Did the Bible really permit slavery?
Elmina Castle, Ghana, Africa Photo Credit: Prudence Crawmer, 2019
Elmina Castle is a place where horrific atrocities were committed by one human towards another human. In Ghana, Africa, a paradise-like place, sits a Portuguese fort built in 1482 for economic expansion. Later the castle was taken over by the Dutch in 1637. While visiting the castle, it is apparent that it is a strategic location for maritime activities. The fort was used to export gold and then people. During these times indigenous peoples were taken captive as part of the transatlantic slave trade, many of whom were transported over to the Caribbean and other European colonies. The place is now designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO in an effort to preserve the historical significance and educate others about the historical facts of the slave trade. The last export of enslaved Africans was in 1866 (Visit Ghana). It is a moving experience to set foot in a place of historical significance and can bring an overwhelming feeling of sadness to acknowledge the unfavorable way that mankind was treated. The Europeans justified themselves in their treatment of Africans. The Bible, however, does not support this type of treatment towards another human, despite the fact that there are scriptures that describe servants and masters. The Bible, admittedly, permitted ownership of other humans under the Mosaic law as described in Leviticus 25:44-46. At this point in our discussion, this could be a place where you might feel apprehension, anger and even hatred towards a God (Yahweh/יהוה) that would allow possession of another person. These emotions are natural and occur, in part, because of the way we have seen humans treated and ruled over in oppressive, dictatorial and tyrannical brutality. While the Bible did permit ownership of another human, it does not mean that the Bible authorized the slave trade or the brutality towards another human. It could be argued that the Israelite nation committed brutal acts towards other non-Israelite nations and that how could a God who is loving and merciful allow and actually condone such militant acts? The answers are evident in that the Almighty creator had a plan to bring up a strong nation, the Israelites, to effectively conquer other nations. The judgment was God’s. But before we get too focused on what the Israelites did in the past, let’s continue to thoughtfully reflect on this topic of racism, slavery and the teachigns of the Bible.
It had occurred to me that I did not really understand the term racism and how it relates to the Bible. So a little bit of research seemed appropriate. I became reflective. When I was in elementary school at about the age of 6 years old, I came home from school and asked my mom, “What’s the ‘N’ word mean?” I was quickly hushed and questioned as to the origins of how I had learned such a term and that it should not be uttered. I took heed and learned that certain terms could cause offense towards another person. This seemed strange to me that these differences between humans could cause such hatred. The definition of racism, according to Lexico, is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.” This academic definition sounds like bad treatment by one person towards another person because of who they are, and in many cases, who they are is something they cannot change. For example, it is not possible to change your country of origin, why then would a human hate another human because of something they cannot control? Human beings have unique physiological features that differentiate themselves from others. Some humans incorrectly perceive these differences as inferior and improperly judge others for their appearances.
Many cultures have been oppressed throughout time
The Hutu and the Tusi peoples of Rwanda. According to Rwanda History Genocide explains that Belgian colonists thought that the Tusi were superior because they had descended from the Israelite tribe of Ham, one of Noah’s sons (Genesis 9:18). This superiority was codified when the Belgians issued identity cards after the fall of the German Kaiser in World War I in 1918; deepening the social and cultural divide of people (Rwandan History & Genocide Presentation).
The Japanese Americans during World War II were relocated to camps around the United States as the government feared that the Japanese American would serve as spies. In fact, it was about 127,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps. During this time the Japanese Americans lived in small, overcrowded towns yet still worked to thrive as a community. Some Japanese Americans actually served during WWII and about 800 died serving in the United States military (National Park Service).
During the history of the Israelite nation there have also been brutal atrocities committed. The oppressive, tyrannical treatment by the Nazis towards the Jews is an example (Nuremberg Trials). The Holocaust is another example of brutality by one people towards another people. About 6 million Jews were murdered from 1933 to 1945 (Montreal Holocaust Museum). The Israelites were also taken captive by other government empires throughout time, like Rome, Media-Persia, Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt (Acts 25:1-27, Daniel 5:31, 2 Kings 25:1-10, 2 Kings 20:14-21, Exodus 1:8-14).
The famous story of how Moses was called to serve as a leader to the Israelites and help guide the nation out of Egypt from their oppressor, Pharaoh was, indeed, a momentous occasion for the nation of Israel, and for that matter, Egypt too. Moses had married an Ethiopian woman, and presumably this woman would have looked African. In this Biblical story of Numbers 12:1-16, Miriam and Aaron both spoke against Moses because he had married an Ethiopian woman. Some Bible versions say that the woman was from Sudan or a Cushite. Because of Miriam’s disrespectful comments about Moses’ wife, she was afflicted with a skin disease and was required to go outside of the Israelite camp for seven days. Was this an indication of God’s disagreement with Miriam’s apparent racism towards Moses’ wife?
In the Bible book of Acts 8:26-38, there is another example of an Ethiopian. He was a Eunuch. The fact that he was of Ethiopian descent is likely plausible that this man was also of a different appearance than his Israelite teacher. Phillip did not discriminate in his teaching about God’s truth to the Eunuch because of his nationality or race. It was the normal course of Phillip’s duty to help another person understand the scriptures. What a great example that Phillip made for others to follow. In fact, the Eunuch was even baptized as a result of his belief in Jesus Christ (Yeshuah/ישועה).
There is no respect of persons with God. Jew or Greek, male or female. All have the opportunity to enter into the kingdom of God. The Bible can be confusing because sometimes it uses the words “slave” or “servant. As in the passage found in Ephesians 6:5-9.
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as men pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.”
The context of this passage could appear as startling and offensive because it appears that the Bible suggests there is a hierarchy of control between masters and servants. The idea, rather, is to understand that the intent of this commandment is for people to get along. At any given time in our lives, we likely have either been served by or have served someone else. For example, when going out to a restaurant for dining, are there not people who are being served? That does not mean that one should approve of slavery. Rather, it just means that someone had authority over us or we had authority over someone. Either way, the passage in Ephesians teaches that whatever your role is in a community to treat each other with respect and care. Whether you’re the boss or the worker.
Ultimately, Christ taught that we should be servants to each other.
“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
“There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is rich unto all they that call upon Him.” (Romans 10:12)
The Bible does not support poor treatment of humans or atrocities towards another race of people. Actually, the Bible supports balance. It is up to us to carry out the commands of the Lord with pleasing behaviors. There are places in the Bible that speak about war and militant actions taken by the Israelites towards another nation and even taking captives of other people, but those actions of war were commanded by God and the Bible does not condone that just because Israel was permitted to take a “slave” that they should treat them harshly. The Bible did not condone harsh treatments of the slaves that they were permitted to take. While the Bible book of Leviticus 25 gave guidance about “slave” ownership amongst the Israelites and other nations, the interpretation thereof is that the Israelite slaves were to be set free every Jubilee year, or 50th year. It does appear that the Mosaic law permitted a slave from another nation to be kept indefinitely. To treat others with respect and dignity is the true calling and command of the Lord.
There is a prophetic hint in the book of Isaiah that describes how people of the nations, non-Israelites, will become “slaves” or servants in the future. Again, this could be an alarming concept, one that might seem offensive and out of discourse with the teachings of love, mercy and forgiveness. It is prudent to remember that the Almighty God is a God of balance and equity. He does not punish or inflict harshness on someone for no reason. Could it be that these future servants will simply be set in subjection to the Israelites because these non-Israelite peoples ruled harshly over Israel? This does not imply that Israel will rule harshly over their previous oppressors, no, it implies that the Israelites will have people to help them in a new system of things. A new way of life will be upon everyone and there will be a natural order to society. God will set the hierarchy in place.
“The Lord will show mercy to the people of Jacob, and he will again choose the people of Israel. He will settle them in their own land. Then non-Israelite people will join the Israelites and will become a part of the family of Jacob. Nations will take the Israelites back to their land. Then those men and women from the other nations will become slaves to Israel in the Lord’s land. In the past the Israelites were their slaves, but now the Israelites will defeat those nations and rule over them.” (Isaiah 14:1-2)
United States and Slavery
As early as 1619 slavery was found in the United States and justified because slaves were viewed as property and not citizens. This was viewed as acceptable by the leaders of the day. During the 1700s, the use of slaves had become a part of the Southern United States’ economy and owners relied on slave labor to produce crops such as rice, sugar, tobacco, indigo and cotton. Some humans at that time viewed other humans as property because they appeared different. People from Africa have a different subcutaneous pigment but they are just as sentient and cognizant as their European captors (Faculty of Biological Sciences at University of Leeds). Europeans justified that it was permissible to capture other peoples because of their own biases. Oddly, Europeans de-humanized African Americans. In some cases, the need for people was to produce a product from a labor-intensive crop. This increasing demand for labor was necessary for agricultural economic sustainability in the South, but what the landowners did not consider is the humanitarian impact that these oppressive actions would have on the African American culture and the years of hardship that would result from choices made during the United States’ infancy. According to Statista, in 1860 there were about 4 million slaves in the United States (O’Niell, 2020). The so-called Christians who captured other peoples justified their behaviors, but that did not align with the teachings of the scriptures. Take, for example, a letter that Paul wrote to Timothy.
“We also know that the law is not made for good people but for those who are against the law and for those who refuse to follow it. It is for people who are against God and are sinful, who are unholy and ungodly, who kill their fathers and mothers, who murder, who take part in sexual sins, who have sexual relations with people of the same sex, who sell slaves, who tell lies, who speak falsely, and who do anything against the true teaching of God. That teaching is part of the Good News of the blessed God that he gave me to tell.” (1 Timothy 1:9-11, NCV)
It was noted in Paul’s letter to Timothy that an unholy act was to sell slaves. What would be evident then is also evident today. The strength of a true Christian is to stand up for the righteousness of the Lord and the mercy which He has shown towards all people through His Son Jesus Christ and to speak up against racism and human trafficking.
Modern-Day Human Trafficking and Forced Labor
The other aspect to slavery is human trafficking. Another horrible fact of today’s world is that men, women and children are forced to perform unspeakable acts or labors which are unmerciful and unkind. These trafficking activities are notably documented by the United States’ Department of Human Services. There are many misperceptions about human trafficking and the results are often overlooked by regular citizens in our own communities. Luxury consumer goods that we enjoy are tainted with the aspects of forced labor in the poorest parts of the world, and in some cases, right in our own cities (Department of the State). There are numerous goods produced by the use of forced labor and there is a list compiled by the United States Department of Labor which identifies some of the most common items such as gold, bricks, sugarcane, coffee, tobacco and cotton – which use forced labor to produce these goods. Other countries use forced child labor to mine diamonds, and other precious gemstones while others even cause oppression through pornography (2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor). The items we enjoy such as cellphones, chocolate and clothes are produced with forced labor by some countries. Agricultural crops like blueberries or other produce that are labor-intensive to harvest sometimes use forced labor. A related topic is people in religious communities who abuse children, young adults, or other adults. There are occasions where trafficking occurs in your own communities and there are authorities who can assist with this modern-day crime.
How do we filter out negative and unconscious biases towards others?
It is also important to recognize that our judgment may be affected by friends, family members, government leaders, co-workers, media, other communication channels and our upbringing. Alarmingly, the internet’s very artificial intelligence search engines also reveals that biases that exist in our world are made even worse by technology. For example, an algorithm’s results can promote biases because of the images and search data input by people with a bias (Agarwal, 2018). We may think that we are keen to our own intuitive thoughts and immune to the effects of bias, but according to the article, data speaks otherwise. That is why asking for wisdom, understanding and truth in all situations is critical for a follower of God. Do not assume anything, the Bible teaches us to “judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:24) Critically analyze your thoughts and actions to assure that you do not unconsciously place a judgment on someone which could be from an external influence. What we want to do is be aware, authentic, and genuinely loving towards our neighbors. With practice this can become more natural. Avoid negative influences and place others first. Serve others with a humble and happy attitude. They will notice and it can improve your life.
“After the vision of these things I looked, and there was a great number of people, so many that no one could count them. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language of the earth. They were all standing before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)
“From one man he made all the people of the world. Now they live all over the earth. He decided exactly when they should live. And he decided exactly where they should live.” (Acts 17:26, NIRV)
The “Door of No Return”, Elmina Castle, Ghana, Africa Photo Credit: John Crawmer, 2019
This photo was taken at the Elmina Castle in Ghana, Africa where slaves who were chained together were escorted onto ships and then transported over to the Caribbean.
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2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. United States of America. Department of Labor. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/ListofGoods.pdf
Trafficking in Persons report. (June 2018). United States of America. Department of the State. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/282798.pdf
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Jelatis, Virginia. (June 8, 2016). Indigo. South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/indigo/
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Visit Ghana. (2020). https://visitghana.com/attractions/elmina-castle/