Monthly Archives: October 2011

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…”

Slave

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.

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.