Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Know thy enemy

We are told ad nauseam by our president and his administration that ISIS is not Islamic; but members of ISIS certainly understand themselves to be Muslim. After all, they call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,[1] and claim to be the only true and faithful representatives of Islam. One can gain a pretty good understanding of their religious motives by simply listening to what they have to say in their latest promo video:

We know, of course, that not all Muslims are radicals or terrorists, hell-bent on world conquest. The problem is that Muhammad was. Consider the teaching of the Quran and the Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad). You can find numerous passages from both sources quoted and explained in their context here. And since the adherents of a religion generally attempt to obey the teaching and follow the example of its founder…

[1] Alternately, ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Levant is a geographical term for the territory on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, including the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Ethics of Killing

A post I wrote a couple of years ago, The Ethics of Killing in Self-Defense, received some renewed attention this past week. Judging by some feedback I’ve received, I thought it might be helpful to set the discussion into a larger context, The Ethics of Killing in general, you might say.

The sixth commandment safeguards human life with the prohibition, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). It should be pointed out, however, that the verb in the commandment (Heb., ratsach) is more general in meaning than “murder.” Kill is the single word that perhaps best captures its meaning. It indicates a range of actions from murder, to causing death by negligence or reckless behavior.

The word which is used in modern jurisprudence is homicide, derived from the Latin homō, meaning man, human being, and the suffix -cide, which indicates an act of killing. Thus the term refers to the killing of a human being.[1] Homicide is a neutral term. Any killing of a human being, whether justified or not, may properly be called a homicide. The word does not necessarily denote a criminal act.

The killing of a human being can be either justified or unjustified. Homicide is justified when it has divine authorization. It is unjustified when it does not have divine authorization. The various kinds of homicide are spelled out in the table below.

Click to enlarge

Lets consider this in more detail.

Justified Homicide 
Under what circumstances is someone justified in taking the life of another human being? In other words, when does someone have divine authorization to take human life? Scripture teaches that this authorization is only given in three circumstances:  in cases of self-defense, capital punishment, and war.

Killing in Self-Defense
Self-defense is defined as, “the use of force to protect oneself, one’s family, or one’s property from a real or threatened attack.”[2] The right of self-defense is recognized in Exodus 22:2, “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him.” In other words, the homeowner is not guilty of shedding innocent blood, and consequently is not to be punished. While the act is in progress and the motives of the intruder are unclear, the homeowner is justified in fearing the worst—that the intruder may intend not only to steal, but also to kill. In such a case, the homeowner is not to be charged with the guilt of unlawfully taking human life.

Undoubtedly one has the right of self-defense in other circumstances as well, not only in the home, but also on the street and in the field, wherever there is a reasonable fear of serious harm to one’s person, family, or property. Modern jurisprudence operates on the same principle:  “A person may defend himself when attacked, repel force by force, and even commit homicide in resisting an attempted felony, e.g., murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and the like.”[3]

The principles of Biblical law also grant the same immunity to a bystander who comes to the aid of a victim of crime while the crime is in progress.

Capital Punishment
Biblical law also authorizes the taking of human life as a means of punishment for serious crimes (Gen. 9:6; Num. 35). The death penalty, as it is called, is also known as capital punishment, a term that derives from the Latin, capitalis, meaning “regarding the head,” and refers to execution by beheading. Scripture is very clear that the death penalty can only be imposed by properly constituted authorities who have observed the strictest elements of the due process of law (35:30; cf. Deut. 17:6-13).

The third circumstance in which Biblical law permits the taking of human life is in the context of war. There are numerous passages in which the Lord specifically commands the people of Israel to go to war or prepares them for the prospect for war (Ex. 17:8-16; Num. 1:1-3; 21:1-3, 21-35; 31:1-4; etc.). Of course not all wars are justified. Wars of aggression, and wars merely for the purpose of plunder, whether in goods, territory, or slaves, are unjustifiable. Defensive wars, however, and remedial wars (to recover what was unjustly taken) are justified.

Unjustified Homicide
All homicide, except in cases of self-defense, capital punishment, and war is forbidden. It is unjustified, which is to say, done without divine authorization. Unjustified homicide can be either intentional or unintentional. Intentional, unjustified homicide can in turn be either premeditated or unpremeditated. Premeditated, intentional, unjustified homicide is what we call murder. This includes abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. There is no more serious crime than shedding innocent blood. It is a primeval sin, originating with Cain killing his own brother (Gen. 4:8). It was the chief sin on account of which the Lord sent the flood in the days of Noah (Gen. 6:11-13). We gather this from the command given immediately after the flood:  “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). This is the first case law we find in the Bible. Innocent blood cries out to the Lord from the ground (Gen. 4:10; cf. Rev. 6:10) and “pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num. 35:33). No sanctuary is to be given to a murderer (Ex. 21:14), and no ransom may be accepted in lieu of his death (Num. 35:31). This is so serious a matter that a special ordinance was enacted in order to atone for unsolved murders so that divine wrath might not come upon the land (Deut. 21:1-9).[4]

Unjustified, intentional homicide might, however, be unpremeditated, as in “the heat of passion.” The manslayer intended to kill his victim at the time, but did not plan to do so beforehand; rather, he suffered some sudden provocation that led him to react violently in the moment (e.g., catching a spouse in the act of adultery; etc.).

Some acts of unjustified homicide are unintentional, like those resulting from reckless or negligent behavior. Biblical law supposes a case in which a man builds a new house and fails to “make a parapet for [the] roof” (Deut. 22:8). (Roofs in the ancient near east were flat and were used for a variety of activities, see Josh. 2:6; Judg. 3:20; 1 Sam. 9:25; etc.) The homeowner was to be held guilty of negligent homicide “if anyone should fall from it.” The same principle is at play in cases where someone fails to cover a pit he has dug (Ex. 21:33-34),[5] or fails to adequately restrain an ox that is in the habit of goring (Ex. 21:28-31). An instance of reckless homicide is supposed in Exodus 22:22-25.

Distinguishing between One Kind of Homicide and Another
Biblical law gives guidance to judges in how to distinguish between one kind of homicide and another. Did the perpetrator lie in wait (Ex. 21:13)? Did he act willfully or with cunning (Ex. 21:14)? Did he use an iron object to strike his victim, or an object made of stone or wood (Num. 35:16-18)? Did he hurl something at him, while lying in wait, or express hatred or enmity toward him (Num. 35:20-21)? Or do the circumstances suggest the death was purely accidental (Num. 35:22-23; Deut. 19:4-5)?

The sixth commandment provides a general prohibition against taking the life of other human beings apart from divine authorization. Such authorization is only given in cases of self-defense, capital punishment, and war. All other killing is strictly prohibited, whether as the result of a willful, premeditated act (i.e., murder), or by reckless or negligent behavior.

[1] Compare patricide (killing one’s father), matricide (killing one’s mother), suicide (killing oneself), pesticide, etc.
[2] Black’s Law Dictionary, Abridged Ninth Edition, Bryan A. Garner, Editor in Chief (St. Paul, MN:  Thomas Reuters, 2010), p. 1163
[3] The Law Dictionary (Cincinnati, OH:  Anderson Publishing Co., 1986), p. 299
[4] Scripture teaches that God hates violent, bloodthirsty men (see Ps. 5:6; 11:5; 55:23)
[5] The passage refers to an ox or a donkey that fall into a pit, but the owner is equally culpable if a human being should fall into it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Do not despise the day of small things

Too often we expect positive changes to take place in one fell swoop. Whether in matters of personal sanctification, institutional reform, cultural renewal, or transformation of the political landscape, we too often look for one dramatic event that gains us a quick, easy, and permanent victory. But this doesn't seem to be how God normally works.

The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come (Mk. 4:26-29).

The seed doesn’t produce its fruit overnight. Maturity requires growth, and growth takes time. It is not the time to complain that no fruit is visible when the blade first appears. We should not despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10). The Lord promised the people of Israel that he would defeat their enemies and drive them out of the Promised Land. He would not do it, however, in one year, but “little by little” (Ex. 23:29-30).

The least progress in the right direction, even if the progress seems painfully slow, ought to be encouraged and received with gratitude and looked upon as a reason to strive for even better things. Growth in grace is a lifelong process. Institutional reform is often a long and arduous task. Cultural renewal takes place over generations. It requires much more than simply winning the next election to transform the political landscape.

Moreover, none of these things is permanent. It requires great effort to maintain what has been achieved.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Whoopi's Whopper

You might have seen that Whoopi Goldberg, that eminent divine of daytime television, recently offered her insights into the Bible’s teaching on abortion. Apparently she felt it necessary to do this in light of the Pope’s visit to the U.S. this week and his anticipated comments about the sanctity of life. As it turns out, according to The View’s resident theologian, Scripture is conveniently silent about the subject.
Well, there’s nothing in the Book that says anything about abortion. Let’s make sure of that. The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments. There’s only ten.”
She knows this, of course, because she once played a nun in a movie (or rather, played a lounge singer in a witness protection program pretending to be a nun. But why quibble?) Predictably, the host was cheered by her adoring fans as if she had said something meaningful.

We might be tempted to simply shake our heads in disbelief at Whoopi’s whopper and pass it off as something to be expected in today’s celebrity-as-expert culture, but similar inanities are uttered by people who ought to know better. In fact, her comments reminded me of a 2013 pastoral letter penned by the Priests of Baal…excuse me, I mean the Clergy Advocacy Board of Planned Parenthood. Say the clerics,
“The truth is that abortion is not even mentioned in the Scriptures—Jewish or Christian—and there are clergy and people of faith from all denominations who support women making this complex decision.”
To be fair, Whoopi was a bit more modest in her claim. She limited herself to the Ten Commandments. CAB makes the same claim about all of Scripture. Both are wrong, of course, but when you’re preaching to the choir there’s no need to justify your claim.

Let’s deal first with Goldberg’s assertion about the Ten Commandments. She says, “The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments.” And then, for the mathematically challenged, she helpfully explains, “There are only ten.” Thank you Sister Obvious. Why she should feel it necessary to point out that the Ten Commandments contains precisely ten commandments and no more, is a mystery, unless she wishes to imply that the Ten Commandments are the only commandments in the entire Bible. If so, she is not only wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Anyone who has ever read the Bible (which is, by the way, a helpful exercise for someone wishing to comment on what the Bible teaches) would know that there are far more than ten. The traditional number is 613.

Regarding her statement that “there’s nothing in the Book that says anything about abortion,” there is that pesky little sixth commandment that prohibits murder she might want to take into account. It might have some relevance to snuffing out the life of an unborn child.[1] But like a good little Pharisee looking for ways to nullify the commandments of God, she finds a loophole.[2] What loophole? The text doesn’t specifically use the word “abortion.” Let’s call this the first principle of “Whoopi Hermeneutics”:   If it’s not specifically prohibited by name in Scripture, it’s permitted.[3] The members of CAB engage in the same kind of exegetical shenanigans:  “The truth is that abortion is not even mentioned in the Scriptures.” In this hermeneutic, reasoning from general principles to specific cases is a no-no. This would be far too taxing, not to mention inhibiting.

With this liberating hermeneutic, one may push granny out in front of a bus in order to make an earlier claim on her inheritance. To quote CAB, “This is not even mentioned in the Scriptures.” One may also embezzle from his employer because…you guessed it, “it’s not even mentioned in the Scriptures.” See how easy this is?

Now I know what some of you are thinking, to push granny out in front of a bus would break the sixth commandment; and embezzling from your employer would break the eighth. But you’re not understanding the principle. Does the sixth commandment say anything about a bus? Does the eighth commandment use the word “embezzle”? Remember, if it’s not specifically prohibited by name, it’s permitted. Yea verily.

We should observe that the second basic principle is equally liberating:  If it’s specifically prohibited by name, but I want to do it anyway, it’s permitted. But that’s a subject for another post.

[1] As does Exodus 21:22-25
[2] People often think that Jesus’ chief criticism of the Pharisees was that they were sticklers for God’s law. In fact, one of his chief criticism was that they weren’t (see Matt. 15:3; Mk. 7:8).
[3] Hermeneutics has to do with the principles Biblical exegesis or interpretation 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Pursuit of Pleasure without Responsibility

The sexual revolution, which began in the 1960s and continues unabated today, is first and foremost a revolt against maturity. A central aspect of maturity is the willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of one’s behavior. But the ultimate goal of the sexual revolution is to enjoy all the pleasures of sex with none of its responsibilities:  sex anytime, anywhere, with anyone, by any means, without commitment, without emotional attachment, without risk to life, health, or pocketbook, but especially without the risk of having children.

Why especially without the risk of having children? Because raising a child is the ultimate responsibility. And the troublesome thing about taking responsibility is that doing so necessarily requires a self-limitation of personal freedom. A single man has greater personal freedom than a man with a wife and child. He may use his time and energy and money in any way that pleases him. Not so if he has a wife to care for and a child to raise. His time and money are no longer his own.

To achieve the sexual utopia the revolutionaries are after—all the pleasures of sex with none of its responsibilities—it has been necessary to fundamentally transform the law and all the most basic institutions of society:  the family, the church, the school, the workplace, and the state. This transformation has been going on now for quite some time and is very nearly complete. It is no longer necessary to think of the family as consisting of a husband and wife with their children. A family can be any group of people who love each other. The church has largely capitulated to the demands of the revolution by refusing to uphold Biblical sexual ethics in its teaching and discipline. Public schools instruct younger and younger children how to perform a variety of sex acts and make birth control available to their students. Businesses must toe the line and be supportive of the new sexual ethic or face discrimination lawsuits. And increasingly the state enables the revolution by casting itself into the role of the indulgent parent, by not only providing food, shelter, education, and healthcare for its dependent children who don’t wish to grow up, but also by protecting them from the consequences of their sexual misbehavior. Hence the commitment to keep abortion legal. No means in pursuit of the revolutionary end is to be neglected, not even child sacrifice.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Aside from the painful lump in their throats

A lot of attention has been given the last few weeks to a some videos released by The Center for Medical Progress. The videos show representatives of Planned Parenthood trading in the body parts of aborted babies. It’s a ghastly and ghoulish business. But to hear some people speak, the outrage is entirely misplaced. It’s not the crushing and dismemberment of the youngest and most vulnerable human beings among us that should disturb us, but the fact that the frightful proceedings should ever be brought to light. 

Watching Planned Parenthood and its media and celebrity apologists attempt to deflect criticism reminds me of one of Jesus’ more humorous—but scathing—word pictures:  the one in which he accused certain hypocrites of straining out gnats and swallowing camels (Matt. 23:24). The image is designed to point out the pretentious hypocrisy of paying scrupulous attention to relatively inconsequential matters while ignoring fundamental moral concerns. Jesus set up the striking image by pronouncing woe upon those who diligently tithed the smallest garden herbs like mint and dill and cumin, but neglected the very heart and soul of the law:   justice, mercy, and faithfulness. 

Watching the whole Planned Parenthood debacle convinces me that there is a whole lotta camel-swallowing going on. Below, I offer a few tips to help readers determine if they too might be straining out gnats while swallowing camels…I mean aside from the painful lump in their throats. 

You might be straining out gnats and swallowing camels if… 
  • You object to the deception involved in gaining undercover video of Planned Parenthood representatives discussing the crushing and dismemberment of preborn children in order to harvest their organs, but do not object to the crushing, dismemberment, and organ harvesting
  • You object to the “tone” of the discussion in the videos, but not to the deeds being discussed
  • You find the discussion of the acquisition of fetal body parts gross but do not find it morally objectionable
  • You quibble about whether Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of the children they kill in utero or whether they are simply being reimbursed “to cover costs associated with collecting and transporting the tissue”
  • You use an "ends justifies the means" argument in order to defend the killing of unborn children in the hope of using their harvested organs to find a cure for cancer and other diseases

And while we’re at it, let’s toss this in, too:  You might be straining at gnats and swallowing camels if…
  • You feel more moral outrage by the killing of a single lion (no matter how beloved) than by the killing of 3,000 human beings every day

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Politics grows out of religion

Alongside every religion lies some political opinion which is linked to it by affinity. If the human mind is allowed to follow its own bent, it will regulate political society and the City of God in the same uniform manner and will, I dare say, seek to harmonize earth and heaven.

— Alexis de Tocqueville[1] —

Tocqueville is on to something here. I would argue, however, that the connection between religion and political opinion is a stronger one than mere affinity. It is more accurate to say that politics grows out of religion. This is so regardless of the religion in question, even those that are not usually recognized as such. The self-proclaimed secular man, for instance, who is the first to shout, “Separation of church and state!” is in reality no less religious than the most fundamental of Christian fundamentalists; nor is he seeking any the less to “harmonize earth and heaven” in accordance with his religious views. Their respective religions are quite different, but their political enterprise is the same.

[1] Democracy in America, trans. by Gerald E. Bevan (New York, NY:  Penguin Books, 2003), pp. 336

Monday, June 8, 2015

Let us not withdraw into silence

In his Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville makes an important observation about the power of the majority and its tendency to shame, intimidate, and silence those who speak the truth. 
In America, the majority has staked out a formidable fence around thought. Inside those limits a writer is free but woe betide him if he dares to stray beyond them. Not that he need fear an auto-da-fé but he is the victim of all kinds of unpleasantness and everyday persecutions. A political career [or a ministerial calling] is closed to him for he has offended the only power with the capacity to give him an opening. He is denied everything, including renown. Before publishing his views, he thought he had supporters; it seems he has lost them once he has declared himself publicly; for his detractors speak out loudly and those who think as he does, but without his courage, keep silent and slink away. He gives in and finally bends beneath the effort of each passing day, withdrawing into silence as if he felt ashamed at having spoken the truth.
It has been said, inaccurately of course, that the voice of the people (vox populi) is the voice of God (vox Dei). Nothing could be further from the truth. Faithfulness to God often (did I say often? How about usually) requires us to take a stand against the majority. May God give us the courage to do so.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The colony that almost failed

Jamestown has the distinction of being the first permanent English colony in North America. Not the first English colony ever, but the first to survive. It nearly floundered, however, because of a lack of willingness on the part of many colonists to work. But when all the the other members of the council were drowned at sea during a storm, Captain John Smith was left in charge and instituted some basic reforms, including the Biblical injunction, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10).
The company was divided into squads of ten or fifteen, and assigned to the necessary duties of the colony. Six hours each day were devoted to their tasks, the rest in pastimes and merry exercises. But such was the untowardness of many among them, to whom labor was equally new and irksome, that our President was compelled to give them sharp counsel after his peculiar fashion.
 “Countryman,” he said, “the long experience of our late miseries, I hope, is sufficient to persuade every one to a present correction of himselfe. Thinke not that either my paines, nor the adventurers’ purses will ever maintain you in idlesse and sloathe. I speake not this to you all, for divers of you I know deserve both honor and reward, much better than is here to be had; but the greater part must be more industrious or starve; however you have been heretofore tollerated by the authoritie of the Councell. You see now that power resteth wholly in myselfe. You must obey this now for a law, that he that will not work (except by sickness he is disabled) shall not eate. The labours of thirtie or fortie honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain an hundred and fiftie idle loyterers. (The Life of Captain John Smith:  The Founder of Virginia, pp. 283-284)
No welfare here, except for the disabled. Work, or die by your own indolence. Not surprisingly, the settlement began to prosper.
Tar, pitch, and potash, in considerable quantities, rewarded their exertions; they produced some samples of glass; dug a well of excellent water in the fort, which, till then, had been very much wanting; provided nets and seines for taking fish; built twenty new houses; repaired the church, and, the better to prevent thieving, and to check the incursions of the savages, raised a block-house on the isthmus of Jamestown, which neither Christian nor heathen was suffered to pass without order or permit from the President. Thirty or forty additional acres of land were also broken up and planted; and such new care taken of pigs and poultry that their increase became marvelous. The former were carried to an islet, which was Hog Island, and here a block-house was also built, and a garrison established which should give notice of any approaching shipping. The soldiers here were not, however, left to keep the place in idleness, but for their exercise and amusement were required to fell trees, and split clapboards. (Ibid, pp. 293-294)
Later, Plymouth colony had similar problems, instituted similar reforms, and (you guessed it) had similar results. See here and here

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Slavery and the Bible

It is not uncommon to find atheists attacking the morality of the Bible on the subject of slavery, and in so doing, seeking to undermine the very foundations of the Christian faith. They observe—correctly, I might add—that the Bible never issues an outright condemnation of slave-holding, but only seeks to regulate its practice, thus seeming to give it tacit approval. There are numerous provisions in the law, for instance, governing the acquisition, sale, and treatment of slaves (e.g. Ex. 20:8-11, 17; 21:1-6; Lev. 25:39-46; Deut. 15: 12-18; etc.), but nowhere do we find an absolute prohibition stating, “You shall not be a slave-holder.” Neither do we find such an interdiction in Jesus’ teaching, even though he must have interacted with many slaves and slave-holders alike during the course of his ministry, and both figure prominently in his parables (Matt. 13:24-30; 18:21-35; 21:33-41; etc.). Nor do we find a command in any of Paul’s letters requiring masters to release their slaves, but only admonitions to treat them well (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-4). We even find him sending a runaway slave back to his master (Phile. vv. 8-22).

So what are we to make of these things? Atheist Sam Harris says that slavery is perhaps the easiest of all moral questions, and that the Bible gets it wrong. And of course if the Bible gets something this easy so wrong, then its teaching on other matters is also suspect.[1] Harris seeks to claim the moral high ground, which is rather an odd thing for an atheist to do. In a world where God does not exist, there can be no such thing as moral high ground, or low ground for that matter. In a world without God, there is only a vast moral flatland, where no behavior is morally superior to another. Morality is a word signifying nothing. If God does not exist, human beings are, to quote Bertrand Russell, nothing more than “accidental collocations of atoms.”[2] And what does it matter really if one accidental collocation of atoms should happen to capture and enslave another? The most an atheist can say about it is, “I don’t like it.” What he cannot say is, “It is wrong.” He can state his preference if he wishes; but his worldview does not permit him to make a moral judgment.

What is the Bible’s stance on slavery? We will address the subject in the following order:

What is a slave?
Unlawful enslavement
Lawful slavery
To alleviate the effects of poverty
To punish criminal behavior
To punish and restrain enemy nations
Female slaves
Foreign slaves
Treatment of slaves
Summary and Conclusion

What is a Slave?
The Hebrew word for slave is derived from a verb meaning to work. Thus, a slave is a worker, and he is acquired for this purpose. However, under Biblical law, a slave differs from an ordinary hired worker in that the slave becomes a member of his master’s household (cf. Gen. 14:14; 15:2-3; 17:12-13, 23, 27; 24:2; Lev. 22:11; etc.).[3]

Unlawful Enslavement
Biblical law neither approves of nor condemns slavery per se. Some forms are permitted, others forbidden. The distinguishing feature between them lies in the manner in which a person is reduced to the status of slave. Unlawful enslavement takes place when someone is forced into it against his will and without deserving it for crimes committed. Thus, the Bible in no uncertain terms condemns the practice of kidnapping for the purpose of turning free men into slaves.

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death (Ex. 21:16; cf. Deut. 24:7).

The severity of the punishment is indicative of how grievous this sin is in the eyes of God. He reckons “man-stealing” a crime punishable by death. Surprisingly, Harris fails to mention this passage.[4] Paul alludes to it, however, in his first letter to Timothy.

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers [lit., man-stealers] (1 Tim 1:8-10)

These prohibitions against man-stealing apply to private individuals as well as to criminal gangs, and even to rogue nations that make war for the purpose of capturing free men and making them slaves.

Lawful Slavery
Being kidnapped was not the only means by which someone in Israel might have become a slave. Biblical law, in fact, recognizes three morally justified scenarios in which one might have been reduced to this unfortunate status.

Alleviation of Poverty
The first of these was for the purpose of alleviating the effects of poverty. If a man had become so poor that he was unable to provide for himself, or was unable to repay a loan, he might sell himself as a slave to a wealthy neighbor (Lev. 25:39; Deut. 15:12). In this arrangement, the buyer assumed the responsibility of providing for the impoverished man and his family. In return, the man worked for the buyer in order to earn his keep. At the end of six years (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12), or in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:40)—whichever came first—he was to be set free. During his time of servitude, he was to be treated mildly, like a hired servant, not harshly, as if held against his will. This was, after all, a voluntary arrangement (though once entered, both parties were legally bound to fulfill the terms of the agreement). This arrangement might be thought of as a privately run, work-based welfare program, regulated by divine law. When the man’s term of service came to an end, the law required that his master supply him generously with the means to begin life anew.

When you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him (Deut. 15:13-14)

This was a compassionate arrangement that was mutually beneficial to master and slave alike. The master had the service of a grateful man whom he rescued from poverty; the poor man’s needs were met, and he would presumably learn the skills and develop the character traits necessary to live successfully as a free man. If he preferred, however, he might choose to continue as a slave in his master’s household.

But if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever (Deut. 15:16-17)[5]

Most people, I should think, would be glad to regain their freedom once they had recovered from poverty; but it is conceivable, given their kindly treatment, that some might prefer the security of slavery to the responsibilities of freedom.

Punishment of Criminal Behavior
The same arrangement might be made in the case of a man who came by his debt through criminal behavior. It is said of a thief, “He shall surely pay [i.e., pay back what he had stolen, plus an additional amount as a penalty]. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft” (Ex. 22:3). The same principles applied in cases with other forms of criminal or negligent behavior resulting in financial loss. Biblical law regards the wrongdoer as having a moral and legal obligation to compensate the victim (e.g., Ex. 21:33-34; 22:6). If he did not have the means to do so, he might be sold into slavery, with his purchase price going to his victim.[6]

To Punish and Restrain Enemy Nations
Another scenario in which slavery was recognized under Biblical law involves captives taken in war. The question of what to do with prisoners of war has often proved to be a vexing one. Releasing them, even after a formal end to hostilities, involves the risk that they will take up arms again. In order to avoid this, some victors have employed a policy of “no mercy” and have simply killed their captives. Others have chosen to put them to forced labor as state slaves or sell them to foreign nations.[7] Biblical law permitted this (Deut. 20:10-11). This was a more merciful option than killing them, was less risky than releasing them, and could help toward the recovery of some of the costs of war.

Female Slaves
In the same way that a man in the Israel might have sold himself as a slave to alleviate the effects of poverty, so he might have sold a son or a daughter (Neh. 5:1-5). The same provisions applied with regard to the time of service (i.e., release in the seventh year) (Deut. 15:12; cf. Jer. 34:8-22). In some cases, however, special provisions were made for a daughter:  the arrangement might include a promise of marriage (Ex. 21:7-11). If a man’s poverty was so great that he was unable to provide for his daughter, he might sell her as a slave with a view to becoming her master’s wife. This is what it means when it says that the purchaser “designated her for himself” (Ex. 21:8), i.e., he promised to take her as his wife when she should come of age. Or, instead of designating her for himself, he might designate her for his son (v. 9). Contrary to what some have alleged, there is nothing in the text suggesting that she was sold as a sex-slave for her master.[8] She was most likely charged with the household duties common to daughters. This was, in fact, a form of betrothal. The medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides says, “A Hebrew handmaid might not be sold but to one who laid himself under obligations to espouse her to himself or to his son, when she was fit to be betrothed.”[9]

A male Hebrew slave was to “go out” after six years of service. Not so the female slave in question (Ex. 21:7b).[10] She entered the arrangement with a promise of marriage. If her master changed his mind and decided not to marry her because “she does not please her master” (v. 8), he was guilty of a breach of faith (v. 8). To send her out as a young single woman with no means of support would have been an act of cruelty. She was to continue to be provided for in her master’s house, and he was to “deal with her as [kindly and affectionately as] with a daughter” (v. 9). I take this to include an effort to find a suitable husband for her. “If he takes another wife [instead of her] to himself [or for his son] he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Ex. 21:10). The Hebrew word for “marital rights” means “dwelling” or “habitation.” Some understand this as a euphemism for sexual relations and suppose that the girl has been living, not as her master’s betrothed, but as his concubine. It is better, however, to take the word in its basic meaning of “dwelling,” and regard her not as a concubine, but a bride in waiting. If her master, however, should decide against marrying her, and take another woman as his wife instead, he must not diminish her food, her clothing, or her living arrangements. He is bound by his original agreement. He may not take what was pledged for her support and give it to another whom he finds more pleasing. [11]

Foreign Slaves
Unlike Hebrew slaves, who must be released in the seventh year, foreign slaves might be kept in perpetuity and even passed on to one’s heirs. They might be purchased from other nations or from the resident aliens within the borders of Israel (Lev. 25:44-46).

The apparent harshness of this law must be viewed in light of the law as a whole as it regards resident aliens. Like native Israelites, resident aliens could not be enslaved, except as a punishment for crime or in order to pay a debt, and only after a formal conviction in a court of law. On the contrary, strangers were to be treated with kindness and consideration (Lev. 19:33-34). They were to be given access to the gleanings of Israel (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-21). Strict warnings were given against oppressing them (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:33; cf. Mal. 3:5). They were to be given rest on the Sabbath day (Ex. 20:12; 23:19). They had the same legal standing in court as native Israelites (Deut. 1:16; 24:17-18). They had the same right of asylum in the cities of refuge (Num. 35:15). They were not to be defrauded of their wages (Deut. 24:14-15). They could own Hebrew slaves (Lev. 25:47). And if they had been slaves in a foreign land and had escaped, they were to be given a safe haven in Israel (Deut. 23:15-16). Resident aliens could not hold office (Deut. 17:15); but they could serve as warriors and advisors (2 Sam. 18:2; 23:39). If they were converted from their pagan religion and worshiped the God of Abraham, they were admitted into the full religious privileges of Israel (Ex. 12:43-49; Num. 9:14). Full rights of citizenship, including the right to hold a governing office, could be granted in subsequent generations (Deut. 23:2-8).

What, then, was the rationale for allowing foreigners to be held as slaves in perpetuity? It may have been to encourage such slaves to convert to the worship of Yahweh, and thus be entitled to the terms governing the release of Hebrew slaves (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12).

Treatment of Slaves
Biblically sanctioned slavery did not regard the person but the labor of the slave as the property of the master. This is an important distinction. A slave-owner was not permitted to do whatever he wanted with his slave. It was required that masters allow their slaves to rest on the Sabbath and on other holy days (Ex. 20:8-11; etc.). If a master mistreated a slave so that permanent bodily damage resulted, the slave was to be set free (Ex. 21:26-27). If he killed his slave, the slave was to be “avenged” (i.e., the slave-owner was to be executed) (Ex. 21:20-21).

Manumission might take place in a variety of ways. As mentioned above, the law imposed a limit on the number of years a Hebrew slave might be required to serve, i.e., six years. At the end of this, he was to be allowed to “go out free, for nothing” (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12). More than this, his master was to send him away laden with livestock, grain, and wine (Deut. 15:14).

A slave was to be released early, however, if the year of Jubilee should arrive before the completion of six years (Lev. 25:39-41). He might be released early, even apart from the year of Jubilee, if he should be redeemed by his relatives (Lev. 25:47-49). He might even prosper sufficiently so as to redeem himself (Lev. 25:49).[12]

In Exodus 21:3-4 the issue of manumission is considered vis-à-vis the slave’s marital status and what should become of his wife and children when he is set free. There were three possible circumstances under which a slave’s manumission might take place:  (1) The slave might have been unmarried when he became a slave and continued unmarried throughout his years of service, in which case there was no one else to set free; (2) the slave might have been married when he began his service, in which case his wife was to be released with him; or (3) the slave might have been unmarried when he began to serve, but at some point during his years of service he might have been given a wife by his master. In this case, the wife and any children born to her were to continue in the master’s service, and the man alone was to be set free. This is not to say that they would no longer be married, but that he would be free, and his wife and children would continue to be subject to their master. “This may appear oppressive, but it was an equitable consequence of the possession of property in slaves at all.”[13] The master had a financial investment in the woman, and she would remain a slave under his authority until her newly freed husband could manage to redeem her. Her original purchase price naturally included her potential to bear children, and so the children also remained under the master’s authority until such time as they were redeemed.[14]

Summary and Conclusion
Let us summarize. Under Biblical law, slavery was permitted[15] for the following reasons:  (1) as a means of alleviating the effects of poverty, (2) to make restitution for financial losses caused by criminal or negligent behavior, and (3) to punish and restrain enemy nations. In all of these scenarios, the slave-holder had a legal claim upon the fruit of his slave’s labor.[16] Under no circumstances did Biblical law condone capturing or kidnapping free and innocent people in order to make slaves of them. Further, slaves had certain rights and protections that could not be denied to them.

This is slavery as it existed in Israel, regulated by the law of God.[17] And it is altogether different from how slavery was practiced elsewhere in the ancient Near East or in the Greco-Roman world. In these cultures, slaves had little to no legal protection. Not only the labor, but the bodies and souls of men were regarded as the property of their masters, who could do with them whatever they pleased, even kill them, without any legal repercussions. Slavery in Israel, as sanctioned in the Bible, was quite different from this, and quite different, too, from the slavery of the antebellum South, which had a racial component to it that has greatly complicated race relations in the U.S. ever since. To compare the slavery of the Bible, then, with slavery as it has existed elsewhere (and still exists in the Muslim world) is to compare apples and oranges. There are far more differences than similarities.

We should conclude by observing that the Bible clearly favors freedom over slavery. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) (1 Cor. 7:21). In other words, “Gain your freedom if can lawfully do so.” A little later he says, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (v. 23).

Slavery is by no means a creational ordinance. It is a state of affairs that did not enter the world until the fall of man. Apart from sin, there would never have been a need for it. Under Biblical law it was a corrective or remedial measure.

[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York, NY:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. 14-18
[2] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am NOT a Christian (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 107
[3] See Haim H. Cohn, in The Principles of Jewish Law, edited by Menachem Elon (Jerusalem, Israel:  Keter Publishing House, 1975), p. 231
[4] This is a glaring omission. So is his failure to mention the several other ways (distinguished in Scripture and discussed below), by which someone might have been reduced to slavery. Perhaps we should not be too surprised, however, by these omissions. In reading him, one gets the impression that Harris is not very interested in actually understanding the Scriptures or the real-life situations they address, and even less interested in representing them fairly.
[5] The pierced ear was a permanent visible sign of his pledge. The procedure had to be done with a priest as a witness in order to guarantee its voluntary nature (Ex. 21:6).
[6] This invites a comparison with the modern prison system, which is a type of enslavement, but without the work requirement, and thus without the personal and social benefits of restitution to the victim and the character development of the thief through productive labor and the daily oversight of a successful man. Cf. Eph. 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
[7] The problem of what to do with captives of war has been one of the dilemmas that the U.S. has faced with the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. The rationale for keeping them locked up is to prevent them from continuing their fight against the West either in terrorist acts or on the battlefield. In fact, a good number of these prisoners who have been released have reentered the fight. According to a National Intelligence summary report, it is estimated that nearly thirty percent of those released have done so:  http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/GTMO.pdf (Accessed March 15, 2015)
[8] Sam Harris, p. 15
[9] Cited in George Bush, Commentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications, [1843] 1993), p. 310
[10] Although as noted above, she might have entered this service without a promised marriage, in which case she was released after six years of service (Deut. 15:12).
[11] See the discussions in Umberto Moshe David Cassuto, A Commentary on Exodus (Skokie, IL:  Varda Books, 2005), p. 268-269; and Shalom M. Paul, Studies in the Book of the Covenant in Light of Cuneiform and Biblical Law (Eugene, OR:  Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), pp. 59-61
[12] This serves to show how mildly slaves were to be treated under Biblical law that they could conceivably purchase their own freedom.
[13] C.F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1989), vol. 1, p. 130
[14] Here and elsewhere the law recognizes the financial investment a master has tied up in his slaves and requires that he be duly compensated for their emancipation, either by the slave’s labor over a set period of time, or by a payment of money. This was how Great Britain finally abolished slavery throughout its realms; the British government compensated slave owners. This was an equitable solution to the problem, and one consistent with Biblical law. Similar plans were put forward in the United States but failed to garner enough support to be implemented. It took, instead, rivers of blood to put an end to it.
[15] Not commanded, but permitted
[16] These claims are often handled today by a court-ordered garnishing of wages.
[17] This is not to say that Israel always observed the law (see Jer. 34:8-22)