martyrs, and put an
end to that impious spectacle." (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History,
Book Five, Chapter 26, p. 291).
One way of strangling the beast and ultimately eliminating
slavery is to hone in on admitted abuses and curb them by
legislation. This is the process by which Christian Europe moderated
the slavery which they had inherited from the ancient Roman world.
The Northern abolitionists focused on appallingly inhuman practices
of antebellum Southern slavery, like the separation of families.
Readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe will recall the woman leaping from
ice floe to ice floe, frantic lest her child be taken from her. Who
can not relate and sympathize? When the Christian emperor
Constantine took control, this same circumstance became a primary
concern: slave marriages needed to be respected. Some of the Southern
clergymen rather wistfully hoped that such incidental abuses
connected with the slave system, such as the break-up of families
and the horrific sexual harassment, even legal rape, of slave women
by white masters, could be curbed by legislation. It would have been
good if these situations had been addressed, though the underlying
injustice and oppression of slavery would remain. Constant pressure
to reform slavery, in the end, leaves people in living circumstances
not discernably different from ordinary employment, which is not
oppressive and can not practically be eliminated.
According to Robert Lewis Dabney, the nineteenth century Southern mentor of today's slavery defenders,
the mere fact that Abraham's servants were circumcised and entered
into the covenantal people is proof that slavery is righteous: "But
the only sure and perfect rule of right is the Bible. This, we have
seen, condemns domestic slavery neither expressly nor by
implication. It shows us the institution in the family of the
"Father of the faithful," the "friend of God," and there recognized
by God himself in the solemn sacrament of the Old Testament
circumcision. . ." (Dabney, Robert Lewis. Dabney's Defense of
Virginia and the South, Annotated. (Kindle Locations 2490-2492).
Booker House Publishing, Incorporated.) Perhaps it is in fact proof
of something a little bit different: that these slaves were on their
way up and out. Or does Dabney think it likely the sons of the covenant
were characterized by "ignorance, thriftlessness, indolence, and
vice," (Kindle location 2453) the character flaws he claimed to find
in Africans that doomed them to righteous, and irremediable, bondage? It might interest some readers to hear about Abraham's ideas
respecting the trinity. Whether a progressive on issues of upward
mobility and emancipation for servants or not, he was up to speed on
The same Bible which inspired the abolitionists was also cited by
the Southern slave-owners, who developed a particularly vicious form
of the institution, in support of their crimes. Does this prove that
the Bible is hopelessly ambiguous, or just that it is subject to
misuse by ill-intentioned men? Realize that other students of Moses
have drawn very different conclusions about how we are to live. The
church at Jerusalem included many zealous for the law: "And when
they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou
seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe;
and they are all zealous of the law:. . ." (Acts 21:20). They drew
the conclusion, in their zeal, that they should hold all things in
"And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart
and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things
which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common."
This is the principle of the Jubilee taken to its furthest
extreme. Where is the atheists' Bible, which fully supports, they say, the
rights of slave-owners, in this Jerusalem church? Is it possible
that slaves and slave-owners "had all things common," and yet
slavery persisted? A form of manumission known to the Talmud is that the
slave-owner deeds all his property to the slave: "Rabina said to R.
Ashi, Come and hear: If one gave all his property to his slave, in
writing, [the latter] goes forth [as] a free man." (Babylonian
Talmud, Tractate Baba Bathra, Folio 150a). The logic of this is
apparent: if the slave beneficiary now owns all his master's goods,
he also owns himself and is free. To own these goods in common with
others declines from this ideal, but the idea of a slave owned in
common by a group including himself is problematical to say the
least! The Talmud goes on to stipulate, if deeded to two, the two slaves can
emancipate one another: "Rabina thereupon said to R. Ashi: How does
this differ from the case regarding which it has been taught: 'If a
man makes over all his property in writing to two of his slaves,
they acquire possession and emancipate one another?'" (Babylonian
Talmud, Tractate Gittin, Folio 87a). So far so good, we're up to
two: how about a small group?
The atheists tell us that the Bible was concocted to support the claims of property
owners. These atheist critics need to read the law of Moses more carefully; it is not what they think. Moses
proclaims the economics of the Jubilee, not an absolute defense of the rights
of proprietors. They are projecting an agenda into the Bible suggested to them by its Marxist
critics, not by anything in the text.
When the apostles travelled through the Gentile world preaching
the good news of the kingdom, they did not intend to spark a
political revolution devoted to the goal of establishing Moses' law
as a universal polity. Their reticence on this point resulted not
only from a prudential concern to avoid being crushed like an
insect, but also from a sincere conviction that Moses' law, which
had never been intended as a universal regime, had been nailed to
the cross. However, it cannot plausibly be maintained that their
politics had been upended, as if God, who had been for the slave in
the Old Testament, had switched sides and was now for the
slave-owner. When Christians go from being a tiny, persecuted
minority in a pagan world to the nominal majority, the fact that
their consciences have been formed by diligent study of Moses cannot
help but influence the institutions they choose for themselves, the
choice being freely their own.
Slavery in pagan Rome held out a 'career path:' the diligent slave could
hope for manumission, to be set free. He would still be attached to his former owner
as patron, but otherwise free to live his life as he wished, and his money was his
own. Southern slavery held out no similar path to upward mobility because of the racism of
the Southern slave-owners, who scarcely regarded their African
slaves as human beings. At times the law in the Southern states either
discouraged manumission or very nearly disallowed it altogether:
"'And, that where any Slave shall be set free by his
master or owner, otherwise than is herein before directed, it shall
and may be lawful for the church-wardens of the parish. . .are
hereby authorized and required to take up and sell the said Negro,
Mulatto, or Indian, as slaves, at the next court held for the said
county, by public outcry, &tc.'" (Colonial law of Virginia, quoted
p. 46, Granville Sharp, A Representation of the Injustice and
Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery, Part III).
The American slave was in a hopeless
condition; he could not expect anything better either for himself or
for his children. The nineteenth century did not invent racism,
though it perfected it under the guise of science. This brutal and inhuman institution, even
worse than ancient pagan slavery, was justly overthrown, by a
Christian people whose morals were informed by both testaments of
The Christian abolitionists were wonderfully successful by all
normal historical standards. The ideal they set out seemed at first
unreachable, yet there are hardly any slaves left now in the world,
owing strictly to their efforts. By the mid-nineteenth century, the abolitionists
had already won, by Biblical persuasion, in all but one dark and unchristian corner of this nation:
"The labors of those who
conscientiously engaged in the cause of abolition as religious duty,
gave a tone to public opinion in the northern and middle states,
which resulted in the enactment of laws for the total extinction of
slavery in those states." (Evan Lewis, 'An Address
to Christians of All Denominations, On the Inconsistency of
Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membership').
Even the blazing, murderous fury of the 'red states' could not
save and preserve this evil institution, once Americans understood
it as such. Yet to listen to atheists, you would
think the Christian abolitionists never even existed; or, if they did exist, they never
said anything about the Bible, or if they did say anything about the
Bible, no one ever listened or took it to heart, because it
must have been just silly inasmuch as everyone knows the Bible gives
unquestioning and unconditional support to slavery. It must have been
atheists,— did they parachute down from Mars?— who abolished slavery.
While considerations of natural law were not lost on this
constituency, and the Declaration's premise that all men are created
equal also cast its spell, they ultimately cared most about what Jesus wanted from them. These
people deserve to get back their voice; they opposed slavery because
they thought it unchristian, and they had good reason for so
thinking. Their argument is much more than special pleading: it is those who
wish to defend slavery who have a Bible problem, not the abolitionists.
The abolitionists won the debate, in the sense that they
persuaded those who were persuadable that no
Christian should practice slavery. But not all were open to
persuasion. To have an open mind on this or other questions, it
helps to have no vested monetary interest. The majority of the country accepted the conclusion that
slavery was unchristian and set about abolishing it. A minority
insisted otherwise and the issue ended in Civil War. To listen to
atheists today, you would think the pro-slavery side had such
wonderful and convincing arguments, that no rational person
could argue the point, whether the Bible did or did not support
slavery. In reality their defense was farcical, hinging upon wild
leaps like the idea that 'black skin' is the 'mark of Cain.' Where
in the text is it suggested that 'black skin' is the 'mark of Cain'?
And given that the mark was placed on Cain to protect him, why would
this justify mistreatment and abuse if it were?
And realizing that eight persons, belonging to one family, survived
the flood of Noah's day, how is it genetically possible for two of
these persons to be descendants of Cain, yet for none of the others to
be? This is an argument that makes no sense, yet because it is after
a fashion a 'Bible' argument, the atheists solemnly assure us that
the Bible supports slavery.
The credit for ending slavery should go to those who advocated
this proposition. Of this group, some were Quakers or
Unitarians, but most were orthodox evangelical Christians, slaves of Christ, not of man. Not many were
atheists! It is unjust to see slavery used as an argument against
the Bible and Biblical religion, when in historical fact it was fidelity to the
Bible that overturned it.
One of the most foolish attempts at exculpation you will find,
applied for example to a virulent antebellum Southern racist like
Robert Lewis Dabney, is the idea that you can't hold these people to
the standard of what people understand today, because they lived in
a different era. As if there aren't people in the present day who
believe every smoking, toxic word Dabney ever wrote, and as if no
one back then viewed his racial animosity with horror. Of the
thousands of brave young men who died at Antietam, striving to
cleanse the world from the contamination of slavery, how many shared
a birthday with a fallen Southern soldier who died attempting to
ensure that slavery would endure forever? There are only 365 days in
a year, and soldiers tend to cluster in a narrow age range. They
died the same day, and many were born the same day; they were exact
contemporaries. In fact, pointing out that they lived back then
tells you nothing. Many Northerners of the day understood, far more
clearly than do most people today, exactly what was wrong,
Biblically, with slavery. Others didn't know or didn't care. The
calendar explains nothing and excuses nothing.
For the Other Side
Though one might like to think that the old pro-slavery
apologetic is as dead as the Dodo, in fact there are still to this day neo-Confederates,— these are
the progressives, who want a renewed and reformed confederacy,— and for that matter paleo-Confederates: "And nothing is clearer than that the New Testament opposes
anything like the strident abolitionism of our country prior to the
War between the States." (Douglas Wilson, 'Black and Tan,' Southern
Slavery and Our Culture Wars, Kindle location 559). Really, the Bible
opposes abolitionism? Who holds the Bible high ground: the abolitionists, or their
This contemporary Reformed author hopes to revive the pro-slavery
apologetic of Robert Lewis Dabney, a racist Confederate, however
without going into too much detail about what Dabney actually says. He
assures us that Dabney's arguments are sound and compelling. But if
we are not willing to take Wilson's word for it, instead
investigating the arguments themselves to ensure their soundness,
well then there is trouble. Dabney is a virulent racist who is
convinced that Southern slavery was righteous because black folk are
of child-like minds and depraved morals. Superintendence is
therefore beneficial for them, as it would be for an insane or
mentally deficient person. This author helpfully explains that he
and his fellow Virginians purchased slaves in the first place
because they felt sorry for them, trapped in the foul-smelling holds
of the Yankee slave-traders; they were not enticed by the profit
potential of running a plantation, though this could be startling.
Once the Africans were living among them, what remedy was there for
their presence but slavery?:
"The true question was, these Africans being here, and
there being no humane or practicable way to remove them, what shall
be done with them? If the social condition of Virginia exhibited
points of inferiority in its system of labour, to that of its
rivals, the true cause of the evil was to be sought in the presence
of the Africans among us, not in his enslavement. . .But, we
emphatically repeat, the source of the evils apparent in an
industrial system was the presence among us of four millions of
heterogeneous pagan, uncivilized, indolent, and immoral people; and
for that gigantic evil, slavery was, in part at least, the lawful,
the potent, the beneficent remedy." (Dabney, Robert Lewis.
Dabney's Defense of Virginia and the South, Annotated. (Kindle
Locations 3538-3543). Booker House Publishing, Incorporated.)
What does the much-touted Bible case for slavery entail? In a
nutshell: Noah's curse of Canaan, which the slavers prefer to back-date
to Ham. Hmmm. . .Noah's curse does not seem to have 'worked' in the case of
Ham, because Ham in the form of Egypt actually held Israel in
bondage for four hundred years, and was never itself afterward enslaved by
Israel! Though the details don't work out, and it is a
man, albeit a righteous man, who delivers this curse, not God, in a
general sense the actual fulfillment of this curse establishes that bondage might be a form which
the wrath of God against an individual or group might take. This is
certainly true; as Israel itself is threatened in the curses of
"Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, and your eyes shall look and fail with longing for them all day long; and there shall be no strength in your hand.
A nation whom you have not known shall eat the fruit of your land and the produce of your labor, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually."
It is certainly true that God's judgment against a nation might take this form,
but this does not mean that inflicting such injuries, on human
initiative, is morally benign, any more than murder becomes okay because
God might bring the destroyer against a nation. Assyria was the razor
hired beyond the river: "In the same day the Lord will shave with a
hired razor, with those from beyond the River, with the king of
Assyria. . ." (Isaiah 7:20), but Assyria was also punished for the very
same acts which God thus ordained. The possibility of God's wrath taking
the form of slavery, mass death or arson does not establish the moral
goodness of these actions. God may ordain slavery for Israel, but woe to the
nation which enslaves Israel!
The best way to show the fallacy in this argument is to take the
stronger case, that of murder. This author assumes there is a
pre-existing moral law, higher than God, to which God is subject.
The only things God can do rightly are things which are innocent in
themselves. What does it mean that acts are innocent in themselves?
That we could, on our own initiative, for our own advantage, do the
very same things as God does, and be blameless. Now, certainly God's
judgments are righteous altogether; He is the Judge of the whole
world, the offended party against whom mankind sin, and from His
judicial verdict of execution no appeal is allowed. Does it
therefore follow that we can walk out the door tomorrow morning and
slay with the sword the first human being we come across? This is,
after all, what Dabney wishes to prove: that, because Israel
enslaved some of the surviving Canaanites (whom they were ordered to
extirpate not enslave), then slavery is a good thing, innocent in itself. But
they were ordered to extirpate those people! Can anyone argue that
indiscriminate slaughter is a good thing to do on human initiative,
being innocent in itself?
No law-giver has yet discovered that killing at will is
innocent in itself, not God's own Moses, nor even such of the
heathen as have legislated, including Solon and Hammurabi and Lycurgus. One cannot imagine any state of human
society which would be inhabitable if it were legal to go out and
kill whomever you came across, for what ever reason you felt like
it. It is of course lawful for God to do just that:
"Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal;
nor is there any who can deliver from My hand." (Deuteronomy
God can do these things, because He is God! We are not God! If God
curses those who defy His will and brings upon them chastisements
including servitude, even upon Israel, that does not serve to show that
slavery is a good in itself. The reasoning here is that whatever God
does, in whatever form He pours out His wrath, His sentence must always be
of cupcakes and soft pillows, something innocent in itself, because God could not rightly bring harm
upon His enemies. One might as well say, because God can rightly bring
epidemic disease upon a guilty nation by His righteous sentence,
therefore we might as well unleash biological warfare, why not even today.
Do we have the standing or moral authority to make ourselves God over our neighbors,
who are like creatures as ourselves, and destroy the world we did not make? If God denounces captivity against His enemies then He is right, we are wrong. Dabney's thesis is the same as the atheists' familiar plaint: the
same rules apply to Him as to us. No, they do not. He is the source of all moral good, not the
subject of judgment by comparison.
How does Dabney make the 'six years' of Exodus 21go 'poof'? By
this brilliant expedient: if slavery were wrong 'in itself,' then it
could not have been allowed for six minutes, much less six years.
Therefore, slavery cannot be wrong 'in itself.' But if it is
innocent 'in itself,' then sixty years can be no more blameworthy
than six years! If that strikes you as a brilliant argument, then
you are the raw material that can be forged into a neo-Confederate;
Another argument is the argument of devolution. This
argument was a great favorite of Mohammed ibn Abdallah, the
unlettered Arabian prophet, though he did not really originate it;
an existing group of seekers in Arabia had already formulated this
clever bit of sophistry. They could not comprehend the endless
arguments of the local Jews and the Christians; the Jews said you must
obey the law of Moses, the Christians said you didn't have to; the
Christians said you must believe Jesus is the Son of God if you
would be saved, the Jews said He was a false prophet. They would
listen to these two sides go at each other, and their heads would
spin! But wait: all freely concede that Abraham is in heaven; indeed
the righteous are in Abraham's bosom. But Abraham lived before the
law was given on Mount Sinai, and long before the incarnation!
Therefore, they say, we today who adopt the faith of Abraham will surely also
be saved. Thus they hope to dispense with doctrines like the Trinity
which they do not understand (these people assumed that Abraham did not
believe the doctrine of the Trinity, but consider the visitation at
Mamre). The question before us therefore
becomes, does the public at large have a standing invitation to hop
onto this time travel machine, or not? Is it permissible to shuck off subsequent
revelation, if we're on the 'subsequent' side of it?
The abolitionists said, slavery is not Christian. The slave-owners
replied, well maybe it's not Christian. . .but it sure is patriarchal! (One
of the Bible's 'pro-slavery' texts, believe it or not, is 'Honor thy
father and mother'. . .why? Well, because slaves are kind of like
children, see. . .) Abraham was a slave-owner:
"Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan."
He was also the friend of God. Therefore, runs the argument, slave-owning is morally benign.
And we haven't even got started on polygamy! Some of the Rabbis
claim that Abraham obeyed the Mosaic law, as if by natural
inspiration; but Paul points out he lived before the law was
given, "And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and
thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed
before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect." (Galatians 3:17).
Paul, seeking to establish that salvation is by faith, goes back to the
patriarchs, who cannot have been saved by law-keeping: they didn't have the law!
Four hundred thirty years is mentioned in Exodus 12:40 as the
time of Israel's sojourning in Egypt. If, however, the law came
four hundred and thirty years after the patriarchs, the same
cannot be said about us! The time arrow runs only one way; we
know God's mind on slavery because He has revealed it to us,
whether Abraham understood His will on this subject or not. We
know He wants us to break every yoke, because He has said so. This approach
does not so much take the throne out from under King Jesus, but takes
away His podium; our King cannot teach, He cannot legislate for His
people, because if He teaches Abraham's progeny anything Abraham did not
already know, we convict Him as a liar and innovator!
In fairness to Abraham, there were obvious differences between his
practice of slavery and that of the Southern slave-owners. Were his
slaves bound under a schedule of emancipation like that enshrined in the
Mosaic law? Who can say that they weren't? The slavers assume that these
circumcised slaves were kept under perpetual, life-long bondage, when no
such circumstance is ever stated in the text. If Abraham did, as the Rabbis
allege, keep the law by natural instinct, then his slaves were
emancipated at the Sabbatical year and at the Jubilee. One glaring difference
between Abraham and the Southern slave-owners is
that he was not reluctant to put arms in their hands, a measure
the Confederacy adopted only in final desperation as the walls were
falling in. Dabney explains,
Moreover, before the birth of the child of promise, Abraham's appointed heir was
"one born in my house," i.e., a slave:
“But Abram said, 'Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?' Then Abram said,
'Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!'”
No doubt lots and lots of slaves in the American Southland inherited the plantation.
Whether Abraham did, or did not, by natural intuition of a law not yet given, free his
slaves every Sabbatical year, cannot now be known.
The patriarchs are 'Exhibit A' in the case that salvation is by
faith, not by works, and this is why Paul went back to them in the
letter to Romans. Jacob was a schemer; is it good to be a schemer? Sometimes
it seems as though Robert Lewis Dabney, the great Southern defender
of slavery, realizes that it is not good to be a schemer:
"Esau appears to have been an open, hard-mouthed,
profane person. Jacob, by nature, a mean, sneaking hypocrite and
supplanter. Probably God judged their personal merits as I do, that
personally Jacob was a more detestable sinner than Esau. . .But his
omniscience saw a separate independent reason why it was wisest to
make the worse man the object of his infinite mercy, while leaving
the other to his own profane choice." (The Five Points of Calvinism,
by Robert Lewis Dabney, Kindle location 363).
Follow the logic: Jacob, a "sneaking hypocrite," was a
"detestable sinner;" we do not conclude from his case that it is
okay to treat people in any under-handed manner, though we know that Jacob is saved
just as surely as we know this of Abraham; however, we do
conclude from Abraham's case that it is okay to keep slaves. The double
standard in this case is glaring; when Abraham, or any of the other
patriarchs, did something the pro-slavers do not like, why then he's a
"Polygamy is recorded of Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Elkanah,
David, Solomon; but so are other sins of several of these; and, as
every intelligent reader knows, the truthful narrative of holy writ
as often discloses the sins of good men for our warning, as their
virtues for our imitation." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic
Theology, Chapter 32, Kindle location 14310).
No kidding! To make the argument that, anything the patriarchs did must be good
and holy, because they are saved (as they certainly are, they followed God
with a whole heart, albeit with imperfect knowledge), takes away
from God any ability to offer subsequent instruction to mankind or to expect to have it heeded.
By the testimony of His own word, God grades on a curve: "And the
times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men
every where to repent:. . ." (Acts 17:30). Ignorance is, before a
holy God, a legitimate excuse; an excuse we may not offer, who live
after the law came down at Sinai, and after the gospel proclamation. To say,
God may not reveal it, if Abraham did not already know it, binds the
divine hands; with what cords? Abraham lived in a rough world, and did the
best he could; some people think some of the things he did to get by, like
slavery, polygamy, concubinage, and deception, are less than optimal. Or did
he? Was he running an academy for proselytes, or a plantation for