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The Old Testament, Slavery and the Goodness of God

June 4, 2013

shacklesI’m pretty excited about today’s post because it’s a guest blog from a good friend of mine, Jared Michelson. Jared recently gave a talk on the OT book of Exodus, and in particular how to navigate some of the passages often used against Christianity. Jared kindly agreed to put the talk in blog form, which is what you will find below. This post is a little longer than what I usually write, but well worth your time to read.

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“The Book of the Covenant is a collection of laws, found in Exodus 20:22 – Exodus 23. This is one of the many passages that ‘Anti-Christians’ (such as the New Atheists) love. The laws of the Old Testament are often use as a bludgeon to batter Christians into silence and to shame them with the supposed barbarism of their faith.

The argument usually takes one of two forms:

1.   The laws of the Old Testament show the inconsistency of Christians.

Whenever a Christians says “I believe abortion, or premarital sex, or homosexuality, or anything else is wrong because the bible says so,” the Anti-Christian is quick to respond. “Well why accept those biblical laws and disregard so many others? Why do you eat bacon when the bible forbids eating pork? Why do you have a shirt with two kinds of fabric when the bible expressly forbids it? Why don’t you sell your daughter into slavery like the bible teaches?” etc.

Anti-Christians (and sadly, often misinformed people in the media) love to claim that Christians ‘cherry-pick’ or ‘pick and choose’ whichever laws out of the bible they want to follow and disregard the others.

In reality, what the Anti-Christian reveals in this line of argumentation is a complete lack of understanding of the basics of biblical hermeneutics. Let’s take the “book of the covenant” passage in Exodus where so many of these laws were found. Immediately preceding the “book of the covenant” is the ten commandments. The ten commandments are written on stone. They are presented as eternal laws for living that everyone, everywhere, should seek to obey. All of the laws in the “book of the covenant” on the other hand, are written on parchment, on paper. They are not eternal laws for all of time. Rather they are directed from God to a specific culture in specific time in history. They are God’s way of taking these eternal, broad, ten commandments, and bringing them down into the concrete nitty gritty of life as an Israelites living in ancient times in the Middle East.

None of the laws in the book of the covenant are binding on Christians. Why? Because the laws weren’t directed to us. They were given to Jews living in the Middle East at least 3,000 years ago. The laws that we as Christians do see as binding are the ones which are found in the New Testament and are addressed to the church. Why do we pick that set of laws instead of these older ones? Because we are the church, the laws in the New Testament are addressed to the church, those older ones are addressed to the ancient Israelite nation.

Therefore, accusing the Christian of being inconsistent because he doesn’t follow laws which weren’t addressed to him would be akin to the following situation. Say a father had a son and a daughter. He says, “Son, I want you to go mow the lawn. Daughter, I want you to go clean the garage.” As the son is busy shoving his mower through the tall weeds, Mr Anti-Christian walks by, and haughtily asks, “Why are you picking and choosing from you fathers commands? You obviously just pick the ones that are convenient (mowing the lawn and disregard the rest, cleaning the garage).” Of course not. He simply only follows the commands that are addressed to him, as do Christians.

2.  The laws of Old Testament show that the bible is backwards and barbaric

There are countless laws in the Old Testament which seem, at first glance to be barbaric and backwards. I completely feel the weight of this objection. It’s easy to read through the laws of the Old Testament and to feel that you are reading a testament to the worst of humanity. We often feel as if we are experiencing not a record of morality, but of barbarism. However, my experience has been that when you drill down far enough into any of the Old Testament laws that at first brush appear morally questionable, what you find is a God who is bringing justice, compassion, and love into a dark and brutal time in history. Let’s take the most obvious example: slavery. How in the world could a book that claims to contain “moral truths” condone and defend the practice of slavery. Our answer will have three parts.

A. Where are the slavery laws found?

The Bible never commands or even defends the practice of slavery. Slavery is not found in the portions of the bible that purport to be eternal moral law (such as the ten commandments). Slavery is found in the portions of scripture that present time-bound practical ways of bringing the eternal biblical principles of love and justice into the daily life of ancient people.

When slavery is mention in “the book of the covenant” and other similar places, it always begins with “When a master…” or “When a slave…” Why is that so critical? It’s not condoning slavery. It’s not defending slavery. It’s definitely not commanding slavery. What it’s doing is saying “Look if slavery is occurring, when it’s happening, here is how you can humanize the practice.” Virtually all of the laws in the Old Testament exist to uplift and defend slaves.

Saying the bible supports slavery misses the point. According to the bible, when God creates his ideal world (the New Heavens and New Earth) there will be no slavery. God never wanted slavery to exist. However, in the Old Testament, God speaks into a broken world and he brings a path towards justice, love and compassion, even within that broken culture. It’s similar to the biblical treatment of war. The bible seems to teach that there are certain times in our broken world where war may occur, and we must engage in it in the most loving compassionate way possible, but does God want war? NO! In his perfect world there will be no war. Nor does God want slavery, however in speaking into this broken culture he does say “When this is occurring, here is how we can humanize the practice.”

B.  The Biblical form of slavery bears no relation to what we think of as slavery.

The form of slavery that the Old Testament law allows, is unlike any other form of slavery. It was unlike the slavery that was occurring around the world at the time, unlike the slavery that was occurring in the American south, and unlike the slavery that occurs around the world today. When we think of slavery, our minds immediately go to the despicable, disgusting stain that occurred in the American South. The “slavery” that is outlined in the Old Testament bears no relation to what we think of when we hear the word slavery. Here are some of the differences:

No racism: In the American South slavery was built on a system in which a certain group was considered inferior and subhuman. In the Old Testament, Hebrews were reminded again and again that slaves were their countryman, and that they once were slaves. The slave was in no way considered inferior to the master.

Never life long except by choice: On the seventh year, all of the slaves in Israel were released. The maximum time of slavery was seven years although many terms were mandated to be even less. The only exception was if a slave choose, because they “loved their master,” to ask him to allow them to be a slave for life.

Never taken by force: “Man-Stealing” or taking a person into slavery against their will, was strictly forbidden. Every slave had to choose to enter into slavery, no one could be forced into bondage. In the Old Testament, Human Trafficking was harshly punished.

Strict rules for treatment: The Old Testament lists rules demanding that slaves be treated with dignity and respect. Strict punishments were imposed on masters who abused their slaves.

Human dignity: By the far the most significant difference, is that slaves in the Old Testament were considered full humans made in God’s image. They had rights, and were considered full members of society who were in no way “less” than their masters.

It should be abundantly clear that this practice which was occurring in Israel, is really a completely different entity than what we think of when we think of slavery. It bears no relation to what occurred in the American South.

However, for the most cynical among us, a check may still arise in our minds. We may say, “I don’t care if God didn’t condone the practice, he should have stopped it! I don’t care how civilized it was, if God is truly love he should have wiped slavery off the face of the earth all together!”

C.  Slavery in Israel was a Work-Welfare system.

The startling truth is this, the form of slavery that existed in Israel in this specific time, in this specific context, was helpful to the lowest and poorest in Israelite society. In our society, our social safety net is welfare. It is our way of making sure that the lowest and poorest in our society are taken care of. Slavery served a similar function. As you were reading the laws for the treatment of slaves earlier, you surely found yourself asking “who would ever choose to be a slave?” Here’s how it seems to have worked:

When a man had become utterly destitute, when all of his land had been sold, all of his resources expended and he had absolutely nothing left, he had an option outside of starvation. He would enter slavery, and this contract helped him to get back on his feet. For the next few years he would have to work without pay. However, all of his needs, food, clothing and shelter, would be met by the master. While working for the master he would learn new skills and a trade. Any man who could afford to feed and clothe slaves had to be very well off. So his slaves, in the process of working in his successful business, would learn the skills of his trade, whether it be farming, carpentry, building, or whatever else. Eventually when the seventh year arrived, the poor man would be set free. The master was required to give him money to begin a new life. With a new set of skills and coins in his pocket the poor man now had a second chance.

Slavery, as we know it in the modern world, and basically through all of history, is a scourge. It’s despicable. However, the system that was set up in Israel existed not to oppress the poor, but to give them a new chance for life.

Have you really examined the bible for yourself? Or have you accepted the talking points of those who wish to do Christianity harm?”

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Big thanks to Jared for this well-thought critique of an often-used “bludgeon” against Christianity. Feel free to comment with your feedback, whether you agree or not.

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