Did God sanction slavery? (part 1)
On my first read through the verses in chapter 21 of Exodus, I felt myself tightening up on the inside. As a descendant of enslaved Africans, I’ve always had a difficult time with the notion that God could sanction the enslavement of human beings. There are many people of African descent who point to verses like these in the Bible when explaining their rejection of a God who could permit such a thing.
I’ve heard many arguments around the fact that European slave traders used verses like these to prove their superiority, and therefore, their God-given right to kidnap, possess, torture, subjugate, oppress, and brutalize an entire race of people for centuries. I get choked up trying to defend my faith in the loving Father I’ve come to know. The evidence that some of my people understandably present would seem to suggest that His love is conditional.
How could any parent allow one of his children to treat his own brothers and sisters with such hatred? I just cannot reconcile that in my mind. So I decided to back up and read each verse carefully. I also compared translations to see if there might be differences in any of the verbiage used. Here's what I found:
Exodus 21:2 - "When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. (ESV)"
Glaringly obvious to me is the fact that this is referring not to Africans, but to Hebrews. God is laying down the laws that govern this sort of transaction within the family of Jacob. Another important distinction I found is that some translations use the word “slave” while others use the word “servant.” The original King James Version uses the word “servant,” so I’m unsure as to why this word needed to be translated a different way in other versions.
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. (NIV)"
I, for one, prefer the word “servant” because it has a less incendiary connotation than the word “slave.” Servants serve, often times for some sort of monetary compensation. A servant might have been working off a debt he was unable to pay. A female servant might have been sold by her family who could no longer afford to take care of her.
Either way, God instructed the Hebrews to set a servant free in the seventh year of his service. That certainly isn’t what occurred with our ancestors. They were enslaved from one generation to the next and the next and the next...for too many generations to count. In my mind, the loving God that I know would not have sanctioned that crime against humanity.
Exodus 21:3 - "If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. (NIV)"
This verse tells me that God prefers to keep families intact. Again, this is contrary to what I’ve learned about the Africans and their descendants who were enslaved for centuries. Babies were often torn from their mothers. Husbands were brutalized and torn from their wives. Women were raped and beaten. The God I love would not have sanctioned any of this.
Exodus 21:4-6 - "If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (NIV)"
Now this is troubling to me, because it appears that the male servant has rights that the female servant does not. Apparently, he is free to leave, but she is not. Are female servants required to serve for life? And, any children that she bears are also required to serve for their entire lives? If the man does not want to leave his family, then he must be a servant for life? I cannot make sense of this one, however, the mother and children still remain intact, unlike what happened to enslaved Africans.
Perhaps, in the ancient Hebrew culture, it was better for the woman and her children to continue living as part of a household that is already operational and stable. She would have lifetime employment as a servant, and would not have to fend for herself alone if her impoverished husband were to die or come to some unfortunate end. These are probably people without a birthright, without an inheritance, with no land, and no extended family support. So these laws were probably more about a form of “social security” than oppression.
My takeaway, so far...
It is my belief that the Europeans and their descendants who twisted the Scriptures to justify slavery not only committed crimes against humanity, but also blasphemed against God. They tainted the living Word of God, and are responsible for leading millions astray, while also turning millions away.
I will conclude my examination of these verses in part 2 of this blog post. If you're still with me at this point, I appreciate your open mind and heart, and I look forward to your comments which you can either leave below, or by visiting my Facebook page.
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