Friday, June 3, 2011

Slavery and the moral argument

This post has two aims. 1) to explain Israel's use of slavery and 2) to explain how anti-slavery laws are good evidence for objective morality. So, first things first, we'll look at slavery "back in the day" and antebellum slavery or slavery in the good ol' South. 

The objection
When some folks are discussing the Bible and its atrocities, slavery is usually brought up. The charge, "Well, what about slavery? If the moral code of the bible is SO GREAT, then why is slavery condoned?" I have to say, if slavery in Israel was anything like slavery in the South, with its slave trades and cruelties, then I would side with the objection against the bible. When we read about slavery in bible we cannot equate that form of slavery with the slavery implemented in the South. The two are not similar. Want to learn about Hebrew servanthood? Paul Copan will teach us. He writes in his article on slavery:

"We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts — much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.

In most cases, servanthood was more like a live-in employee, temporarily embedded within the employer’s household. Even today, teams trade sports players to another team that has an owner, and these players belong to a franchise. This language hardly suggests slavery, but rather a formal contractual agreement to be fulfilled — like in the Old Testament.

Through failed crops or other disasters, debt tended to come to families, not just individuals. One could voluntarily enter into a contractual agreement (“sell” himself) to work in the household of another: “one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself” (Leviticus 25:47). A wife or children could be “sold” to help sustain the family through economically unbearable times — unless kinfolk “redeemed” them (payed their debt). They would be debt-servants for 6 years.4 A family might need to mortgage their land until the year of Jubilee every 50 years.

Note: In the Old Testament, outsiders did not impose servanthood as in the antebellum South.6 Masters could hire servants “from year to year” and were not to “rule over … [them] ruthlessly” (Leviticus 25:46,53). Rather than being excluded from Israelite society, servants were thoroughly embedded within Israelite homes.
The Old Testament prohibited unavoidable lifelong servanthood — unless someone loved his master and wanted to attach himself to him (Exodus 21:5). Masters were to grant their servants release every seventh year with all debts forgiven (Leviticus 25:35–43). A slave’s legal status was unique in the ancient Near East (ANE) — a dramatic improvement over ANE law codes: “Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only of servanthood.”

An Israelite servant’s guaranteed eventual release within 7 years was a control or regulation to prevent the abuse and institutionalizing of such positions. The release-year reminded the Israelites that poverty-induced servanthood was not an ideal social arrangement. On the other hand, servanthood existed in Israel precisely because poverty existed: no poverty, no servants in Israel. And if servants lived in Israel, this was voluntary (typically poverty-induced) — not forced.

That doesn't seem like antebellum slavery at all. If you read the bible's entire treatment of slavery, "masters" were commanded to treat their servants as persons and not property. Notice also, that servants were hired not forced to be servants. This is radically different from the treatment of slaves in the South. The comparison of Israel's slavery to antebellum slavery is a false one. Paul Copan goes on to write a section titled "Three Remarkable Provisions in Israel."

"1. Anti-Harm Laws: One marked improvement of Israel’s laws over other ANE law codes is the release of injured servants (Exodus 21:26,27). When an employer (“master”) accidentally gouged out the eye or knocked out the tooth of his male or female servant/employee, he/she was to go free. God did not allow physical abuse of servants. If an employer’s disciplining his servant resulted in immediate death, that employer (“master”) was to be put to death for murder (Exodus 21:20) — unlike other ANE codes.10 In fact, Babylon’s Hammurabi’s Code permitted the master to cut off his disobedient slave’s ear (¶282). Typically in ANE law codes, masters — not slaves — were merely financially compensated. The Mosaic Law, however, held masters to legal account for their treatment of their own servants — not simply another person’s servants. 

2. Anti-Kidnapping Laws: Another unique feature of the Mosaic Law is its condemnation of kidnapping a person to sell as a slave — an act punishable by death (Exodus 21:16; cp. Deuteronomy 24:7). Kidnapping, of course, is how slavery in the antebellum South could get off the ground. 

3. Anti-Return Laws: Unlike the antebellum South, Israel was to offer safe harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15,16) — a marked contrast to the Southern states’ Fugitive Slave Law. Hammurabi’s Code demanded the death penalty for those helping runaway slaves (¶16). In other less-severe cases — in the Lipit-Ishtar (¶12), Eshunna (¶49-50), and Hittite laws (¶24) — fines were exacted for sheltering fugitive slaves. Some claim that this is an improvement. Well, sort of. In these “improved” scenarios, the slave was still just property; the ANE extradition arrangements still required that the slave be returned his master. And not only this, the slave was going back to the harsh conditions that prompted him to run away in the first place.11 Even upgraded laws in first millennium BC Babylon included compensation to the owner (or perhaps something more severe) for harboring a runaway slave. Yet the returned slaves themselves were disfigured, including slitting ears and branding.12 This isn’t the kind of improvement to publicize too widely. 

Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright observes: “No other ancient near Eastern law has been found that holds a master to account for the treatment of his own slaves (as distinct from injury done to the slave of another master), and the otherwise universal law regarding runaway slaves was that they must be sent back, with severe penalties for those who failed to comply.”13

If the South had followed these three clear laws from Exodus and Deuteronomy, slavery would have been a nonissue. What’s more, Israel’s treatment of servants (“slaves”) was unparalleled in the ANE."

Human Rights

There's another part of the accuser's objection to slavery I want to examine. The accuser sees something wrong with slavery, e.g., it's cruel to human beings and that human beings shouldn't be treated as slaves. Well, if human beings shouldn't be treated that way, then that really says something about humans, doesn't it? Why should we not be treated as someone's slave? Because it's cruel and inhumane? What makes it cruel and inhumane? The fact that we have inalienable rights is what makes slavery cruel and inhumane. Where do those rights come from? Not from government. These rights can't be taken or given to us by government; it merely acknowledges the rights of human beings. 

Our rights are transcendent rights given to us by God. Objective morality (morality that exists whether persons acknowledge it or not) flows from God's nature and is expressed to us in His commandments to us. Our rights come from God. Our rights cannot come from a physical quality in us. Physical qualities do not give us inalienable rights endowed to us. As Greg Koukl wrote in an article, "human beings are endowed by God with certain inalienable rights, and the endowment is not related to any physical thing in itself--any particular physical thing. We are endowed in a metaphysical way that is not related to our physical characteristics, but it is related to our humanness." 

If you're a materialist, you cannot argue that our rights are inalienable and can't be taken away because rights are not material. There is no morality because morality is not material. The best a materialist or naturalist can come up with for the apparent objectivity of morality is a morality based on survival of the fittest and we know that theory doesn't work; nor does the other option, relativism, work. 

I think the cruelty shown by antebellum slavery screams the truthfulness of the existence of objective moral values and duties. Given naturalism, slavery would not be cruel, it would not be evil because on naturalism human beings are not special, human beings do not have inalienable rights; we are just evolved primates and enslavement of some evolved primates for the selfish benefit of another evolved primate would not be wrong. In fact, on naturalism, slavery would be a good sign of survival of the fittest. It's possible I'm wrong, but I would think slavery would be just fine on a naturalistic worldview. What do you think?

Read the articles referenced

Slavery, Abortion, and Inalienable Rights by Greg Koukl

More info:
Slavery in the Bible: 8 Quick Resources

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