Sunday Study: Slavery, John Locke and the Bible

It is often affirmed, as an incontestable and obvious truth, that the Bible supports slavery. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong cites Leviticus 25:44 as evidence of this charge in “Why Traditional Theism is not an Adequate Foundation for Morality.”[1] Although Armstrong is not the alone in making this claim, I think the charge is mistaken; the Bible does not support slavery.

This claim was refuted by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, one of the founding texts of contemporary liberal political theory. Locke was a famous English philosopher, less known is that Locke was also the author of several commentaries on scripture and the First Treatise of Civil Government was essentially a class argument from scripture against the divine right of kings. In the Second Treatise, Locke argued that the law of nature, which for Locke is the law of God, forbids a person selling themselves or another into slavery.[2]

In response to the line of argument Armstrong cites, Locke responded with

I confess, we find among the Jews, as well as other nations, that men did sell themselves; but, it is plain, this was only to drudgery, not to slavery: for, it is evident, the person sold was not under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power: for the master could not have power to kill him, at any time, whom, at a certain time, he was obliged to let go free out of his service; and the master of such a servant was so far from having an arbitrary power over his life, that he could not, at pleasure, so much as maim him, but the loss of an eye, or tooth, set him free, Exod. xxi.[3]

Locke’s argument here is as follows,

[1] If a person is a slave then that person is “under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.”[4]
[2] The institution referred to in scripture that people could sell themselves into, was not one where they were “under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power.”

The conclusion Locke draws from [1] and [2] is that the institution scripture refers to is not slavery. Locke’s response here is interesting and fundamentally correct. Here I want to simply elaborate on it in more detail so I will address each premise in turn.

What is Slavery?
Central to Locke’s argument is his definition of slavery and understanding of what makes slavery wrong. Locke understands the state of slavery as,

[1] If a person is a slave then that person is “under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.”

Rodney Stark utilises a similar definition,

A slave is a human being who, in the eyes of the law and custom, is the possession, or chattel, of another human being or of a small group of human beings. Ownership of slaves entails absolute control, including the right to punish (often including the right to kill), to direct behaviour, and to transfer ownership.[5]

The Oxford Dictionary gives a similar definition; a slave is defined as a “person who is the legal property of another or others and is bound to absolute obedience, human chattel.”[6] Timothy Keller notes correctly that the English word ‘slave’ carries connotations of new-world slavery as it was practiced in the British Empire, made infamous in the antebellum southern states of the US.[7] It is this paradigm that critics of scripture tend to allude to. John Loftus, for example, cites an eyewitness description of antebellum practices and then links it slavery in the Bible,

He took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist. He made her get upon the stool, and he tied her hands to a hook in the joist. After rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cow skin, and soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor … No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood clotted cowskin.
Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?[8]

In the British Empire and in many US states, slavery was governed under the Code of Barbados. This code was explicitly racist and described Africans as “heathenish, brutish, and an uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people.”[9] It allowed owners to use, “unlimited force to compel labor without penalty even if this resulted in maiming or death;”[10] It denied slaves due process rights, allowed owners to, in effect, kill their slave for any cause, forbade slaves from marrying and effectively, prevented owners from setting their slaves free.[11] Keller writes that, “The African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapping.”[12] Stark notes that “20 to 40 percent of slaves died while being transported to the coast, another 3-10 percent died while waiting on the coast, and about 12 to 16 percent boarded on ships died during the voyage.”[13]

Does the Old Testament Approve of Slavery?
Armstrong argues that “the bible contains some horrible passages about slavery;”[14] to substantiate this he cites from the English Standard Version, “as for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations around you.” (Lev 25:44) [15]

The ESV here uses the English word ‘slavery’ to translate the Hebrew word ebed. An important initial observation is that ebed is the noun form of the verb abad which means ‘to work’ or ‘to serve.’ Ebed does not have the same semantic range as the contemporary word ‘slave;’ Freedman notes,

The word ebed however, denoted not only actual slaves occupied in production or in the household but also persons in subordinate positions (mainly subordinate with regard to the king and his higher officials). Thus the term ebed is sometimes translated as “servant.” Besides, the term was used as a sign of servility in reference to oneself when addressing persons of higher rank.[16]

Locke suggests that an examination of The Torah’s references to an ebed shows that, in fact, it is not the equivalent of what in English language and culture is referred to with the word ‘slave.’ I noted above that Locke’s second premise was,

[2] The institution referred to in scripture that people could sell themselves into, was not one where they were “under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power.”

I will give four examples to demonstrate why I think Locke is correct.

First, an ebed was not acquired by kidnapping; kidnapping a human being and selling them as a slave was a capital offence in The Torah (Ex 21:16). Moreover, slave trading is implicitly condemned in the book of Revelation (Rev 18:13) and explicitly condemned by Paul as contrary to the law and sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:9-10). An ebed is used in The Torah to refer to a person who offers to work for another, free of charge, in exchange for a debt being cancelled. During service the ebed worked for and served another, lived in that person’s house and probably received free food and board.

Second, the institution was not based on racist notions that ebed were of an inferior race. In fact, the opposite is affirmed. In the book of Job we read,

If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves [Hebrew: ebed amah] when they brought a complaint against me; what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? And did not one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:13-15

Here Job refers to an ebed as having a right to go to court and sue their “owner” in pursuit of their rights. Job bases this on the idea that both he and his ebed are equal; both are created by God.

Third, as Locke notes, an ebed was not the property of another so that they could dispose of them as they saw fit. To deliberately kill an ebed is a capital offence (Ex 21:20-21). Similarly, it was illegal to strike an ebed (Ex 21:26-27). This latter point is often denied on the basis of Exodus 21:20-21,

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

Some interpret this passage to mean that because a slave is the property of another they can severely beat the slave and providing the beating is not fatal, there is no punishment. This fails to deal adequately with the context and the Hebrew text; the word translated as ‘property’ here is actually ‘silver’ (a reference to money) and the word translated ‘punishment’ here is not the usual word for punishment. Christopher Wright notes that the word implies “the shedding of the blood of the master of the slave”[17] and so refers to capital punishment. It is used in direct contrast with the same word in the previous verse where it is stated that deliberately killing an ebed is to be avenged. Therefore it does not say the person will not be punished for beating a slave, it says he will not be executed for it unless he kills the slave. For further evidence that the passage is not a licence to beat, a couple of verses later even causing a minor injury on an ebed, such as a bruise, is explicitly condemned.

The same contrast occurs in the passage immediately preceding where a free man who struck and killed another was to be “held responsible” but not if the person survives. It is clear from v 19, however, that the person was in fact to be punished; hence, again, the ‘held responsible’ is referring only to being held responsible for murder and is not speaking to the lesser charges. What Ex 21:20-21 says then, is that if a person deliberately kills their ebed then they are to be held responsible for murder and executed. If the slave if the slave “gets up after a day or two,” they are not to be held responsible for murder because the ebed is their “silver.”

This makes sense when a few verses later, in Ex 21:26-27, striking a slave is explicitly prohibited and the legal punishment is for the ebed to go free. In The Torah, the penalty for assault was for the assailant to provide monetary compensation to the victim.[18] This would create a quandary in this case as an ebed is in a position of servitude because he or she is in debt to the person they work for. In such a case the assailant would owe money to a person who owes him money. The Torah resolves the issue by declaring that even a trivial strike (such as the causing a bruise 21:25) resulted in an immediate cancelation of the ebed’s entire debt, which would often result in a financial loss to the assailant.

Third, unlike new world slavery which was life long and where, under the Barbados code, emancipation was effectively prohibited, an ebed could not be held in service for more than six years (Exodus 21:2).[19] Upon release, their employer was morally required to give them sufficient resources for them to be set up on their own feet (Deut 15:12-18) and the community left resources for them to live on for a year (Ex 23:10-11, Lev 25:2-7). In fact, The Torah encouraged people to prevent family members from becoming an ebed by paying their debts for them (Lev 25:48). Paul, after writing to the Corinthians and encouraging them to “retain the place in life that the Lord assigned,” encourages slaves to purchase their freedom and not to remain in this position (1 Cor 7:21-22).

Finally, if an ebed fled from an oppressive employer it was illegal to return him or her to “his master,” instead he or she was to live, “wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses” (Deut 23:15-16). It was forbidden to send him or her back to his owner. This law stood in stark contrast the Ancient Near Eastern legal customs of the day.[20] The code of Hammurabi, for example, proscribed the death penalty for receiving a runaway slave.[21] In the antebellum south, the Fugitive Slave Act 1850 required the return of run-away slaves at penalty of law.

It seems then that Locke’s response is fundamentally correct. While it is true that many English translations of the bible use the word slavery to translate the word ebed it is mistaken to see the two institutions as the same. Slavery refers to the state of being the property or chattel of another; regardless of what connotations various words in English translations have, the institution referred to in scripture did not permit, condone or allow this.

[1] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 101-116.
[2] John Locke Second Treatise on Civil Government Ch IV.
[3] Ibid, sec 24.
[4] Ibid, sec 23.
[5] Rodney Stark For the Glory of God: How Monotheism led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the end of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) 292.
[6] The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Oxford: Oxford Clarendon University Press, 1974 ) 5th Edition, 1199.
[7] Timothy Keller Reasons for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton books) 110.
[8] John Loftus Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008) 231. Many thanks to Dean Mischewski for gifting us a copy of Loftus’s book.
[9] Stark For the Glory of God: 312-313.
[10] Ibid, 313.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Keller Reasons for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism 111.
[13] Stark For the Glory of God: 303.
[14] Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 110.
[15] Armstrong omits to mention the previous passage which forbids any Israelite taking another Israelite as a ‘slave’ on the grounds that they are a “slave of God” whom God has redeemed. Paul applies the same teaching to Christians in 1 Corinthians 7:23 prohibiting Christians from being sold as ‘slaves.’ This teaching led many early and medieval theologians to forbid the enslavement of Christians resulting in slavery all but disappearing from Christian Europe in the early Middle Ages; Stark documents this in For the Glory of God: 329-330.
[16] D N Freedman Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group,1992).
[17] Christopher Wright God’s People in Gods Land: Family, Land and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids Mi: Paternoster Press, 1990) 242.
[18] See Exodus 21:19.
[19] There is an apparent discrepancy between Exodus 21:1-6 and the release laws of Leviticus 25:39-43; Christopher Wright in God’s People in Gods Land: 253, noted that the law in Exodus 21:6 refers to Hebrew slaves. Wright notes that in its original context the word ibri designated a social class, not an ethnic group. This was the class of people who did not own land, who survived by hiring themselves out to land owners. Lev 25, on the other hand, deals with an Israelite landowner who has been forced into poverty by mortgaging his land and then selling himself and his family into the service of another land owner.
[20] Wright God’s People in Gods Land: 249.
[21] Code of Hammurabi 16.

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