Feedback: Does the Bible Encourage Masters to Beat Their Slaves?

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The Bible says it’s ok to beat your slaves as long as they don’t die immediately. Another is rape victims being forced to marry their attacker. I can’t think of any context where either of these things would be acceptable to me.

Have you ever used the Bible as your authority on a social issue, such as abortion or gay “marriage,” only to receive a response like the Facebook feedback above? People will often object to the Bible as the moral authority by bringing up passages from Scripture that they don’t like or (more often) a misconception about a biblical passage they often have never even read.

We will answer the above misguided statement in two separate articles, addressing the two questions, “Does the Bible teach that masters can beat their slaves?” and “Does the Bible teach that sexual assault victims must marry their attackers?

Clearing Up Some Misconceptions

The Old Testament Law does touch on the issue of slavery, including several laws about it. Most of these laws were actually proscriptive (imposing restraints or restrictions). But before we look at what the Bible says on this issue, please note these four things:

  1. The Bible includes one book, the epistle to Philemon, specifically written to a slave owner (Philemon), yet people who object to what the Bible says about slavery rarely, if ever, mention this fact. It would be wise to see what the Bible has to say in this book.
  2. The world of the Old Testament was very different from our modern one. Many of the solutions that work after a nation has been conquered today would not have worked in the ancient, largely agrarian societies of the time. We must take care not to impose our modern setting or circumstances into the text.
  3. When those of us in the West think of slavery, we typically picture the horrible days of “race”-based slavery that involved kidnapping people and selling them in other nations. Such a practice is utterly condemned in Scripture (as we will see) and is not what the Bible is referring to in the context of Israel. You can learn more about what slavery was like in biblical times in the article “Doesn’t the Bible Support Slavery?
  4. Texts regarding slavery throughout the Old Testament Law are often prefaced by the reminder that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt—a reminder to “do unto others” (Luke 6:31 KJV).

Why Does the Bible Address Slavery?

God knows the hearts of men, that they are disobedient.

Early in their history, the Israelites had taken captives (Genesis 34:27–311). God knows the hearts of men, that they are disobedient. If he had issued a unilateral rule that all slavery was a capital offense for the Israelites, this would have drastically changed how they waged war and dealt with all their enemies. At that time, conquered enemies were either made slaves or wives or were killed (more on this below). Also, the Israelites probably would have eventually ignored this rule like they ignored many of God’s other rules. If this were the case, their subsequent slaves would have been treated harshly, particularly with no God-given rules regulating the practice of slavery on the books. For the Israelites, who often wanted to be like the nations around them (Deuteronomy 17:14; 1 Samuel 8:19–20), being allowed to have slaves would have likely pacified them, but still allowed God to institute laws which enforced humane treatment of slaves. It may even have played to nationalistic pride where the Israelites could point out that their slaves were treated better than those of surrounding nations.

War and Peace

God also knew that eventually the Israelites would wage war with the Canaanites and other tribes, or that they would be attacked by others. Inevitably, they would make decisions about the women and children who were not killed. God made a provision for this.

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10–14)

If the Israelite man desired a captive woman, then he was to take her home, give her a month to grieve what she had lost, and then she was to become his wife. But if that did not work out, he could let her go wherever she wanted, but he was not allowed to sell her or treat her as a slave—she’s a wife, not a possession. Think about this in context: it was actually gracious, since a widow or orphan from a city that had been conquered or destroyed would be destitute. Marrying into the people who had conquered your land would at least provide a home, food, and other necessities, plus the chance for a future.

Some of the people groups near Israel were not to be meddled with (such as the Edomites or Moabites as per Deuteronomy 2:5, 9). But a provision needed to be made for the survivors if these people or any other nation attacked Israel and were defeated. Because of their national security threat, they could not just be set free. If these people were taken as slaves, then what was to become of their descendants? It would be better to sell or trade these defeated peoples to remove them (and the potential security threat) from the land.

In addition, some of the surrounding nations that were at peace with Israel and were outside the Promised Land would trade with Israel, but often the only commodity they had were slaves they had captured in war themselves. Since God foreknew this, he instituted rules allowing the people of Israel to buy and sell slaves (e.g. Leviticus 25:44–46), as long as those people were not fellow Israelites (different laws applied in that instance since this is not slavery but voluntary, temporary servitude; see Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25:39) and had not been kidnapped (more on that below). These slaves would either be bondservants (those who had sold themselves to pay off debt) or captives from war.

God utilized plunder from battle, including captured women and children (again, these people would have been destitute and have no hope if left on their own), as one means (via a taxing system) to help give the Levites a source of income, since they did not own land (e.g. Numbers 31).

In the case of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9), they were a local group that had deceived Israel, and instead of being killed, were forced into servitude by a permanent vow to the Lord (9:23–27). But they could not be mistreated and had to be protected from outside threats (Joshua 10) or avenged if wrong was done to them (2 Samuel 21). Had God not instituted any of the above slavery laws, these people would not have been protected by Israel and likely would have been wiped out. Again, since God foreknew this, he included the Gibeonites in his providential plan.

Kidnapping and Escaping

Stealing someone and selling or even buying him or her carried with it the death penalty.

The Israelites were not to kidnap (this is the kind of slavery we in the West typically imagine). Stealing someone and selling or even buying him or her carried with it the death penalty (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7). In the New Testament (1 Timothy 1:10), those who kidnap others are included in a list of evil men. God takes human life seriously.

If a slave escaped from his master, the Israelites were not to turn him in, but he was to choose where he wanted to live and settle down in peace (Deuteronomy 23:15–16). This made provision for those with harsh masters who, understandably, wanted to get away and start a new life. They could do so without fear of being handed back over.

Could Masters Harm Their Slaves?

Again, these laws against harming slaves are proscriptive. Most (if not all) other nations had no such laws (until the time of the Greeks and Romans) regarding slaves, viewing them merely as property. In the minds of most ancient cultures, it appears that if slaves were abused, mistreated, and even killed, there were no consequences.

But in Israel if you hit a slave and knocked his tooth out or damaged his eye, you had to set him free (Exodus 21:26–27). Clearly you were not to harm your slaves, and this is the context of the passage mentioned in the feedback, Exodus 21:20–21:

And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.

Rather than focusing solely on the second part of the verse, let’s examine the first part. The slave owner would be punished if he beat his slave to death. If the Mosaic Law is followed, this could include the death penalty for murder (Exodus 21:12). Do you not think this was a severe incentive to make sure that people did not beat their slaves? Again, the law in this was proscriptive meant to make people think of the consequences of their actions and impose penalties on violation. To imply that this encourages masters to restrain their beating only to the point that the servant didn’t immediately die is nonsense.

While this may seem scandalous to our modern Western mindset, until quite recently, corporal punishment was the norm, even in the military for those who were insubordinate to authority. There may have been times when discipline of a disobedient, lazy, or rebellious slave was considered necessary, and physical force may have been used. However, if the slave owner did permanent damage (i.e. damaged an eye or tooth), the slave walked away free, so there was certainly incentive for a master to not be overly harsh in his punishment. Now, again, think of these laws as boundary laws that God instituted in a civil society so that people could not attain the depths of depravity that the surrounding nations practiced. It was God putting a limit on mankind’s evil propensities and punishing cruelty and greed, not God condoning slavery.

Interpret Scripture with Scripture

Masters are commanded to treat their slaves justly and fairly remembering that they themselves are slaves of a Heavenly Master.

And, as always, we must interpret Scripture with Scripture. The New Testament letters are full of admonitions to both masters and slaves. In fact, one of the New Testament books is written to a slave owner (Philemon) with instructions on how he should treat his runaway slave (Onesimus) when they met again. Masters are commanded to treat their slaves justly and fairly, without threatening them, remembering that they themselves are slaves of a Heavenly Master (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). Likewise, they are to remember that believing slaves are fellow brothers (Philemon 16).

Slaves are to obey their masters (Colossians 3:22), just as they obey Christ (Ephesians 6:5), even if their masters are harsh or unjust (1 Peter 2:18). They are to do so “that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Titus 2:9–10) and because, if their master is a fellow brother, they benefit from their work as beloved brothers (1 Timothy 6:1–2). If a Christian was a slave when he was saved, he is not to be concerned about that, though if he can gain his freedom he is to do so (1 Corinthians 7:21). But believers must remember that we are all equal in our standing before Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, or slave or free (Galatians 3:28).

All of Us Are Slaves

There’s a reason many of those who fought vehemently against slavery here in the West, and many of those who still fight against modern slavery and trafficking, were and are Christians. The gospel and God’s Word speak of our equality, brotherhood, and unique status as image-bearers of the Creator (Genesis 1:27). Indeed, although the New Testament does not prohibit slavery, it made it much harder for a believing master to continue to own a slave who was a Christian brother or sister. A logical progression for a believing slaveowner would be to question whether God wanted him to own another Christian as property, particularly in light of such passages as Galatians 3:28–29, Ephesians 6:8 and Colossians 3:9–11. And since Christ commanded the gospel to be preached everywhere, a slaveowner who owned non-Christian slaves would be compelled to tell them of Christ and to act Christ-like toward them, which would likely mean improving their slaves’ ability to sustain themselves and/or setting them free as they were able. Slavery, especially how we know it today, goes against the very heart of the gospel, and Christians should oppose it and seek to help those who are victims of trafficking.

God’s Word talks about another form of slavery, a slavery that brings death.

God’s Word talks about another form of slavery, a slavery that brings death. That is slavery to sin (Romans 6:17). Every one of us, apart from Christ, is a slave to sin, deserving of death (verse 23). But Jesus didn’t leave us in our destitute condition. He stepped into history and paid the price for our redemption by his death on the Cross (Galatians 3:13). When he stated, “It is finished!” on the Cross (John 19:30), he was saying the sin debt had been paid and redemption had been purchased. Praise God the sin debt we could never pay has been paid by the precious blood of Jesus (1 Peter 1:18–19). Those who trust in him are freed from slavery to sin (Romans 6:18).

The message of the gospel—and its reminder that we were all once slaves—should make us want to spread the gospel and fight against modern, physical slavery. The ultimate answer is not just in societal reform or making it harder for traffickers to kidnap and traffic their victims (though we should certainly try to do so). The ultimate answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ that frees people from slavery to sin and changes hearts and lives for eternity.

Footnotes

  1. All Scripture references come from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.

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