In part 2 of my series on Biblical Slavery, I want to get beyond the Biblical text itself and concentrate on how horrific Biblical Slavery was.
Before I delve into this, I want to make a distinction. Most of the time when Christians debate this topic, the accusation is made that the person criticizing Biblical Slavery is slandering the Gospel and blaspheming God. This was the charge levied against me in the debate which inspired this series. As I see it, these are separate issues, Critiquing Biblical slavery is not the same as deciding how to apply our analysis.
As I see it, part of the reason we understate the cruelty of Biblical Slavery is our tendency to react more strongly to recent historical events. Multimedia is a big reason for this. When you have visual documentation in addition to textual account, the historical event becomes more real to us. It is harder to dismiss the scale of the tragedy.
For example, the deadliest earthquake in history took place in Shaanxi, China in 1556. More than 800,000 people died. That’s a staggering number, but no matter how hard we try to picture a tragedy of that magnitude, it’s not as real to us as the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The web is full of moving photos from the Haitian earthquake, showing the dust and blood-covered faces of victims and bodies buried under rubble. We don’t have photos from Shaanxi’s earthquake, so in our minds 800,000 dead isn’t much more than a statistic.
We can go through any number of tragedies in history and find the same dynamic: Lincoln’s assassination ranks among our nation’s worst tragedies, but JFK’s assassination captivates us more because it’s the more recent event, and the media made his life more immediate and real to us. We don’t need Daniel Day Lewis to get a sense of what Kennedy sounded like, but we can watch Kennedy debate Nixon or give his “Ask Not hat You can Do” speech any time we wish to. And thanks to the Zapruder film, we’ll always have the visceral horror of watching Kennedy’s last moments.
So the problem isn’t just that Christians gloss over Biblical slavery for apologetic purposes. With few exceptions, slaves in the Bible were just nameless, faceless prisoners of war whose lives weren’t important enough for history to acknowledge. American slavery offends us more because its embedded in our constitution like a scar. We can read about individual slaves and see their faces. American slavery is also our country’s legacy, and we still struggle to come to terms with that legacy. To put it bluntly, slaves in the Old Testament were members of long-dead nations, so they seem less human to us.
Now I’m sure some Christians want to defend slavery by emphasizing the Law’s directives for Hebrew slaves. We’ll get to them in Part 4. I think it’s more important to contemplate the treatment of non-Hebrew slaves.
Let’s begin by looking at the passages from the Law that dictate treatment of non-Hebrew slaves. First up is Leviticus 25:44-46, which tells us where and how Hebrews acquired slaves:
“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”
Deuteronomy 20:10-15 goes further and tells us that no matter how a military campaign turned out, the surviving women and children were doomed to become slaves. Men, however, only became slaves if they surrendered:
“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When theLord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 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.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.”
So let’s stop and think about this. The slaves were people whose families and villages were decimated. They were captured knowing that they were going to live the rest of their lives as the property of the people who murdered their friends and families. Most people would agree that waking up every morning and serving under these circumstances would be psychologocally abusive even if one served under a compassionate master. If you found out that an American soldier had been captured in Vietnam and had spent the last forty years toiling in rice paddies, the kindly demeanor of the Vietnamese family that owned him would not mute your outrage.
Note also the distinction made in Leviticus 25: the Hebrews weren’t allowed to treat fellow Israelites ruthlessly. Slaves from other nations were a different matter.
It’s also worth noting that peace is defined as an opposing nation’s willingness to surrender, rather than an agreement to respect borders. I know that I’m guilty of applying modern moral values onto an ancient culture when I say this, but that’s a messed up definition of peace.
In the next part of my series, I’ll focus on the treatment of female slaves.