Slavery and the Abrahamic Traditions

The slave masters were Christians well acquainted with the Bible. Indeed, the Bible sanctions slavery. Even Jesus supported slavery. To be a good Christian, a slave must submit to his master as he would submit to Christ. 

In this essay, I will supply the biblical passages supporting slavery. There are many translations of the Bible, so I will provide the most modern and understandable translation and in parentheses supply some of the older wording for those who have older translations.

You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners (heathens) who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners (strangers), including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.

Leviticus (25:44-46)

The African slaves were foreigners (heathens) brought into or born in the North American colonies and United States. They were treated as property and were permanent inheritance. However, the relatives of the slave masters—that is, white people—were not to be treated this way (albeit sociologist George Fitzhugh, inspired by the antidemocratic writings of Thomas Carlyle, argued in 1860 that some whites were suitable for slavery). The whites viewed themselves as analogous to the Israelites. Africans were not their brothers, as they were not of the white tribe, and therefore could be permanently enslaved. 

There is a similar rule in Islam. Lawful enslavement is restricted to capture in war, on the condition that the prisoner is not a Muslim, or birth in slavery. However, conversation to Islam is not sufficient to free the convert from slavery. 

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.

Exodus (21:2-6)

This passage is important for understanding indentured servitude in the colonies. There, a white person could be a slave to another white person, but for a period of years, not permanently. One could therefore square Exodus 21:2-6 and Leviticus 25:44-46.

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

Exodus (21: 7-11)

This passage follows the previous passage (versus 2-6). Since you can enslave those among you for a limited period of time, you can also sell you daughter into slavery. Since polygamy is a perfectly acceptable practice in the Bible, one may keep the slave forever and have sex with her. If she does not please the man, then he can return her, but he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners or heathens. He can, however, give her to one of his sons. Women have very few rights in the Bible. Fathers may sell them to other men, and these men may use them as they wish or give them to their sons.

It was permitted by Islamic law (the sharia) for men to purchase female slaves for sex. In fact this was the most frequent reasons for purchasing slaves amor Muslims.

There were some protections in the Bible for slaves against the violence of their masters, but it was minimal and contingent.

When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.

Exodus 21: 20-21

The logic here is that, if you strike your slave hard enough to kill them instantly, then it is clear that you meant to kill them. But if you strike them such that they die later on, then you obviously did not intend to kill them but accidentally killed them in the process of punishing them, which you had the right to do, as they are your property. Since they are your property, they are an investment, and while you will whip your cattle, you do not intend to kill them, although you accidentally may do so. Slaves were apparently one notch above cattle in the Bible, since they were protected from intentional homicide. But not really. If you want to protect people from such things you would abolish the system that endangers them. We should say instead that you couldn’t intentionally kill a slave without some consequence.

Often it is said that Jesus changes a Christian’s relationship to Jewish law, and therefore these passages from the Old Testament are to be disregarded. This is a rationalization that stems from inadequate study of the New Testament. I do not recall anywhere Jesus saying slavery is wrong. Nor do I recall him saying you can disregard the old law. Even more than this, Jesus sanctioned slavery in the clearest possible terms. Jesus said in Ephesians (6:5), “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.” He also says in 1st Timothy 6: 1-2:

If you are a slave, you should respect and honor your owner. This will keep people from saying bad things about God and about our teaching. If any of you slaves have owners who are followers, you should show them respect. After all, they are also followers of Christ, and he loves them. So you should serve and help them the best you can. These are the things you must teach and tell the people to do.”

It fascinates me that, despite slavery being recognized as, if not the most immoral and sinful practice in which human beings engage, among the most immoral and sinful, I have never heard a mainstream Jewish, Christian, or Muslim leader condemn the passages in their own holy texts as immoral. In fact, I have heard it said a hundred times and more that the Bible is the perfect and completely moral word of God. If this is true, and I think Christians are bound to believe it is, then on what basis do Christians regard slavery as immoral and sinful?

Did the abolitionists, who used the Bible to argue for the emancipation of Africans in America, get it wrong? The logical argument against a slave society that justified slavery based on the Bible would have been to reject the Bible as justification for slavery, not to use the Bible to argue that slavery was unjust. That is to actually misuse the Bible because the book plainly doesn’t say that.

There are those who say that morality comes from the doctrine of a particular religion. Without religion, morality is not possible, and therefore atheists and non-adherents to faith are immoral people. But virtually every Christian regards slavery as immoral and sinful. So that means that Christians subject the Bible to moral judgment, determining which of God’s words to accept and which to reject, and in fact reject much of God’s word.

Human beings are thus judging God! But God is perfect. Human beings are not. God created the universe. How can his creation judge him? Yet here are Christians subjecting God’s word to their moral judgment. This means that, even for them, morality transcends religious doctrine. Our moral understanding does not come from the Bible. Not even a Christian’s moral understanding comes from the Bible. It comes from outside the Bible, and Christians use that moral understanding—whatever its source—to determine what parts of the Bible they should follow and what parts they should reject.

Why then should anybody follow any part of the Bible or the Quran? We already have a moral system that is more adequate than these doctrines. After all, it allows us to properly judge that slavery is immoral. More than this, these texts are not merely moral inadequate; Christian and Islamic teachings guide people in perpetrating immoral practices.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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