AFRICANGLOBE – Should a person be able to own another person? Today Christians uniformly say no, and many would like to believe that has always been the case. But history tells a different story, one in which Christians have struggled to give a clear answer when confronted with questions about human trafficking and human rights. Had the Bible been edited differently, Christendom might have achieved moral clarity on this issue sooner. As is, the Bible contains very mixed messages, which means that biblical authority could be invoked on either side of the question, leaving Christian beliefs about slavery vulnerable for centuries to prevailing cultural, political, and economic currents.
Old Testament Endorses, Describes, and Regulates Slavery
The Bible first endorses slavery in the book of Genesis, in the story of Noah the ark builder. After the flood, Noah’s son Ham sees his father drunk and naked, and for reasons that have long been debated, is cursed. One recurring theme in Genesis is that guilt can be transferred from a guilty person to an innocent person (think of Adam and Eve’s fruit consumption, which taints us all), and in this case the curse is put on Ham’s son, Canaan.
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” Genesis 9:24-27 NRSV
Most likely, this story was intended originally to justify the Israelite subjugation of Canaanite peoples, who, in other stories about the conquest of the Promised Land are slaughtered or enslaved. Later though, Christians and Muslims would use the story to explain why some people have dark skin, and “Ham’s curse” became a justification for enslaving Africans.
Throughout the Hebrew Old Testament, slavery is endorsed in a variety of ways. Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob both have sex with female slaves, and the unions are blessed with male offspring. Captives are counted among the booties of war, with explicit instructions given for purifying virgin war captives before “knowing them.” The wisest man of all time, Solomon, keeps hundreds of concubines, meaning sexual slaves, along with his many wives.
The books of the Law provide explicit rules for the treatment of Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves.
You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
When punishing slaves, owners are given latitude that falls just short of on-the-spot murder:
When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21) That said, the book of Deuteronomy explicitly forbids returning an escaped slave to his master, in a passage that was a favorite of abolitionists:
Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.(Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
Most Christians believe that Mosaic Law is no longer binding, and that the life of Jesus ushered in a new period of grace and forgiveness, but that hasn’t stopped Old Testament endorsements of slavery from shaping the course of Christian history. They are, after all, still in the Bible. Fourth century Catholic councils endorsed the Hebrew Scriptures as a package, permanently binding them together with the Christian writings that became the New Testament.
New Testament Encourages Kindness from Master, Obedience from Slave
Equally regrettable, from the standpoint of moral clarity, is the fact that New Testament writers fail to condemn Old Testament slavery. In fact, the Jesus of Matthew says that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).
Slavery comes up regularly in New Testament texts; but rather than repudiating the practice, the writers simply encourage good behavior on the part of both slaves and masters. Slaves are clearly property of the owners, as are their families. In one parable Jesus compares God to a king who has slaves. When one slave refuses to forgive the debt of a peer, the righteous king treats him in kind, “and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made” (Matthew 18:25).
While in prison, the Apostle Paul encounters an escaped slave, Onesimus, and sends a letter to his Christian owner, Philemon, tacitly endorsing Philemon’s authority in the matter. The messages are mixed. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon “not as a slave but as a brother”—but he does send him back.
Several letters attributed to Paul express the sentiment that in Christ all people are one:
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Then again, he tells slaves to submit to their masters, even as he exhorts masters to treat slaves well.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. (Ephesians 6:5-9)
Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. (1 Timothy 6:1-3)
The mixed messages of the New Testament provided the basis for later Christian arguments on both sides of the slavery question.