The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Does the Bible Support Slavery? (Part 1)

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An argument leveled against the Bible is that it supports slavery. I received a letter from a Biblical Worldview reader who disagreed with my assertion that the type of slavery practiced in the United States was unbiblical because it was “man stealing.” As you can tell from the following paragraph, he is passionate about his beliefs. But is he right?

The Bible does not condemn slavery. The Bible does condemn abortion. Human legislation cannot make legal what God’s law condemns, or make illegal what God’s law allows. When you condemn what God’s law allows, you are a legalist and sin (Deuteronomy 4:3; Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18–19). When you allow what God’s law condemns, you are a lawbreaker and sin (Exodus 20:1–17). When you can’t tell the difference, you can’t think as a Christian.

I responded in a brief note that the slavery practiced in this country prior to 1860 was “man stealing” (kidnapping). West Africans were kidnapped, put on ships, brought to these shores, sold at auction, and placed in forced labor. Admittedly, many slaves were treated decently upon their arrival and during their captivity. But this is beside the point. They were still slaves, in captivity against their will!

The Indentured Servant

Many of this nation’s earliest settlers paid for their passage as indentured servants. Indentured servitude is neither unbiblical nor unconstitutional. A thief who was unable to make restitution could be sold into servitude for his theft (Exodus 22:3b). Even after the abolition of slavery, indentured servitude was retained by the Constitution as a legitimate form of punishment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (Amendment XIII, Section 1). We should, therefore, distinguish between slave (man stealing) and bondservant (indentured servant). We should also keep in mind that the word “slave” appears only once in the King James Bible (Jer. 2:14a), as does the word “slaves” (Rev. 18:13). The word slavery does not appear anywhere in the King James Version.[1]

I quoted Exodus 21:16 to support my contention that slavery as practiced in America cannot be supported by an appeal to the Bible: “And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” The letter writer supported his position by claiming that Exodus 21:16 only applies to kidnapping Hebrews (compare Deut. 24:7). Robert L. Dabney, the most articulate defender of Virginia and the South, disagrees: “It need hardly be said that we abhor the injustice, cruelty, and guilt of the African slave trade. It is justly condemned by the public law of Christendom. . . . It is condemned by the law of God. Moses placed this among the judicial statutes of the Jews: ‘And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.’”[2] There is no indication that Exodus 21:16 only has Israelites in mind. If it does, then verse 12 would also only apply to Israelites since its language is similar to that of verse 16:

  • “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death” (21:12).
  • “And he who kidnaps a man whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (21:16).

James B. Jordan offers a good summary of the issues involved: “The Bible punishes all man-stealing with a mandatory death penalty. In Deuteronomy 24:7, the kidnapping of covenant members is particularly forbidden, but in Exodus 21:16, all man-stealing is prohibited. It might be maintained that if we read v. 16 in context of v. 2, it is only Hebrews who are protected and avenged by this law. The text simply says ‘man,’ however, and there is no indication in the immediate context (vv. 12, 14) that ‘man’ is restricted to covenant members.”[3]

Endnotes:

[1] Gary North, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus (Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), 121.
[2] Robert L. Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, [And Through Her, of the South] (New York: Negro University Press, [1867] 1969), 288. Reprinted by Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1977.
[3] James B. Jordan, The Law and the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21–23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), 104.

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