Were Some Biblical Slaves Merely Prisoners of War?

Russian Prisoner of War[This post is a Beagle’s Bark.]

In a previous post, Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?, I brought up passages from Deuteronomy in which God commanded his chosen people to enslave the citizens of distant cities. Some apologists have justified this as the mere taking of prisoners of war.

Let’s read Deuteronomy 20:10-15 once more.

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.

In case that troubles you, here’s a rationale from the AIIA Institute:

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.

I would only point out that the prisoners in this passage (and other passages) were not prisoners of war in the sense that we understand the phrase today. To us, a POW is a captive in Viet Nam or Nazi Germany. Unless they were on Hogan’s Heroes, they were not happy campers but at least they got to return home after their respective wars ended. And at least they were combatants, not combatants’ wives and children. The captives described in the passages above are not prisoners of war in this sense. They were ripped from their homes and permanently enslaved. That’s not the same thing.

Perhaps the AIIA will say that my definition of POWs is too narrow. They may say that the distinction between POWs and slaves was not always clear in ancient times.

That’s true, but it’s too late for them to make that objection. After all, they were the ones who emphasized the distinction in the first place! By responding to Mr. Skeptic with, “Did you know [Old Testament] slaves were often prisoners of war?” Mr. Bible Advocate implies that being a POW in Bible times was somehow less bad than being a slave. Mr. Skeptic has never thought of it that way, and lets the conversation move on. Mr. Bible Advocate thus succeeds in dodging the fact that in Bible times being a POW did nothing to reduce the misery of slavery. In fact, it added to it, for the slave’s loved ones were probably recently exterminated, as in the Bible passages cited above.

In summary, biblical slaves were POWs only in the loosest sense of the term. Furthermore, under that loose definition, being a POW was worse than being a slave, not better.

What about the rest of the AIIA’s paragraph? Was the care of POWs/slaves “regulated”? That, dear reader, merits another post. I invite you to read on.

17 responses to “Were Some Biblical Slaves Merely Prisoners of War?

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

  2. Pingback: Did God Command Slavery, or Merely Tolerate It? | Path of the Beagle

  3. They were prisoners of war, what do you expect them to do capture the city and let them regroup for retaliation? (Only Americans and British let their enemies go free so they can come back to fight again.) Also slaves were to be treated as members of the family that bought them. Slavery was good in that the people who had lost everything to war were cared for by the captors giving them a means to survive.Of course I am talking about Israeli form of slavery.But we see this in Egypt the slaves were treated harshly. There is no condoning of treating slaves harshly in the bible.

    Do not confuse this slavery with human trafficking.

  4. I want to take a look at a slaves life in the bible, Here is a fine example. Take note if the slave was being abused why didn’t he just leave? Read Gen 24

  5. Deu_24:7 If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, or sell him; then that thief shall die: so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee.

    The bible calls human traffickers theives and their penalty for trafficking is death.

    This is damning evidence the bible does not condone human trafficking or abuse of humans. When reading the bible make sure your not adding to what the scripture is saying in your mind.

    • Henry, you miss the distinction in the Bible between slaves who were fellow Israelites and those who were foreigners. The passages you cite applies to “his brethren of the children of Israel” and it’s true that the Israelites were not supposed to steal their brethren. However, they were most definitely *commanded* to capture foreign slaves in the passage I cite in the post, and they were also permitted to buy foreign slaves in Leviticus 25:44-46. The only sense in which they did not engage in human trafficking was that they did not capture slaves and sell them to other nations.

      The error of conflating biblical laws that pertain to foreign slaves and those addressing the slavery/servanthood/indentured-servitude of fellow Israelites is a common one. I have seen more than one professional apologist make it.

  6. Pingback: What would you expect them to do? | Path of the Beagle

  7. Pingback: What do you expect them to do? | Path of the Beagle

  8. The Beagle, there’s a BIG difference, we are Christians. After Jesus came, we all became heirs according to the promise, including slaves, which should be inferred because he said all, as said in Galatians 3:38-29,

    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise”.

    • Thank you for your comment, The three, but I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re driving at. Yes, Galatians says that in Christ there is “neither slave nor free” but how does that relate to my post? My post was not talking about the slave/free state of Christians at all. It was a rebuttal of the proposition that biblical slavery wasn’t all that bad because slaves were “often prisoners of war.”

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

  10. Because The beliefs for a Savior and His Name is JESUS, no more Can’t but Can though The Power of Jesus ..

  11. As I understand it, the main purpose of attacking far off cities was to destroy their gods and identities. The second was to obtain breeding stock. The overall mission was to conquer and inhabit all of Canaan land. Also wiping out the independent sides would keep the strongest opponents from allying with them. God has condemned these people for his own reasons. Slavery lets some of them, the salvageable, escape the sword.

    • >> The second [purpose] was to obtain breeding stock.

      Are you attempting to defend the Bible here??? Did you know that the “justification” you are describing is rape?

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