Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?

[This post qualifies as a Beagle's Bark. Follow the link to learn what that means!]

So far, we have introduced the topic of biblical slavery by reviewing the typical justifications for it. Now let’s get underway with a response to the first justification, namely that biblical slavery wasn’t all that bad.

The respected AIIA Institute assures us,

…slavery in Bible times significantly differed from slavery in modern times. It was not based on race. It was often less imperialistic. Some believe that in many cases it was actually more of an indentured servant type arrangement.”

That is true to an extent. Exodus 21:2-6 describes an arrangement by which a Hebrew could sell himself to one of his countrymen for six years, after which time he was to be set free.

However, this is not the form of slavery to which skeptics object. There are other forms of slavery in the Bible.

Infamously, the next four verses permit a man to sell his daughter as a “servant.” Let us pretend that wording about “pleasing her master” who has “selected her for himself” does not carry any overtones of sexual slavery and move on. What else is there?

Leviticus 25:44-46 states that the Israelites may buy foreign slaves. Unlike Hebrew slaves, foreign slaves were in bondage for life. Do you think it is moral to buy someone and all his descendants and treat them as property? That’s exactly what God gave his people permission to do.

Aside from the fact that these slaves had the Sabbath off and their masters were only allowed to beat and whip them severely, but not kill them, this is very close to the type of slavery we practiced in the American South. No wonder Southern slave-holders used the Bible to justify the practice! Already, we can see that it’s dishonest to claim that slavery in the Bible “significantly differed from slavery in modern times.”

But it gets worse.

Deuteronomy 20:10-15:

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

<Warning: Snarkage ahead.>

“Tum dee dum… Here I am, an Israelite. I’ve heard of a city, some distance away and minding its own business. What should I do about it? Hmm…. Let me consult my Holy Scrolls.

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I go and share the Good News about God’s love?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I invite a few of them to my house so they can learn from the example of a loving, Hebrew family?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

Should I start a Vacation Bible School and tell their kids that God will always take care of them?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I run wholesome TV ads in their city that close with ‘My name is Jacob, and I’m a Hebrew’?

“What to do… What to do…

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Ah! Here it is! God commands me (verse 15) to enslave their whole city. If the men put up a fight, I’m to kill all of them and take their wives and virgins as ‘plunder’ to be ‘used.’ I like the sound of that! And I wonder how long it will take the little girls to grow up! Yeah, baby! Where’s my sword?”

/snarkage

It will be my lifelong shame that I did not see the horror of this for 40 years. But it gets even worse, as we follow into the next chapter for further instruction on how to treat these cities (Deuteronomy 21:10-14):

10 When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

It’s amazing how Christian apologists will spin this passage as providing care for the poor, captive women. Why — they can become full members of Israeli society as wives! Maybe they’ll learn about God’s love after all!

It’s equally astonishing how people like me can read this passage for decades and not really stop to picture the scenario.

First, to address the apologists: If care of women had been uppermost in God’s mind, don’t you think there would be some mention of the women who were not beautiful enough to attract the eye of one of the soldiers (v.11)?  But there isn’t. “Not beautiful? Sorry, you’re still just plunder. I hope you enjoy it.” And wouldn’t it have been more humane if they had not been plundered in the first place?

Now to address people like my former self who don’t see this scenario for what it is: Put yourself in the shoes of even one of the beautiful women. Your home city has just been thoroughly plundered. Your father, husband and teenage sons have all just been slaughtered mercilessly in an unprovoked war. Now one of the very soldiers who destroyed everything and everyone you love is leering at you.

Lucky for you, his Holy Scrolls tell him to take it slow. Having taken away your husband, his next romantic step is to take away your beauty: your head must be shaved and your nails cut. With that humiliation out of the way, you get a whole month to get over all your darn womanly emotions about him and his buddies killing your father and husband. Pretty nice of him, right? OK, time’s up. Your family is gone, your beauty is gone and your dignity is gone, Now he will take all you have left: your body.

For the rest of your life, you will have two choices. If you “please him” (v.14) sufficiently, he may keep you as a wife. If you don’t, he has permission from his God to toss you out on the street where you will have no choice but to survive as homeless, penniless women have always survived. After all, there’s no going back to your home city. It was plundered before you were. (“Let her go where she wishes” — what a joke!)

Even the Bible calls this treatment “dishonoring” (v. 14). I would call it dehumanizing. A tribunal at The Hague would call it a war-crime.

Bible-believing Christian, what would you say about these passages? Would you still say that biblical slavery was not all that bad?

Next time: Did God Command Slavery or Merely Tolerate It?

7 responses to “Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?

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