Monday, June 23, 2014

Slavery in the Old Testament [Part 1]

The following quotes are lifted from another blog commentary. Like many comments that appear after blog posts with a sizable audience, they are completely unrelated to the actual topic under discussion. Possibly to their credit, neither the moderator nor any other commenter took the bait these two were dangling.

I, on the other hand, have great difficulty resisting a baited hook, so here goes:
“I have always wanted a slave and from what I can read in MY bible that is totally ok with God right?”
— Emily
“Hi Emily, You see God only let them keep slaves then, because at the time that was how economies worked. There was simply no other way for God to help Israel prosper, they needed to be just the same as the surrounding nations.”
— Minion68
(It ought to be mentioned, in case it is not evident, that the second comment is pure sarcasm, as Minion’s other comments relating to the same post make exceedingly clear.)

From their tone, I get the feeling that both commenters have already made up their minds.

Rather than any sort of genuine inquiry into what the Bible teaches about slavery and why, both seem to be following an implied logical progression that goes something like this:

“We know slavery is bad”
“The Bible teaches that slavery is ok”
- ERGO -
“The Bible must be false”

So this is not so much for Minion or Emily or anyone whose mind is irrevocably made up, but really for those who believe the Bible is the word of God, find it genuinely difficult to understand the whole slavery issue and wonder where exactly God stands on it.

Two Unstated Assumptions

Both commenters seem to assume two things:

Assumption #1: If something is in the Mosaic Law it represents God’s will and preference.

Assumption #2: A better Law would have made Israel behave better, so a God who is as moral as we are would simply have commanded Israel not to keep slaves at all.

I think both these assumptions are incorrect, so let’s take a shot at demonstrating that.

The Second Assumption

Assumption #2 is obliterated by the apostle Paul in the book of Romans. One might argue that the inadequacy of the Law  any law at all  to make men behave more righteously is, if not THE theme of the book, at least one of Paul’s themes, so we won’t waste a lot of time reiterating it here.

Wherever God drew the line, man was going to fall short of it. If it had been possible to make the Law even more ‘perfect’  meaning ‘even further removed from the fallen nature of man’ or ‘more difficult to obey’  then Israel would have failed to keep it even more spectacularly than history shows they did. As it is, the book of Nehemiah tells us that at least one of the commands God gave with respect to slaves was not kept, and it may be possible to demonstrate that none of them were consistently kept.

No, a better Law would not have made for a perfect nation anymore than a decent Constitution and Bill of Rights has made for a perfect America.

Joshua, who was not merely a pessimist but also a prophet, told Israel this:
“You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God ... And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:19,21)
If a better law informed by a better philosophy is what is needed to produce a better society, we should probably make note of the fact that we have now had more than a few thousand years since the Law of Moses to come up with one. Karl Marx gave it his best shot, as did Mao Tse-tung. Just look at how those experiments turned out.

Law is not the problem. People are the problem.

So, suffice it to say that when God instituted the Mosaic Law he had no expectation that men would be able to keep it consistently and instead intended it to demonstrate to them their inability to do so. We won’t go into that subject further here.

Some Other Things We’re Not Talking About

We are also not talking about the enslavement of Africans in North America prior to the 1860s, nor are we discussing the type of slavery that still occurs elsewhere in the world. Yeah, I know that is what everyone immediately thinks about when the word is used. But though (of course) its consequences linger, slavery is over and done with in North America and that’s a very good thing. End of story.

So why are we not discussing it? Because nobody can make a case from the Bible that the Lord would approve of such things. Go ahead and try, if you like. It can’t be done. Modern-day slavery and many forms of slavery practiced by humans over the millennia are wicked and abusive practices. To the extent that slavery was practiced or defended by people who called themselves Christians, I believe they either misunderstood the teaching of the Bible or deliberately ignored it. Those who believed the Bible taught or endorsed slavery were plain wrong. They were manifestly not Israelites living in a pre-Christian theocracy, so the word of God on that subject could not be remotely construed to apply to them.

We are also not talking about slavery as practiced by the Egyptians, Syrians, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians or any other ancient civilization. Their practices may have been better, worse or identical to the evil practices of American society. But they’re also irrelevant to the subject at hand, since the Bible has nothing whatsoever to say about their practices.

Minion’s point has to do with Israel, so let’s stick to that.

Two Principles Worth Considering

Principle #1: In general, the fact that God tells people to obey a law does NOT mean God is ‘ok’ with it.

When God institutes human authority, he himself respects the right of that authority to call the shots, whether it does so well or poorly. Jesus obeyed the laws of the land and taught his disciples to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”, though Caesar was a tyrant ruling over a conquered people. Paul also taught Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities”. Bear in mind that these “authorities” to which Paul asked other Christians to subject themselves eventually executed Paul, so the principle of submission appears to be a principle he felt was worth dying for. This is not a man who instructed others to take medicine he himself was not prepared to swallow.

So until it takes to itself authority in areas that God reserves for his own, the law is to be respected even if it hurts. One example of those in authority exceeding their God-given mandate is the issue of testimony about Jesus. No matter what laws the powers that be may make or contrive to enforce with respect to this issue, they are outside their mandate. When the authorities tried to silence the apostles, the apostles rightly replied, “We must obey God rather than men”. In this instance, Caesar was messing with something that belongs strictly to God.

Happily, we have no laws commanding slavery, so we don’t have to debate whether or not such rules would constitute an occasion for civil disobedience. But as I will show in tomorrow’s post, neither did Israel.

Not everything that happened in Israel was God’s will or desire for his people. Much of it was very clearly not his preference. The fact that God tells his people to obey a law does not mean it is a good law.

It definitely does not mean God is “ok” with it, as Emily puts it.

Next: Another Principle Worth Considering and What Was Israelite Slavery Really Like?

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