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Thoughts on slavery

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I thought I'd try my hand at a biblical response to many of the discussions currently popular within Calvinism; especially within those movements associated with uncritical idealization/romanticization of the South, which has led many of those who sympathize with this movement to, if not justify the African slave trade in Europe in North America, at least downplay its severity on the grounds that it led to a better estate for Africans.

I take it as obvious that this reasoning is totally absurd. Joseph, when sold into slavery by his brothers, acknowledged God's sovereignty in the affair, yet without allowing this to mitigate the seriousness of their sin:

"As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today"(Gen. 50:20).

The information here is thanks to Abraham Booth's 1792 sermon, "Commerce in the Human Species, and the Enslaving of Innocent Persons, Inimical to the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ."

Booth makes the important distinction between a civil or political form of slavery, over and against "personal slavery"; an important distinction in light of the totality of revelation we have on the subject. Booth acknowledges, in any case, that certain forms osf personal slavery may be legitimate, as when somebody is compensating for a debt, which he has incurred either through illegitimate acts like property damages, or when he is similar unable to repay a loan.

The form of slavery which Booth opposes is that of a purely civil nature, as when someone kidnaps someone else, either from their own nation or another nation, although the person be innocent in a horizontal or civil sense (i.e., the person has not committed any crime by which they have forfeited their liberty, nor have they incurred any debt which they are otherwise unable to repay). Obviously, from a vertical perspective, no one is really "innocent" in the sight of God. But Booth cites 1 Tim. 1:10, which specifically forbids "man-stealing"; this sin being precisely that of which the North American and European slave-traders had been guilty. The language of the Old Testament is very similar:

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death"(Exod. 16:21).

"If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst"(Deut. 24:7).

As mentioned before, slavery could be punitive and done for the purpose of financial remuneration:

"If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft"(Exod. 22:3).

But none of these instances correspond to that of the African slave trade.

"39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers.42 For they are my servants,[c] whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God"(Lev. 25:39-43).

So every Jubilee, the servant was to be released. So also:

"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment"(Exod. 21:2).

Not only were such servants to be released without payment, but they were to be furnished with material required for basic living:

"12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold[b] to you, he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your wine press. As the Lordyour God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today."(Deut. 15:12-15).

"44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property"(Lev. 25:44-45).

The Israelites were permitted to purchase slaves from among the Gentile sojourners in Israel or from the surrounding nations. Strict laws regulated the treatment of such slaves:

"And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake"(Exod. 21:26).

"17 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever takes an animal's life shall make it good, life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. 21 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. 22 You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.”(Lev. 24:17-22)

What then? On what grounds is it forbidden us to engage in the slave trade? Booth makes a crucial observation with respect to the texts which allowed the Israelites to engage in purchasing slaves from the surrounding nations: They were the Canaanite nations.

Keep in mind that the Israelites had been commanded by God to exterminate the Canaanite nations. The land had been promised to Abraham and his posterity. The Canaanite nations had been exceedingly wicked, and God was righteous to command their extermination. Yet the Israelites did not do so. Recall the Gideonite deception of Joshua 9. The Gideonites, knowing that they were next, deceived the Israelites into thinking that they were of a foreign land, and tricked them into making a covenant with them in order to become the servants of Israel. This covenant was a covenant of peace which the Israelites were forbidden to break by killing the Gibeonites as they had been initially commanded to do. Yet the Gibeonites did not get off the hook entirely:

"22 Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you’, when you dwell among us? 23 Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” 24 They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. 25 And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.” 26 So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them. 27 But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of theLord, to this day, in the place that he should choose"(Joshua 9:22-27).

We see this pattern in 1 Kings 9:20-21:

20 All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel— 21 their descendants who were left after them in the land, whom the people of Israel were unable to devote to destruction[a]—these Solomon drafted to be slaves, and so they are to this day.

Booth thus argues that it is because of a particular decree of God that it was righteous for the Israelites to deal thus with the neighbouring nations. Abraham had the land promised to his posterity, and the exceedingly wicked Canaanite nations were to be destroyed and invaded by God after the alotted time was up.

Until this time, however, the Israelites were free, within very strict limits, to purchase bondservants from the Canaanites. This was a particular decree by God for the particular nation of Israel, under the Old Covenant, for a particular situation. We are thus not justified in applying it to the African slave trading perpetrated by North America and Europe.

It ought to be noted that slave-trading is condemned without qualification in the New Testament (1 Tim. 1:10). While it was allowed by God for a particular situation, it is as a rule condemned. A man or woman may sell himself into servitude in order to discharge a debt if he or she so wishes but we are expressly prohibited from selling or purchasing slaves.



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