Slavery in the Bible

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Slavery in the Bible
One reason you seem to discredit Christianity is because of the existence of slavery in the Bible. Slavery has existed throughout virtually the entire span of human history. Cultural mores have not remained stagnant over the centuries, and attitudes toward slavery have changed along with them. Abolitionist movements were rare prior to the 18th century. We find the most notable and first recorded exception in the Old Testament book of Exodus. The Old Testament laws helped to ascertain the humane treatment of slaves. However, in Egypt the Israelites served primarily as brick builders and were subject to harsh conditions. Moses led approximately 600,000 Israelite men and their families out of bondage in Egypt.

In the British Empire slaves became emancipated in 1834 due to the tireless efforts of men like William Wilberforce and John Newton. As an atheist, Newton had no moral grounding upon which to base any opposition to slavery. He became a servant on a slave ship and received no better than the slaves he served. He then became captain of his own slave ship. Following a tempestuous storm, John Newton experienced the grace of Christian faith, leading him to repudiate his involvement in the slave trade. William Wilberforce worked tirelessly to secure the abolition of slavery in Britain from 1787 until his death in 1833. Several months prior to his death he witnessed the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act by the British Parliament. The British slave trade finally ended due in large part to the indefatigability of Wilberforce and Newton. Wilberforce also lived an ardent evangelical, protestant Christian life, which began just two years prior to devoting his life to the abolition of slavery. The film Amazing Grace, released in February 2007, depicts the stories of these two Christian men.

Slavery in colonial America and Britain in the 18th century was fraught with racism and abuse, but in Old Testament Israel, entrance into slavery simply became a necessity for some. No one forced anyone else into slavery. The slave signed a contract agreeing to serve the master’s family for a period of 7 years. At the end of this time, the Law required the cancellation of the contract. During the indenture period, the slave was entitled to all the rights of any other family member, except the right of inheritance. The closest modern analogy would be that of an au pair. A slave would certainly perform much more strenuous tasks than the light housework required of an au pair, nevertheless similar interpersonal relationships would develop.

Your reading of the Bible leads you to believe that “every man is free to sell his daughter into sexual slavery -- though certain niceties apply.”34

    If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. - Exodus 21:7-11
In the days of the Old Testament, when a man sold his daughter as a servant, he allowed her entrance into a marriage covenant in which she approved. A man or his family typically initiated the sequence of steps leading to marriage. The Old Testament custom included the new husband or his family offering a bride price to the father of the bride. Not always a monetary payment, this may have taken the form of a gift of something considered valuable. The above passage does not merely offer applicable niceties, but provides laws protecting women who enter into marriage in this manner.

As an example of a family that included servant brides, let us consider the household of Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons whose descendants gave rise to the Twelve Tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin.35 Jacob fell in love with Rachel and desired to marry her. Jacob then met with her father Laban and arranged to become a slave in the household for seven years, in order to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage. Unfortunately for Jacob, the custom in Laban’s country assumed the firstborn should enter into marriage first. After seven years had elapsed, Jacob was given Leah in marriage instead of Rachel, which angered him. Laban agreed to allow Jacob to marry Rachel after Leah’s bridal week had passed, in return for another seven years of labor. Severely smitten, Jacob continued as Laban’s slave for another seven years to win the hand of his beloved Rachel. So Jacob and Rachel also married and expanded the family Jacob had already started with Leah. Both Leah and Rachel were given maidservants who also joined Jacob’s family. These maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah, became servant wives to Jacob by their mutual agreement with Leah and Rachel. While Leah bore Jacob six sons, each of his other three wives bore him two sons. Leah also bore a daughter, Dinah. We find this account in Genesis 29 and 30. Jacob treated his wives, Leah and Rachel, and his servant wives, Zilpah and Bilhah, fairly and equitably. Jacob, his wives and their children lived and traveled together as a family unit after Jacob had finished his contract with Laban.

Slavery in the Bible - Polygamy
Polygamy was a commonly accepted practice in ancient Israel. By your reasoning it follows that polygamy would continue as the law of the land here in America, too. After all, Christians make up the largest percentage of the religious population in America. If all the Old Testament laws still bound Christians today, Warren Jeffs wouldn’t be the only polygamist patriarch making the news. However, Jesus spoke very clearly in favor of monogamy in Matthew’s gospel. Once again, the Old Testament law has been abrogated by Jesus’ words.

    Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. - Matthew 19:4-6

Keep Reading!

Read Page 1 of Letter To A Christian Nation: A Response.


Footnotes:
34 Sam Harris, p. 15. Ref. Exodus 21:7-11.
35 See Genesis 35:23-26.


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