Slavery and the Bible, Part II

We read in Exodus 21:7 that:

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.” 

Wait, what?  Why doesn’t the female slave go free after six years like the male slaves do?

When one reads the entire passage, a subtext emerges that explains this directive: the girl has been made a concubine.

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants 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.”  Ex. 21:7-11.

The core idea of this passage is that once a man has treated a slave as a wife, he has no right to just cast her off.  He is to provide for her as a wife, and treat her as a wife.  Even if he marries another woman, the concubine is not to be denied food, clothes, shelter, and conjugal rights.  If he has acquired the girl for his son, then she is to be treated as a daughter-in-law, as part of the family. 

He is to allow her to be redeemed by a kinsman-redeemer.  If the owner’s economic circumstances are such that he is no longer able to provide for her, and there is no kinsman-redeemer able to buy her freedom, the owner must simply set her free to return to her family. Under no circumstances may he sell her to foreigners or into permanent slavery. 

In that time and place, a girl who had been a concubine would not have been considered marriageable and would have had very limited prospects. If sent away from the owner’s household, she might be forced to turn to prostitution to avoid starvation.  Hence, often the most humane option for her would be to remain in her owner’s household and be entitled to his support, and even his consortium, for the rest of her life. These stark realities seem alien to us, but the rule articulated above is effectively designed to curb the harshest aspect of concubinage—using a girl and then throwing her away.

By the way, today’s regime of no-fault divorce allows men to violate the spirit of this passage by casting off an older wife in favor of a younger “trophy wife.” This type of divorce and re-marriage is profoundly unjust.  The law protects the first wife financially, but not from the loss of companionship, social standing, and being able to share and enjoy her later years—with their social recognition, leisure, and travel—with the man she married young and made into a success.

The next topic that needs to be addressed is this passage:

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 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.  You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. Lev. 25:44-46

In part 1 of this series, we noted that “slavery” for the Israelites was hemmed in with limitations on a master’s power, and concomitant protections for the slave, chief among them the limitation of the period of servitude to six years (Ex. 21:2-6).  In effect, slavery for the Hebrews was more like employment of last resort, rather than what we think of as slavery. 

But in the above passage we see that real, permanent, unprotected slaves could be bought from the surrounding nations.  Why?  Well, perhaps God, in order to protect the system of non-slavery within Israel—to protect the Israelites—allowed them to purchase real slaves from foreigners as a sort of pressure relief valve.  What are we to think of this? 

When reading Scripture, especially the Old Testament, we must separate the perfect, overarching will of God from the conditional will of God, as expressed in the accommodations He makes for His fallen human creatures in His efforts to meet us where we are and lead us to better ways.

This will be difficult for many to understand, but it is nonetheless true:  As a legislator, God makes concessions to the fallen human condition.  The laws that God gave Israel in His capacity as its lawgiver reflected Israel’s fallen humanity as much as they reflected God’s perfect righteousness.  Because of our sinfulness, there are limits to what God, as a lawgiver, can do for us. 

Who says so? Jesus said so:  "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."  Matt. 19:1-11.  The civil law that God gave to Israel allowed for divorce (Deut. 24:1), although God disapproves of divorce.  God’s perfect righteousness does not include divorce, but God, in His capacity as legislator for fallen Israel, allowed it. 

We could point to many more examples in the Old Testament.  Our modern, Christian-influenced legal systems do not impose the death penalty for negligent or accidental killings.  In ancient times, however, if you killed a man even accidentally, his kinsman could hunt you down and kill you in return.  To soften this harsh system, God established cities of refuge, to which a man who had accidentally killed someone could flee and be protected. (Num. 35; Deut. 19).  I think our modern limitation of the death penalty to cases of murder is more just, but the cities of refuge were a reasonable compromise in which God met the Israelites on their level.

Another example was the monarchy.  God originally set up a theocracy to be implemented by judges.  God understood Lord Acton’s axiom that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and He did not want this for Israel.  But all the nations around Israel had kings, and so, ignoring God’s harrowing description through his prophet, Samuel, of what a monarchy would entail (1 Sam. 8:10-18), Israel demanded a king.  Nevertheless, God did not abandon Israel to its own devices and wash His hands of them; rather, He compromised, acceded to their demand, and chose a king for them through Samuel (1 Sam. 9-10).  When Saul crossed a red line by invading the priestly prerogative (1 Sam. 13), God picked another king. (1 Sam. 16).  Even despite Israel’s monarchical apostasy and rebellion, God yet guided His chosen nation.

Prohibition is a modern example. Our society would be so much better without the health problems, highway deaths, broken and abusive homes, and ruined, wasted lives that follow in the wake of alcohol abuse.  Our modern-day prophet, Ellen White, strongly urged us to vote to outlaw the liquor trade.  Four years after Ellen White’s death, prohibition was passed.  But many folks kept right on drinking, and to the usual problems of alcohol consumption were added a whole slew of new ones—rampant criminality, murderous gangs, official corruption, and thousands of deaths and assorted injuries from tainted bootleg liquor.  Through our government, the American nation reached out for the ideal, but soon had to concede that the entrenched evil habits of a large portion of our people made the ideal unattainable.  The cure was worse than the disease, and prohibition was repealed after only 13 years. 

Contrary to a popular conception promoted by Marxist professors and the New York Times, slavery was not invented by white Americans in 1619.  Slavery has been the norm throughout human history.  It is not normal now only because we are living on this side of centuries of anti-slavery agitation, mostly by Christians.  But slavery was nearly universal in the ancient world—it was in the Code of Hammurabi, it was practiced by the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Greeks and the Romans.  It was a normal and accepted fact of life in the ancient Near East, in the days of ancient Israel.  

We have established that God, in his position of legislator for the ancient Israelites, had to concede to fallen humanity.  God knew it would not be possible to completely prevent slavery at this time in human history. His best course was to prescribe a system of highly regulated indentured servitude for Israel’s most vulnerable poor, while relegating actual slavery to non-Israelites.  By allowing the Israelites to buy permanent slaves from the surrounding nations, God made it more likely that Israel would observe the strict regulation against true slavery among the Israelites themselves.

Whether this worked, I do not know.  Many believe that the sabbath years and the years of Jubilee were never observed, or observed only sporadically. Second Chronicles 36:21 seems to indicate that the land of Israel lay fallow for 70 years during the Babylonian captivity to compensate for all the sabbath years that were not observed during Israel’s prior history.  And if the cycles of sabbath years and Jubilee years were not observed, then it seems likely that Israel also disregarded the order not to permanently enslave fellow Israelites.  Certainly, the prophets often condemned their nation for oppressing the poor and perverting justice. (Amos 2:7; 5:11-12; Mic. 6:9-12; Zeph. 3:1-5; Zech. 7:8-10, etc.) The point is that God tried to lead Israel in the right direction. If they would not be led, the fault lay with them, not with God.

Jesus was the real fulfillment of the Year of Jubilee:  “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:15-21