What’s the key issue about the slavery in the Bible? Is it that there are different kinds of slavery (indentured servitude and chattel slavery) or is it that God supported both?
You’d think that God could defend himself, but Christian apologists must always clean up his messes. What’s interesting about this instance is how readily God’s defenders will lie for him.
In “Ten Ways Servant-Slavery in Israel Differed from Chattel Slavery,” Christian author Ken Samples contrasts “servant-slavery” (temporary indentured servitude) with “chattel slavery” (slavery for life) as defined in the Old Testament.
Technically, he’s correct—indentured servitude and chattel slavery are different. That’s why we have different names for them. But this isn’t what a casual Christian reader will take from his argument, and that’s the problem. It’s deceptive. Samples must understand the issue well enough to understand the problem, and that he takes no steps to clarify makes me fear that this deception is deliberate.
Read that title, and you’d think that Israel had “servant-slavery,” but it was the other societies that had chattel slavery. The truth is that Israel had both. Knowing that, Samples would’ve been more honest with a title like, “Servant-slavery vs. chattel slavery in ancient Israel: 10 differences.” But honesty doesn’t seem to be a goal.
Chattel slavery in the Bible
Here is one place where God defines the rules for chattel slavery:
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 … (Leviticus 25:44–6).
This is coming from God himself. Follow his rules, and you get a green light to keep slaves for life.
Indentured servitude vs. chattel slavery in the Bible
The article above lists ten points where the Old Testament’s indentured servitude is not chattel slavery. Let’s critique.
“1. Indentured servitude offered a means to deal with poverty.”
And in the US, the purpose was to get your trip to America paid for. Neither would be an excuse to reintroduce indentured servitude into modern society.
“2. Racism was not a motivation for slavery.”
This is presumably a contrast with American slavery. But with American slavery, racism was a justification, not a motivation.
Us vs. Them tribal differences was clearly central to Old Testament slavery. The passage from Leviticus above showed that chattel slaves came from neighboring tribes.
“3. Kidnapping, including for the purpose of slave trading, was illegal.”
For fellow Jews, yes, but this just means that indentured servitude and chattel slavery were different. We’ve been over that.
“4. Enslaved people were not treated as mere property.”
True for indentured servants but not for chattel slaves.
“5. Cruelty was strictly prohibited and punishable by law.”
We find cruelty in the Bible’s very laws to minimize cruelty. Here’s a slave rule from the Good Book:
Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property (Exodus 21:20–21).
Sounds like a thumbs-up to cruelty. Here’s one from the 1833 Alabama law code:
Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person.
How does the Bible look in this comparison?
“6. Slavery was not operative from birth.”
Wrong. Children born to a slave mother, even if the father is an indentured servant, are the master’s property (Exodus 21:2–6). The father can leave after his indenture ends, but his children can’t. His only alternative is to promise to remain with the master for life.
“7. Slavery was not a permanent condition.”
True for indentured servitude; not true for chattel slavery.
“8. Indentured servitude was entered into and ended voluntarily.”
This is obviously not true for chattel slavery, but it’s also not true for indentured servitude, which lasted for six years (Ex. 21:2). Indentured servants who decide after a few months that the living or working conditions are too harsh are out of luck.
“9. Enslaved people had rights.”
As did chattel slaves in Alabama in 1833—see the law above.
“10. Enslaved people had access to an appeals process.”
And let’s not get too excited about Israel’s graciousness if their slavery laws were no more enlightened than those of many other societies in the Ancient Near East. For example, Hammurabi’s Code compares well against the Old Testament.
Returning to the point …
In this list of traits of indentured servitude, I count three items that are wrong, but this list isn’t the point. In Samples’ book from which this list came, Samples makes clear his point: “In truth, the indentured servitude of the Old Testament bears little resemblance to the modern conception of slavery” (p. 167). It was a useful exercise to respond to the list to highlight its flaws, but this plays to his agenda to get us talking about the wrong thing. Samples is misdirecting us, like a stage magician.
Sure, you can compare indentured servitude favorably to chattel slavery, but Israel had both! This is the elephant in the room that Samples doesn’t want to acknowledge.
What does it say about the god he worships that he must deceive us to defend that god? #NinthCommandment
See also: Yes, Biblical Slavery Was the Same as American Slavery
It’s often said that everyone
should respect the “great truths”
contained in all faiths.
If you see any, please let me know.
— James A. Haught