Does God approve of Slavery
I know, I’m hitting this subject hard recently and it isn’t like I haven’t touched on it before (The Moral Commander Series: Part 3) but I was asked for my opinion on this particular piece of apologetics authored by someone named Rich Deem, found here in response to my A Letter Not Really About Porn Complete
I definitely could have hit slavery harder in “A Letter Not Really About Porn”, but given how long it was I really wanted to focus primarily on just the misogyny found in the Bible. But I am happy to take polite requests and dive deeper into “does God actually approve of slavery?”
In response to this particular piece of apologetics I am confident Deem is intentionally trying to Gas light his readers. If you are not familiar, Gas lighting is a term used, typically in domestic abuse situations where the abuser attempts to manipulate the victim into doubting their own perception of reality. He accomplishes this by which passages they choose to leave out, and cherry picking his verses.
It amazes me how many Christians are susceptible to this when it comes to the Bible, but fortunately the Bible is written down and available for reference to anyone who cares to put in the time and the leg work.
Deem starts off by arguing that slavery as we know it couldn’t exist because you couldn’t buy or sell slaves in accordance with Exodus 21:16 which states “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”
Killing anyone involved in buying or selling slaves would definitely hamper a thriving slave trade to be sure. But there are a number of problems using this verse as the crux of your argument.
First “Man” does not mean “mankind” it specifically means someone with a penis. We know this because Exodus 21:7 (scant verses before) explicitly states you can sell your daughter into slavery. “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.”
Second it stands in direct conflict with Leviticus 25:44-46, and this is God (the Big Guy himself, see verse 1) speaking directly to Moses “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.”
Again, this is the Big Guy himself explicitly stating that you may own someone as a slave forever.
So clearly God is not expecting the death of everyone who is selling a slave or found in possession of one (I think Leviticus 25:44-46 really should probably end any and all discussion on whether or not God approved of slavery, but I’ll keep going). So the punishment verse 16 refers to has to be for the act of kidnapping specifically a man, not the act of selling a human being.
We see this played out time and time again in the Old Testament, Kill all the men, take the virgin women as slaves. Here are three prominent examples.
This may be a bad one to start with, because it actually conflicts with exodus 21:16. Here God commands the Israelites to force everyone (male and female) into slavery, if that doesn’t work, then they are to kill all of the men women and children, except the virgin women, those you can keep for yourself.
Kill all of the men, women, and children, Moses is actually furious they originally left the women and children alive and had the POWs executed…except for the virgin women those you can keep for yourself, except for 32 of them, those God wants as tribute, you can give those virgins to the priest.
Kill all the men women and children, take the virgins and give them to the tribe of Benjamin, that isn’t enough for Benjamin, kidnap more virgin women
Deem next argues that while they were rules to govern slavery, those rules were there to protect the slave since “voluntary slavery” was frequently practiced as a social safety net
I have a number of philosophical issues with this line of thinking centered on an Omniscient, Omnipotent God’s best safety-net solution is slavery? I don’t buy that, but this isn’t a philosophical discussion, let’s look at the Bible verses
Deem starts by arguing “injuring or killing slaves was punishable—up to death of the offending party” He uses Exodus 21:20 as his defense which states “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged.”
“Avenged” seems a little vague to me. Exodus 21:26 gives us some more specifics “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.”
So the slave just gets to go free, he isn’t really being avenged, the only punishment the offending party receives is he loses his slave, whom he just devalued by maiming anyways. Nobody is being put to death yet.
What I find most telling about Deem (and this is gas lighting at its finest) while he includes verse 20, he leaves off verse 21. The whole thing reads thus “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
How is that for rules protecting slaves?
He has a few more I don’t have too much of an issue with, slaves were not to work the Sabbath, don’t slander your slave, don’t rape someone else’s slave (only rape your own slaves).
We get to Deuteronomy 23:15-16 “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.”
God himself violates this when he sends Hagar back to Abraham and Sarai who were mistreating her (I mean technically God hadn’t made this law yet, but he is God, so he knew he was going to right?) Genesis 16. Paul also violates this when he sends the slave Onesimus back to Philemon in the epistle of Philemon. Paul did put in a good word for Onesimus, but the law isn’t “put in a good word.” Although I imagine Onesimus would be opposed to the “let him dwell with you clause,” seeing as how Paul was in prison at the time. Book of Philemon
Deem argues that while Hebrews could enslave their fellow countrymen (voluntarily of course), they had to be released every 7 years or in the year of jubilee, which ever came first (Leviticus 24:39-43). Deem is being exceptionally disingenuous here. This comes with all kinds of caveats.
Exodus 21:1-6 provides more details, “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone.5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.
So you could own a male Hebrew slave forever, you just have to bait him with a wife and children first
And once again this once again only applies to men, the very next verse Exodus 21:7 states “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do” which we’ve already looked at.
Deem moves into the New Testament stating the Romans practiced involuntary slavery (like the Jewish people didn’t practice involuntary slavery). I think the Midinite women Moses captured in Numbers 31 or the various Canaanites that the tribes of Israel subjected to forced labor in Judges 1, or all the daughters sold into slavery because of Exodus 21:7 would argue otherwise.
He argues that rules were established for Christians who were slaves or held slaves prior to becoming Christian. The first part I buy, the second part I don’t. Deem says it like slave owners who become Christians freed their slaves, but Deem doesn’t provide any evidence (Biblical or otherwise) that this happened even once. Or that they were even commanded to do so as Christians The closest he comes is Paul encouraging Philemon to release Onesimus, but it isn’t an outright “you should do this because #God” and we’ve already discussed how Paul violated Deuteronomy 23:15, so Paul may not be our best source for God’s will when it comes to slavery, and if he is, God is actually a stepping backwards.
Deem then argues that slaves and freemen are equal in the eyes of God. To which I have to say “so what?” I can’t spread that on my toast and eat it. Sure that’s great to hear for the next life, but doesn’t do anything for them in this life. Slaves and freemen being equal in God’s eyes has nothing to do with condemning slavery. Its like patting them on the back saying “it’s okay, you will do better next time” But of course, the slave owners are equal, so slave owner is going to do just as well in the next life, so the slaves still gets a raw deal.
If the verse had said slaves and freemen are equal, and by the way as Christians you shouldn’t own another human being” then we would have something.
If when God freed the Hebrews from the Egyptians from 430 years of abusive slavery he said “hey, you know what it is like to be slaves, so let’s not enslave anyone” then we would have something.
Instead they are not even out of Egypt before God is discussing which slaves owned by the Hebrews can partake in the Passover. If a Hebrew buys your slave with money (yet another conflict with Deem’s opening argument) and circumcise them, then that slave can participate in the holiday celebrating God’s murder of children in order to free the Hebrews from slavery, a freedom the slave owned by that very same freed Hebrew may never experience. Ironic much? Exodus 12:43-44
Deem closes his piece reemphasizing at best a mistaken belief that slavers were to be executed in the OT (If not a deliberate falsehood). Leviticus 25:44-46 has God on record explicitly giving the Israelites permission to buy slaves from other nations
Deem reiterates the laws were to protect the health of the slaves. Exodus 21:21 says a slave owner can beat his male or female slave within an inch of his or her life without recompense (for a slave is his money) so long as the slave doesn’t die. Draw your own conclusions
Deem says Paul “virtually orders” Philemon to release his slave, but Paul still falls short of saying it is a moral requirement for Christians not to own slaves, which leaves slavery as maybe not morally good, but still morally permissible. And we have no idea if Philemon ever freed Oneimus.
Deem’s big finish is stressing many verses in the New Testament declare slaves and freemen equal in God’s eyes, which has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not God/the Bible encourages or approves of slavery.
I have to conclude that Deem is either sadly mistaken about how the Bible depicts God’s views on slavery, or he is intentionally trying to mislead his readers to a more favorable opinion than the Bible deserves. And to be honest, in this day and age where anyone can go to an online bible database and type in “Slave” or “forced labor” and read every biblical reference to those subjects for themselves, I do not understand how he could accidentally leave out:Exodus 12:43-44; Exodus 21:7;Deuteronomy 20:10-15; Leviticus 25:44-46, among others.