Considering Old Testament Times

imagesMy last few posts on the issue of slavery in the Bible brought some vigorous push-back. One line of challenge came in the form of this question:

“Are you indicating slavery, as practiced in the 1st Century Mediterranean, was (is?) morally acceptable within the regulated parameters of the New Testament Canon? That, despite your claim Jesus’ words regarding love would indicate no person could own another, Christians were not required to free their own slaves?”

There is a lot packed into this question. An important preliminary issue is what 1st Century “slavery” looked like. That may seem like splitting hairs – after all, aren’t all forms of “slavery” wrong? – but it’s not. A period of indentured servitude, for example, may well have been a kind approach to dealing with a person who would otherwise have been destitute, or worse. Expecting equality of economic position may be a well-entrenched notion in an affluent, technologically advanced society, but communities trying to scratch out an existence from a harsh environment might not readily fit such expectations. Even more offensive forms of “slavery” need to be understood in their historical context too; conquered peoples, for instance, who were brought into slavery may otherwise have been put to death, as there were no large scale prison systems for housing people. This may seem off-putting to modern readers, but the reality of those times was often harsh. 

But for the purposes of this question, let’s assume the worst case scenario – outright “ownership” of another human being. Was this “morally” acceptable? The first question then becomes, what is meant by “morality?” Put roughly, morality involves a system of beliefs relating to how one should act, usually in reference to the desire to act in some other fashion. It is a system of constraint on behavior, either encouraging “right” behavior or discouraging “bad” behavior. In a Christian worldview, assessing morality involves not just the act in question, but also the intent with which it is done, as well as the circumstances.  Plunging a knife is on its face immoral, but if it’s done by a surgeon for the purpose of saving a life, it is not. But a surgeon who uses a knife with the intent to save a patient may be acting immorally if the patient has refused consent for the act, or if the surgeon gets drunk before he operates. Countless other examples abound. Marital relations, for instance, may involve a moral act done with proper intent, but there are times and places in which engaging in such behavior would be immoral. 

The question posed here assumes that “slavery” is one thing; to modern ears, it conjures up images of the antebellum South or modern day sex-trafficking. Those examples are clear cut: such acts are always immoral, for the act, intent and circumstances can be nothing less. But the issue we are considering in the Old Testament is anything but clear cut. There was no doubt vast disparity in economic position of individuals, and of groups of people. As mentioned above, economic servitude may have been an alternative to homelessness and destitution. A Christian confronting a person in such a circumstance, living within the conditions of that time, may well have acted morally by engaging that person as a servant or even engaging in a master-slave relationship. But how could this be? Isn’t just saying such a thing revolting? Yes, to modern ears it is. But again, imagine the circumstances: the conditions do not exist for all people to have a comfortable standard of living. The person in question has found themselves in a position where there are no other options. The system of that day allowed them to work under very strict conditions, stripped of most or all of their “rights,” conditions we would find horrendous. But much of the life of that time would have been horrendous for us. Confronted with such limited choices, isn’t the intent to assist another laudable, even if the person derived some benefit in doing so? And if in addition to the economic assistance, the person did something more: like use the relationship as a way to help the person get back on his feet, or be the best and kindest “master” he could be,  or perhaps more importantly, introduce salvation.

I’m not arguing that this is always what occurred. I have no doubt that some “Christians” failed to understand what God’s law of love really entailed. I find the history of that time disturbing at best, and often shocking and distressing. What I am saying is that difficult times create difficult choices. Confronted with the economic realities of ancient times, even the most ardent egalitarian of today would quickly realize that a society like that could not be changed overnight, that indeed one might do more harm by “freeing” the servant than by engaging him.

The critic wants to reduce the world to black and white. To him, the answers are easy: just outlaw all forms of servitude. Make the people change. If only it were that simple.  As a result of the Fall, man is in many ways depraved, rebellious, filled with hatred and jealousy, destructive of self and others. Indeed, as even Jesus said, some laws (like those relating to divorce) were changed because of the hardness of the people’s hearts.

The skeptic says God could have changed things with a pronouncement from on high. I have no doubt he could, but only if he wished also to take away our free will, if he used his power to turn us into obedient robots.

He has something much different in mind for us. There will be change, and justice, but it won’t, in the end, be here. This was never meant to be our final home.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. Andy Deane says:

    The world is black and white. Does that mean God should start reigning commands from heaven and removing free will? No, Their culture is just as screwed up as ours is but if God starts ruling over us we would hate him more than we hate slavery. Most people assume the worst in all slave owners but some were extremely kind to their slaves and indentured servants, teaching them valuable skills. Just like in every other aspect of life there are different degrees. Some slave owners were unspeakably cruel and others treated them like family. At least we know one thing hasn’t changed though. We still change and mold christianity to fit what works for us despite the new testament makes clear how God feels.

  2. DGS says:

    Al Serrato,

    Thank you for addressing my question. Sorta. Even after reading your blog entry, I am unclear what your answer is.

    First, I will set aside the references to the antebellum South, or the Tanakh. I specifically limited my question to 1st Century Mediterranean and Christianity. Not Judaism, or the Confederacy. You started off well, asking, “What first Century ‘Slavery’ looked like?” (I am unclear why “slavery” was placed in quotes. There were slaves. There were referred to as slaves. I do not think you are questioning whether slavery existed in the 1st century…so why the quotation marks?) But then you never answer your own question.

    What did 1st century slavery look like?

    Second, I will emphasize this again—even non-Christians freed slaves so regularly, Augustus was forced to regulate the practice, and an entire social class of freed slaves was in existence. Specifically Freedman. The argument Christians freeing their slaves would somehow radically change society, or Christians were “helping” the slaves by keeping them slaves, or it was laudable for Christians to retain their slaves fails to persuade, in light of non-Christians freeing their slaves!

    If non-Christians could do so without radically changing society, and still “help” their slaves, and it was fine—why not prescribe the same behavior for Christians?

    Thirdly, the suggestion a small clause by Jesus or Paul or an Apostle stating, “Hey Christians—free your slaves just like non-Christians do” would somehow infringe Free Will is equally not convincing. The New Testament is chock full of “Do this; Don’t do that” without worry regarding free will. To claim…somehow…God is concerned about Free Will when it comes to slavery seems….pretty ad hoc.

    Finally, I would think you have an easy solution to this issue. In your last comment, you stated, “…the Bible need not be free of error in order to be inspired, its purpose being something other than teaching or explanation;..” Why not simply state the obvious? The New Testament was in error regarding continuing slavery practice amongst Christianity, but is still “inspired.” Seems to resolve the problem without these unnecessary and unconvincing contortions.

    • Al says:

      DagoodS, I put slavery in quotes to emphasize that it referred to both economic servitude as well as outright ownership. My position is that first century slavery took both forms. It would be beyond the scope of a blog post to describe it in detail. My understanding draws both from scriptural passages as well as books such as Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster,” which provides a survey of that period. The questions you ask are legitimate ones. There are answers to your questions, that have to do both with God’s purpose in inspiring the Bible and the purpose of this present life. You believe the Bible should contain explicit rules that cover, for instance, the evils of owning other human beings. I believe the Bible had a different purpose, but that it does indeed provide a moral framework for right living, which explains why the abolitionist movement was largely Christian in origin. The fact that many Christians didn’t follow Scriptural guidance is a reflection of the hardness of their hearts. You seem to think explicit rules would have solved the problem, but it would not. No matter how many rules God provided, you would still find one that you think an enlightened Creator should have included. Or you would find disagreement with him on some moral rules upon which modern society has a different view. The point, you see, is that you have already concluded that a perfect being would never have communicated to us via an imperfect medium such as Scripture. You’re entitled to that view. I too once held a similar view. Then I realized that God wasn’t giving us a blueprint for civilization. He made the teachings purposely difficult so that we would need to keep coming back to the source; Jesus’ parables are a good example. They compel us to keep reflecting and talking and praying. Just as it takes a long period of time to really get to know someone, relationship with God is not simply following a set of rules.

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