Slavery is often referenced in the Bible but it was radically different than U.S. style slavery. Did people in the U.S. try to twist the Bible to justify their actions? Yes. But a thorough reading of the Bible, in context, crushes those arguments. These people were obviously stolen from their homeland, and to say the slave owners didn’t love their neighbors (the slaves) as themselves is a massive understatement. Here’s a terrific article that analyzes slavery in the Bible.
People often have trouble with these passages because we tend to be ethnocentric (“the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture or the tendency to view alien groups or cultures from the perspective of one’s own”). Some things in other cultures are just plain wrong, but other things made sense for them at the time. As always, we need to read these passages in the context of their book and of the whole Bible.
21 “These are the laws you are to set before them:
2 “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. 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. 4 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.
5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 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.
7 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
The next passage deals with various crimes. I have written on my other blog about capital punishment and how while Christians don’t have to support it, there is nothing un-Biblical about it. It was God’s idea (Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.) and reiterates it multiple times. However, we need to be just and fair and impose any penalties in the manner He prescribes.
12 “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. 13 However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. 14 But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death.
15 “Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death.
16 “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.
Verse 16 is very important as it distinguishes between the type of slavery regulated by God and the type once practiced in the U.S. Biblical slavery regulations were not about those stolen from their lands and taken to other countries. That practice was always wrong.
17 “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.
18 “If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, 19 the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed.
20 “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, 21 but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
22 “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Verses 22-25 are sometimes used to support a pro-legalized-abortion view, but if you go back to the original Hebrew the pro-life standpoint is quite clear.
26 “If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.
28 “If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. 29 If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death. 30 However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded. 31 This law also applies if the bull gores a son or daughter. 32 If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull must be stoned.
These may seem like some odd commands, but keep reading and notice how they outline certain principles. Accidents are treated much differently than deliberate actions or irresponsible actions.
33 “If a man uncovers a pit or digs one and fails to cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit must pay for the loss; he must pay its owner, and the dead animal will be his.
35 “If a man’s bull injures the bull of another and it dies, they are to sell the live one and divide both the money and the dead animal equally. 36 However, if it was known that the bull had the habit of goring, yet the owner did not keep it penned up, the owner must pay, animal for animal, and the dead animal will be his.
Protection of Property
22 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.
2 “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.
“A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.
4 “If the stolen animal is found alive in his possession—whether ox or donkey or sheep—he must pay back double.
5 “If a man grazes his livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in another man’s field, he must make restitution from the best of his own field or vineyard.
6 “If a fire breaks out and spreads into thornbushes so that it burns shocks of grain or standing grain or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make restitution.
7 “If a man gives his neighbor silver or goods for safekeeping and they are stolen from the neighbor’s house, the thief, if he is caught, must pay back double. 8 But if the thief is not found, the owner of the house must appear before the judges to determine whether he has laid his hands on the other man’s property. 9 In all cases of illegal possession of an ox, a donkey, a sheep, a garment, or any other lost property about which somebody says, ‘This is mine,’ both parties are to bring their cases before the judges. The one whom the judges declare guilty must pay back double to his neighbor.
10 “If a man gives a donkey, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to his neighbor for safekeeping and it dies or is injured or is taken away while no one is looking, 11 the issue between them will be settled by the taking of an oath before the Lord that the neighbor did not lay hands on the other person’s property. The owner is to accept this, and no restitution is required. 12 But if the animal was stolen from the neighbor, he must make restitution to the owner. 13 If it was torn to pieces by a wild animal, he shall bring in the remains as evidence and he will not be required to pay for the torn animal.
14 “If a man borrows an animal from his neighbor and it is injured or dies while the owner is not present, he must make restitution. 15 But if the owner is with the animal, the borrower will not have to pay. If the animal was hired, the money paid for the hire covers the loss.
16 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. 17 If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.
18 “Do not allow a sorceress to live.
19 “Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal must be put to death.
20 “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the Lord must be destroyed.
21 “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.
22 “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. 24 My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.
I love that section! God takes widows and orphans very seriously. Woe to those who take advantage of them!
25 “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, 27 because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.
28 “Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.
29 “Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats.
“You must give me the firstborn of your sons. 30 Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day.
31 “You are to be my holy people. So do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts; throw it to the dogs.
The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
See the compassion of God in the Old Testament? People often misunderstand the Bible (or more likely, haven’t studied it) and insist that the God of the New Testament is kind but the God of the Old Testament is not.