Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Il Verdetto]

By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.

Thus the Lord God showed me, and behold, there was a basket of summer fruit.  He said, “What do you see, Amos?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me, “The end has come for My people Israel. I will spare them no longer. -Amos 8:1-2

So far, our challenge has been to look at the laws that God gave to Moses in order to provide a society within Ancient Israel wherein slavery would be acceptable, legalized, and regulated.  We have seen so far that what was said in the very beginning of our trial is true: There existed many slaveries throughout all of human history.  Some are so benign that they can be said to still exist in the highest of human societies while other slaveries are so malign that they are only condoned and endorsed in the basest of modern civilizations.

But what happened with Ancient Israel?  Did they actually abide by the humanitarian and restricted slavery that God mandated for them?

Sadly, the short and concise answer is no.  For Ancient Israel to have abode by the covenant would have meant for Ancient Israel to have always abode by the Mosaic Covenant.  So much of the Torah is written with the express assumption that its followers will obey every single other command of it that to disobey even one portion of the Torah was tantamount to disobeying the entire law (Torah is the Hebrew word for “law”).

But we have also seen that the Torah was full of so many regulations that such an Israelite would have to be completely devoted to God…and such would have to have been every Israelite within the nation.

But obeying God only required a loving heart: a love for God and a love for neighbor.  Repeatedly we see:

The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, and you will love Him with all your heart and all your soul so that you will live. – Deuteronomy 30:6

For I desire loyalty and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

Mankind, He has told you what is good
and what it is the Lord requires of you:
to act justly,
to love faithfulness,
and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

I hate, I despise your feasts!
I can’t stand the stench
of your solemn assemblies.
Even if you offer Me
your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
I will have no regard
for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle.
Take away from Me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice flow like water,
and righteousness, like an unfailing stream. – Amos 5:21-24

“This is the most important,” Jesus answered: Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  “The second is: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.” – Mark 12:29-31

But Ancient Israelite life did not turn out that way.  Eventually, even after some periods of revival, the nation of Ancient Israel began to crumble socially from the inside out.

For example, the passage from Scripture cited at the beginning of this post references the book of Amos the sheep breeder.  Amos was an ordinary (and maybe even under-ordinary) Israelite chosen by God to proclaim judgment to the nation of Israel for disobeying God’s laws and even for outright perverting many of them.

In Amos 8, we read very blatantly how the Israelites were behaving.  Indeed, it is as if God kept a long and detailed catalog of all of the evil that they were doing throughout their generations.

In that day the temple songs will become wailing”—this is the Lord God’s declaration. “Many dead bodies, thrown everywhere! Silence!”  Hear this, you who trample on the needy

and do away with the poor of the land,

asking, “When will the New Moon be over

so we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath,

so we may market wheat?

We can reduce the measure

while increasing the price

and cheat with dishonest scales.

We can buy the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals

and even sell the chaff!”

The Israelites deliberately skipped over and around the limited servitude and daily provisions offered for slaves by buying and selling the poor frivolously, setting up debt systems that created a poor underclass, and by deliberately lowering the prices of labor artificially so as to make the poor continually dependent upon their patrons.  If this sounds like the sludge-and-slum policies of many modern urban cities and brutal regimes, you should remember: we humans are our parents’ children.

How long did God wait to finally judge Israel?  Here He is promising that on the day of His judgment there will be even rotting corpses within His own temple at Jerusalem!  Well, by this time the nation of Israel had split from the son of Solomon into the Northern Kingdom called Israel and the Southern Kingdom called Judah.  Rehoboam, the king who suffered the split of his nation and the son of Solomon, began to reign around 931 BC.  The promised judgment of God against the Northern Kingdom of Israel came in 740-722 BC from the Assyrian Empire.  So that was a period of about 200 years…a period way shorter than the 400 years that God was graceful to the Amorites and Canaanites from Abraham’s time to Joshua’s.  God indicted the Israelites for worshiping false gods in Dan and Beer-sheba, the very place of one of Abraham’s old wells in his treaty with the Philistines.  Famine and thirst will be the plagues that God will strike the Israelites with so that even their young men and women will die by the roads.  This is a total reenactment of the brutal justice that God caused Israel to enact upon the Canaanites just centuries before for doing the same things.  But this time, the brutal and utterly ruthless Assyrians destroyed Israel and drove them out of the land by mass deportation and enslavement.

But what about Judah, the Southern Kingdom?  Well, Judah fared a little better for a longer period of time, but eventually they too came to a fall.  We actually have a detailed description of Judah trying to correct their mistake concerning slavery, for they had entered into the same corrupt form of body-bargaining that their brother Israelites had.  In Jeremiah 34, while the Babylonian armies are sacking stronghold after stronghold, making Judah’s territory shrink almost day-by-day and the people run to and fro from city to city, the king of Judah, Zedekiah, hears from Jeremiah how God has grown tired and fed up with Judah’s injustice and idolatrous ways.  In a desperate bid to save his kingdom, Zedekiah issued an edict that all Israelites were to release all of their slaves (for it had gotten so bad that not one enslaved person was held legally according to the Torah).  This the people did, and God mercifully saw what the people did in repentance.

God turned the Babylonian general and his armies away from Jerusalem, the only city left to Judah out of all of their domain.  Yes.  At this time Judah was only a city-state…and that only by the mercies of God.  But what did the people do when they saw the Babylonian forces withdraw from them?

They took back all of their formerly freed slaves and re-enslaved them!

If this reminds you of the broken promises of manumission for the many slaves living in colonial America who were supposed to be freed by the Americans and the British sides respectively after the American Revolutionary War/War of Independence (you can get a start on that issue here), remember: we humans are our parents’ children.

And God’s judgment towards Judah was likewise His judgment toward Canaan and His judgment toward Israel:

“Therefore, this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed Me by proclaiming freedom, each man for his brother and for his neighbor. I hereby proclaim freedom for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“to the sword, to plague, and to famine! I will make you a horror to all the earth’s kingdoms. 18 As for those who disobeyed My covenant, not keeping the terms of the covenant they made before Me, I will treat them like the calf they cut in two in order to pass between its pieces.19 The officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the pieces of the calf 20 will be handed over to their enemies, to those who want to take their life. Their corpses will become food for the birds of the sky and for the wild animals of the land. 21 I will hand Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials over to their enemies, to those who want to take their lives, to the king of Babylon’s army that is withdrawing. 22 I am about to give the command”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“and I will bring them back to this city. They will fight against it, capture it, and burn it down. I will make Judah’s cities a desolation, without inhabitant.”

The complete destruction of Judah by Babylon occurred in 598-586 BC.  That is just around 340 years that God delayed His destruction on Judah.

We must also pause and remember the American Civil War.  We often forget that the war was preceded by, accompanied by, and closely followed by a famine in Southern crops.  We also forget that sickness and death ravaged the country where the war was fought, killing off civilian and soldier alike.  And even more, though historians like to mention this in their notes from time to time, we often forget that one of the major turning points in victories in battle for the Union began shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was given.  This is all true.  We must pause and ask that although both sides claimed that God was for them, could it be much more likely that God was during the American Civil War on the same side that He was on during Joshua’s time (taken from Joshua 5:13-15; 6:1-5):

13 When Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in His hand. Joshua approached Him and asked, “Are You for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” He replied. “I have now come as commander of the Lord’s army.”Then Joshua bowed with his face to the ground in worship and asked Him, “What does my Lord want to say to His servant?” 15 The commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.”And Joshua did so. 6 Now Jericho was strongly fortified because of the Israelites—no one leaving or entering. The Lord said to Joshua, “Look, I have handed Jericho, its king, and its fighting men over to you. March around the city with all the men of war, circling the city one time. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry seven ram’s-horn trumpets in front of the ark. But on the seventh day, march around the city seven times, while the priests blow the trumpets. When there is a prolonged blast of the horn and you hear its sound, have all the people give a mighty shout. Then the city wall will collapse, and the people will advance, each man straight ahead.”

Much like it doesn’t quite make complete sense to us how the wall of Jericho fell considering the structural dynamics for the wall itself, so many historians still debate among themselves exactly how the Union soldiers who were often badly beaten and poorly trained began to win a sudden swell of victories after the Emancipation Proclamation that eventually brought an arguably faster end (that some may argue was inevitable) to the American Civil War…a war that ended the unjust system of American slavery very similar to the corrupt and unjust slavery that God had condemned and that the Ancient Israelites had expressively accepted.

Many will then point out that the God of the Bible was used by Americans to promote their system of slavery.  To these people (I have written an undergraduate thesis on this subject) I merely point to this entire series and say: “Prove it that they were correct in doing so.”  Of course, I say this knowing that you and I, humble readers, have already taken a blatant and honestly comparative look at these laws for ourselves.

The third commandment of the Decalogue in the Torah says that we “shall not take God’s Name in vain.”  Of course, Israel and Judah did this by bearing His Name but breaking His justice, and they were destroyed.  Certainly, America and the Confederacy bore God’s Name in vain in their own appropriate times.  We can certainly say that it is within reason to take from the turnaround of the American Civil War that God was not on any one side but His own, and that once a faction got along with His program, then He was willing to fight for them.

America was formerly established in her independence in 1783 and the Constitution was ratified in 1789.  The American Civil War began in 1861 when the anti-slavery Republican Party defeated the pro-slavery Democrat Party’s bid for the White House…that is just 78 years after American Independence and 72 years after the U.S. Constitution was adopted as the national law.

An estimated 388,000472,000 Africans were bought from African slave traders unwillingly via kidnapping or warfare conducted for the slave trade, and were brought directly to the British colonies and the eventual United States of America.  About 620,000 soldiers in total died in the American Civil War on both sides from warfare, disease, and malnourishment– most of them European descended young men comparable in age to the African men and women taken in dirty dealings with African nations.  The Southern states were left at war’s end with a crippling debt which totally depleted their earnings from slavery, famine, and disease, while the Northern states went through an economic drought before rebounding in their industrial economy.

Historian’s Note:

This online thread had some nice resources of news articles from that time after the war in America’s history.  I will share them individually here: (New York Times– Alabama, New York Times– South Carolina, North Carolina Newspapers, and an overview of the American South a full 2 years after it had ended, Daily Alta California).

We must remember this solemn warning of God from the Torah:

“Whoever kidnaps a person must be put to death, whether he sells him or the person is found in his possession.” – Exodus 21:16

Dear readers, all that I can say are solemn words.  Behold the severity of the verdict of God.

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