We have all heard many critical claims about the God of the Bible or the Bible itself. Some of them may have fallen along these lines:
“The God of the Bible is socially and culturally regressive”
“The Bible considers women to be inferior”
“If God is really love, he can’t allow suffering”
“I could never follow a God who supports slavery”
Many of these claims are even accompanied by quotes taken straight from the Bible. So how can we know if these are true statements supported by the Bible? If they are supported by Bible verses then they have to be true right?
I want to take a humble attempt to shed some more light on these types of statements by looking into the latter one of the claims listed: “God supports slavery.”
This claim reached my ears multiple times over the past year and was often accompanied by a Bible reference. The most recent time I heard the claim of God’s support of slavery was along these lines:
“In Deuteronomy 15, God commanded the Israelites to put an awl through the ear of their slaves into a door and then they will be in slavery for the rest of their lives.”
Deuteronomy 15 has often been a reference to argue for God’s support of slavery and the speakers words were not untrue to the words of the text. So is the claim actually true?
Well, it takes a little more work than just skimming a quick line of the Bible to come to such a conclusion about God. Let’s take a look at the verses surrounding this claim:
“If your brother, a Hebrew man or aHebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you’, because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever.” – Deuteronomy 15:12-17
Looking at the context of the passage it does not take much sense to see that God is speaking to a slavery or servitude that is much different from the idea we Americans have of slavery. There are two points to make here:
1. Identify the presuppositions we have. When Americans hear the word slavery we have a rush of painful and disgusted memories, ideas, and opinions that flood our minds. No one could argue the evil of the slavery that characterizes American history. However we must remember that the author (human) and audience of the Bible do not have this memory of slavery. The Israelites in the time of Deuteronomy operated under a different culture, history, and line of presuppositions. If we assume this passage in Deuteronomy 15 is automatically conforming to our idea of slavery then we are mistaken.
2. Look at the context! Even when read the context of the passage in Deut. 15 anyone with common sense can see that God is saying something different than, “I support and even command brutal slavery”. If you do some light digging in the passage you can find out that God is outlining a program to protect rights of Hebrew slaves/servants who willingly put themselves into servitude because of poverty. The ESV Study Bible notes:
“Slavery in Israel was therefore a short-term measure to help self-employed peasant farmers who could not pay their debts. Thus a rich landowner who offered a bankrupt peasant guaranteed employment and support until the sabbatical year was valued. Taking on such a “slave” was viewed as an act of charity.”
Slavery here is not referring to a forced labor, brutal slavery but a voluntary slavery because of the inability to support their families. To take on a slave was a seen as charitable and an act of kindness because the slave was better off. We could continue to go deeper here but let’s talk about the awl through the ear.
The initial, out of context statement, mentioned earlier about the “awl through the ear” sounds brutal. Again let’s look at the context. The only way that the slave would have had this done to him or her is if they loved the family they were under so much that they wanted to serve them for a lifetime. This again, is a voluntary, unforced, act to submit to slavery because of poverty. We can assume that if someone willingly submitted themselves to lifetime servitude the conditions must have been pretty dang good by their standards.
Admittedly, the awl (pictured below) through the ear sounds a little weird but this is nothing more than an ear piercing as a sign that the slave has willingly submitted themselves for their life.
There is much more that could be discussed in this passage in the way of context but you can do some more research on your own if interested. A few main points in conclusion:
1. Identifying presuppositions and context is extremely important in Bible study
After identifying these two correctly we can see that the claim, “God supports some form of brutal, immoral, slavery” is taken wildly out of context. Anyone making this claim has not done one of the most basic scholarly practices of reading the context and only wants to make the Bible say something that it does not support.
2. What this DOES say about God.
The point of this piece of the Bible is about God’s provision to keep the rights and well being of Hebrew slaves. God cares about slaves and their rights. In this situation it is evident that God wanted to make sure that Hebrews who willingly put themselves under slavery were cared for and had their rights protected.
3. Christians have participated in brutal slavery.
I do not want to dance around the fact that many followers of God and Christians have participated in and supported evil systems of slavery. Christianity was dominant in the nations that participated in the African slave trade and the church has to bear the responsibility of this injustice. But despite this stain on the Church, it was also the institution that led the fight against slavery. Social historian, Rodney Stark, writes:
“Although it has been fashionable to deny it, anti slavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently ‘lost’ from history until recently. Finally, the abolition of New World slavery was initiated and achieved by Christian activists.”
In my argument against the statement that “God supports immoral slavery” I hope to have outlined a greater strategy to look more deeply into statements made about the Bible or the God that it describes. There are parts of the Bible that are undoubtably hard to understand but our questions will be easily overshadowed by the picture of a great God who has gone to unthinkable lengths to have a relationship with those that he loves.