The Bible on Slavery: The Hebrew Scriptures

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

After writing yesterday’s post, I realized that I referred to Biblical passages, as did Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow and many others, and like him neglected to quote or cite them. It would do to rectify that. It might take us far afield from this blog’s usual haunts, and I don’t propose to turn this into a blog about the Ancient Near East or religion, but proslavery propagandists of the nineteenth century had the chapter and verse on hand. They could quote it at will, though in a far more religious time they rarely needed to announce their texts. We don’t live in that world and for very obvious reasons these passages have turned decidedly obscure to many Americans since 1865.

Before I get into it, however, I want to say up front that I take no position at all on what a Christian, Jew, or any other person ought to believe about their religion, which version of it is true, or anything like that. In quoting these lines, I no more intend to lay expectations on the behavior of modern Christians than I lay similar expectations on modern southerners for their ancestors’ beliefs. I intend here only to highlight texts relevant to nineteenth century slavery defenders, not to promote any particular modern theology. I have chosen to refer to the two familiar divisions of the Bible by more neutral terms for the same reason.

For maximum familiarity, both for my audience and to American protestants nineteenth century, I’ve used the King James Version. I have also selected passages that appear most pertinent to a nineteenth century context rather than attempted an exhaustive catalog of all that Bible has to say about slavery.

In the name of his god, Noah curses Canaan in Genesis 9

22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.

24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

The sin of Ham justified American slavery to a great many all by itself. They believed that Africans descended from Ham and that settled things.

One could object that Noah spoke out of turn. I take no position on this, considering it a matter of theology. One could also object in that a servant need not necessarily be a slave. The text offers some difficulty for this latter objection in Exodus 21:

21 Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.

22 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

23 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.

24 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

You can buy a servant. You own that person for the duration. If that servant gets married, he can take his wife when he goes free. If, however, you buy the wife separately then you get to keep the wife and any children of the union. The colony of Virginia took a key step in changing its system of indentured servitude for black and white people alike into slavery for black people alone by legally adopting the rule that slavery came inherited through the mother. If we can call that slavery, then we can call these servants in the Bible slaves also.

The same chapter of Exodus goes into some detail about other ways one can treat a slave

20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

Even South Carolina forbade, at least on paper, outright murder of a slave. However, the slave codes have no shortage of allowances for slaves who die as a result of violent “correction”.

If a thief could not make restitution for his crime, then Exodus proscribed selling him into slavery:

If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.

If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

New Jersey preserved a penalty of that kind for black residents convicted of crimes all the way up to the war. If the jury found you guilty, rather than imprison you New Jersey would sell you South.

One might object to this code on the grounds that you can get out of it a few years down the road. That must make it a bit more like indentured servitude, right? In a way, yes. Not much daylight separates indentured servants from chattel slaves during the term of the indenture. But let me quote the first bit again, from Exodus 21:22:

22 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

If a passage extends the seven-year term of slavery to gentile slaves, I haven’t found it. I have read arguments to that effect, but never one that could quote a chapter and verse. If anybody reading this has such a passage, I would be happy to see it.

At any rate, I have no doubt that had Virginia adopted a slavery system for its white residents, they would in most eras have received better treatment in the law than its black residents enjoyed. One need not speculate, as Virginian whites would be the ones writing the law. In fact, they did just that, establishing a harsher regime that lasted lifetimes and went generation to generation for blacks while retaining the older system for whites.

This has run long, so I will return with the Christian Scriptures in another post.

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