There are perhaps fewer topics more uncomfortably discussed in America than the topic of slavery. This horrible institution birthed a class of men who, though passing into the hereafter long ago, have bequeathed their whiplash scars to generations ever since. It has cemented in certain races feelings of tremendous and unnatural guilt, and in others an almost irrevocable grudge, building from within to without, essentially destroying the very framework of liberty in the names of reconciliation and revenge; seeking a justice for which the time has so long since past, that any attempts at such result in injustice toward peoples who did not commit the crimes, oftentimes in favor of many who seek to explain their own moral deficiencies. It is a horrible historical abomination, and one which all noble men wish could be put behind them, the hurt of yesteryear giving way to today’s camaraderie, and Americans living under one flag, under one God, and as one human race.
This explains why, as Americans, there are perhaps few passages in the Bible more difficult to accept than those which display God’s personal permission of the institution of slavery. Yet as Christians, believing that God is in fact supremely righteous, it is impermissible, and would otherwise be a declaration of irrationality, to declare any of His decrees as immoral. To do so, maintaining that modern civilization has acceptably advanced beyond the principles which God Himself decreed, would profess man’s belief in either God’s moral evolution or man’s present moral superiority, either statement declaring that God is neither eternally righteous nor eternally wise. Neither outcome, of course, is acceptable. For if God and His word cannot be regarded as sources of truth, then they cannot be relied upon as the basis of an entire religion (particularly one which calls men to martyrdom), and as such, the issue of Biblical slavery must be both addressed and understood.
The first obstacle one must overcome, then, is arriving at an acceptable definition of slavery. If one looks to the dictionary, he can easily find that slavery “emphasizes the idea of complete ownership and control by a master,” and bondage “indicates a state of subjection or captivity often involving burdensome and degrading labor.” Both of these definitions, of course, closely relate to the case of Biblical slavery; but though such slavery may at first appear a hallmark of barbarism, the philosophical necessity for such an institution is oftentimes considered acceptable — though in superficially various forms — to even the most liberal of Westerners.
The similarity between the anciently and modernly applied institutions of slavery is highlighted perhaps most clearly in the ideas of John Locke, as stated in Second Treatise of Government, a work foundational to classical liberalism and the American Revolution. Locke declared, very reasonably, that any unlawful aggressor who threatened another with violence, seeking to kill or totally subject, or did in fact take the life of another, abandoned his humanity and took place with the animal kingdom. Such an act, regarded by Locke as a declaration of war, placed the aggressor under the authority of his captors and forfeited all his natural rights to life, liberty, and property, as his combatants could have justly killed him in combat. The opposite stance, that rights cannot be forfeited in acts of illegitimate aggression, and that defendants should be subject to every violent action of their neighbors without any right to forceful retaliation (or in other words, that society has no right to detain violent criminals and prisoners of war), is a concept rejected by every sensible nation in the world, whether civilized or barbaric, religious or secular, a rejection morally confirmed by Biblical Law itself.
But such a stance does not entirely address God’s permission of slave trade, the topic still in controversy. For though nations both modern and ancient acknowledge a forfeiture of rights in case of war, Israelites were permitted to buy slaves from other nations, with what appears to be almost no restrictions or concern for whether those slaves were attained legitimately.
If this is the case, it is then most important to acknowledge the parameters within which that slavery took place. To begin, there was simply no way in Israel to make a living by kidnapping people, as the kidnapper would receive the death penalty; nor was it lawful to return a runaway slave. One could not maim his slave, and having sexual relations outside of marriage was strictly forbidden by law — at best being penalized with marriage, and at worst with death — so sexual slavery was prohibited. The oppression of aliens simply on account of race or ethnicity was prohibited not with state enforcement, but by Jehovah Himself. And though it is implied in Biblical Law that one could rule over his slave with rigor, as it was unlawful to treat a Hebrew servant in such a manner, harshness was by no means applauded or required for non-Israelites, many slaves achieving prominent positions in Hebrew society after displaying competence and devotion to their masters (such as Abraham’s own, who if not for the births of Ishmael and Isaac, would have inherited Abraham’s entire fortune).
Secondly, the institution of slavery, though permanent unless the slave escaped, was not the only institution of subjection in Israel. There was another form, known as servanthood, into which any Israelite could fall, supposing he contracted unpayable debts and sold either himself (or one of his family members) to balance his ledger. But even this form of slavery had limits: atop the restrictions mentioned above, such servants could not be sold to foreigners as slaves, and unlike perpetual slavery resulting from warfare or purchase from foreign nations, the term was restricted to a maximum of six years, and upon release the servant was granted, aside from the possibly acquired experience of a trade, enough provisions and tools to maintain his independence. Unlike the American belief that liberty belongs to the most foolish of citizens, God’s standard declared that liberty belonged to the prudent and security to the distraught, incapable, or unwise; and yet, even in this temporary restriction, no Israelite was to be forced into eternal dependence upon any other but God for his subsistence. Israel was to be a nation of deservedly free men, a righteous principle which is by no means to be restricted to its own borders: for liberty has never belonged to men unworthy of her. She is not a cheap mistress, to be expended in frivolous and unfettered licentiousness, but a wife who requires the lifelong commitment of a husband, making her home alone with those who seal their commitment not with simple professions of passion, but with blood, sweat, and tears.
But moving beyond these restrictions, it must be noted that the third particular of Biblical slavery is not one of citizenship or duration, but of ignorance and practicality. We may say it is a matter of ignorance not because the Engineer of such a principle was finite in understanding, but rather because His people were. For beyond Israel’s borders, slaves were being sold, many acquired through legitimate warfare, and others acquired by kidnapping. Simply put, without a lawful international administration for adequate moral oversight, there was simply no way to distinguish between those slaves legitimately and illegitimately acquired, and the principle of legitimate slavery — or, as we would call it today, prisoners of war or crime – could not without great turmoil simply be abandoned.
It is true, of course, that God could have prohibited Israel from purchasing slaves altogether, in order to entirely stem the flow of unjustly acquired slaves into the nation. But had He done so, He would not have ended the slave trade: the slaves would still have existed beyond Israel’s borders, and they would have been sold to nations without Law or His presence. In this light, permitting the Israelite purchase of slaves was a matter of practical charity, not only allowing a slave to serve under the protection of Divine Law, but also bringing them into contact with the Living God, which, though not impossible beyond Israel’s territory, was certainly less likely. In short, it was a statement that it is better to be a slave in God’s Israel than a slave in heathendom.
Lastly, since some men will undoubtedly remain unpersuaded of the practical and orderly nature of God’s Laws pertaining to slavery, an important moral distinction must be made between Israel’s slave/servanthood programs and the Western prison system. Considering the proper Biblical boundaries of imprisonment (or, as one might say, a slavery essential to self-defense and policing), it is worth noting that, though theocratic Israel is oftentimes portrayed as barbaric amongst even unstudied Christians, America’s prison state — the largest in the world — can be said to be more barbaric than Israel’s, as America reduces to the virtual slavery of imprisonment men who otherwise would have been better served with restorative justice or corporal punishment, and it does so with little concern for both the public and victim’s purses.
In America, the public, robbed by the forceful levying of taxation for illegitimate purposes, must pay for the food, lodging, and supervision of men who should either not be imprisoned, or who should be executed. But in God’s Israel, men who forfeited their rights were either executed or allocated to private persons for productive purposes, ensuring that the cost of crime or unjust warfare would rest squarely on the shoulders of criminals and the imprudent instead of the victims. Israel’s slavery was justly productive, America’s slavery backwardly consumptive; the former extended only to a well-defined minority, protecting the liberties of the majority, the latter enslaves without profit any the legislature pleases. What man, professing himself to be civilized, would dare tell a woman to pay for the food and lodging of her rapist? And what happens to America’s undeservedly enslaved? Do they lose their employment, their very means of subsistence? Do their families suffer without fathers? Are they forced into association with career criminals? Does it leave upon them an almost inescapable mark? Is slavery how the civilized are to treat minor offenses?
In conclusion, though many may with imperceptive eyes and blasphemous mouths declare God’s Law to be offensive and outdated, the principles laid therein are nothing less than Divine, promoting the maximum liberty and rights of mankind, while affording him security when necessary. Christians and Jews, no longer content with simply disregarding the Law, should with pride receive their heritage, and consider whether or not it is we — and not the Almighty — who need to adjust to the principles of civilization. And with so many unjustly enslaved, and with the costs of slavery building upon already unpayable national debts, there has never been a better time to reconsider the indisputable merit of a Godly liberty.