Saturday, August 20, 2016

Biblical Slavery For Foreigners Part II

In the ongoing question about whether the Bible condones human slavery, Christian apologists have come up with many ways to try and explain that it doesn't. One Christian is Glenn Miller, who wrote a piece on the Christian Think Tank website on slavery in the Bible arguing this point. To properly answer this question, one should ask whether Mosaic law allowed foreigners in Israel to be legally kept in conditions amounting to slavery.

So what is slavery? Slavery has many definitions. For example:

1. The condition in which one person is owned as property by another and is under the owner's control, especially in involuntary servitude.
2. (Law) the state or condition of being a slave; a civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls his life, liberty, and fortune
3. The subjection of a person to another person, esp in being forced into work

All of these paint a situation one could properly call slavery. Interestingly, to be a slave does not require it to be based on race or ethnicity, and it does not have to be life long. Someone forced into servitude and labor for a finite amount of time can still be considered a slave during the time they are forced. I mention this because many Christian apologists are quick to point out that biblical slavery was not exactly like slavery in the Antebellum South. That may be so, but that doesn't mean biblical slavery wasn't slavery. In the Old Testament, Mosaic law describes how foreigners (non-Hebrews) could be forcefully taken as slaves by being acquired by war (Deut. 20:12-14) and foreign slaves could be kept for life (Lev 25:44-46). While the servitude forced upon prisoners convicted of just crimes is not generally considered slavery, this didn't apply to the people the Bible mentions were forced into servitude. So at least two conditions have to be met in order to properly be called slavery: (1) The person has to be forced into the position against their will, and (2) the person has to be made to perform some kind of labor, and paid nothing or next to nothing, for a certain amount of time, up to life. Now, we can endlessly split hairs over exactly what's "force" (does verbal intimidation or coercion count as force?), but it's not necessary now, as clearly being threatened with death at the end of a sword counts as force.

iconI made a post a while back called Biblical Slavery for Foreigners where I quote from A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, a scholarly work that mentions the allowance of forced lifelong slavery for foreigners in ancient Israel. Miller's article references my source 21 times but when he quotes from it he often is quoting from slave systems of other non-Hebrew cultures. For example, his citation of page 449 references Assyrian slavery. Page 585 references Mesopotamian uses of slavery. Page 664 references Emar, part of Anatolia and the Levant. Page 741 refers to Canaanite culture. And page 199 refers to Mesopotamian culture again. None of these references refer to Hebrew culture and law which is the very thing in question. We're not debating what the Sumerians did or the Hittites did. We're debating what the Israelites did because Christians believe their law came from Yahweh—the one true god, and many Christians today are still claiming this god — and only this god — grounds morality. That's what the debate is about. And all these points Miller makes that slavery was sometimes (or even often) an economic need is totally irrelevant. No one denies that indentured servitude existed in the ANE. When debating whether the Bible condones slavery we're having an in principle argument here: did Mosaic law condone forced servitude that could last for life under any circumstances? Yes or no? That is the issue. Showing that most slavery was voluntary indentured servitude in the ANE is totally irrelevant.

Given this, let me briefly respond to some of the points Miller makes in his defense that biblical slavery wasn't real slavery. In his section 3 on "The 'Foreign Slave'" he writes:

In addition to the institution of Hebrew servanthood above, the Mosaic law has some material on two other kinds of servant/slave-type situations: captives of war and foreign slaves. There is not much material on these subjects, and, given the intention of the Law to differentiate between Israel and the nations, much of it falls into the exceptional category.
The first case is that of war captives in Deut 20. The scenario painted in this chapter is a theoretical one, that apparently never materialized in ancient Israel. It concerns war by Israel against nations NOT within the promised land. Since Israel was not allowed by God to seek land outside its borders (cf. Deut 2.1-23), such a military campaign could only be made against a foreign power that had attacked Israel in her own territory. By the time these events occurred (e.g. Assyria), Israel's power had been so dissipated through covenant disloyalty that military moves of these sort would have been unthinkable.

This makes no sense since the Canaanites were the tribe the Israelites describe in Deut 20 and it is their land that Yahweh is supposed to have given the Israelites—of course, according to the Israelites. So the Israelites were able to confront people on their "Promised Land" who they offered the option of submitting to forced labor (i.e. slavery) in lieu of wholesale slaughter (for the men at least.) But what fate would befall the forced laborers? Miller answers:

But the scenario involved offering peace to a city. If the city accepted peace, its inhabitants would be put to "forced labor" (cf. Gibeon in Josh 9), but this would hardly be called 'slavery' (it is also used of conscription services under the Hebrew kings, cf. 2 Sam 20.24I Kings 9.15). If the city was attacked and destroyed, the survivors were taken as foreign slaves/servants (but the women apparently had special rights--cf. Deut 21.10ff) under the rubric of the second case (below).

So according to Miller, the forced laborers weren't really "slaves" — they were more like indentured servants. Well, the definition of an indentured servant is "a person who is bound to work for another for a specified period of time," usually understood as a voluntary relationship. This was used to describe many colonists who agreed to do labor for a certain amount of time in exchange for being brought to the New World, sometimes with the promise of eventually getting to own land. But notice that the foreigners subject to Israel's laws through war acquisition weren't voluntary, they were forced. And foreigners could be kept in this condition in Israel for life. So this does not meet the requirements for indentured servitude. It meets the requirements for slavery above.

In his previous commentary on Deut 20, Miller said it's a theoretical scenario: "It concerns war by Israel against nations NOT within the promised land." But as I've mentioned, the people in Deut 20 were the Canaanites whose land the Jews claimed Yahweh had given them as inheritance. The Canaanites are living in the so called Jewish "Promised Land" that the Israelites want and Yahweh commands the Israelites to take their land and make them slaves if they surrender. And Deut 20:15 says that this applies to "all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby." So it applies to the noncombatants outside the land of Canaan, and the noncombatants outside the borders of the Promised Land, who can be forced into slavery. Deut. 20:11 clearly says foreigners can be put to forced labor if they do not surrender to the Israelites.

Miller's article says the forced labor imposed on these foreigners doesn't make them slaves, it makes them more like 'vassals' or 'serfs'. But let me get this straight. Foreigners could be force into labor through war acquisition (Deut. 20:11) and sold to other Israelites who then can pass them down as inheritance from generation to generation for life and cruelty standards that apply to Hebrews do not have to apply to foreigners (Lev 25:46), but yet they are not slaves? Are you kidding me? If someone can be forced into servitude for life and treated cruelly, how is that not slavery? If the claim is they were not working all the time, that's irrelevant. A person need not be forced into full day labor in order to be called a slave. All they have to be is forced to do any labor with no pay or almost no pay. 1 Kings 9:21 tells of how Solomon conscripted foreign tribes who the Iraelites couldn't exterminate "to serve as slave labor," building temples, palaces, and the walls of towns. Sounds like slavery to me.

Miller continues:

The second case is that of foreign slaves within Israel (Lev 25.44f):
Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. 44 "`Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life

God orders the Israelites to make a distinction between the Hebrew servants and the those of foreign nations. They were:

  • Allowed to 'buy' (not take!) slaves from foreign nations around them [Note: these would NOT include the Canaanites, but would be from remote nations. This would make the incidence level of this extremely small, except in the case of royalty or the ruling class. In those days, rulers would often have slaves with special skills, such as writing, teaching, translation, but the lives of these 'slaves' would not be representative of the common "western" slavery under discussion.]
  • The temporary resident situation would look more like the Hebrew institution (since the alien would be 'selling himself' as in that case). The main difference would be the absence of the "timed-release" freedom clauses, but the slave-for-life-for-love situation may have been what is behind the 'you CAN make them slaves for life' (implying that it was not automatic.).
  • The temporary resident already performed more mundane tasks for the people, for example wood and water services (cf. Deut 29.11: the aliens living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. ), in exchange for escape from Egypt or from troubles abroad. But these aliens were not confined to some 'lower class' in the Israelite assembly, since it is obvious that they could rise to affluence and actually BUY Hebrew servants as well: 
    • "`If an alien or a temporary resident among you becomes rich and one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself to the alien living among you or to a member of the alien's clan, 48 he retains the right of redemption after he has sold himself. (Deut 25.47)
As such, it looks more like the Hebrew institution than the 'western' version.

Well, the argument again is not that slavery in ancient Israel must be exactly like American slavery. It need not be in order to qualify as slavery. To his first bullet point, Lev 25:44 does say you can 'buy' foreign slaves, but if that foreigner was originally acquired by force (like through war) then they can be sold to other Israelites, who can buy them for life. There is nothing about this passage excluding Canaanites. To his second bullet point, technically, Israelite servants could be made to serve for life if the master provides the male servant a wife and the man wants to stay with his wife and kids, as they were technically the property of the master.[1] Instead of letting the servant live free with his wife and kids, like a moral god would command, Yahweh allows this as a way to coerce temporary servants into lifelong slaves. There is nothing about that passage indicating that the foreign-slave-for-life situation only occurred when a wife was provided by a master. So Miller seems to be making this up. To his last bullet point, not all foreigners were slaves in Israel. Some foreigners could be free and amass relative wealth, others were indentured servants agreeing to work to pay off debt, or to prevent starvation due to economic calamity, while others could be lifelong slaves born into slavery or forced into it through war acquisition. Mosaic code allowed for all these things.

  • It is not to be expected that foreign servants would have the same rights and privileges as Hebrew servants, given the 'showcase' nature of the law. There were many distinctions along these lines, to highlight the value of covenant membership. Some of these include:
§ Dietary laws: Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the LORD your God. (Deut 14.21)
§ Cancellation of Debts: 1 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD's time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. (Deut 15.1-3)
§ Interest charges: Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. 20 You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, (Deut 23.19ff)
This shows that the standard for intra-Hebrew cultural practice was to be higher than international practice (but note that foreigners could easily become members of the assembly of Israel and participate in the covenant blessings, so this is not an exclusion scenario at all.) And indeed, such standard cultural priorities are meant as inducements to assimilate to the host community--they are like a 'Benefits of Membership' brochure.

Indeed, it must still be remembered that the nation of Israel was supposed to welcome runaway foreign slaves with open arms (Deut 23.15).

Yes, and when it came to foreigners, the Israelites had many laws we'd consider racist. But hey, become a member of the Israelites and you won't get charged interest and you won't eligible for life-long slavery! There really is no moral reason why Yahweh had to allow for forced, life-long slavery. If the argument against this is that the people subjected to life-long slavery were the tribes the Israelites had to conquer, and therefore had to enslave permanently so that they wouldn't have the ability to corrupt the Israelites as I've sometimes heard, that makes no sense either. There's no reason why Yahweh had to give the Israelites the Canaanite's land. And there's no reason why he had to choose genocide as the means to get this done. If Yahweh can do anything logically possible, and is essentially good, couldn't he simply just have painlessly annihilated all the Canaanites instantly with his superpowers? There would be no genocide and no need for slavery in such a case. But additionally, since the Israelites are instructed to force tribes outside the promised land as slaves, this common response makes no sense either way.

  • The case of the female war-captives is remarkable for its 'instant exaltation' of the woman--past slave, past concubine, all the way to full wife(!):
"The position of a female captive of war was remarkable. According to Deuteronomy 20:14, she could be spared and taken as a servant, while Deuteronomy 21:10-11 allowed her captor to take her to wife. While the relationship of the Hebrew bondwoman was described by a peculiar term (note: concubine), the marriage to the captive woman meant that the man 'would be her husband and she his wife.' No mention was made of any act of manumission; the termination of the marriage was possible only by way of divorce and not by sale." [OT:HLBT, 127]
Finally, it should be noted that the passage says that they "can" make them slaves for life--not that they "were automatically" slaves for life. Somehow, freedom was the default and lifetime slavery only an 'option'.
It should also be recognized that the Law did make some allowance for less-than-ideal praxis in the day (e.g. polygamy, divorce), but nevertheless regulated these practices and placed definite limits and protections around these areas. This foreign semi-slavery seems to have fallen into this category as well.

What if the woman didn't want to be taken as his wife? After all, he had just slaughtered all of her male relatives and many of the towns people, leaving her virtually family-less and powerless. It seems that in this situation there is a tremendous unequal relationship. She is vulnerable, powerless, and the Israelite men who just slaughtered all the men in her tribe are in power and are allowed by their god to "take" women they're attracted to as their wives. It is only if he is displease with her that she is to be set free. There is no mention of consent on the part of the woman. And mind you, if the women doesn't become his wife she can stay as a slave or concubine. The "rights" of the women depend largely on whether she marries an Israelite man.

Regarding the slaves-for-life part, the "you can make them slaves for life" in Lev 25:46 does not imply that freedom was the default. And even if it was, the option that you can make them slaves for life allows for life-long slavery, which certainly qualifies under the definition of slavery above. Hence, Mosaic law allowed for actual slavery. Even in the Antebellum South, slaves could be set free by their master or buy their freedom, although it was rare. So the possibility that foreign slaves Israel could be set free makes it no different from American slavery.

But even with this class of people being 'below' regular Hebrew slaves, there was still a God-directed humanitarian vision required of Israel--in strong contradiction to other lands…
Let's see some of the data which reveals this perspective.
(1) "Although slaves were viewed as the property of heads of households, the latter were not free to brutalize or abuse even non-Israelite members of the household. On the contrary, explicit prohibitions of the oppression/exploitation of slaves appear repeatedly in the Mosaic legislation. In two most remarkable texts, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19, Yahweh charges all Israelites to love ('aheb) aliens (gerim) who reside in their midst, that is, the foreign members of their households, like they do themselves and to treat these outsiders with the same respect they show their ethnic countrymen. Like Exodus 22:20 (Eng. 21), in both texts Israel's memory of her own experience as slaves in Egypt should have provided motivation for compassionate treatment of her slaves. But Deuteronomy 10:18 adds that the Israelites were to look to Yahweh himself as the paradigm for treating the economically and socially vulnerable persons in their communities." [HI:MFBW:60]
(2) The classic alienation of insider-outside social stratification (a major component of Western and even Roman slavery) was minimized in Israel by the inclusion of the domestics in the very heart-life of the nation: covenant and religious life. This would have created social bonds that softened much of any residual stigma associated with the servile status. This was accomplished through religious integration into the religious life of the household:
"However, domestic slavery was in all likelihood usually fairly tolerable. Slaves formed part of the family and males, if circumcised, could take part in the family Passover and other religious functions. Moreover, in general there were probably only a few in each household (note: allowing easier access to family bonds)" [OT:I:101]

For (1), it must have been a fluke that Lev 25:46 specifically mentions the treatment of foreign slaves compared to Israelite slaves that "you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly." There would be no reason to mention that if there wasn't a distinction between the treatment of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves. Foreigners who were not slaves were awarded the same basic respect as Israelites (accept for being charged interest and being eligible for life-long slavery and such). And even Hebrew indentured servants could be beaten so long as they recovered in a day or two and their eye or tooth is not put out (Exodus 21:20-27). If this is the standard by which "you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly" entailed allowance for even worse treatment, that would surely allow for cruel treatment of foreign slaves. This doesn't mean foreign slaves had to be treated cruelly, but they could if they failed to meet their master's standards. And it isn't clear to me that Lev 19:34 is referring to slaves. There were free foreigners in Israel.

For (2), all it's saying is that male foreigners who were domestics had to abide by the covenant law in order to participate in Passover celebrations. They had to be circumcised. They basically were forced to observe the Israelite's religious traditions to be more accepted. This doesn't mean they were included into the heart of Israel's society, or that their status as property changed, although it is certainly true that the average foreigner in Israel had more rights than your average African slave in the Antebellum South. They were at least allowed to read and write.

In all of section 3 of Miller's argument it does not source the work I used in my original post at all, but does source it 21 times elsewhere. That book is A History Of Ancient Near Eastern Law, which Miler calls the "definitive work on ANE law today". The reason why he doesn't use my souce in that section is probably because it mentions how foreign slaves "could be acquired by war, purchase, or birth," which wouldn't sound appealing to Miller's case. I'm not surprised. Every time I analyze an argument against biblical slavery it becomes apparent what sneaky methods the apologists have to employ.

Miller does mention my source when he tries to argue that slavery in ancient Israel might just be an all voluntary service since slaves could just escape and were not to be returned. In section 4 he writes[2]:

This is exactly the understanding given in [HI:HANEL:2,1006]:
  • "A slave could also be freed by running away. According to Deuteronomy, a runaway slave is not to be returned to its master. He should be sheltered if he wishes or allowed to go free, and he must not be taken advantage of (Deut 23:16-17). This provision is strikingly different from the laws of slavery in the surrounding nations and is explained as due to Israel's own history of slaves. It would have the effect of turning slavery into a voluntary institution."
Think about this conclusion for a moment…Slavery was meant to serve the poor (and thereby, contribute to community strength and health). If a master/slave relationship turns destructive, the value is not being achieved, and it is better for the community for the relationship to dissolve. This was NOT left in the hands of the elite to decide, through appeals and litigation and hearings etc (!!!), but was something the slave could initiate himself/herself. There was a cost--dislocation--but this would have been a trade off-driven decision anyway. 
If HI:HANEL is correct, then NO situation of 'true' slavery was exempt, and the foreigner (and Israelite alike, presumably) could live in freedom (but without the economic support substrate many sought in voluntary slavery). I would guess, however, that this would have been of little interest to most Hebrew debt-slaves, since they had a time-release clause already, and since they would want the local community reinstatement process to come to closure--for reasons of community respect, status, and sense of self-worth. 
And, since this clause is based on Israel's experience in Egypt, it probably resonated with the elders of communities, and therefore had a good chance of being honored. 
"It would have the effect of turning slavery into a voluntary institution"--a Great escape clause?

The passage in Deut 23:15-17 is most likely referring to foreign slaves who have runaway to Israel. They are not to be returned to their foreign owners. It is not referring to foreign slaves owned by Israelites who have escaped. Miller even agrees with this interpretation above in his commentary on Deut 23:15. Furthermore, it would make no sense to allow all slaves and indentured servants to simply be allowed to run away without penalty as that would ruin the entire system of servitude as a means of paying off debt and the entire system of slave labor to build infrastructure. Deut 23:15 therefore makes the most sense as applying to foreign slaves who've escaped to Israel. As such, this "great escape clause" angle that Miller is trying to argue is misleading. And mind you, African slaves in the South could always escape to the North. Though there were laws for extradition, many abolitionists offered escaped slaves accommodations.

But let's be charitable here since this is a very important part of Miller's argument. What's the likelihood that these verses do mean that all slaves in Israel could gain their freedom simply by running away? Well, it was still possible for some of the foreign slaves to have been forced into the position in the first place. And it would make no sense to have laws allowing that and the freedom to just run away. Would Solomon be fine with the foreign slaves he conscripted to built the temples and palaces just walking off the job with no penalty? I highly doubt that. I think if this escape clause did apply to servants in Israel, it didn't apply to foreign slaves—at least not the ones who were acquired by force. The truth is that Mosaic law wasn't exactly clear all the time. For example, Exodus 21:16 says anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, but Deuteronomy 24:7 specifies the death penalty for kidnapping an Israelite only. So which is it? Well, it may be the case that there was confusion as to who the law in Exodus applied to, since some foreigners could be taken by force, at least during wartime. The passage in Deuteronomy may have been a clarification on what the original law meant.

These sample passages from the OT should clearly indicate that God was NEVER in favor of 'chattel' slavery, and even instituted Hebrew semi-slavery as a concessive means to help the poor. His careful regulation of the institution (e.g. "forced" freedom at 6 years) shows how concerned He was about abuses. And the abuses DID surface in the nation of Israel, as the above situations indicate.

This section refers to slavery/servitude situations among Israelites, not foreigners. Yahweh is not displeased towards forced servitude. In Judges 1:28-34 it even says the Israelites forced the Canaanites, the Naphtalites, and the Amorites into servitude, all while the "LORD was with them."

In short, nothing about what Miller writes demonstrates that no one under Mosaic law couldn't be forced into conditions that meet the definition of slavery above. This is a problem I have over and over again with people who argue that the Bible doesn't condone slavery. They never ever get to actually accomplish that goal. Instead, they often waste a lot of time arguing that biblical slavery wasn't that bad, or it wasn't the exact same thing as American slavery, or it was better than it was before Mosaic law, or it was better than the surrounding nations, or that it was all like indentured servitude. But Glenn Miller even acknowledges here that foreigners can serve as slaves for life, but cautions that it was an "option"—not a default. In all, the defender of the Bible, Christian or not, is really trying to distance biblical slavery from American slavery. But even if he can show this, he hasn't demonstrated the Bible didn't allow for anything recognizable as slavery. At best he's just showed the Bible allowed for a different kind of slavery, perhaps better, but still recognizable as slavery.

*If you think I missed anything, give me the claim Miller made that I didn't respond to that you think made his case and I will address it.

*Miller's cited text had many usages of bold font and italics which I have removed here.

[1] Which makes you think, what was the relationship between the master and the prospective wife the master is giving his male servant? She apparently belongs to him for life, since the servant must serve the master for life if he chooses to stay with the wife the master has given him. How did the master acquire her? She probably wouldn't be his daughter since normally a daughter would become part of her husband's family upon marriage. Would she be a servant paying off debt like the make servant? If so, why isn't she to be released on the 7th year? Could she be someone's daughter that was sold to the master? This is most likely the case as Exodus 21:7 says daughters sold do not go out as male servants do. The kids they produce are also the master's property for life as well. It is not clear if and when they go free.

[2] In Miller's article HI:HANEL is the same as A History Of Ancient Near Eastern Law.

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