Our modern world economy offers options to us that were not previously available (or widely available). Some of these developments make slavery less desirable than it once was (which is why passages like Exodus 21:5 are inscrutable to us). We quite naturally take these things for granted, but they make our present wage-labor system possible:
- Money: Minted coinage was not in use in the Levant until after the Babylonian Captivity. The use of precious metals as a medium of exchange dates back to sometime during the lifetime of Abraham. The first time anyone bought anything in the Bible by means other than barter is Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah as a burial site. Without standardized money, a wage-labor economy is much more difficult to achieve. Yes, you could work for wages. You could barter for a cow in exchange for your work. That only works well, of course, if the value of the work you contribute is pretty much evenly equal to the value of a cow or some multiple of that value. It’s hard to collect at fourth of a cow in any useful way (especially prior to refrigeration). Money makes it possible to remunerate work of almost any value.
- Merchants and Bazaars: Money is only useful to the person who has somewhere to spend it. The old sharecropping system and the crop-lien system in the Reconstruction Period of the South teach us that without a sound, generally accepted currency (e.g., when sharecroppers must make purchases from the “plantation store”), any economic system devolves into de facto slavery. Although mercantile shopping came early to cities, rural or nomadic workers would be hard-pressed to find free markets from which they could purchase food, clothing, and shelter.
- Credit: You need housing before you are able to afford to buy it. You need implements for farming before you are able to raise a crop to pay for them. Modern people solve these problems by turning to creditors. Before credit was available, indenture (slavery) was one substitute for functioning credit markets. By the way, I realize that the biblical verdict on credit isn’t very favorable and that many of my readers may be unfavorably disposed toward debt. Even most Christian financial advisors, however, allow for the idea of a home mortgage and for reasonable commercial credit. For those who pay off your credit card balance in full every month, you’re still using credit (even if it is 30-day, 0% credit terms). Certainly in a society that did not have rental property available and did not have credit available, a penniless person starting out would need the support of a clan. If he did not have suitable relationships by birth, slavery could be an attractive option. Systems of enslavement that were not permanent provided a sort of credit—a way that a person could offer himself as collateral and repayment against a sort of startup loan in order to become a low-ranking member of a clan.
- Insurance: What if you were disabled? What if you were to die and leave your family without an income? If you were to start out as a slave to a wealthy slaveowner, the responsibility for the care of your family would fall upon the master. If you were simply a yeoman farmer with a wife and a couple of children under the age of 5, your family was going to be in dire straits (in which case, I guess you could do the walk of life).
Government: Have you ever wondered why there are so many death penalties in the Pentateuch? There’s more “Off with his head!” in there than in Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it makes more sense when you realize that there were at the time no police, no system of jurisprudence, and no effective prisons. What are called “prisons” in the Bible were intended as short-term holding cells where people awaited trial and sentencing. As late as the 1700s this was still generally the case. The effective choices faced during the Exodus and Settlement periods were to extract a fine from a criminal, enslave him to someone, let him go free, or kill him. So, as a side note, when you criticize a death sentence in the Pentateuch as being too harsh, you’re under obligation to state that a mere fine or enslavement would be your preferred sentence. If you choose the fine, you’re going to have to figure out what to do with the person who cannot pay it.
In any event, back to the point: Without a police force, a court system, or prisons, how are you going to protect yourself from miscreants? If you were just a young man starting out, and if through distance, misfortune, or some other circumstance you were not a part of a larger clan of people, to whom would you go for protection and how would you obtain justice for crimes committed against you? If you lived in a city, you had some fledgling system of government available to you there, but for the rural worker or the nomadic worker, your best bet was to be indentured to a good clan and thereby to be able to avail yourself of the protection that the clan could provide.
What most closely approximates slavery in our society is the network of gangs present in our urban environments and in our prisons. There you see this dynamic at work clearly. Young men join gangs and subjugate themselves to gang leadership in order to gain protection. In prison this sometimes explicitly includes concepts of “ownership” of another person. People subject themselves to this because they do not believe that government is able to provide sufficient protection for them in their neighborhoods, among other factors. For the sake of self-preservation, they enslave themselves that they might be a part, albeit a low-ranking part, of a group able to defend itself.
So, the phrase “the benefits of slavery” seems so odd to you because you are privileged to live in a time and a place where those benefits come readily to you through other means. We do differently because we CAN do differently. To take away slavery in a context where emancipated slaves have access to money, markets, credit, insurance (or a social safety net), and government is to give people a great blessing. Even where emancipated slaves would have access to as many as three of the five listed items it could be a good thing to eliminate slavery…we might want to take our chances on the question of insurance, and if we were the biggest and strongest guy around, we might not care so much about the question of government.
But to eliminate slavery in a society without money, without markets, without credit, without insurance, and without any functioning government to guarantee rights and provide access to basic justice is to take away one means of survival from people who may not have any better alternatives at their disposal.
Pentateuchal Slavery Codes
And so, what we have in Exodus, for example, is the regulation of slavery in a society that was far different from ours, economically speaking. What the Old Testament regulates it does not necessarily approve as anything more than the least-worst option available.
A good parallel to this is the question of divorce. The Pharisees assumed that divorce was a God-given right and was morally excellent because, after all, Moses had established divorce. Jesus countered, in essence, that the Pentateuch did not establish divorce, it merely regulated it. In a world with divorce, divorce ought to be as fair as it can be to women.
Likewise, Moses did not establish slavery. He did, however, regulate it. If, as I have suggested, the economic options available to a large clan of rural nomads were limited and therefore the abolition of slavery without a wage-labor economy waiting in the wings to replace it would be harmful to the poor, then the right thing to do at that time would be to regulate slavery to make it more fair rather than to abolish it outright. This is precisely what the Old Testament slavery codes do: They regulate slavery to mediate disputes and make it more fair.
The Emancipated Age
Of course, we have access to money, markets, insurance, credit, and government. Wage-labor economies work fine for almost anyone, almost anywhere in this age. Because liberation is indeed one biblical theme and because, all other things being equal, existence as a freedman is superior to existence as a slave, we are right to have abolished slavery and it would be bad for us to institute it anew.
Even though this is the case, we still perpetrate a lot of evil in our economic and social systems that can be as bad as or worse than some systems of slavery (as I have labored to demonstrate). There’s a reason for that—an underlying evil that lies at the root of it all.
The cardinal realities that give rise to slavery and to the other injustices that I have mentioned are these: (a) It can be hard to make a living, and (b) people try to dominate other people. These realities go back to Genesis 3. The latter is a symptom of the Fall and the former is a punishment for it. Because it can be difficult to earn a living, sometimes people have placed themselves into the servitude of slaveholders. Because people try to dominate other people, sometimes people have forced into slavery those who willed rather to remain free. These two tributaries into the river of slavery are different but they are both evil.
They require different means of redress. Eliminating forced servitude means preventing enslavers from enslaving anyone. Eliminating voluntary servitude means telling poor people that they do not have the right to sell themselves, no matter how desperate their circumstance may be. What I have endeavored to demonstrate in this post is simply that society is obligated to offer some better remedy to the poor if it will remove this option from them. We now have something better, and so we are right to restrict their freedom in this way. I will not judge those who preserved this liberty before better options were freely available.
Moses, therefore, was not wrong to regulate slavery, and Jesus was not wrong not to have abolished it, but we are not wrong to have abolished it today and would be wrong to see to re-establish it in our circumstance.
I meant for this to be the final post, but I think I still have one more left in me. In that post I’d like to address why I think it is important for us to do this difficult exegetical work. I have great respect for Alan Cross, even though we’ve had some slight differences along the way in this series. I respect Alan because he has been willing to undertake this task—to try to articulate a serious post-bellum, post-Jim-Crow exegetical treatment of slavery in the Bible. If you attempt to do so, you’re going to take some sniper fire, because the task is difficult and the topic is politically charged. Most people shy away from such circumstances, but I’m going to attempt to explain why I think we have to attempt it nonetheless.