In comments regarding my original post on Mr Rudd’s (mis-)use of the Bible on slavery, I received a number of criticisms regarding my own approach to Bible interpretation and what it says about slavery.
For example, selective use: the BIble has contradictory material on the topic, so how can I justify (cherry-)picking and choosing, in regards to the texts I emphasised?
And there was the question of why the Bible never seems to say outright: slavery is condemned. And couldn’t it simply instruct believers in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ just to free all slaves immediately?
Must regulation and permission mean endorsement?
More broadly there was dispute over my contention that the description and regulation of slavery did not amount to endorsement.
Perhaps most pointedly, people noted this sentence of mine:
“Slavery is presented as unequivocally unpleasant and cruel.”
They then cited quotes from the Bible to counter this claim, and also to suggest that the regulation or permission of slavery therein described was as good as endorsement of the institution. The passages cited included such as Exodus 21:20-21, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, and even Jesus’ description of slaves in obedience (or otherwise) to their masters in his parables.
But the most notable and pointed counter-example to my contentions seems to have been Leviticus 25:44-46, with its permission for the Israelites to enslave people from surrounding foreign nations, and to treat them as property.
44 ‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 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. 46 You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. (NIV84)
As one friend put it to me, “The Bible is pro-slavery. As long as it is Israelites owning people from other countries.”
I hope I have represented these objections fairly, because I believe they are probably the most powerful objections to the more generous view of the Bible’s over all approach to slavery that I advanced. There is no doubt that verses like these seem truly difficult for a modern person like myself to grapple with (along with such matters as holy war, and what is commonly called patriarchy). Typically they make us recoil.
And there is no doubt that living as such a slave, whether an Israelite, or a foreign slave within Israel, or a slave in the Graceo-Roman world of New Testament times must have been difficult, and sometimes harsh, terribly so.
And yet the Bible, especially the Old Testament, seems to permit slavery.
Let me say a few things in response. For a start, my comment that, “Slavery is presented as unequivocally unpleasant and cruel” came in a specific context – that of expounding the Exodus as a paradigmatic episode of the Old Testament. It involves God’s rescue of his people out of slavery! It was in that context (citing Exodus 2:23-25), I suggested slavery is presented as unequivocally unpleasant and cruel.
I did not write that sentence as my summary of the Bible’s overall balance of teaching, but as a description of what that part of Exodus – becoming paradigmatic as it does for the Bible – taught about slavery.
However I can see that this sentence could easily and reasonably be taken as my overall summary. And I also agree that I might have done well to specifically reference the ‘difficult passages’ (like Lev 25:44-46) when I explained that the Bible honestly recorded and regulated slavery.
My intention was to show that Mr Rudd’s cursory efforts to construe the Bible’s teaching on slavery were woefully inadequate and imbalanced. I could and probably should have avoided the impression of being selective myself. And as you see here, I think I would have been wise to say that the Bible not only describes and regulates, but also permits slavery at points.
I would still maintain that even this permission is not the same as endorsement.
As an illustration, in the original passage in dispute on Q&A (Matthew 19:7-8), Jesus notes that Moses permits divorce. And the believer knows that what Moses permits, God permits. But Jesus points out this was never God’s original intent. God does not endorse divorce.
just say slavery is immoral and slaves should be freed?
Here’s where one might also answer the question of why the Bible never simply just commands the immediate freeing of all slaves.
And many commenters helpfully supplied suggestions along these lines.
- Slavery was entwined in the whole agrarian economic system, that a utopian wholesale release would have meant societal collapse.
- Some slaves were most likely better off as slaves (or indentured labourers/bond servants) than being free but destitute.
- In the often deadly and vicious struggle for survival between warring nation states, of which Israel was one, the only realistic alternative to slavery for captured/defeated foreigners was death, unless you wanted to be attacked and killed by your released and regrouping enemy yourself.
- Under the rule of the Roman empire, it was simply not possible to declare the overthrow of slavery – remember that Spartacus’ massive slave revolt failed, being brutally suppressed by the Roman Senate that viewed this as a completely unacceptable undermining of Roman society.
- Nor, I understand, was it even always easily possible, legally speaking, for an individual in the Graceo-Roman simply to free all his or her slaves, in all circumstances.
- And once again, slavery could be a quite reasonable experience for some (certainly not all) slaves in this period, and in certain circumstances, was probably better than the alternative, for example, if it meant destitution.
In other words, we are dealing with very different contexts from our own situation as voting citizens in a modern Western democracy. God’s people for most of the OT were then constituted as a theocratic nation state in an intense struggle for survival, not to mention purity. In NT times, they were scattered throughout the Roman empire, without any political power, indeed under the imperial power of Caesar and his legions.
Simple biblical condemnation or a blanket instruction to free all slaves is wonderfully attractive as a sentiment and pathetically ineffective and meaningless as a practice in those contexts.
As someone commented somewhere (sorry not to cite you, but at over a thousand comments in different places, I’ve lost track), I think there is an arguable case that taken overall we can suggest that,
The Bible does not condone slavery, but rather addresses believers in the midst of societies that did.
And outright denunciation is never the only way to address a social evil.
I personally think gambling is immoral, an absolute blight on our society, a complete failure to apply the ethic of love, and a dreadful stewardship of the resources God has granted us. And the pokies are the worst of all, with their deliberately addictive design. I wish my comments against the pokies attracted the attention I’ve got on this issue.
However simple denunciation doesn’t get me far in addressing this social issue in Australia.
Instead, I accept that Australia permits gambling. And I understand that some good can even be retrieved (although I think it very limited) from the proceeds of gambling, e.g. via registered clubs’ community donations. And so I support regulating the availability and advertisement of gambling. The strategy I support to see change in this area is gradual increase in regulation, both for its harm minimisation and educative value.
But I would be mightily offended if that was construed as endorsement of gambling. I want to see gambling completely subverted by a far better way of life.
Smorgasbord or Degustation?
With that, I come to my last point of what is already a very long post. It’s to suggest that for all its variegated material, some of which is sometimes difficult to harmonise, yet the Bible has an overall trajectory or story arc.
I am suggesting the Bible is more like a degustation menu than a smorgasbord at your local club.
The smorgasbord may not be put together with any overall rhyme or reason, beyond trying to appeal to a wide range of people within the confines of convenience and price. You can pick and choose what you want. And others can be disgusted at the things you choose to select, while wolfing down the food that’s congenial to their tastes. And so likely as not, there is no overall theme or direction to the food.
A degustation menu by contrast (and I may be showing my culinary inexperience here) is a carefully planned tasting menu of multiple dishes, prepared carefully by a chef, served in a particular order, with a particular theme and direction in mind. It may involve quite disparate ingredients at different points that do not obviously fit together at first glance. Some flavours might at first surprise or even shock. And yet, in the hands of a master chef, those who approach the experience with an open mind and palate discover there is an inner logic to the arrangements, which, when it all comes together, takes you in a certain kind of very enjoyable culinary direction!
For all its incredible variety of material and unusual ingredients and bumpy episodes, I think there is an overall logic and direction to the Bible.
Most basically, the Bible’s development and direction is from promise (Old Testament) to fulfilment (New Testament).
In slightly more detail, it charts a course from Creation through Fall/Sin, and Redemption – Foreshadowed then Fulfilled – eventually to New Creation.
In particular, the person of Jesus Christ is the fulcrum and fulfilment of this trajectory.
I think that because Jesus’ own teaching suggests it – he has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17-18); all Old Testament Scripture points to Jesus as the Christ, and in particular to his sufferings and subsequent glories (Luke 24:25-27). And I personally am persuaded by the evidence for the resurrection that I ought to trust Jesus.
However I have also then found that in experience, this provides a coherent and plausible way of reading the Bible in practice. It makes sense of the various elements of the Bible at its different stages.
There is not a straight line application from every Old Testament command or narrative or character to myself. (And so the shellfish and poly-cotton objection really does not bite.) And although I am much more closely connected into the overall storyline at the New Testament part, yet even there I need to understand particular parts of the New Testament in terms of the overall trajectory, and consider differences as well as similarities between the various characters and situations described there and my own situation.
So, for example, Christians today are motivated by the gospel of freedom in Christ and the NT provides our fundamental ethics. Yet under the providence of God our political and economic situation, in a modern democracy and following the Industrial Revolution, as part of their submission to the governing authorities, it was possible for Christians and others to exercise their influence and voting power to urge the overthrow of the slave trade, and then over following decades, the abolition of slavery; something impossible in NT times.
Yes, this involves some nuance and subtlety at points. And not all who take the Bible as possessing an overarching unity agree on every detail of interpretation or application. But it consistently makes sense to many of us. It is the most wonderful degustation menu.
Applied back to the specific issue of slavery, the starting point of the Biblical menu – creation – explains clearly why – contra Mr Rudd’s implication – slavery can never be seen as a natural condition. Humans are pictured created free, not owned by other humans.
But Sin’s entry into the world changes and mars everything, and provides conditions where slavery (and other ills) can develop, with those often dreadful results.
Yet Redemption Foreshadowed – especially in the Exodus – shows that freedom (from sin with its consequences, earthly and beyond) rather than slavery is God’s intention and purpose in his intervention in history. It also creates a society – Israel – where the ill of slavery can be regulated and sin ameliorated, albeit imperfectly, with ongoing pointers to liberation (such as the Jubilee ideal).
And Redemption Applied – through the death and resurrection of Christ – shows that the ultimate issue is not merely temporary human, but the forgiveness of sins and release from the powers of death and darkness. Spiritual freedom in Christ transcends temporal enslavement and transforms one’s future.
And so we come to New Creation – where there will be no more slavery of any kind – since in the New Jerusalem, there is no more sin or crying or pain. As Paul says in Galatians 4:26…
But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
I know many prefer the smorgasbord approach to the Bible, or feel that is all it lends itself towards. But I find the degustation approach to be wonderfully satisfying.
I’ll give Jesus the last word, from John 8:31-36, for this is where I believe the Bible’s overall trajectory takes you…
31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
34 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
P.S. I have tried – however inadequately – to feel the force of those who objected to the views I expressed. If you continue to disagree and care to comment, can I request that – in the interests of greater understanding – you indicate what you think the relative strengths of my argument are, as well as explaining (rather than just asserting) the weaknesses you see remaining.
If you just think I’m stupid and deluded, there’s no need to tell me again. I got that message loud and clear from about 300 comments on the various forums in the last 24 hours. And I doubt any of you can surpass Richie’s outstanding effort yesterday!