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One of the most contested issues among Christians in the United States and all over the world is the interpretation of slavery in the Bible. The United States Declaration of Independence makes it clear that “all men are equal”. Over time the interpretation of this phrase has come to be apprehended as the inclusion of all who were previously included. The article gives special attention to the issue of slavery in the Bible with a specific focus on Exodus 21: 20-21. Does this scripture augment the argument that the Bible supports slavery? What is the correct interpretation of this text today? A comprehensive and critical analysis of the scripture and historical context will aid in developing a rational argument to dispute the notion that the Bible supports slavery. The Bible does not support slavery but provides regulations to control slavery among Israelites. The text should be interpreted in the context of the historical period and the culture of slave ownership among Israelites to get an accurate interpretation.
The interpretation of Exodus 21:20-21 is crucial because it may lead to inaccurate conclusions about how Christianity views slavery. A review of the same text in King James Version, Contemporary English Version, Amplified Bible and the New International Version led to the realization that the meaning of the text is similar even though the wording might differ. The text implies that slavery is allowed and that it is normal to hit a slave as long as the slave does not die on the spot because a slave is considered personal property. Despite the apparent implication, it is imperative to consider the literary context of this text to understand the nature of relationships at this time. An understanding of the Book of Exodus and its purpose can aid in defining the context of the verse, which might lead to a different interpretation of the text.
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The lack of evidence to support the historical underpinnings of the Book of Exodus has made it one of the most challenging books to discern. The book expresses God’s purpose for the Israelites when He makes it clear that He would like to have them released from Egypt so that they can go and worship only God. The Book of Exodus can be expressed as the story of slavery and freedom. The first fifteen chapters narrate the story of freedom from slavery and chapters 16-40 narrate how the Israelites enter into an obligation with their God. These chapters outline the guidelines and laws that must be followed by all Israelites. It is imperative to note that Israelites were changing masters from Pharaoh to God. God made it clear through Moses that the only reason the Israelites were being released was so that they could go and worship God.
The issuance of regulations was a way of God to ensuring order and control among the Israelites. Exodus 21: 20-12 is an example of a rule that was put in place to define the relationship between masters and slaves. Based on context, the treatment of slaves was a sensitive matter among Israelites who had just been freed from the bondage in Egypt. The level of suffering meted to slaves in Egypt was unnecessary hence the issuance of regulations to ensure such level of cruelty was not seen among the Israelites. It is presumptuous to conclude that since the God issued regulations to control the relationship between slaves and masters, it means Christianity supports slavery. Understanding the literary context of Exodus has led to the realization that slavery was a common practice in the world in those times. Was it the same with modern slavery? How was it this form of slavery different from the contemporary slavery?
Meaning of the Term ‘Slaves’ in the Context of the Culture of Israelites
The term ‘slaves’ has its origins in the Greek word meaning ‘bodies’. The Greek and Hebrew word for slave can be directly translated to mean a ‘bondservant’, ‘servant’ or a ‘bondman’. The Hebrew word ‘ebed’ or ‘eved’ is directly translated as slaves. The term has been translated as slaves and servants in different texts within the Bible. The word ‘ebed’ does not have an inherent negative meaning. It describes someone who depends on another person whom they have some a particular relation. From the perspective of Israelites at that time, no was free because everyone was an ebed to another person. All the people were slaves to God. The term ‘ebed’ was a title for pious men and was used to describe Moses, Abraham, David and the Servant of Yahweh.
In a strict sense, ‘slave’ means who has been stripped of freedom and his life given to another even if it is for a short time. Slaves could be bought by their masters who would use them in whichever way the master likes. It is a fact that there were slaves in Israel and some of them were Israelites. Some people became slaves after accumulating too much debt to the point that they could not pay. They could give themselves to work until the debt is fully paid. The Covenant Code that is found in Exodus 20:22-23:33 forbids perpetual debt slavery and commands that all slaves be released on the seventh year. There were strict guidelines to ensure that many poor people did not end up as slaves for the rest of the lives. In fact, the Priestly Code required all slaves to be released in the year of the Jubilee, and all their ancestral lands returned to them. Military conquest and debts were the reasons why many people became slaves in Israel.
The Mosaic Law prohibited Jew from resigning themselves to slavery unless there were no alternatives. The law required the Hebrews to love and not mistreat the one who has been brought under their care by circumstances beyond the slave. The law accorded slaves adequate respect to the point of requiring masters to adjust to reasonable concerns raised by the slave. Note that only a person who makes the decision to serve his master for life would be subjected to the vile act of having his ear pierced as a sign of his faith towards his master. Harsh slavery was discouraged by Mosaic law whether it was in the case of a Gentile or a Jew. The Gentile had a right to ask for freedom if the master hit him and a tooth or eye is injured. The nature of the Hebrew slavery can be described as the acquisition of labor for a specified period. In comparison, the non-Hebrew slave had a difficult time due to the lack of brotherhood and the Jubilee law did not include Gentiles.
The nature of slavery during this period is depicted by the regulations that outlined in Exodus 21. Slave owners had the right to the reproductive organs of their female slaves. Slave owners reserved the right to punish these slaves as long as they do not die while being beaten. If the slave died at a later, then the master is absolved of any blame. Would slavery end among Israelites if God condemned it? How would matters related to debts be handled? It is a fact that slave ownership would not have stopped even if the laws of God prohibited it. It turns out regulation was the most efficient way to ensure slaves are not mistreated too much. The Bible discourages slavery but does not directly abolish it due to the complex nature of the society at that time. It was the only some poor people could pay off massive debts and wait to get their freedom in the seventh year.
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Modern Slavery and Slavery among Israelites
First, slavery during the Biblical times was not based on race but nationality or poverty levels. Military conquests contributed to a significant number of slaves who were taken in as benefits of the war. Owing too much money furnished the creditor with the power to enslave the debtor if he or she could not pay. Harsh slavery was common in Egypt and the Middle East at this time. Israelites had been victims of this form of slavery when they suffered under the rule of Pharaoh for many years. God provided rules to protect slaves from harsh slavery that was being practiced in Egypt and the Middle East at this time.
Slavery can be considered as a form of bankruptcy law in the Biblical times. An individual who is immersed in debt can sell the only thing that he has left, which is the ability to work. Such a person would work for six years and get released in the seventh year when the debt was considered fully paid. It might be perceived as a way of disciplining people who had the habit of borrowing without considering they cannot afford to pay. It encourages responsibility and hard work among all members of the society.
There are laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that prohibit forced slavery as depicted in this text:
“And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:16 KJV).”
The forced slavery that was practiced from around the 16th century to the 19th century was characterized by the forceful kidnapping of able-bodied men and women to be sold in Europe to work as slaves. The Bible does not condone such form of actions, which implies God does not consider slaves as less equal beings in the society. The misconstrued thinking that the Bible endorses harsh slavery is not based on a comprehensive factual analysis. The act of kidnapping people and selling people is listed as one of the vilest sins in the Bible.
Exodus 21: 20-21 can be interpreted by considering that majority of the people who had conjoined themselves to slavery were people who had lost everything. It is likely that they were lazy people. Sometimes they would need to be disciplined by the master to ensure they are working well. Discipline is allowed in the Bible as indicated in Proverbs 13: 24, 23:13 which says it is unloving for a father not to discipline his children. Paul in 2 Corinthians 11: 25 acknowledges the use of discipline to correct behavior. A slave owner was punished if the slave dies on the spot because it shows he had the intent to kill the slave. However, if the slave dies a few days later it was taken to mean the master’s only intention was to discipline not to kill.
Some Christians argue the existence of these regulations is a sure way of saying that slavery is not right. The argument is based on the premise that only things that are bad should be controlled because if even left out of control many people would suffer. From a personal perspective, slavery was a necessary practice in the Biblical times, especially when it comes to settlement of debts. The regulations were put in place to control the actions of slave masters and provide a way out of for slave masters. Furthermore, the existence of slaves in the Bible has a metaphorical meaning, which is to describe slavery to sin.
It is difficult to justify the forced slavery during the 16th century to the 19th century using the Bible. Some Christians have argued that the races that were under slavery were cursed by Noah for their lack of moral standards. Apparently, Ham who was cursed to serve his brothers is the ancestor of Africans. It a line of thinking that goes against the core of Mosaic law that discourages the placement of enjoinment of an individual as a slave unless there are no alternatives.
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Exodus 21: 20 – 21 should be interpreted in the context of the society and common practices at that time. Israelites became slaves with the purpose of working to pay off debts. Mosaic law provided clear guidelines on how slaves were to be treated by their masters. Exodus 21: 20-21 describes a situation where a master is forced to discipline a slave. Note that the Bible terms discipline as a form of showing love in Proverbs 13: 24, which means only Masters who care would discipline their slaves. If the slave died on the spot it shows the Master had the intention to kill the slave, which is a sin punishable by death. If the slave dies a few days later it confirms the Master intended to discipline not kill.
Exodus 21: 20-21 cannot be interpreted to mean the Bible supports slavery. The same chapter outlines regulations about slaves should be treated and the conditions that should be met for a slave to get freedom. The form of slavery narrated in the Bible is very different from modern slavery in the 16th to 19th centuries. It does not imply that all human beings are not equal. It is a system that was in place to ensure that justice was served for all people and encourage responsibility among the people. The lazy ones who got into huge debts and had no means to pay would give themselves to service. The master would take responsibility for all the needs of the slave, which explains why the wife and children a slave got while serving his master belonged to the master.
- Hall, Edith, Richard Alston, and Justine McConnell. Ancient slavery and abolition: from Hobbes to Hollywood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Johnson, Sylvester A. “The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications for Slavery.” Biblical Interpretation 19, no. 4/5 (2011): 520-522.
- Mills, Watson E., and Roger Aubrey Billard, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. 5th. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997.
- Moore, Joseph S. Founding sins: how a group of antislavery radicals fought to put Christ into the constitution. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Morse, Samuel F. B. Samuel F. B. Morse: His Letters and Journals. Edited by Edward Lind Morse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
- “On The Nature of Slavery of the Bible.” Journal of Law & Religion 23, no. 1 (2007/2008): 159-164.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 2017. http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195288803/obso-9780195288803-chapter-20 (accessed November 14, 2017).
- Vaux, Roland De. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Instructions. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; Livonia, Mich. : Dove Booksellers, 1997.