How do we deal with the concept of slavery in the Old Testament?


#1

I’m reading through Exodus 21, and it seems quite dark and unfair about everything, like how a man’s wife and children may not go free with him if she was provided to him by his master, and if he defies his master saying that he wishes to stay with them, then his ear is to be pierced with an awl and is to serve for life.

When a man beats a slave but he does not die from his injuries, he isn’t to be punished, “for he is his property.”
Isn’t that a little harsh?

I’ve already listened to commentaries on how violence in the Bible is to be interpreted as having no tolerance for sin, and that the wages of sin is death, and all the capital punishment prescribed in the Mosaic Law is placed upon Jesus, confronting all the evil of the world and taking it upon Himself (thanks to Father Barron for the commentary), but I’m trying to wrestle with this. I know there are punishments to mistreating slaves, but some of these just seem dark and unfair. Is there a further reason behind this all?


#2

I’m sure Egyptian slaves had a different lifestyle. To Hebrews, they were more like servants. I don’t know if it had the same meaning back then or not.


#3

First, I do not think Catholics are required to believe that everything permitted under the Law of Moses was a perfect expression of the will of God. I think the Old Testament makes it clear that some actions are morally evil and will be judged by God, even though the Law of Moses doesn’t punish them.

For example, I think the Old Testament specifically teaches that slaves should be treated as equals in Job 31:13-15 – “If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant, when they brought a complaint against me; what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?”

From this, I think it is clear that the unequal treatment of slaves was a moral crime under the Old Testament, but the Law of Moses does not punish all violations of the moral law, and I don’t think it was intended to.

Similarly, I think divorce goes unpunished in the Law of Moses, but is forbidden by the rest of the Old Testament: “Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” Malachi 2:15-16

To summarize up to this point, I think the Law of Moses is a civil law that does not intend to punish all moral crimes. I think it was more basic than that. But I don’t think its provisions imply that all things not punished are therefore okay. As examples, I think the certificate of divorce and the unequal treatment of slaves are not punished in this civil code but are forbidden as moral crimes in other parts of the Old Testament.

Jesus also seems to imply that the certificate of divorce permitted under the Law of Moses was not completely God’s will:

“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” – “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Matthew 19:7-8.

Perhaps a similar sentiment applies for the unequal treatment of slaves under the Law of Moses. Does that seem reasonable?

Let me know if that is helpful.

**UPDATE :: Hebrews 8:7 says, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second.”

I think that may help us see that the Law of Moses was in some sense not a perfect law. If it is true that God did not intend to use it to forbid all sinful actions and endorse all good ones, but to govern a bronze-age populace until the Messiah came, then perhaps this slavery issue helps us see one way in which it was not without fault.


#4

If you read the first verse of Exodus 21, you see that the text states that these are ordinances, not laws of God, that is, these are practices put in place to govern the cultural day to day activities and are not direct commandments from God. They are the interpretations of how to implement the law of God within their own culture.

If you go to the online Bible on the USCCB website and look at the footnote for ‘ordinances’ you find that these are legal codes that are shared commonly by most of the tribes in the region.


#5

The Catholic Church reads scripture through “the ultimate hermeneutical key”, which is the person of Jesus Christ.
These passages are read with the original cultural context in mind. What was understood as acceptable at one time does not justify it in the present time. The fact that scripture is inspired does not mean that practices and understandings detailed from ancient times apply in the present age in a literalist sense.
Fr Barron is a trustworthy source.
The CCC can also be the starting point for any inquiry. vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a3.htm
Dei Verbum: w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20100930_verbum-domini.html
Verbum Domini: w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20100930_verbum-domini.html

The “dark” passages of the Bible

  1. In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”.[140] I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.

#6

The laws in Exodus were God’s first controls on an out of control situation.

We have to remember the state of the world at that time. Parents were sacrificing infants to the pagan god Molech, burning them alive. Mothers were having sex with their sons and people were having sex with animals. Boy prostitutes in the pagan temples, selling your daughters into slavery. There was no divorce before Moses so men would just kill their wives instead. Cannibalism and drinking of human blood. Remember Lot and the gang of homosexual rapist murderers in the city of Sodom?

The laws given to Moses were not intended to be the final solution to all of these problems. Jesus’ law of love is the final solution. The laws of Moses were temporary curbs only until the advent of Christ. Christ came to make all things new again, to restore God’s original order to all creation.

-Tim-


#7

Tim

Unfortunately, what you outlined in the above statement still exists in the 21st century. Just new labels have been applied, e.g., prochoice (really just abortion), sex with animals (certain gay practices, don’t want to be descriptive), parents in 3rd world nations selling their children, divorce rampant or lets prevent divorce by cohabitation. The list goes on and on. I know our Lord promised no more great floods, however, mankind really hasn’t changed that much since the Old Testament.

Ending on a positive note, God has eternal mercy and all can be forgiven if truly repentant.

God Bless and Peace to all.


#8

It’s always good to simply observe what is.

Slavery existed in the times of the OT.

The ancient people did not conceive of slavery in the same way we do. The moral atmosphere was not the same. The concept of human dignity was not the same.

The bible is written by those people, through their lens and perspective. The culture they lived in must be taken into account when trying to discern the inspired meaning of the passages.

They may have understood the practice of slavery to be moral in God’s eyes. Because they write a passage according to their understanding, does not mean we must share the same understanding, because,

Christ fulfills everything.

We who live in the present must take all these things into account, especially the life of Christ, who is the key to unlocking the inspiration of scripture.

Christ is the word Personified. If a particular literalist reading of scripture seems incompatible with Christ, then we must dig a little deeper, and always read with the Church.


#9

Excellent post. :thumbsup:


#10

Another excellent post!


#11

A common question on the forums.

Try this older thread on the question of slavery in ancient history. My answer is post #5. A slightly newer thread also discusses the matter.

A quick summary:

Most (though not all) slavery in ancient times involved either the holding of conquered foes or indentured servitude. There was no such thing as a “welfare state.” If you were poor, you either found food, shelter and clothing or died, with no governmental recourse available. Some individuals or even families would indenture themselves to survive.

This puts some context to how Sacred Scripture discussed how masters and slaves should behave for each other, since Old Testament Scripture does differentiate from these types of slavery and chattel slavery–the kind used against Africans in early America, who were treated as objects without any rights whatsoever.

As others noted, God began to teach His followers to treat such indentured peoples with greater respect. The Lord has never tolerated chattel slavery, the type done to African peoples shipped to America in its early history.


#12

Slaves are also mentioned quite a few times in the new testament…neither Jesus…St.Paul or any other new testament writers condemned slavery…St.Paul did write on how a master should treat his slave and how a slave should treat his master


#13

For what it’s worth, I think a lot of early Christians in the Roman Empire were slaves.


#14

I did not say that those things do not still exist. I said that Jesus came to restore order.

For those who accept it, Jesus has restored the original order to creation as was designed by God. Unfortunately, not everyone has accepted Jesus’ teaching and many of us who have are weak and don’t always have the strength to do what is right.

-Tim-


#15

Paul clearly states that slaves should try to become free (1 Corinthians 7:21) and that people should not become slaves to men (1 Corinthians 7:23).

Nowhere is slavery spoken of in a positive way with the exception of becoming a slave to Christ.

-Tim-


#16

Paul’s violation of the Mosaic Code on slavery:

While in prison, Paul met a runaway slave, Onesimus, the property of a Christian – presumably Pheliemon. He sent the slave back to his owner. This action is forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:15-16:

“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee.”

“He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.”

Rather than give the slave sanctuary, Paul returned him to his owner. Paul seems to hint that he would like Pheliemon to give Onesimus his freedom, but does not actually request it. See the Letter to Philemon in the Christian Scriptures.


#17

JD, Slavery was a fact of life in ancient times. Isn’t your thinking a little anachronistic?


#18

Let’s not blame Moses for what is written in Exodus 21. The Bible clearly shows this is God speaking to Moses telling him what rules to follow. If God says something abominable then the blame goes to God.

For example, I think the Old Testament specifically teaches that slaves should be treated as equals in Job 31:13-15 – “If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant, when they brought a complaint against me; what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?”

That in no way says that slaves should be treated as equals. In fact it presents an analogy showing the disparity in power between God and the slaveowner like the slaveowner and the slave. Slaves according to the Bible have some limited rights but that doesn’t conflict with the fact that outside of those rights the slaves could be treated as property.

From this, I think it is clear that the unequal treatment of slaves was a moral crime under the Old Testament, but the Law of Moses does not punish all violations of the moral law, and I don’t think it was intended to.

Again, slavery as described in Exodus comes straight from God and it’s entirely inaccurate to blame the law on Moses.

Similarly, I think divorce goes unpunished in the Law of Moses, but is forbidden by the rest of the Old Testament: “Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” Malachi 2:15-16

Where is the equivalant passage that shows that Jesus hates slavery?

To summarize up to this point, I think the Law of Moses is a civil law that does not intend to punish all moral crimes. I think it was more basic than that. But I don’t think its provisions imply that all things not punished are therefore okay. As examples, I think the certificate of divorce and the unequal treatment of slaves are not punished in this civil code but are forbidden as moral crimes in other parts of the Old Testament.

Is God not supposed to be all good? Why would we lay out a civil law that by its very nature is immoral?

Jesus also seems to imply that the certificate of divorce permitted under the Law of Moses was not completely God’s will:

“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” – “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Matthew 19:7-8.

Perhaps a similar sentiment applies for the unequal treatment of slaves under the Law of Moses. Does that seem reasonable?

Perhaps nothing. There is no similar sentiment for slavery from Jesus. He specifically told slaves to obey their masters. In fact he made an analogy showing how slaves should be punished even when they don’t know they are doing anything wrong.

The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. “But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.” (Luke 12:47-48 NLT)


#19

If you read Exodus 20 throught 24 you see this is the very same conversation where God first lays out the Ten Commandments. These are all laws handed down directly from God as to how his people are to act. Everything he says is coming from supposedly the source of all love and all goodness, yet what he tells his people to do is utterly reprehensible. It’s a cop-out to try and call them ordinances as if that allows evil to be permissable.

If you go to the online Bible on the USCCB website and look at the footnote for ‘ordinances’ you find that these are legal codes that are shared commonly by most of the tribes in the region.

Leviticus 20:23 says, “Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them.” So saying that other nations did something is not a defense whatsoever for what was considered right and wrong in God’s nation. People really have to stop trying to make it seem that God had to take into account what neighboring nations did when he specifically said not to, and cosidering all the numerous restrictions he had already put in place for his people.

Let’s use the word context properly, and not as a means to handwave that which makes some uncomfortable. Where were the Jews at the time of Exodus 21. They were in the desert having escaped enslavement. This was a fresh start for his people. He gave his people a set of rules that differed from those of other neighboring tribes. The biggest example was the sabbath, the day of rest. God didn’t look upon what others were doing. He said that there would be no work done (and we later have a story of a man picking up sticks to demonstrate how seriously God took that). There are numerous other laws that God put in place for his people that did not match those of other peoples. They had to leave fields unplowed every 7th year. There were sacrifices of cattles and firstfruits that had to be done. They were told what to wear and what to eat. They were told to marry their dead brother’s widow. There were numerous laws in place that were unique to the Jews, and yet in that context God saw no need to say no to slavery.

In fact, he regulated it! Think about that. We don’t have laws today that regulate improsoning someone in your basement or raping someone. Why not? Because it’s wrong.

The “dark” passages of the Bible

  1. In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them.

We don’t teach children to do the wrong thing and then later teach them to do the exact opposite. This idea that God taught his people to bring harm to others only to eventually ween them off of it is patently ridiculous.

If I had a kid and his friend was doing something very wrong, I wouldn’t then allow my kid to do something half as wrong. Remember the Jews were in the desert during Exodus 21. There is no reason to think that God had to take into account the actions of other peoples when telling his people what to do.

Think of this way: The Bible said that God was seconds away from killing Moses because he hadn’t circumcised his child in a timely manor. It was an urgent manner. But people beating other people or selling their daughters as sex slaves? It’s not so urgent, in fact he’ll tell you how to do it properly.

The laws given to Moses were not intended to be the final solution to all of these problems. Jesus’ law of love is the final solution. The laws of Moses were temporary curbs only until the advent of Christ. Christ came to make all things new again, to restore God’s original order to all creation.

It doesn’t curb anything. It tells people to commit acts of evil. Then Jesus comes along and still doesn’t abolish slavery.


#20

Are you saying that the Bible is inaccurate or that God was misquoted?

They may have understood the practice of slavery to be moral in God’s eyes. Because they write a passage according to their understanding, does not mean we must share the same understanding, because, Christ fulfills everything.

If a person tells you ways to commit an evil act then he does not see it as immoral. No matter what kind of spin you think the authors of the Bible put on it, if they are accurate in saying that God told them how to sell your daughters, or blackmail a slave to be set free, or beat them so they die a day later and not the same day, then God saw it as moral.

We who live in the present must take all these things into account, especially the life of Christ, who is the key to unlocking the inspiration of scripture.

What God believes is moral and immoral did not change, correct? Within the timeframe of the Old Testament God saying that treating a human like property and having children born into slavery was moral. Therefore it must be moral today.

Indentured servitude was a real thing to pay off debts. It did not involve selling children or sex slavery as the Bible does. It certainly did not involved mansluaghtering them without punishment.

This puts some context to how Sacred Scripture discussed how masters and slaves should behave for each other, since Old Testament Scripture does differentiate from these types of slavery and chattel slavery–the kind used against Africans in early America, who were treated as objects without any rights whatsoever.

How many times does God tell his people that slaves are their property? There was no difference between the slavery of non-Jews in the Bible and the so-called “chattel slavery” in the Americas. Both were awful but its the Christians who will bend over backwards to try defend the indefensible, to call good that which is evil.

It’s not anachronistic if one is referring to the time in question. The OP is asking about people living in ancient times and why God told them why they were allowed to hold slaves. There are claims of human sacrifices of peoples in those times. It was a “fact of life” to use your phrase. Yet the Hebrews were against it. Why? Because it was wrong. Yet God is so seemingly powerless that he can’t tell his people not to enslave others the same way he tells them what festivals they have to celebrate.


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