An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Sunday, 7 May 2006

Does the first testament support slavery? (part 1)

How can we apply the first Testament laws today? This is an important issue for Christian social issues and one I hope to go some way to answering by examining the Bible’s attitude to slavery. This is particularly relevant today with the Stop the Traffik campaign in its infancy.

The issue of slavery provides a poignant example of how our world-and-life view influences our interpretation of scripture. In the nineteenth century there was a lively debate among Christians about the ethics of slavery: “to argue against slavery in 1850 was to argue the inspiration and inerrancy of the authorative word of God” (Swartley 1983, p199). It is immediately apparent that those who strongly opposed the abolition of slavery were those who stood to benefit directly from it. The Quaker John Woolman claimed that:

The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable” (cited in Swartley 1983, p55)

In using the scripture for self-justification they failed to let themselves be confronted by the text and let the scriptures affect their prior assumptions. If the scriptures are to have more than a paper authority we should approach them with the full knowledge that we have our presuppositions and be willing for the scriptures to challenge them. This much we can learn from the nineteenth-century slave owners.

The issue of slavery is hermeneutical rather than exegetical, that is, it is a matter of interpretation rather than an explanation of certain texts. The Old Testament does on the face of it present a good case for slavery (see especially Lev 25:4446). But then other Old Testament texts suggest we should adhere to strict dietary laws (Lev 11:1-21) and stone blasphemers (Lev 24:14) - who would advocate these commands for today? There have been several ways that Christians have responded to the accusation that the Old Testament supports slavery today. I shall briefly examine six of them.

1. The scriptures are wrong

This is the approach of R. H. Preston (1976); he accuses the scriptures of being wrong in its attitude not only to slavery but also women, capital punishment and homosexuality. This response is wholly inadequate for several reasons: (i) it is arbitrary; who is to say which part of the scriptures is correct and which part wrong? If it is wrong over these issues might not it also be wrong over Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection? (ii) It is a response that is shaped by cultural forces; Preston reads the scriptures through his own cultural glasses and finds them wanting. However, his cultural glasses distort the scriptures; the problem is with the glasses not the text.

2. Cultural distance

Denis Nineham (1976) suggests that we cannot understand the scriptures - and hence its approach to slavery - because of the cultural distance between us and Old Testament times. We cannot understand the Bible author’s world, because we are too far removed from it, therefore we cannot hope to interpret what they wrote. Nineham is right in pointing out the problem of cultural distance; interpreting the scriptures is not a trivial task. But yet the difference between the two horizons, the text’s and the reader’s, are not insurmountable as Thiselton (1980) has shown.

There are, of course, discontinuities between” Israel” and us, but there are also continuities: we are human and have the same God - a God who does not change and neither do his principles that underlie the text. Nineham also undermines his own argument by writing a commentary on the Gospel of Mark, in doing so he is saying we can understand Mark, or at least it is worth the effort attempting to do so (Goldingay 1981, p41).

3. Dividing the law

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 AD) first made the distinction between civil, ceremonial and moral aspects of the Law (Kaiser 1983,p412); hence civil and ceremonial - which would include slavery - would not be binding for us today, whereas the moral would. This division is arbitrary and artificial. Christopher Wright (drawing upon Anthony Phillips) divides the Law into: criminal, civil, family, cultic and charitable (Wright 1983, p151ff). Over-riding any categorisation we need to recall that all the ‘Law is God’s law’ (Wright 1983, p159).

Another similar approach is to divide the law into legislative and creation material (Kaye 1976, p8). The legislative material is concerned with the maintenance of the cult and part of the structure of the covenant, its context is Israel. The creation material can then be thought of as “decontextualised” covenant material (Kaye 1976, p 10) and thus it has application for all.

4. Development

This is a view articulated by Gordon Wenham when he states “slave laws are steps being taken towards the elimination of slavery, towards a world where all men are equal and free” (Wenham 1986, pl0). God presents his laws in instalments, slowly moving to the ideal.

If we unreservedly accept this view, then an unacceptable implication follows: the authority of the text is dependent upon Jesus undermines this when he talked about divorce, he based his arguments on the early creation narratives (Mk 10:1-6, cf Gen 2)

5. Condescension: accommodating the fall

It is important to remember that we live in a world tainted by the fall, hence Jesus explains that the divorce laws were for “your hardness of hearts” (Mk 10:1-6). The Old Testament laws reflect the sinfulness of humanity (Goldingay 1985, p2); they reflect the way the world is, not the way it should be. The Old Testament laws seek to “make slavery work with as little injustice as (Goldingay 1981, p59).

The problems with this principle of condescension are twofold (i) why then does God give us ideal standards? and (ii) it could open up the door to further depravity (Nicole 1985, p5)

6. Israel as a paradigm

An approach developed by Chris Wright (1983, pp40-45; 1984) sees Israel as a “paradigm”.. By paradigm he means “something used as a model or example for other cases where a basic principle remains unchanged, though details differ” (1983, p43). The French verb paler may be considered as a paradigm for all the other regular French verbs.

Using Israel as a paradigm means that we do not have to slavishly imitate Israel. It also opens out Israel’s relevance for social ethics - it is not limited to the narrow confines of history, as a model Israel is equally relevant to church and world (Wright 1984, p19).

These different approaches are not of course mutually exclusive. The first approach for those who hold to the authority of the scriptures is unacceptable; but the rest, to varying degrees contain elements of the truth. Nineham’s approach in the extreme is ludicrous but it does serve to remind us that the scripture does have its own context and any responsible interpretation must take that into account. It is to the problem of context that I will examine in part 2.


Richard Bauckham The Bible and Politics (SPCK/Third Way, 1988).

Steve Bishop “Towards a biblical view of environmental care” Evangel 7 (1989) 7-8.

Hans Jochen Boecker Law and the Administration of Justice in

Old Testament and Ancient East (SPCK,1980).

David A Clines “The image of God in man” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968) 53-103 .

Eugene Coombs “Has YHWH cursed the ground’? Perplexity of interpretation in Geneis 1-5” in Ascribe to the Lord ed. L Eslinger and G Taylor (JSOT, 1988).

John Goldingay Approaches to Old Testament Interpretation (IVP, 1981)

Joh Goldingay “Divine ideals, human stubborness, and scriptutural innerancy” Transformation 2 (4) (1985) 1-4.

E W Heaton Everyday. Life in Old Testament Times (Batsford,1956).

WaIter C Kaiser Toward Old Testament Ethics (Academie, 1983).

Bruce Kaye Using the Bible in Ethics (Grove Booklets no 13, 1976).

Roger Nicole “A response to John goldingay” Transformation 2 (4)

(1985) 4-5.

Denis Nineham Use and Abuse of the Bible (Macmillan, 1976).

Dale Patrick Old Testament Law (SCM, 1985).

J A Soggin Amos (SCM, 1987).

Willard M Swartley Slavery, Sabbath, Women and War (Herald Press, 1983)

A C Thiselton The Two Horizons (Paternoster, 1980).

J P M Van det- Ploog “Slavery in the Old Testament” Vestus Testament Suppl. vol 22 (1972) 72-87

Brian Walsh Subversive Christianity (Regius Press, 1990)

Gordon Wenham “The perplexing Pentateuch” Vox Evangelica XVII (1987) 7-21.

D Winton Thomas (ed.,) Documents from Old testament Times (Nelson 1958)


Semaphore said...

Steve - keep bishoping us along the way to keener ins+t! A very stimulaic progression of thawt; I'm waiting for your next inst/allment, to see where you're Heading with this. Thanks!, for the triple reference to the different refWrite pages. Shalom!

Baus said...

What about the view that there are "different kinds of 'slavery'"?
Perhaps not all slavery is morally problematic. Maybe there is a morally responsible type of slavery that does not do what other types of slavery do: diminish the humanity of the slave.

For instance, indentured servitude. Attention needs to be given to the kind of slavery that the Old Testament condones.
See objection IV:

Steve Bishop said...

An excellent point. I touch on similar points in part 2. Thanks too for the web address - an interesting article.


Steven Carr said...

God certainly approves of buying people for money, and circumcising them (against their will , if need be)

Genesis 17:12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised.

This is a very important text, where God makes a covenant with Abraham.

And there is not a word against the idea of buying people for money.

There is a lot about circumcision.

Those were the priorities of the unchanging God.

Anonymous said...

R. L. Dabney-A Defense of Virginia and the South

Very interesting!