Sunday, February 23, 2014

Debt and Slave Regulations (Leviticus 25)

The following quotes are taken from

"Slavery In The Bible - Except for murder, slavery has got to be one of the most immoral things a person can do.  Yet slavery is rampant throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Bible clearly approves of slavery in many passages, and it goes so far as to tell how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them, and when you can have sex with the female slaves.

"Many Jews and Christians will try to ignore the moral problems of slavery by saying that these slaves were actually servants or indentured servants.  Many translations of the Bible use the word "servant", "bondservant", or "manservant" instead of "slave" to make the Bible seem less immoral than it really is.  While many slaves may have worked as household servants, that doesn't mean that they were not slaves who were bought, sold, and treated worse than livestock.

"The following passage shows that slaves are clearly property to be bought and sold like livestock."

"However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way."  (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

These verses are part of a larger passage concerning the Year of Jubilee and the treatment of slaves, both Israelite and foreigner.  You can read the entire chapter here:

            The first quote claims that the Bible approves of slavery.  This is not the case.  Though God allowed certain conditions to exist for a time period, such as polygamy and slavery, he did not approve of them.  There are no statements in the Bible that praise slavery or even command people to own slaves.  The references to slavery in the Bible are laws concerning how slaves were supposed to be treated. 
            The slavery of the Ancient Near East was different than the slavery in the world over the past few hundred years.  In Western culture over the past few centuries, particularly in the United States, slavery was primarily race-based, and people were kidnapped from their homes and forced into slavery against their will.  They received no monetary compensation for their services, and were often severely physically, verbally and emotionally abused by their owners.  The Bible most definitely condemns this type of slavery.  In the Law, anyone who kidnapped a person in order to sell them into slavery was sentenced to death (Exodus 21:16).  Slavery based on race alone was also discouraged; the Hebrews were made slaves in Egypt simply because of their race, and God was concerned about the way they were being oppressed (Exodus 2:23-25).
            The second quote is also incorrect - In the Ancient Near East, the class system was very different from most cultures today.  Many people, when becoming poor, destitute, or overly in debt, would have to sell themselves and their children into slavery in order to survive [1][2][3].  With this in mind, part of the Law concerned the fair treatment of slaves.  For example, a Hebrew who sold himself into slavery to another Hebrew could not be enslaved for more than 6 years (Exodus 21:2).
            This brings us to the first question presented: Why were the Israelites permitted to own foreign slaves for longer than 6 years, sometimes even for life?  We must consider a few things here.  The foreign slaves living in the land of the Israelites were most likely in the same situation as an Israelite who had become destitute and had to sell themselves as slaves: they had no other choice if they wanted to survive.  In some instances, people sold themselves to the Israelites in exchange for protection from attacks by other nations, as in the case of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9-10).
            Also, though the Law allowed the Israelites to own a foreign slave for life, it wasn't a requirement.  The verse states, "You can (or, you may) bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can (or may) make them slaves for life" (Leviticus 25:46, NIV) - the verse says "you can", not "you must".  It was certainly acceptable to give a foreign slave their freedom after a specified period of time.
            Slaves, whether foreign or Israelite, were not treated like livestock.  The Law prohibited the gross mistreatment or murder of slaves.  Many of these laws in the Bible were actually a step up from other laws concerning slavery in the Ancient Near East during that time period.  For example, in the Code of Hammurabi, if a person permanently injured a slave, they would have to pay one half of the value [4].  In the Law, if a person permanently injured a slave, the slave was to be set free as compensation (Exodus 21:26-27). 
            Other laws in the Bible concerning the fair treatment of slaves are as follows:

Slaves could not be forced to work on the Sabbath; they had a day of rest just as free people did (Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14).

Slaves could celebrate at the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles with their masters (Deuteronomy 16:9-15).

Anyone who beat a slave to death would be punished (Exodus 21:20).

A slave must be immediately set free if their master hit and permanently injured them (Exodus 21:26-27).

The Israelites had to protect foreign slaves who had escaped from their masters; they could not turn them in.  The former slaves could then live as free people among them (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

            Slavery was - and is - not an ideal condition, nor is it commended by God.  This is why most of the passages in the Bible referring to slavery are laws regarding their treatment.  Slaves were human beings created in the image of God just as free people were, and their mistreatment was forbidden. 

[1] Life and Society in the West: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Constance Brittain Bouchard, 1988.  Pg. 33.
[2] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 43.
[3] Life In The Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell, 1997.  Pg. 35-36.
[4] Code of Hammurabi (written circa 1772 BCE), translated into English by L.W. King (1915) #199, see also #16-20

See also:

"Why was slavery allowed in the Old Testament?"

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Elijah and the Prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:16-40)

The following quote is taken from

"Murder - "At the customary time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet walked up to the altar and prayed, "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command.  O LORD, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself."  Immediately the fire of the LORD flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust.  It even licked up all the water in the ditch!  And when the people saw it, they fell on their faces and cried out, "The LORD is God!  The LORD is God!"  Then Elijah commanded, "Seize all the prophets of Baal.  Don't let a single one escape!"  So the people seized them all, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon Valley and killed them there."  (1 Kings 18:36-40 NLT)

This is part of the larger story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and of Elijah, one of God's prophets.  You can read the full story of Elijah's contest against the prophets of Baal here:

(For the entire story, please see 1 Kings 16 - 2 Kings 2).

            Elijah was one of God's greatest prophets.  He lived during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel (reigned circa 885-874 BCE).  King Ahab was one of Israel's worst kings.  He married Jezebel, a Sidonian princess, and together they instituted worship of Baal, a false god, in Israel.  "Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him" (1 Kings 16:30, NIV).  In addition to deliberately committing idolatry themselves and leading the Israelites to do the same, Queen Jezebel murdered many of the LORD's prophets (1 Kings 18:3-4). 
            In the verses preceding this one, Elijah presented himself to King Ahab at God's command, and they gathered the Israelites on Mount Carmel, together with the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, another false god that Ahab worshipped.  The intention was to determine, once and for all, which god was real and which one was false; to determine which god should be worshipped by the Israelites.
            Why was this such a serious issue?  The charge of idolatry is a very grievous sin, which God does not take lightly (see Exodus 20:3-6, 23; 23:13, 23-24; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15-28; 5:7; 6:14-15; 8:19; 12:31; 17:2-7; 27:15; 29:17-18).  God warned the Israelites on several occasions that if they committed idolatry, it was a crime that warranted the death penalty.  The Israelites' covenant with God demanded that they worship and serve him only.  They were not supposed to worship other gods or fashion idols for themselves.  God had warned them that if they did these things, it would lead to their destruction: "If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 8:19, NIV). 
            Why is idolatry considered such a serious crime?  The severity of the judgment, capital punishment, is due to the severity of the sin.  God is the only God, the Lord and creator of all the universe.  When anyone bows down and worships or pays tribute to a false god or idol, they are taking credit away from God and giving it to something undeserving of that credit.  "I am the LORD; that is my name!  I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols" (Isaiah 42:8, NIV).  The crime of idolatry was so serious that it was often referred to as adultery against God (Ezekiel 6:9).
            In the contest that Elijah proposed, he would set up a sacrifice of a bull on one altar, and Baal's prophets would set up a sacrifice of a bull on another altar.  Then, each would call to their god, and the god who answered by fire was the true God.  The Israelites agreed to this contest.  The prophets of Baal went first - they spent the entire day crying out to Baal, dancing and mutilating themselves, but nothing happened.  Then Elijah had the altar with his sacrifice drenched with water three times.  He then prayed for God to answer him, and God answered with fire - it burned not only the drenched sacrifice on the altar, but also the wood, stones, soil and even the water in the trench.  After that, the people fell prostrate and declared the LORD to be the true God (1 Kings 18:16-39).
            The question that has been presented here is as follows: Why did Elijah have the prophets of Baal killed after this event?  The first and primary reason was because of their idolatry, and for leading the Israelites into a great sin against God.  The second reason was due to another sin. It is interesting that the author of does not mention this, since the website is focused on the condemnation of human sacrifice: human/child sacrifice was massively performed by those who worshipped Baal.
            Worship of Baal and Molech frequently involved the sacrifice of infants, particularly firstborn sons [1] [2] [3].  Sometimes the babies and children would be immediately burned to death in a fire, other times they would first be placed on an altar that had been heated by coals, and then rolled off of it into a burning fire as a sacrifice.  This practice was strongly condemned by God: "They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing" (Jeremiah 32:35, NIV; see also Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 19:5).  (A common question in response is, "If God was against human/child sacrifice, then why did he command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?"  See my earlier article for a discussion of this topic.)  Baal worship, besides human sacrifice and cultic prostitution, also involved self-mutilation (1 Kings 18:28).
            With all of this in mind, we can conclude that Elijah executed the prophets for violating God's commandments against idolatry and child sacrifice.  He was, in essence, doing to them what they had done to countless victims on their altars.   
[1] Exploring the World of the Bible Lands, Roberta L. Harris, 1995.  Pg. 53, 73, 89.
[2] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 156.
[3] Archaeology of the Bible: Book By Book, Gaalyah Cornfield, 1976.  Pg. 52, 170.