Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

What about Slavery in the Bible?

By Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.

A while ago, I wrote the article “Is Islam Rational?” (*) Sami Zaatari recently published a response titled Rational Muslims should object the Bible (*). The following is my answer to this Muslim objector.

Dear Sami:  thank you for writing a response to one of my articles. I really think you should seriously think about giving up and becoming a follower of Jesus, the Son of God. You appear like the Apostle Paul who was fighting against the Way and when Jesus encountered him on the road to Damascus he gave up fighting and become a new being.

Your responses remind me of the way Paul was fighting Jesus. It is interesting that you did not respond to other things mentioned in the article, like rape victims in Islam who are judged guilty for seeking justice against their rapists. You did not respond to honor killings, nor the mutilation of young girls. So, one could assume that you approve of all these things. I would hope not. But it would help if you declared your opposition to such evil practices.

You used a phrase at the end of your article that declared “Allah knows best.” That phrase appears in the biography of Mohammed by Ibn Ishaq a number of times. It often comes in a story that the author is not certain about its truth or accuracy and the phrase “God know whether it is so or not.” I think this is fitting that you use the phrase at the end for you are talking about things you really do not know about. You have looked at the issue only superficially. You have assumed that the word “slavery” always means the same thing in all cultures regardless. It does not.

So, let’s take a look at the issue of slavery which you objected to. You do not distinguish any differences in slavery which is unfortunate, because the distinction would not go well for your case. There is involuntary slavery and there is voluntary slavery.

Involuntary slavery is what Islam has practiced for centuries. Muslim slavers captured men and women, boys and girls, and forced them into slavery selling them at auctions to buyers. Muslim slavers captured Africans for slavery, Muslim slavers went into Europe and as far north as Iceland capturing white people for slavery. Britannica states “black slaves exported from Africa were widely traded throughout the Islamic world. Approximately 18,000,000 Africans were delivered into the Islamic trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades between 650 and 1905.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol 27, 15th ed., Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2005, p. 290) This is the kind of slavery that is still going on in Muslim cultures. There are millions of people in slavery in Muslim countries. They have been captured by Muslims, sold by Muslims, bought by Muslims.

There are estimates up to 27 million people who are in slavery today worldwide Not all of these are in Muslim countries. There are women who have been brought to America as sex slaves which is a terrible evil and there are people working to stop it. (Source)

Israel was prohibited from territorial gains beyond what Yahweh had promised to Abraham. (Deuteronomy 2:1-23) Moreover, Israel was prohibited the practice of forced slavery. “Whoever kidnaps someone, either to sell him or to keep him as a slave, is to be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16)

In another passage Moses declares, “If any of you kidnap Israelites and make them your slaves or sell them into slavery, you are to be put to death. In this way your nation will get rid of this evil.” (Deuteronomy 24:7) In the first one there is a general prohibition against slavery of anyone and in the second a specific order against slavery of Israelites.

Voluntary slavery is a completely different situation. Voluntary slavery arises when a person becomes so poor that they cannot make a living, cannot provide for themselves, and sell themselves into a relationship with a person who has money and can provide for the poor person. The Hebrew word for this is “ebed.” meaning servant, or bondman. The Bible describes Israel as the Lord’s bondservant, or slave, the same word ebed.

You quote the following:

“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)

You have plucked this verse out of context and we must look at the whole context.

“If any Israelites living near you become so poor that they sell themselves to you as a slave, you shall not make them do the work of a slave. They shall stay with you as hired workers and serve you until the next Year of Restoration.” (Lev. 25:39-40)

The issue of poverty was one of the reasons that people sold themselves as servants. There were also provisions for freedom. They could be bought back by a relative, or by their own money. Working for someone else did not mean that they received nothing. “By their own money” (v. 49) meant a certain freedom to gain money and buy their own freedom.

We have no reason to believe that the same was not true for the foreigners in the land. The verse says, “purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land,” and these were probably people like the Hebrews who fell on hard times and were poor. Being a servant in another household was better than starving. The rights are spelled out for the Hebrews but they would also apply to the foreigners who were welcomed into the land. The people were taught: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner; remember that you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not mistreat any widow or orphan.” (Exodus 22:21-22)

“Suppose a foreigner living with you becomes rich, while some Israelites become poor and sell themselves as slaves to that foreigner or to a member of that foreigner's family. After they are sold, they still have the right to be bought back. A brother or an uncle or a cousin or another close relative may buy them back; or if they themselves earn enough, they may buy their own freedom. They must consult the one who bought them, and they must count the years from the time they sold themselves until the next Year of Restoration and must set the price for their release on the basis of the wages paid hired workers. They must refund a part of the purchase price according to the number of years left, as if they had been hired on an annual basis. Their master must not treat them harshly. If they are not set free in any of these ways, they and their children must be set free in the next Year of Restoration. Israelites cannot be permanent slaves, because the people of Israel are the LORD's slaves. He brought them out of Egypt; he is the LORD their God. (Lev. 25:47-55)

It may be that the foreigners living in the land who became poor would not have relatives around to buy them back. The issue of voluntary selling oneself in servant hood is important. The year of Restoration and the Sabbatical years were important to the Hebrews since it restored people to their original property allotted to them when they entered the land. It offered a fresh start again. However, the foreigners who lived in the land did not have land allotted to them. The only option would have been to expel them from the land which could have had dire results for them.

In the case of the foreigner who became poor the economic advantage of living with a wealthy person brought security. This arrangement entered into voluntarily was better than poor employment, low grade and bad pay when one did have a job. Remember that in 1200 BC one was limited in terms of work for pay.

The central issue here is that slavery was initiated BY the slave, NOT by the owners. What was involved was the economic relief of poverty of the poor person who sought to be taken in by some person of wealth.

The passage about inheritance needs some caveats. First, the verses says “you may” pass them on to your children, not that it was automatic, necessary, expected, or standard practice. It may be that the prosperity changes could have reduced the owner’s ability to support the slave. Second, this may well refer to servants who did not want to go free as expressed in Exodus 21.5, “But if the slave declares that he loves his master, his wife, and his children and does not want to be set free,” there was a ceremony at the place of worship for declaring him to be a slave for life. There is a similar procedure described in Deuteronomy 15:16 in which a person could become a slave for life because “he may love you and your family and be content to stay.” Third, given the fact that slaves could earn money, they could buy their own freedom.-- “if they themselves earn enough, they may buy their own freedom.” (Lev. 25:49)

If we are fair to the Old Testament we do not find the slave raids that Islam practiced centuries later.

We now come to the second Old Testament passages that Sami quoted.

“Capturing Wives and taking them for yourself:

"When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

Perhaps if you read the whole chapter it would have helped in looking at this particular one. The next verse locates the practice described above. “That is how you are to deal with those cities that are far away from the land you will settle in.” (Deuteronomy 20:15) I am not aware that there are cities “far away from the land” that this became a practice or possibility. In fact the Israelites were prohibited from wars of conquest beyond what Yahweh promised to Abraham. If you read Deuteronomy 2:1-29 you find that Edom and Moab were not to be conquered even though they were hostile to the Israelites in passing through their country. For a long time the Israelites were busy settling in the country and after David and Solomon the country began to lose power because of the idolatry of the leaders and people. One would think in their power they might have sought to avenge their slavery in Egypt. There is no record of their attempting to do this. Wars for conquest beyond their territory was restricted. Israel had no mandate to conquer the world, but was to remain in the land which God had given them. Most of the attention was focused on the taking of the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“But when you capture cities in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, kill everyone. Completely destroy all the people: the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the LORD ordered you to do. Kill them, so that they will not make you sin against the LORD by teaching you to do all the disgusting things that they do in the worship of their gods.” (Deut. 20:16-18)

I hope that you will remember that the land was not given to Abraham in his life time because the wickedness of the people had not become full blown. (Genesis 15:16) Only 430 years after Abraham did Yahweh pronounce judgment on the people of the land.

Then you quote:

Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword. Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes. Their homes will be sacked and their wives raped by the attacking hordes. For I will stir up the Medes against Babylon, and no amount of silver or gold will buy them off. The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows. They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children. (Isaiah 13:15-18)

I am not sure why you chose this verse. Sami, you have to quit using a concordance to find words like “slavery” and using the verses out of context. The chapter begins: “This is a message about Babylon, which Isaiah son of Amoz received from God. (Isaiah 13:1) It is not a chapter justifying slavery, rape of wives, or helpless babies. It is a chapter in which God brings judgment on the people of Babylon when the Medes invaded it. There is a view of history in the Old Testament that Yahweh judges the nations by using other nations as means of punishment and then that nation being evil also is judged and punished. This is Yahweh’s judgment for evil. The Babylonians showed no compassion and they were not shown compassion when they were judged for their evil ways. The passage has nothing to do with Israel and the practice of slavery.

Next section:

Selling Children into slavery:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11)

First, we need to ask why a man sells his daughter? Was it because he did not love her? Was it because he was hard-hearted? Or, was it because he could not support her? Selling daughters was for the daughter’s own good since it meant a life related to someone who could afford her while the father, being poor, could not. Moreover, he could not afford a dowry to give to a perspective husband.

The passage above involves the secondary position of a concubine for the owner or a wife for his son. “When a daughter was sold into slavery by her father, this was intended both as a payment of debt and as a way of obtaining a husband for her without a dowry. She has more rights than a male in the sense that she can be freed from slavery if her master does not provide her with food, clothing and marital rights.” (Source)

Next verse quoted by Sami:

“But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee. Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 41)

My response: why is this quoted as being inconsistent? The point of the passage is that the Hebrews were to be obedient to Yahweh and if they turned from Him and worshiped foreign gods they would be judged. This happened as one reads the story of the Old Testament. This is a prediction and not a command. It is what will happen to them, not what they should do to others.

We turn now to Sami’s New Testament quotes:

Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ. (Ephesians 6:5)

Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as men pleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God. (Colossians 3:22)

Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. (1 Timothy 6:1)

Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again; Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. (Titus 2:9-10)

So what can be said about all this? First, it must be remembered that Christians did not invent or create slavery in the Roman Empire. It was there to begin with, long before the advent of Christ. Second, it must be known that the slave population in the Roman heartland was about two to three million. This was about 33 to 40 percent of the population.

There is a phenomenal difference between slavery in the Roman empire and the vile slavery of the Muslims capturing of people and tearing them away from their homes, forcing them to work in all kinds of terrible conditions even as they were brought to America and worked in the cotton fields.

Miller declares:

Any socio-economic class that: 1. people would voluntarily join to achieve greater social status than they could being free; 2. allowed a servant legal rights against their 'owner'; 3. gave the servant the ability to force a change of owner by seeking asylum; 4. created a realistic expectation of freedom WITH ROMAN CITIZENSHIP around the age of 30 years of age; 5. provided much greater material comforts, security, and earning potential than free status, 6. provided access to educational training often unaffordable by the free poor can hardly be called 'slavery' in any New World sense! [It looks so much more like the rigor, discipline, and submission to superiors that shows up in modern military enrollments, in which people submit to military life for a fixed time, in exchange for training, post-service educational payments, medical care, and the like AFTER their term of military service. (Source)

As you can see, Roman slavery was vastly different from the slavery that developed in the Muslim culture.

The references that Sami lists should be viewed in the whole emphasis.

“Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling; and do it with a sincere heart, as though you were serving Christ. Do this not only when they are watching you, because you want to gain their approval; but with all your heart do what God wants, as slaves of Christ. Do your work as slaves cheerfully, as though you served the Lord, and not merely human beings. Remember that the Lord will reward each of us, whether slave or free, for the good work we do. Masters, behave in the same way toward your slaves and stop using threats. Remember that you and your slaves belong to the same Master in heaven, who judges everyone by the same standard.” (Ephesians 6:5-9)

There were people who owned servants who became followers of Jesus, and there were servants who became followers of Jesus. There was to be mutual respect for each other.

The second passage is in Colossians: 3:22-25 “Slaves, obey your human masters in all things, not only when they are watching you because you want to gain their approval; but do it with a sincere heart because of your reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for people. Remember that the Lord will give you as a reward what he has kept for his people. For Christ is the real Master you serve. And all wrongdoers will be repaid for the wrong things they do, because God judges everyone by the same standard.”

The servant who worked for someone else was to “work with all your heart as though you were working for the Lord and not for people.” This is a standard for any worker today, any family member. It transcends a simple employee-employer concept.

The third passage is:

“Those who are slaves must consider their masters worthy of all respect, so that no one will speak evil of the name of God and of our teaching. Slaves belonging to Christian masters must not despise them, for they are believers too. Instead, they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their work are believers whom they love. You must teach and preach these things.” (1 Tim. 6:1-2)

In the Roman context of slavery where a person had many possibilities similar to modern work agreements, the follower of Jesus was to give good work for good wages. Good work was also a means of advancement in responsibility today as it was in the Roman times.

“Slaves are to submit themselves to their masters and please them in all things. They must not talk back to them or steal from them. Instead, they must show that they are always good and faithful, so as to bring credit to the teaching about God our Savior in all they do. For God has revealed his grace for the salvation of all people. That grace instructs us to give up ungodly living and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this world, as we wait for the blessed Day we hope for, when the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ will appear”. Titus 2:8-13

It is common in all kinds of work situation that people take advantage of the employer. On the modern scene it can simply involve taking office supplies home. The believers were admonished to be good employees, not stealing, not back talking.

The type of slavery involved in these passages is more like the relationship between a worker and his boss. Christianity did not condone slavery. These were people who came to faith in Jesus and the instructions are relating how to live out their lives in these conditions. To think that slavery in Rome and other Roman cities was like what the Muslims did to slaves is to misunderstand the historical issue. The goal of the relationship in Christ is expressed in the words of Paul, “So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

It took a long time to abolish involuntary slavery in the West, but it still exists not only in Muslim countries but others also. The people who opposed slavery in the West were Christians. Wilberforce of England was one of the great names. There is nothing in Islam to oppose slavery of the involuntary kind. So, I would encourage the readers of this article to reject the views of Sami and pick up a Bible and see what great promises and hope there are in Jesus, the Son of God.

Sami, you urge people to reject the Bible. You are urging people to turn from the real source of life. You are rejecting the message that you can know forgiveness now. I am praying for you. You can have a life changing relationship with the risen Savior, Jesus, right now. The Qur’an does not offer you such a great gift.