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Slavery and the Bible

The first mention of slavery in the Bible is found in Noah’s declaration, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25). He said this after waking up from a naked, drunken stupor and learning that his son Ham had mocked him. Although Ham was the guilty party, Noah’s statement was directed at Ham’s youngest son Canaan. If he was involved with his father in this act of disrespect, the statement can be taken as the pronouncement of a curse, “Cursed be Canaan.” It is possible, however, that Canaan did not join his father in making fun of Noah. If so, the statement would be in the form of a prophecy: “Cursed will be Canaan.” Exodus 20:5 and Ezekiel 18:4 clearly declare that God punishes the children for the sins of their parents only when they choose to continue the wicked ways of their parents. So this is the preferred translation if Canaan was not personally involved. In either case, God gave Noah a prophetic knowledge of the future. The Canaanites developed an advanced society but became involved in despicable moral and spiritual practices, including ritual prostitution, sexual orgies, and child sacrifice. That is why God warned the Israelites against any association with Canaan’s citizens (Lev. 18:24-30). Because He knew that the danger of spiritual contamination for His people was so great, He commanded the execution of all the Canaanites who resisted their advance and the complete destruction of every trace of their religion (Dt. 7:1-6). It was the failure of the Israelites to follow God’s directions that brought about the fulfillment of Noah’s prophecy. Their negligence to consult God led to their being tricked into making slaves of the Gibeonites instead of driving them out of the land or killing them (Josh. 9). Later, they did the same with another group of Canaanites (16:10).

About 500 years after the death of Abraham, his descendants through Isaac were living in Egypt as slaves. Genesis 37 to 50 tells the story of how this came about. The 10 oldest sons of Abraham’s grandson Jacob disliked their younger brother Joseph so much that they found a way to sell him to traders who in turn sold him to an Egyptian officer as a slave. In his new land, Joseph went through a series of ups and downs and eventually became the prime minister of Egypt, the highest official under the king. God enabled Joseph to foresee an approaching time of famine, and used him to store up food and then distribute it during the famine. His political position made it possible for him to settle his father’s family in Egypt’s most fertile territory. Here they prospered for many years. However, the time came when the leaders of Egypt began to view the rapidly growing Israelite community as a threat. As a result, they made slaves of the Israelites, treating them with ever-increasing harshness. Finally, desperate because the descendants of Jacob continued to multiply, they issued an order that all their male babies be destroyed at birth. The first 12 chapters of Exodus tell the story of how the Lord responded to the cries of His people. He miraculously provided Moses to be their leader, sent 10 plagues on the Egyptians, helped the Israelites celebrate their first Passover, and led them out of the land of bondage. It appears that as they left for Canaan, they had no slaves. The former distinctions between masters and slaves had been wiped out during their own time of bondage. The “many other people” (Ex. 12:38) who accompanied them were Egyptians who for one reason or another were eager to leave their homeland.

Owners, had to make it possible for slaves to join in the celebration of the Passover (Ex. 12:43-45), the weekly Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:8-11), and the 8-day festivities of the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles (Dt. 16:9-17). No limitation expressed! All slaves were included. A Hebrew who became a slave (usually because he was unable to pay his debts) could not be kept in bondage for more than 6 years. If he married while he was a slave, he had to make a choice when his time for release arrived. He could choose to go free and leave his wife and children with his master. Or, if he loved his master and valued his family more than personal freedom, he could choose to remain with him for life (Ex. 21:2-6). Sometimes a father in financial difficulty would sell a young daughter to a fellow Israelite to be the wife of a family member when she came of age. If no family member claimed her, the purchaser could offer her to a friend or relative for the dowry price. If she remained unclaimed, she was to be released with no strings attached (Ex. 21:7-11). She could never be sold on the open slave market.

While this rule gave daughters in Israel more protection than was given in neighboring nations, it troubles us. We are revolted at the idea of a father selling his daughter under any circumstances. We may wonder why God modified this practice instead of eliminating it. But that overlooks the fact that in the Near East culture of that time the absolute rights of parents over their children, especially the daughters, were universally assumed. For example, they arranged the marriages of sons and daughters. Their right to do so was never questioned. Therefore, it would have been neither possible nor profitable to legislate into that culture regulations that would give children the rights they possess today. For example, consider the story of Rebekah and Isaac (Gen. 24). Abraham’s servant told Rebekah’s father and brother his desire to take her to be Isaac’s wife. Notice that they asked her if she were willing to go before they sent her to her new home (vv.57-58). Few parents would run roughshod over the wishes of their daughters. And for those who might do so, God provided laws to protect girls from being exploited. The non-Hebrew slaves, though not eligible for release like the Hebrew slaves, did receive considerable protection from inhumane treatment. The law said, “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished” (Ex. 21:20).

As we can see throughout the bible slavery is an important issue and no matter where we turn we will always see it.

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