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Slavery in the Bible:

Background material

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Ambiguous biblical terms used to describe slavery:

In an apparent attempt to disguise the practice of slavery, some translations in the Bible translate the word slave (doulos in Greek) as servant. Casual readers of the Bible would assume that the passages refer to a hired servant (diakonos in Greek) - i.e. a butler or a maid. The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) frequently referred to slaves by various ambiguous terms, such as: bondmen, servants, maids, handmaid, manservant, maidservant, etc. For example, consider Exodus 21:2 which is part of the Laws of Moses:

bullet21st Century King James Version "If thou buy a Hebrew servant..."
bulletKing James Version "If thou buy a Hebrew servant..."
bulletLiving Bible: "If you buy a Hebrew slave..."
bulletModern Language "When you buy a Hebrew slave..."
bulletNew International Version: "If you buy a Hebrew servant..."
bulletNew Living Translation: "If you buy a Hebrew slave..."
bulletRevised Standard Version "When you buy a Hebrew slave..."

The Hebrew Scriptures:

Slavery was sanctioned and carefully regulated by many passages in the Bible - mainly in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures - Old Testament).

bulletAccording to traditional Jewish and Christian belief, these books were dictated by God to Moses, letter by letter.
bulletSome conservative Christians now believe that Moses wrote the books in his own language, but was preserved from error by God while doing so.
bulletMost religious liberals now believe that the Pentateuch was compiled by many unknown authors and editors (within four groups, called J, E, P, & D) over a period of centuries.

Until the advent of higher criticism of the Bible, many, if not most, Christians would have agreed with Jefferson Davis' concept that slavery "was established by decree of Almighty God." However, archaeological evidence now shows that slavery was very widespread throughout the Middle East in ancient times. The Israelites simply adopted the custom of their many neighboring cultures when they enslaved people. Later, the Mosaic law included regulations to control and limit the practice.

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The Curse of Ham:

The first mention of slavery appears in Genesis, when Noah cursed his grandson Canaan (and all of the descendants of Canaan) because Noah's son Ham had seen Noah naked:

bulletGenesis 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave.' "

These verses appear to send a highly immoral message. Even if we assume that Ham's act is worthy of some kind of punishment, the curse does not punish the person responsible. It punishes the son of the perpetrator, and the son's descendants instead, forever. This is one of many examples in the Bible in which guilt for sin and the resultant punishment is transferred from the guilty party to one or more innocent people.

In all probability, Canaan was nowhere in the vicinity of Noah's tent when the event happened. Also it seems unreasonable to permanently enslave even a single descendent of the perpetrator for such a minor transgression - let alone his descendants forever.

This passage was one of the favorite of theologians who wished to justify slavery on Biblical grounds. The descendants of Ham were assumed to be Africans. According to this verse, they were to be slaves forever. Thus the South Carolina slave owner was only implementing God's wishes.

Passages from the Bible which may condemn slavery:

There are no passages in the Bible which plainly condemn or criticize the institution of slavery. There are no verses which clearly denounce slave owners. However there are three passages which might be interpreted as bearing on slavery. All three are rather obscure and ambiguous:

bulletLuke 4:18 describes Jesus as quoting a passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 which says that "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised." The word captives is the most common translation for the individuals who are to be delivered. It is used in many English translations of the New Testament, including 21st Century KJV, Amplified Bible, Inclusive Version, Jerusalem Bible, KJV, Lattimore, Living Bible, Moffatt, NAB, NRSV, NSB, New World Translation, Rheims, RSV, TEV, Tyndale, and Young's Literal translation. But the CEV, Ronald Knox Translation, NIV,  REV, and Schonfield's Authentic New Testament use the word prisoners. And the NCV uses prisoners of sin.   Finally, the Scholar's Version uses the phrase: pardon to the prisoners. Many slaves started out as captives. One might infer that Isaiah was referring to slaves in his writing, not to actual captives or prisoners. But, as we say, it is a stretch.
 
bullet1 Timothy 1:10 refers to groups of people that various translations describe as  "lawless, disobedient, unruly, unholy, profane, sinful, lawbreakers, rebels, rebellious, unjust, or disobedient." One group are usually translated as "kidnapers" or  "men-stealers." But the New International Version and the Revised Standard Version translates this as "slave traders."  In the original Greek, the word is "andrapodistes", which combines the words for man and foot. It apparently means to put someone under one's foot - to control a person completely. Most English Bible translations interpret this verse as condemning kidnappers; the NIV and RSV condemn slave traders. A case could be made for condemning persons who purchase a slave or who own a slave. The passage is ambiguous.
 
bulletRevelation 13:10 issues a curse: "He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity..." It is unclear whether this refers to armies capturing the enemy, or to individuals who capture people as slaves.

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Copyright © 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-JUL-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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