Slavery and Slavery and the Bible

Topic: EducationGraduation
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Last updated: April 30, 2019

Slavery has perhaps played a role in human history throughout all time.

  Maybe the actual origins of slavery are obscure, but addressing its history provides some idea as to its origins.  Throughout history, slaves were generally gathered from among those individuals who were of a different ethnic origin, nationality, race or religion.  The practice of slavery is almost always a matter of economics in which the less fortunate or poor are forced to provide service to those who have power.  In many parts of the world, slaves were often taken during conflict between different ethnic groups and/or tribes.  The victor took slaves and the loser became enslaved.  In the ancient Mediterranean world, slavery was a mixture of debt-slavery, punishment for crime and capture followed by enslavement as prisoners of war.

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We cannot be certain as to the nature and existence of slavery in sub-Saharan African societies before the Europeans arrived, but we know that Africans have been subjected to several forms of slavery over the centuries.  They were enslaved by Muslims, by Europeans in trans-Atlantic slave trading and possibly by each other.  In Africa and elsewhere around the world, early slavery generally resulted when warring groups took captives.  Captives were a burden and of little use, so they were often sold and transported to distant locations.  Slaves resulted from war and also as a means to produce wealth.  For example, in parts of Africa, land was typically held communally by villages or large clans.

  The amount of land a family needed was determined by the number of laborers the family had to work the land.  Thus, the quickest and easiest means to increase production and therefore to acquire land was by acquiring more laborers and invest in slaves.  Many African societies conducted slave raids on distant villagers for this purpose.Most of the early African slaves were women.  They did the agricultural work, traded, spun cotton and dyed clothes.  They also performed domestic chores such as cooking, washing clothes and cleaning.  Powerful African men kept female slaves as wives or concubines and also as symbols of wealth.

  Male slaves performed farm work, herded animals, worked as porters and rowers and learned crafts.  Slaves, both male and female, but especially male slaves, could gain positions of high status and trust within their society.  Because of their dependence on their masters and their limited ambitions, slaves were considered ideal individuals to be close to men in power.Several forms of slavery have been common throughout history.  These include chattel slavery, debt bondage, forced labor and serfdom.  Chattel slaves are slaves who were considered as property to be traded such as the slavery common in American slave history.  They had no rights and are expected to perform labor and sexual favors when commanded to do so.

  Africans were subjected to several forms of slavery over the centuries, including chattel slavery under both the Muslims with the trans-Saharan slave trade, and Europeans through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Debt bondage involves using individuals as collateral against debt.  The debtor provides labor as compensation for his/her debt.

They are bonded to the person to whom they owe a debt until the debt is paid, but in many cases, further debts accrue during the period of bondage so that the debt is never paid.  It may even be inherited and passed on across several generations.  Debt bondage is encountered in the Bible.  In forced labor, individuals were enslaved based on a threat of violence against the slave or his/her family.  Finally, serfdom involved tenant farmers who were bound to a section of land and was under the control of a landlord.  The serf maintained his subsistence through cultivating the landlord’s land and providing other services.  Serfs were tied to the land and could not leave it or marry, sell goods or change occupation without the permission of their landlord.

  Serfdom was common and more or less restricted to medieval Europe.  Except for serfdom, most of these forms of slavery can be found somewhere in the Bible.  Although considered a European condition, several African kingdoms such as the Zulu in the early nineteenth century did have situations similar to serfdom.Where do we encounter slavery in the Bible and how is it dealt with?  Some form of slavery is common throughout the Old and New Testaments.

  In the Old Testament, slavery is focused in the first five books, especially in Leviticus and Exodus, where the Israelites lived in exile after having been enslaved in Egypt.  However, some form of slavery seems to have been a commonly accepted way of life throughout much of the Old Testament.  Although an accepted part of life, slavery was not necessarily viewed with favor.

  Yet, it is not necessarily looked upon with disdain either.  The prophets were sometimes referred to as “Lord” (although many biblical prophets were reviled), which is a symbolic reference to slavery, and they were also considered to be servants, which is a Hebrew and Greek reference to “slave” (see below).  Moses became a spokesman for the Hebrews and the servant of God during these years in exile as a herder.  Abraham had a servant woman Hagar (Genesis 16:15).  When Abraham’s wife Sarah could not have children, Hagar acted as his concubine and had children for him as was customary servant women during those times.We have pointed out the idea of debt slavery.

  Recall that debt bondage involves using individuals as collateral against debt in return for labor.  Leviticus 25:39 says that if your brother living with you becomes poor and is sold to you in bondage slavery, you should not compel him to be a bond slave.  Rather, you should hire him as a servant.  You should eventually free him to return “to his own family and unto the possession of his fathers.

” (Lev. 25:40).  Leviticus allows individuals to buy slaves from the children of foreigners who reside with you and give them as inheritance to your children.  You may even enslave them forever, but you must not rule harshly over your slaves (Lev. 25:44-46).We also find that the Israelis were enslaved in Egypt.

  The Bible says that the “Egyptians made the children of Israel” serve with rigor: and they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, mortar, and brick, and in all manner of service in the field:  all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigor.” (Exodus 1: 13-14)  According the Bible, when the king of Egypt died, God heard the “groans” of Israel and acted on them. (Ex.

2:23-25)  There are references to the slavery of Israelites in Egypt throughout the first five books of the Old Testament.  In Deuteronomy 15, some slaves were released from debts every seven years.  This practice was called a “sabbatical” after the Sabbath and has impacted on culture today in academic circles where academicians receive a sabbatical year off with pay to study or do other things.

In the New Testament, the existence of or reference to slavery is more subtle and may often be overlooked, but as is true in the Old Testament, slavery appears to have more or less been an accepted part of life and commonly referred to in an almost matter of fact way.  The Hebrew and Greek words “servant” mean “slave.”  Both Peter (2 Peter 1:1) and Paul (Romans 1:1; Titus 1:1) considered themselves to be a “servant,” first and then an apostle while both James and Jude proclaimed themselves to be servants of Christ (James 1:1; Jude 1:1; Colossians 4:12).  Another common reference to slavery is in man’s relationship to God and in the relationship between Jesus and his followers.  If you recall, Jesus is referred to as “Lord” or “the Lord” and as “Master”.  Reference to “the Lord” may be confused as referring to either God or to Jesus and, in fact, some Christian religions actually believe that Jesus was/is God, something that Jesus himself denies.  In medieval England, the “Lord” referred to the landlord and the serfs of the landlord were his servants and slaves.  Although it was not like later serfdom in medieval England, a similar relationship existed between the servants in biblical times and their master.

Paul, who may have believed at one time that Christ was God and at another time that Christ was a special servant of God (this issue is not entirely clear but many things Paul says are note entirely clear), referred to Christ a one who “purchased” salvation from God with his own blood, a common Christian belief today. (Acts 20:28)  Thus, Paul believed that a slave (of God, apparently) who converts to the teachings of Christ becomes free from slavery through the purchase Christ made.  Thus, the message presented throughout most of the New Testament has to do with a servant/slave-master relationship between God and man, God and Christ, Christ and other men and other men and Christ.  Christ viewed himself as the servant of men and Christians view themselves as the servants of Christ.  Virtually the entire New Testament is an allegorical reference to slavery.In the both the Old and New Testaments, we also encounter reference to individual slaves such as the New Testament slave Onesimus.  Onesimus, the slave of Philemon at Colosse, robbed his master and fled but the Apostle Paul vowed to repay his debt.

  (Philemon 1:16, 18)  Throughout the New Testament, stories are told and situations are presented in terms of master and slave.  God is often portrayed as the master, but in the New Testament, Christ is referred to as the Master.  This often causes confusion as to the nature of Christ.  Was Christ also God, a man or both?  Also, the Bible depicts the relationship between God and man as situations between a master and a servant.  Servant and slave can be used interchangeably in some situations as would be expected since he word “servant” comes from the Greek and Hebrew words for slave.If we refer to serfdom in medieval Europe, we see that serfs were more or less slaves tied to the land and forbidden to leave, even forbidden to marry without permission.  However, serfs were not necessarily referred to as “slaves”, but as servants although serfdom was clearly a form of slavery.  In fact, throughout history, many “servants” were merely slaves working off some debt.

  So, reference to a “servant” throughout the Bible, particularly in the New Testament where Jesus is portrayed as a servant, is also a subtle reference to slavery.  We constantly encounter reference to “servant” and “master” throughout the Bible.  Jesus was the master to his disciples and his disciples were his servants while, paradoxically, Jesus was also the servant to his disciples and to all of mankind.Jesus used examples of servitude in parables to illustrate various points.

  For example, Christ tells the parable of the trustworthy servant whose master left him to manage the household staff and all the property.  Christ remarks, “I tell you this:  he will be put in charge of all his master’s property” (Matthew 24:45-47).  This is exactly what had happened to Joseph, the son of Jacob, earlier in the Bible, in Genesis where it is said,”Think of my master.  He does not know as much as I do about his own house, and he has entrusted me with all he has.”Genesis 39:4, 9This, of course, is a reference to slavery.

  Once when a rich man approached him and asked, “Master, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”  (Matthew 19:16), after some discussion about what the man had already done Christ replied,”If you wish to go the whole way, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and then you will have riches in heaven; and come, follow me.”Matthew 19:21This situation is an example of how slavery is used in the Bible in that Christ taught that in order to be one with God, it was important to become the servant to all.  Christ taught as wisdom that “Whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing servant of all” (Matthew 20:26-28; Mark 10:43-45).Has the Bible impacted or changed our worldview about slavery?  That is a difficult question to answer.  In American slavery, the Bible was used to keep slaves peaceful and to hold them down.

  Slaves were forbidden to be taught to read and write while, at the same time, they were taught passages from the Bible designed to keep them passive.  Thus, the Bible was used to justify slavery in seventeenth, eighteenth and especially in nineteenth century America.  In other parts of the world where Bible based Christian religions were not common, slavery continued without resistance or abatement well up to the twentieth century.  Slavery still exists in some parts of the world, especially in Asia where sexual slavery is rather common and may be the most common form of slavery, but those parts of the world are not Bible based regions.  However, various forms of employment slavery are still common in parts of South and Central America where the predominant religion is Catholicism.  Child slavery for cheap labor and child prostitution are still prevalent throughout Asia and South America—i.e.

, in countries with and without Bible based religions as the basic religion.Certainly, slavery is not as open today as it was in the past, but whether that is a result of an impact from the Bible or merely the result of the idea that those under the yoke of cruelty will eventually rise up against those holding them down is not certain.  Certain, religions played a role in the Civil Rights movement in the US, a movement that more or less grew out of slave history.  Reverend Martin Luther King used concepts from Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ to combat racism and the scars of Western slavery, so the Bible was involved.  Still, it can probably be argued that people just got tired of being held down and finally stood up in favor of being treated the way the felt they should have been treated.

It is not likely that Rosa Parks was thinking about any aspect of the slavery in the Bible when she refused to give up her seat on the bus on December 1, 1955 even though her religion may never have been far from her mind.  Plus, it is certain that when she refused to get up, nobody could have guessed at that time that Reverend Martin Luther King, more or less an unknown, would have used Christ’s teachings of turning the other cheek and Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching of passive resistance to combat the twentieth century vestiges of slavery.  Still, those things happened, so in some sense, the Bible has had an impact on slavery in the world and the worldview of slavery today.  Even up to the end of the twentieth century, Nelson Mandela continued to carry the banner of Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King to combat the vestiges of slavery in South Africa and perhaps influenced events in Rhodesia as well.  So, the Bible certainly has impacted, both positively and negatively, on slavery in to and including modern times.Has the social movement of slavery changed over time?  The answer is probably, “Yes.”  Although slavery still exists, much of it has gone underground.  Also, although slavery is still common, it is not as widespread or open as in the past.

  However, slavery is still basically an economic issue as it probably always will be.  Today, child enslavement, the enslavement of the poor in sweat shops and sexual slavery are the most common forms of slavery.  All forms of slavery are more or less underground and slavery is illegal in most parts of the world where Bible based religions are predominant except in Islamic countries.  (Remember, Islam is also a Bible based religion even though its main Holy Book is the Koran.  The Bible is the second most Holy Book of Islam and Moses is the second greatest Prophet after Mohammed.

)  So, perhaps the two greatest changes in the social movement of slavery over time have been that fact that today’s slavery has gone underground and that slavery is not as widespread anywhere in the world as it was in the past.The culture of slavery has changed dramatically since its historical beginnings.  In most of the world, there is no open culture of slavery today, at least not in the Western world.  Individuals who live in the West and still engage in slavery realize that they cannot do so openly and, in fact, even most, but certainly not all non-Western cultures realize that they cannot openly engage in slavery today.  Still, slavery exists elsewhere and there is little that can be done to eliminate it.  It will always exist underground because of its economic value to those who engage in it.  I feel that today’s changes are positive, but we certainly have a long way to go.  Whereas slavery in the past was legal in much of the world, today it is not.

  In fact, slavery is illegal in most of the world, certainly in most of the Western world.The problem is that the vestiges of slavery that exist today are and will remain underground.  Whereas slavery in the past was immoral and ultimately doomed to be confronted, most slavery today thus can only be confronted when caught because it is underground.  Victims of slavery are often just as afraid of the law as of those who have them enslaved.

  Today’s slavery is certainly just as likely to be confronted in the future as open slavery was in the past, and it is equally as immoral as in the past, but now it has gone underground because it is illegal.  Therefore, it will be much more difficult to recognize, find and combat.  So, I feel that the changes we see today are positive for the most part, but the vestiges that remain will certainly be more difficult to eliminate.  That is where I feel that we stand today. 

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