The Year of Jubilee  

  • “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 Cartoons).

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 850-855).)

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.

John Stewart Curry, John Brown

What Is Slavery?

For purposes of this web-page, slavery is defined as that which is made illegal by the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

The Thirteenth Amendment
"Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

"Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

(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?

Six Years

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.”
  • (Deuteronomy 15:1-18).

  • “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.”
  • (Exodus 21:1-4).

  • “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.’”
  • (Jeremiah 34:8-22).

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.'” (Nehemiah 5:4-9).

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 seen.

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 translatable 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:

"For, as we shall evince, that Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text. It will in the end become apparent to the world, not only that the conviction of the wickedness of slaveholding was drawn wholly from sources foreign to the Bible, but that it is a legitimate corollary from that fantastic, atheistic, and radical theory of human rights, which made the Reign of Terror in France, which has threatened that country, and which now threatens the United States, with the horrors of Red-Republicanism. Because we believe that God intends to vindicate His Divine Word, and to make all nations honor it; because we confidently rely in the force of truth to explode all dangerous error; therefore we confidently expect that the world will yet do justice to Southern slaveholders. The anti-scriptural, infidel, and radical grounds upon which our assailants have placed themselves, make our cause practically the cause of truth and order."

(Dabney, Robert Lewis. Dabney's Defense of Virginia and the South, Annotated. (Kindle Locations 255-263). Booker House Publishing, Incorporated.)

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, P(2a)-Question 105-A(4).)

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. It matters:

"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 location 44763).

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 generally did so gradually, over the course of decades. A schedule was set forth prescribing when persons born after a certain date were to emancipated. Perhaps, 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 Biblical principle.

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?

An Awl

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 likewise.”
  • (Deuteronomy 15:16-17).

  • “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.”
  • (Exodus 21:5-6).

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?:

John Wesley
 Thoughts Upon Slavery 

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 be proclaimed:

"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." (Leviticus 25:9-10).

Any Hebrews that were at that time in a condition of bondage were freed:

  • “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.”
  • (Leviticus 25:35-43).

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." (Leviticus 25:47-55).

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 [03427] 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 from.'

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.

Category Term-Limit
Jew owned by Jew 6 years
Jew owned by Gentile 49 years
Gentile owned by Jew 49 years

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 58:6-8)

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 the Sabbatical:

"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 glorified.”
  • (Isaiah 61:1-3).

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." (Luke 4:17-21).

Readers have noticed the disparity between this gospel promise and the practice of slave-holding: "Lay also put words in the mouth of a hypocritical Quaker slave owner: 'Negro, fetch my best Gelding quickly, for me to ride to Meeting, to preach the Gospel of glad Tydings to all men, and Liberty to the Captives, and opening the Prison-Doors to them that are bound; but I'll keep thee in Bondage nevertheless, help thy self if thee can.'" (The Fearless Benjamin Lay, Marcus Rediker, p. 77). Shouldn't we practice what we preach? Why are Christians locking the prison-doors on their own captives rather than releasing them, knowing the latter is the Lord's will? Did the Lord mean this announcement as the proclamation of a literal or earthly Jubilee, or the greater Jubilee freeing mankind from its bondage to sin and the devil, or both? 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).

John Newton
Thoughts Upon the
 African Slave Trade 

Fugitive Slaves

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.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

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 humanitarian provision.

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. . .”
  • (Jeremiah 22:13).

Gustave Boulanger, Slave Market

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.”
  • (Exodus 21:7-11).

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." (Deuteronomy 21:11-14).

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 fate.

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, 2018.)

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 favor 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:

Theodore D. Weld
 The Bible Against Slavery 

Getting Away With Murder

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.”
  • (Exodus 21:20-21).

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." (Exodus 21:26).

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, p. 83).

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,' Book 1).

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 at that time; 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 time this savagery was softenend, indeed eventually under the influence of Christianity. Claudius rectified this prodigal waste of life: "Some persons having exposed their sick slaves, in a languishing condition, on the island of Aesculapius, because of the tediousness of their cure; he declared all who were so exposed perfectly free, never more to return, if they should recover, to their former servitude; and that if any one chose to kill at once, rather than expose, a slave, he should be liable for murder." (Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius, Chapter XXV). This measure corrected Roman law more in the direction of the Jewish law. 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 His authority.

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." (Luke 12:45-47).

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 unjust judge:

"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 crime:

  • “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”
  • (Exodus 21:16).

  • "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 you.”
  • (Deuteronomy 24:7).

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 some 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.”
  • (Leviticus 25:44-46).

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.

Does this permission to enslave foreigners apply to all foreigners, or to a subset, namely "the nations that are around you?" As a general rule, foreigners in Israel are not subject to a different law, but the same: "One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you." (Exodus12:49, Leviticus 24:22). Or does 'stranger' mean specifically converts? Is this permission singling out certain specific nations, and if so, why? Is this part of God's providential dealing with these specific nations, or a general principle applicable in all cases? Realizing that God had weighed these particular nations in the balance and found them wanting, had indeed decreed their extirpation, meant that the allowance for their survival in slavery was a merciful reprieve.

"And all the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, which were not of the children of Israel, their children that were left after them in the land, whom the children of Israel also were not able utterly to destroy, upon those did Solomon levy a tribute of bondservice unto this day." (1 Kings 9:20-21).

If this is a special case, then what general consequences follow? Did God ever command the inhabitants of British North America to go over to Africa, displace the native residents and occupy the land? In other words, what has this circumstance to do with the present case? No such divine command was ever levied, nor indeed could any such be verified in the absence of a reliable succession of prophets. This avenue ends as a dead-end for the pro-slavery caucus; it is a special case.

Truth to tell, though, the pattern has been seen elsewhere; the Athenians kept as slaves, not Athenians, but Thracians, Thessalians, and other foreigners. Greeks enslaved barbarians, not other Greeks. 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. 173).

When people insist on saying this, they are overlooking a good deal:

"Slavery was a pervasive social structure in the first-century Roman Empire. In fact, it was so commonplace that its existence as an institution was never seriously questioned by anyone." (John MacArthur (nominally), Slave, Chapter Two).

Really, never questioned by anyone? Every year at the end of the year, the Romans indulged in a drunken riot, the Saturnalia, recalling the time in human history when humanity lived in peace, dined on the acorns that fell from the trees, and did not know slavery. Masters waited on their servants rather than vice versa. They certainly knew life was thinkable without it, and indeed it had once been that way. In this bygone era, they were governed by Saturn, simultaneously the planet of the same name, the progenitor of Jupiter, and a righteous king of Italy. Or so the story goes. They did not know war. They discovered war, and then it all went to pieces. War's grim step-child, slavery, came along in the mix. Not only Solon, but Nero Caesar, had a reputation as an emancipator, though how many or how few these men liberated is open to question; certainly their reforms, if any, did not threaten the continuation of the institution.

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 slaves:

"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 the Shekinah:

  • “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 Sheckinah.”
  • (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." (Leviticus 19:33-34).

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." (Luke 10:27-37).

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 Perushim."

(Schürer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 10110-10111). Capella Press.)

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:

Slow Learners

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.” (Matthew 19:7-9)

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 six-year span.

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, p. 280).

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 location 2152).

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.

Thievery and Restitution

There is one case in which Moses' law requires a man to be sold into slavery:

"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." (Exodus 22:1-3)

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.

Evan Lewis
An Address
 to Christians 

Central Narrative

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." (Exodus 2:23-25)

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." (Exodus 6:5-7).

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 owners.

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 Egyptians:

"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." (Exodus 3:21-22).

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 IX).

"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." (Philemon 1:10-19).

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." The anti-slavery apologists are ready, willing, and able to gloss "no longer as a slave" to mean 'still a slave, but also a brother:' "Now, the obvious sense of these words is, that Philemon should now receive Onesmius back, not as a slave only, but as both a slave and Christian brother." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Defense of Virginia and the South, Kindle location). In other words, "no longer a slave" means precisely 'still a slave, and a slave forever'!

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 caprices:

"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, Incorporated.).

Since the slave's desire for freedom is no more than a "criminal caprice" on his part, the Golden Rule would be a "rule of iniquity" if it offered any encouragement. And yet it does say what it does say. 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?

Turn the Other Cheek

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." (Matthew 5:39).

Let's try a thought experiment: Jesus said to go the extra mile, "And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two." (Matthew 5:41). I'm told that Roman soldiers garrisoned in Judaea used to compel passing citizens to carry burders, up to a mile, as custom allowed. Instead of sullen, foot-dragging compliance, Jesus recommends His followers to comply gladly and even to volunteer their services. Why? If we follow a certain stream of logic, we must conclude that Jesus was an enthusiast for Roman rule. Consider: if Jesus had disliked Roman sovereignty over Palestine, He could have instructed His followers to take up arms against them. He did not; therefore He was a Roman partisan. This is exactly the logic some people are here applying to slavery; Peter and Paul follow Jesus' teachings. But there is good reason to think that Jesus was not all that enthused about the Romans, including His identification of Satan as the ruler of this world. The Romans were the de facto rulers of the ancient world, so what is Jesus saying about the spiritual company they keep? He is recommeding neither armed resistance nor intellectual prostration before the boastful claims of the imperial power, but rather a third way.

The New Testament includes exhortations addressed to slaves, as well as to masters. Some people take this as in and of itself an endorsement of the rightness of slavery; why would the apostles have told slaves what to do, if slavery itself were not wholly righteous? But this can hardly be right, given that the same scriptures also include instructions given to victims of theft: "And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either." (Luke 6:29). But surely, if He did not think theft righteous, He would have said something different? Not necessarily. Slavery was an inescapable reality in that world. As already noted, Christianity does not join in the atheists' clarion call for the slaves to rise up in rebellion, right now, this instant, and not only because it would have been suicidal, but because that is not ideally how God wants His children to do business.

Instead, the slaves are admonished to persevere in their work.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." (Ephesians 6:5-9).

What is this but to go the extra mile? 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. Suppose you live in a Communist society. Is the system just, fair, and reasonable? No. Suppose you live on a communal farm. What should you do? Work as little as possible, because the system is not fair? Indeed, the system is not fair. What does God want you to do? Goldbrick and featherbed? No, actually. Your duty to work is not contingent on the system being fair. But God, in commanding you to work, is giving a vote of confidence that the system is fair! No, He's not. Sloughing off is a very common and natural human response to a bad system, but it's a response that has nil tendency to make the system better or fairer. It makes the system harsher and more coercive, and you more dishonest.

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. After all 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 lash 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. Not at that time, anyway; subsequently the matter was rectified: "A Constitution of Claudius enacted that if a man exposed his slaves, who were infirm, they should become free; and the Constitution also declared that if they were put to death, the act should be murder (Suetonius, Claudius, XXV). It was also enacted. . .that in sales or division of property, slaves, such as husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, should not be separated." (William Smith Dictionary 'Servus' entry). But the fact that the same wrongs seem to keep getting rectified suggests the fixes did not really 'take.'

I'm always puzzled 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 category error.

In some respects, it is true, Southern antebellum slavery was even worse than Roman bondage. The Roman slave had his foot on the bottom rung of a ladder providing upward mobility. In time, he might end up a freedman, a client receiving his former owner's patronage. By contrast, manumission was discouraged by many of the Southern states, which sought to make freeing slaves difficult if not impossible. At the time of the Civil War, only about 10% of the African-American population were free as a result of voluntary manumission. In some places, laws were in force to prevent their education. Roman slavery did not have a racial basis, as did American slavery; in the Roman empire, slaves looked just about like everybody else. Their exit from slavery, if achieved, did not lead into the dead end of a racial caste system.

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 Jewish law.

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 recognizable.

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 Publishing, Incorporated.)

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?

Form of a Servant

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 may be 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. In becmoing a man, He took on the form of a slave, because that is our form and our estate.

The early Christian authors were not afraid or ashamed even to call our Lord a slave, while also bowing before His Lordship: “Now assuredly 'possession' in the allegorical language of the Proverbs marks that slave Who for our sakes 'took upon Him the form of a slave.'” (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Book Two, Section 10, ECF_2_05, p. 234).

John Chrysostom also does not hesitate to call the Lord a slave: "For if He endured for thy sake to become a slave, why wonder that He upon the same ground layeth claim to the other particulars also? For He counts nothing unworthy of Himself which may be conducive to our salvation." (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, Homily 8, Verse 21, ECF_1_11, p. 683). "And yet Christ refused not to become a slave, nor yet to die for him; but thou dost not despise even food, that thou mayest save him." (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, Homily 26, Verse 15, ECF_1_11, p. 950). Plus:

“But mark even here His gentleness; in that He doth not at all speak of His benefits, nor say, 'Thou hast despised Him that hath done thee so much good:' neither doth He say, “Me, who brought thee from that which is not into being, who breathed into thee a soul, and set thee over all things on earth, who for thy sake made earth, and heaven, and sea, and air, and all things that are, who had been dishonored by thee, yea accounted of less honor than the devil, and did not even so withdraw Himself, but had innumerable thoughts for thee after it all; who chose to become a slave, who was beaten with rods and spit upon, who was slain, who died the most shameful death, who also on high makes intercession for thee, who freely gives thee His Spirit, who vouchsafes to thee a kingdom, who makes thee such promises, whose will it is to be unto thee Head, and Bridegroom, and Garment, and House, and Root, and Meat, and Drink, and Shepherd, and King, and who hath taken thee to be brother, and heir, and joint-heir with Himself; who hath brought thee out of darkness into the dominion of light.” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on St. Matthew, Homily 23, Section 9, ECF_1_10, p. 357).

They had no qualms or inhibitions in using the word:

"For indeed being God He became man for thee, and took the form of a slave, and underwent all extremities, and left undone none of those things which it concerned Him to do." (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 59, Section 1, ECF_1_10, p. 765).

Human nature is naturally slave-nature, our form is the form 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, explicitly and intentionally chose to identify with one side of that divide. We Christians worship a risen and ascended slave. So says the Bible.

First Timothy

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 examination.

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:

"But then, verse 2, oh my, οι δε πιστους εχοντες δεσποτας. What does that mean? Those who have believers as their masters, those whose masters are πιστοus, believers. Pisteo, pistis, the whole 'belief' range of words used in the original language. There you have the apostle saying, there were believing masters. Period. End of discussion. Got to deal with it. Got to deal with it. Do not be disrespectful to those believing masters because they are αδελφοι, brothers. Not pseudo; Paul elsewhere in Galatians, he uses pseudadelphoi, false brethren. He doesn't say false brethren here. He says they are brothers! So no matter what you do. . .We have direct Biblical revelation, it's right there. . .To those who have believers as their masters, do not be disrespectful to them because they are brothers, but rather serve them all the more, and that's douleuo, douleuo, the doulos, the servant. Serve them all the more, serve them even better, because they are pistoi, believers kai beloved. Not just believers but beloved. . . And so they are faithful and beloved. The ones who benefit from the work are faithful and beloved. So work even harder if you have a believing master. . .Now, you get to do that for anything, and whatever you don't like in the Bible, you need to get rid of. For those who recognize that that is not an option by any stretch of the imagination, then you've got to deal with what is there. . .Just doesn't seem that the apostle would have been quite on board with this radical perspective that is out there, that if you are wrong in this area. . .Why didn't, there needs to be an understanding here, why didn't the apostle command all people who became Christians who owned slaves to immediately free them? They would have been free to do that. They could have if they had chose to do so. But that wasn't a demand that he made. . .But admit the texts are there. Admit the texts are there." (James White, China's Totalitarianism, Union Theological Seminary Invites You to Apostasy, September 12, 2018, 1:08:47-1:16:47).

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.

There is a heresy called 'Federal Vision' that was crafted by the same people who produced the pamphlet 'Southern Slavery As It Was.' The thought process is very similiar. They believe in the 'objectivity of the covenant:' in practice, that means it is "wicked" to urge any church member in good standing to anything higher than what is required to retain church membership. It's how they conclude abolitionism was "wicked:" ". . .and this wickedness was at the heart of the abolitionist dogma." (Southern Slavery As It Was, p. 7). Let's come up with a comparable case: Jesus urged the rich young ruler to sell what he had and give to the poor. But this has never, at any time, been a condition of church membership. So a preacher, taking as his text Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler, falls into wickedness if he urges his hearers to follow Jesus' exhortation to the young man! It's almost impossible to follow the thought process here, but the reader should realize the reason for this is that the thought process does not make sense. So if you say to your Christian friend, 'why don't we, as a society, abolish slavery,' you are "wicked" to say so, because he is a member of the church in good standing and does not need to become an abolitionist to retain this standing. That is true, to be sure; but what you are saying is that there can be no works of supererogation, or that works of supererogation are wicked, which is absurd.

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 heaven.

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 politics.

 Goodsell Buckingham 
The Bible Vindicated

Terms and Conditions

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." (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

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 this concept:


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 common:

"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." (Acts 4:32).

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 Bible.

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.

Vasily Vereshchagin, Inspecting a Slave for Purchase

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 detractors?:

Happy Slaves
Racial Insensitivity
What Saith the Scripture?
Test Case
John Brown's Body
Whosoever Will
Hobgoblin of Little Minds
Neighborhood of Boston
French Revolution
Spoiling the Egyptians
Slippery Slope
League of the South
Birds of a Feather
Cultural Inferiority

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 Deuteronomy 28,

"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." (Deuteronomy 28:32-33).

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 32:39).

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; otherwise, not.

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." (Genesis 14:14).

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,

". . .Abraham was not afraid to arm his slaves, though actual slaves, because there were no saucy, meddling, Yankee Abolitionists in those days to preach insubordination and make ill blood between masters and servants." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Defense of Virginia and the South, Kindle location 1257).

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!'” (Genesis 15:2-3).

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 "sinner:"

"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 slaves?

Early church writers are capable of explaining the theoretical basis for human equality in clear and concise manner:

"For what is such a gross example of arrogance in the matters enumerated above – an opulent house, and an abundance of vines, and ripeness in vegetable-plots, and collecting waters in pools and channelling them in gardens – as for a human being to think himself the master of his own kind? I got me slaves and slave-girls, he says, and homebred slaves were born for me.

"Do you notice the enormity of the boast? This kind of language is raised up as a challenge to God. For we hear from prophecy that all things are the slaves of the power that transcends all. So, when someone turns the property of God into his own property and arrogates dominion to his own kind, so as to think himself the owner of men and women, what is he doing but overstepping his own nature through pride, regarding himself as something different from his subordinates?

"I got me slaves and slave-girls
. What do you mean? You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. . .Your origin is from the same ancestors, your life is of the same kind, sufferings of soul and body prevail alike over you who own him and over the one who is subject to your ownership – pains and pleasures, merriment and distress, sorrows and delights, rages and terrors, sickness and death. Is there any difference in these things between the slave and his owner? Do they not draw in the same air as they breathe? Do they not see the sun in the same way? Do they not alike sustain their being by consuming food? Is not the arrangement of their guts the same? Are not the two one dust after death? Is there not one judgment for them? a common Kingdom, and a common Gehenna?

"If you are equal in all these ways, therefore, in what respect have you something extra, tell me, that you who are human think yourself the master of a human being, and say, I got me slaves and slave-girls, like herds of goats or pigs." (Gregory of Nyssa, Homiles on Ecclesiastes, Homily Four, Ecclesiastes 2:7, quoted from

What is lacking for this to be abolitionism is any sort of political program to get rid of slavery. These authors seem to have had none, though they understood slavery was not God's will. Unlike nineteenth-century Americans, the early church writers were not generally optimists about the potential improvability of this world. The project of reform of the world didn't appeal to them so much as retreat and disengagement. Does that mean nobody prior to the modern world ever conceived the project of outlawing slavery? By no means:

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