Does the Bible Regulate the Care of Slaves?

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark.]

In the previous post of this series, we began to consider this exchange from the AIIA’s  article on slavery in the Bible:

BIBLE SKEPTIC: But why doesn’t the Bible just come right out and condemn slavery in so many words?

BIBLE ADVOCATE: Did you know that in the Old Testament, slaves were often prisoners of war? The law of Moses in fact served to regulate the care of slaves by their Hebrews masters, i.e. Exodus 21:20 and 26, Leviticus 25:40. Consequently, Israel never captured and sold humans as did the the Phoenicians and Philistines.

My point in the last post was that biblical slaves were POWs only in the broadest sense of the term. Unlike a modern POW they were enslaved for life, and they were often not combatants but combatants’ wives and children — the men having been exterminated on God’s command.

Now we want to ask, “Was this form of slavery reasonably humane? Was the care of slaves ‘regulated’ as the AIIA asserts?” Let’s consider their argument piece by piece. Along the way, you will discover why Christian apologists’ arguments disappointed me so deeply when I was attempting to resolve doubts about my own faith.

The AIIA’s first claim:

The law of Moses in fact served to regulate the care of slaves by their Hebrews masters, i.e. Exodus 21:20 and 26, Leviticus 25:40.

And they’re right: Exodus 21:20 does indeed regulate the care of slaves:

Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result…

However, they omit verse 21. The full sentence reads as follows:

20 Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

That is one of the more charitable translations. Others say, “…if the slave survives or continues or lives on for a day or two…”


Exodus 21:20-21

How severely would you have to be beaten in order for it to take you two days to get up? An MMA fighter can be beaten senseless with a gloved fist and still get up after a few seconds. If you were a biblical slave-owner, you had God’s permission to beat your slave with a rod so severely that it would take him two days to get up. (I acknowledge that this probably applied only to foreign slaves; see below.)

Would you call that “regulating care”? I would call it regulating torture.

And does it bother you that the Bible calls certain human beings the “property” of others? (I suppose it’s better then being “plunder“.)

The AIIA also cites Leviticus 25:40. It reads

They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee.

That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? You’re employed for a while and then there’s a big party and everyone gets to go home.

Not so fast. That passage applies to Hebrew slaves, as the context makes clear. It provides no protection at all for foreign slaves, let alone those captured in war. Yet, the AIIA cites this verse immediately after a sentence about so-called prisoners of war, and immediately before the next sentence, which is also about foreign slaves. In fact, nowhere in their entire article do they even mention the biblical distinction between enslavement of fellow Israelites (relatively benign) and foreigners (very, very bad). [Added on 21-Jan-13:] This sort of dishonesty and obfuscation is what I found throughout the evangelical literature on biblical slavery. 

This brings us to the final statement of the AIIA’s paragraph:

Consequently, Israel never captured and sold humans as did the the Phoenicians and Philistines.

Are you serious? Are you ____ing serious??? Israel most definitely DID capture humans, and the only reason they didn’t sell them is because they KEPT THEM FOR THEMSELVES AS PLUNDER! And they did this on God’s explicit command!!

By this reasoning, Elizabeth Smart‘s captors weren’t so bad because they didn’t sell her! Is anyone besides me completely outraged at this?

One last thing while we’re on the subject of “care” of slaves. This just underscores the obvious, but it was universal practice in the ancient world that female slaves were “available” to their masters. See for example Exodus 21:7-11, or recall Abram having a child with his wife’s slave — at his wife’s suggestion (Genesis 16:1-6), or remember Deuteronomy 21:10-14‘s permission to “marry” a captive woman until she no longer “pleased” you. If the Bible is God’s Word and God wanted to “regulate the care” of slaves, wouldn’t you expect at least one Bible verse that told the Hebrew men to keep their paws off their slaves? I could find no such verse. There’s Leviticus 19:20, but that only prohibits sleeping with another man’s slave.

There’s a lot more I could say about the way the Bible does or does not “regulate the care” of slaves, especially foreign ones. However, this is supposed to be a dialog between me and my Christian readers so I’ll give them a chance to respond to what I’ve said so far. Maybe they will demonstrate the errors in my interpretation and I will be glad that I did not embarrass myself further.

So, Christian reader, I do invite your thoughts.

  • Does it bother you that Israel had God’s encouragement to capture and enslave foreigners?
  • Does it bother you that God also gave Israel permission to beat these slaves so severely that they could not get up for two days?
  • Would I be out of line to call the AIIA’s paragraph dishonest?
  • Is it typical of the rationales you have heard from other Christian apologists?

Next post in this series: Was Slavery God’s Righteous Judgment?

Edited on 10/5/2011 to remove some of my sarcasm while trying not remove all my outrage.

4 responses to “Does the Bible Regulate the Care of Slaves?

  1. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible | Path of the Beagle

  2. Pingback: Is God a Moral Monster? (Book by Paul Copan) | Path of the Beagle

  3. Skeptics still suffer from biblical illiteracy but also illiteracy period. Moses says IF you beat your slave you will be punished. That is far from condoning such. We learned in 5th grade that IF is a conditional clause. The second part where their would be no punishment if the slave was not killed. This was a simple case of domestic violence, not pre-meditated murder. There is nothing in the text that would suggest this could not be a mutual fight or even the boss defending himself. Secondly research compensation laws even in our own jurisprudence today. IF you can prove in the court of law that your worker owes you $1000 and his medical bills total $1000 then its a wash their would be no fine. This is what Moses means by “the slave is his money” Moses is not saying hitting people is okay but simply stipulating punishments IF it happens.

    You shall not wrong a sojourner, or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

    -Exodus 22:21

    • Ron, this post was about whether the Bible “regulates the care” of slaves as the AIIA asserts. They cited Exodus 21:20 as an example of how “The Law of Moses in fact served to regulate the care of slaves by their Hebrew masters.” We would expect “regulating care” to mean encouraging kind treatment, wouldn’t we? But no: this so-called regulation of care consists of setting a cruelly high limit on the severity of beating that a master was allowed to administer. My aim was to call out the dishonesty of the AIIA and similar apologists.

      Say what you will about “IF” but if God hadn’t been OK with Hebrew masters severely beating their foreign slaves, wouldn’t you expect the verse to be different? In light of historical context, historical practice, and even Jesus’ representation of God as a master beating his slaves in his parables, your interpretation of this passage as possibly referring to “a mutual fight or even the boss defending himself” would be laughable if it weren’t so typical of the contortions Christians perform when defending the indefensible.

      You cited Exodus 22:21, which does indeed command good treatment of “sojourners.” However, a sojourner is a temporary, alien resident — someone who is just passing through. Even if he was what we would today call a “permanent resident,” he was in Israel voluntarily. Foreign slaves in Israel were slaves for life, and were captured in war. Slaves were not “sojourners” in the sense of Exodus 22:21.

      As for my being illiterate, you may want to remove the log that is in your own eye before removing the mote that is in your brother’s.
      – “IF” is not a conditional clause. It is a conjunction that introduces a conditional clause. Check your notes from that 5th grade class you mentioned.
      – There is a difference between “their” and “there”. You used the wrong one one twice (“their would be no punishment” and “their would be no fine”).
      – Your third sentence is not a complete sentence.
      – The last two sentences of your first paragraph are run-on sentences.

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