Sermon Notes: “What does the Bible really say about Slavery? A Conversation on the Pro-slavery and Anti-slavery argument in the Age of American Slavery”

Sermon Notes

Sermon Title: “What does the Bible really say about Slavery? A Conversation on the Pro-slavery and Anti-slavery argument in the Age of American Slavery”

Text: Ephesians 6:5-9

Date: Sunday,  June 17, 2018

Speaker: Pastor Joseph

Introduction. This morning, we explore the second part of the teaching series entitled “Slavery, the Bible, and God’s Redemption.” We  give special attention to the so-called “Biblical Slavery Texts,” that is some passages in the Bible that seem to approve of the enslavement of individuals, but they do not indicate explicitly and directly that God has sanctioned slavery–as this was a common argument made by pros-slavery Christians and theologians throughout the nineteenth century in America. Secondly, we  discuss certain relevant texts that anti-abolitionists, both Christians and non-Christians, used to campaign against the enslavement of Africans in the United States, to legally abolish slavery as an institution in the United States, and for the American government to legally put a stop at the country’s participation in the transatlantic Slave trade.

Finally, we will do some comparison between biblical slavery and American slavery. This is part of our verse-by-verse exposition on the book of Ephesians (Ephesians 6:5-9).

“Much of slavery within Israel reflects the norms of the surrounding cultures. Inasmuch as Scripture does not openly challenge (abolish) slavery as a social institution, it increases the likelihood of the social structure itself being a cultural casting within the text. On the other hand, where Israel markedly departs from the surrounding cultures is in the softening or bettering of conditions within slavery. For instance, the refuge given runaway slaves illustrates a dramatic countercultural component within the slavery material. This carries tremendous potential for conveying transcultural implications, not in terms of the static/isolated words (i.e. designating cities of slave refuge for today) but in terms of the redemptive spirit (i.e., reapplying the spirit of the text toward an even better treatment of human beings and eventually eliminating slavery). The counterculture components within the slavery materials continue to speak louder today than those that simply reflect the cultural norms”

  • *** Source of notes: William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, p.158.
  1. Perceptions of Slavers and Slavery in the Bible: The Major Texts
  • 21:21: depict slaves as property of his owners.
  • 25:38-43: does not recommend the seventh-year release of foreign slaves
  • Gen 16:1-4; 30:3-4, 9-10; cf. Gen 35:22: discuss the use of slaves for reproductive purposes
  • 19:20-22; cf. Deut. 22:25-27: discuss sexual violation against slaves versus free women.
  • 21:20-21: discuss physical beating of slaves.
  • 21:28-32: indicates the slave’s life has a lesser value in capital cases.

*** Source of notes: William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, p.44

 Pro-Slavery Arguments in the United States and the Use of the Bible

  • Genesis 9:25-27, for the sin of Ham, who exposed his father Noah’s nakedness, Ham’s descendants through his Son Canaan were to be owned as slaves by descendants of Noah’s other sons.
  • Genesis 17:2, God sanctioned and regulated the slaveholding of the patriarch Abraham, father of all believers.
  • Deuteronomy 20:10-11, God sanctioned the enslavement of Israel’s enemies.
  • 1 Corinthians 7: 21, while a Christian slave may welcome emancipation, that slave should not chafe if emancipation is not given.
  • Romans 13:1, 7, the Apostle Paul urged Christian believers to conform to the Roman imperial system, which practiced a harsh form of slaveholding.
  • Colossians 3:22, 4:1, The Apostle regulated the master-slave relationship, but did not question it.
  • 1 Timothy 6:1-2, the apostle explicitly taught that the conversion of slaves did not provide cause for even Christian masters to emancipate those Christian slaves.

***Also, the following texts were used to support slavery: Ex. 21:20-21, 32; Lev. 22:11; Eph. 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-25.

Abolitionist Arguments against Slavery and the Use of the Bible

  1. Laws in Favor of Slaves in the Bible
  • 23:12: requires a seventh-day rest for all slaves
  • 25:39-43; cf. Jer. 34:8-22: requires a seventh-year release for Hebrew slaves
  • 15:12-18: makes provisions for slaves upon release
  • 21:20-21, 26-27: articulates some limitation on physical beatings of slaves
  • 21:26-27; cf. Deut. 23:15: demands the people of Israel to create places of refuge and safety for foreign runaway slaves.
  • 21:16; Deut. 24:7; cf. 1 Tim 1:10: these verses denounce slave traders.
  • Col 4:1; Eph 6:9: articulates admonitions against harness toward slaves

*** Source of notes: William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, p.44

  1. Laws about Slavery in the Ancient Near East Parallel to the Biblical Texts

Webb writes that

  • “Both the Old and Testaments made significant modifications to the institution of slavery relative to their broader cultures. In biblical legislation some of the redemptive components relative to the surrounding cultures are listed below (given). The biblical treatment of slaves moves in a direction away from much of its surrounding world. relative to the original culture these very slavery texts often incorporate a redemptive dimension:
  • Generous number of days off work. Many ANE/GR cultures gave slaves time off for festival holidays. By comparison, however, the extent of holidays for festivals (Deut. 16:10-11; 31:10:13) and for the weekly Sabbath rest (Ex. 23:12) in Israel was very generous.
  • Elevated status in worship setting. Some ancient cultures restricted slaves from involvement in the sacred rituals. The Roman Empire, for example, barred slaves from the ceremonial aspects of the religious festivals because they were thought to have a defiling or polluting influence. On the other hand, the Israelite and church community encouraged full participation of slaves in worship and religious activities (Ex. 12:44; Lev. 22:11; Deut. 12:12, 18)
  • Release of Hebrew slaves after six years. Most ANE cultures had no legal requirement for the release of slaves. Since the duration of ownership was completely in the hands of the master, many slaves served for life or at least until they could purchase their freedom. The latter was often a practical impossibly. Both the biblical text (Lev. 25:39-43; cf. Jer. 34:8-22) and the laws of Hammurabi established a clear limit on the duration of the debt-type slavery. But this kind of prescribed release of debt slaves after a certain number of years was a unique and highly redemptive legislative feature compared to most other ANE cultures.
  • Provisions given to slaves upon release. Material assistance for released slaves stand out as a generous act of biblical law (Deut. 15:12-18); other law codes do not appear to include this act of compensation and stabilization.
  • Limitations on physical beatings; freedom for damaged slaves. Biblical slavery limited the severity of beatings that masters could inflict upon their slaves (Ex. 21:20-21). Also, any slaves who were physically damaged by their master automatically gained their freedom (Ex. 21:25-27; cf. 27:3-4). Most other cultures were only constrained in the physical abuse of slaves through the logic that they would be damaging their own property. But this logic often gave way to the torturous treated of select slaves as an object lesson for other slaves. Most foreign laws were extremely lax in restraining the abusive hand of the master. The mutilation of slaves in the ANE as well as in the GR context generally held little or no consequences for the owner. The physical and sexual abuse of slaves was generally seen as an owner’s prerogative. In the Roman context there was even legislation that prescribed the torture of slaves in certain legal cases.
  • Admonitions toward genuine care. The flip side of the limitations against abusing slaves is found in the positive injunctions of the Bible toward masters. These texts were intended to turn masters away from harshness and to foster genuine care for slaves (Col 4:1; Eph 6:9). One sense the underlying force of such instructions when hearing them in the context of a world that often did not care for their slaves. For instance, the ancient writers Suetonius and Dio Cassius both described the circumstances of many sick slaves who were left to die without treatment.
  • Condemnation of trading stolen slaves/people. Scripture explicitly points to foreign practices in its denunciation of slave trading by means of stealing people. For example, Gaza and Tyre are condemned along these lines (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7; 1 Tim 1:10; Amos 1:6, 9; Exk. 27:13)
  • Refuge and safety for runaway slaves. In the ancient world runaway slaves were often for bounty. Captured slaves were at times executed along with their families or accomplices. For instance, the code of Hammurabi prescribed the death penalty for aiding and abetting a runaway slave. Most nations held extradition treaties with other countries in order to facilitate the return of runaways. In a radical departure from prevalent views, the entire land of Israel was considered a safety zone, a place of refuge for runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16; cf. Is 16:3-4). Runaway slaves were not to be returned to their masters.”
  • *** Source of notes: William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, pp. 74-76.

Webb’s conclusions:

  1. “When the biblical texts are read against the ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman context, the issue of movement becomes increasingly clear. These biblical alterations brought greater protection and dignity for the slave compared to the treatment of slaves in surrounding environments. Cyrus Gordon summarizes biblical slavery in this manner: “The general pictures emerges…that the lot of a slave in ancient Israel was far better than that of slave elsewhere.”
  2. “This improvement in the conditions of slaves relative to the original culture was a redemptive action by the biblical authors. However, it was not redemptive in many absolute sense. Scripture only moved the cultural “scrimmage markers” so far. Yet, that movement was sufficient enough to signal a positive direction in terms of where further improvements were possible for later generations.”
  3. “In Reapplying the text to later generations, we can easily stumble over the isolated words on the page if we do only what the text says and fail to let its underlying spirit carry the application further. It is the redemptive spirit of the text in its original context that we once again want to reapply in our modern context”

*** Source of notes: William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, pp. 74-76, 180.

Jesus and Love

  • “If we think about the broad ethical teaching of Jesus, “love your neighbor as yourself,” then we are faced with legislation that should consistently be extended beyond a provincial domain to non-Israelite slaves as well. After all, Jesus defined “neighbor” in cross-cultural terms. From the broader principle, then, we have reinterpreted the specifics of scriptures for a contemporary application.” *** Source of notes: William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, pp. 180.

The “Concession Argument” about Biblical Slavery by Abolitionists

  • “While Israelite law requires masters to treat their slaves benevolently, and we gather from Israelite history suggests that this way the way the institution was generally practiced in Israel, we must still ask whether slavery in even its mildest form God’s ideal purpose was ever.”
  • “Some of God’s laws were concessions to human weakness, as Jesus clearly stated (Mark 10:5; Matt 19:8). One ca sees this, for example, in the institution of cities of refuge (Deut. 19:1-14).”
  • “We have here a case in which God permits a measure of injustice so that at least some measure of justice and mercy could be required. But that slavery was not God’s permanent intent we can learn from our equality as human beings created in God’s image, just as God’s original purpose for marriage shows that a husband and wife are to be one and that divorce was just a later concession in Mosaic law (Matt. 19:1-19)”
  • Indeed, certain principles in the law itself would militate against slavery if extended to their logical conclusions. As those who had been foreigner in the land of Egypt, Israelites were always to be kind and hospitable to foreigners in their own land (Ex. 23:9); they were likewise to give justice to the poor (Ex. 23:6; Deut. 24:14-15).
  • By extension, we could argue that because Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, they were also to respect their slaves, whom God might also favor above their masters if they mistreated them. They were not to oppress hired servants (Deut. 24:14, and. Remembering that they had been slaves in Egypt, they were not to oppress any of the poor (Deut. 24:17-18).
  • “Not only were they not to oppress them, but they were actively to provide for them (Deut. 24:19-22). And they were to treat well and eventually free and provide for Israelite slaves because they themselves been slaves in Egypt (Deut. 15:15), a principle that, if extended like the other principles in the law, could eventually demand the same treatment for all saves.
  • The law was so concerned with economic justice that it considered withholding a poor man’s ages for even one night a form of robbery (Lev 19:13);
  • When Jesus healed the sick and proclaimed released to the oppressed, he was demonstrating the ideal purposes of God, which the law had been able to address only halfway because of its allowance for the fallen structures of this world order around us”

Source” Craig Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives, pp. 192-3.

Amen!