21 Slavery and the Israelites

<< Exodus 21: Slavery amongst the Israelites >>

And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife and my children: I will not go out free: then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him unto the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.–Exodus xxi. 5, 6.

DISGUISE thyself as thou wilt, still, slavery, thou art a bitter draught! Such will ever be the sentiment of the upright lover of his kind and of his God. Freedom and rationality, says a great writer, are two faculties from the Lord in man. A man by these faculties is reformed and regenerated by the Lord; and without them he could not be reformed and regenerated. The Lord preserves these two faculties in a man inviolable and sacred in every act of his Divine Providence.

Freedom and reason, then, lie at the basis of all real progress, and, indeed, of all that is truly human. Those who oppose these in their fellow-creatures, are assaulting the very essence of manhood in them. Hence, to make slaves of men, women, and children, to incite murderous ruffians to steal them, by buying them: to sell them, thus violating their marriage ties, and their parental affections: these are all abominations so essentially contrary to the Lord, to true humanity, and to all the purposes of Divine Providence, that the existence of these practices among so-called Christian nations for hundreds of years, prosecuted by their people, sanctioned by their rulers, ecclesiastical as well as temporal, by popes, by bishops, by priests, by monarchs, by nobles, and by merchants alike, forms the crowning evidence that the church as the Lords kingdom among men had come to its end. Future historians when recording the decline of the church from the time of the Council of Nice, will describe the follies, the cruelties, the darkness through which the church passed for long dreary centuries, and then will say at last, THEY STOLE MEN. These so-called Christians crossed the ocean and stole human beings. They brought them in horrid ships so packed that cleanliness for weeks was impossible. And thousands died annually from stenches, that other thousands might be landed to toil and live in compelled debasement, ignorance and profligacy, to enable these Christians to pass their time in idleness and wealth.

Through awful periods of degeneracy, these professed disciples of Him who is love itself, and who taught that they only were His disciples who loved one another, reveled in hate and revenge against their fellow-countrymen of different opinions, persecuted, maligned, made war upon each other, desolated nations from the lust of domineering over others, and at lest they emulated each other in the barbarous work of stealing men.

False as the winds that round his vessel blow,
Remorseless as the golf that yawns below,
Is he who toils upon the wafting flood
A Christian broker in the trade of blood;
Boisterous in speech, in action prompt and bold,
He buys, he sells,–he steals, he kills for gold.

Happily, since the dawn of the New Age, we are rising out of the horrid atmosphere of false thought in which these so-called Christian nations have lived and breathed for so long a time. We have witnessed the terrible consequences of this crime upon all who became entangled in it, as exhibited in the terrible desolations of the American war between North and South, where awful wrong has been awfully expiated, and the judgments of the Lord have been seen on the earth.

The spirit of the Bible is love to God and love to man, and all that wisdom which illustrates these. Whatever is inconsistent with this spirit cannot be true, and when any turn is given to a portion of the literal sense of the Holy Word, so as to make it sanction conduct which is essentially contrary to doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God, we should look very carefully to the context and the whole connection. We should look also at the views of those who have associated it with injustice, and compare them with the grand universal elements of the Word of God, and we shall generally detect the fallacy, and bring out the truth. Men there are who have so skillfully interwoven the commandments of God with their traditions, that it requires great faithfulness to truth, and great skill, to detect the false combination. So has it been in the scriptural defense of slavery. There was slavery in patriarchal times, and there are laws respecting slavery in the Israelitish code, and so, say these advocates, slavery is sanctioned, at least not condemned, in the Scriptures. Abraham was a slave-holder, he had men bought with his money. Hagar was a bondwoman, and therefore Abraham was an example and a sanction for the slave holders of modern times.

What he, the friend of God, did cannot be wrong in us to do.

In reply to these, we waive altogether the unsoundness of Christians borrowing arguments and sanctions from the symbolical arrangements and shadows of the Old Testament, when the glorious principles of the New have been brought in, arguments by which polygamy, capricious divorce, and animal sacrifices might equally be justified, and we remark that the slavery of the Jewish law and that of the late slave states of America were totally different things.

The two systems were different in their origin, different in their character, and different in their results.

The Jewish slave code, though a part of those laws which God gave them because of the hardness of their hearts, and which were not purely good (Ezek. xx. 5), was yet far better than what it superseded. Jewish slavery, as we shall see, was remedial, restorative, and tended to freedom. It was a discipline for reforming the criminal, and strengthening the weak, issuing in the year of Jubilee.

American slavery would not have been tolerated by the Jewish law and usage for a moment. Modern slavery, as practiced by Christian nations, was founded and sustained man-stealing, and man-stealing was forbidden among the Jews on pain of death. HE THAT STEALETH A MAN, AND SELLETH HIM, OR IF HE BE FOUND IN HIS HAND, HE SHALL SURELY BE PUT TO DEATH.–Ex. xxi. 16. To steal property was punished by compelling the thief to restore fourfold, but to steal a man, to deprive him of his liberty for no crime of his own, and sell him, or use him as a mere tool, a chattel, was a felony, punishable by death.

This one law in its spirit and in its letter, destroys the whole foundation for a scriptural vindication of black slavery. If they who steal a man, and they in whose hands the stolen man was found had been punished by death, how could black slavery have existed among white men?

But let us further examine the causes and character of Jewish slavery, and we shall see how far both are from lending any sanction to slavery as commonly understood.

Jewish slavery was, firstly, a system of reform for criminals; secondly, a support for the poor; thirdly, a preservation from death of captives taken in war.

Firstly, we have said, Jewish slavery was their mode of treating criminals. If a man shall steal an ox or a sheep, and kill it or sell it: he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.

He should make full restitution: if he have nothing, then HE SHALL BE SOLD FOR HIS THEFT.–Ex. xxii. 1 and 3.

This slavery was their equivalent for our imprisonment, with this difference, that bondmen resided with the family of their masters, were treated humanely, had their Sabbaths, their instruction, their worship, equally with others, and could redeem themselves if they were able, and in any case were free at the seventh year with liberal presents and kindness. Lev. xxv. 47-53.

Secondly, their slavery was equivalent to our parochial relief. If a man was poor and unable to maintain himself and his family, he sold himself to it wealthier person, who provided him with comforts and employment enabled him to acquire property if he could, and after the help and discipline of such a life, he also went free with presents in the seventh year.

The third form of Jewish slavery was that of buying bondmen and bondwomen from the nations round about. And when we are familiar with the state of ancient nations, we shall understand, that this permission of slavery, though far from being what was perfectly agreeable to the Lord, was yet a merciful provision by which mankind were preserved from greater evils. So terrible were the diabolical passions into which men sunk in ancient times, that they not only lost all value for human life, but were disposed to revel in slaughter. When they overcame a city they burned to destroy man, woman and child. With savage vengeance they gloated over widespread ruin, and were sated only when the last groan of the last victim was silent in death. Such is the inner heart of selfishness, it breathes hatred against all, and when opened to its deepest malignity, would wish, like the heathen emperor respecting Rome, that mankind had one neck, and that they could thus at one blow all be destroyed. Slavery in ancient times moderated this ruthless passion. The conquerors, seeing that gain could be made of their captives, saved them and sold them. Slavery was thus a mode of saving life, and amongst the Israelites, of teaching their bondmen, and training them, until in course of time, by marriage or other methods, they became free, with all the acquired advantages of religion, education, and the blessings of social life. Ultimately there were no slaves in Canaan. There were none in the time of our Divine Savior.

So tender were the regulations of the Jewish law in relation to slaves, that if a master injured any member of the slaves body, even to the destruction of a tooth, the slave became free (Ex. xxi. 27).

They were part of his household, they enjoyed protection, worship, and kindly treatment, and although so many instances exist in Israelitish history of wickedness of other kinds, no instance appears anywhere of cruelty to a slave.

One law has been misunderstood by Bishop Colenso as involving such cruelty, and vet it is the very reverse. The law is contained in the chapter before us, And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his money.–v. 20, 21.

We must not forget that flogging was confined among the Hebrews to forty stripes, and to be inflicted on the decision of judges (Deut. xxv. 1-3) For these stripes there was an appropriate cane or rod (shebet), and it was illegal to use any other. In the original language of the above law we read, not as in the English version. If a man smite his servant or his maid with a rod, meaning any bludgeon, but with shebet, the judicial staff, and he die, intimating that in such case, if death took place on the spot, then might cruelty be inferred, and the master should be punished; but if the slave continued a day or two then it must be concluded that only due chastisement had been administered, and the master was blameless. In all cases there was one law for the Hebrews, and for the stranger; with the exception of the year of Jubilee, which applied only to Israelitish slaves (Num. xv. 15, 16). And as we have seen, for the time being, slavery of all kinds was an amelioration of greater evils, and tended to elevation, to freedom, and to ultimate and universal good.

The law was a shadow of good things to come. The Israel of old in all their arrangements were the types of the church, the Israel of God. And though regeneration and the Lords kingdom are open to all, the advancement of each soul depends on its own use of its great and wonderful powers. The Lords mercy extends to all. His Holy Spirit aids everyone. Yet some become sons in the celestial family, they enter into the very spirit of love which forms the Divine Nature, and dwell in that spirit for ever. The son abideth in the house for ever.–John viii. 35. God is love. He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.1 John iv. 16. There is no fear in love. Perfect love casteth out fear. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.–v. 18. These sons of love form the highest angels of heaven. They are flames of celestial fire (Psalm civ. 4).

These were represented by Judah, the peculiar tribe, the central power which bore the sceptre among the hosts of Israel.

Others there are who are children of the light. With them truth is the chief thing. Truth indeed leads them to goodness and to love, as a right and a duty, but truth itself is their joy and crown. These are the Lords friends. They are beautiful and good, but they are like Peter, more than like John. They are the elders who have the harps of gold in their hands, but not the living ones who are in the midst of the throne. The truth has made them free, and unfolds to them its diamond splendors, its pearls of great price. The Lord is to them the light, the law, the glory, and the beauty, that shine for ever on the throne of heaven. But the humility of the little child is not so deeply revealed in these, as in their brethren, who had more profoundly humbled themselves in their regenerate life, and been more lovingly exalted by the Lord the Lamb, their God and Savior. These fill the second degree of the mansions of the blest, and were represented by the house of Israel, as distinguished from the house of Judah.

But besides these, in the church of the Lord, there is a great host who can be induced to be obedient and renounce sin, but who make little progress in the harmonies, the beauties, and the blessedness of the divine principles of things. These serve, but they do not enter into freedom. They come into the kingdom, and for these hired servants there is bread enough and to spare (Luke xv. 17), but they are not there as sons or even as friends, they are only servants. They are under masters, and how blessed a thing is that infinite mercy which provides for them, and makes them as happy as their states will bear. Some advance and come into heavenly freedom: these are the slaves that come to the heavenly jubilee. Others never do more than become obedient with the general stream. They can take truth from others, but never rise to the dignity of seeing it in themselves. These are they who serve for ever. They are not evil, but are only in the lowest form of good. They love their masters, and their willingness to be obedient to divine truth as shining through others, is represented by their ear being bored through at the door, or door-post. The door and door-post are the letter of the Word and its general doctrines, which serve as introductions to internal things. They remain as persons attached to the great family in heaven for ever, but only as obedient servants. They are the ten thousand times ten thousand round about the throne.

The wife and children which they will not leave, are the affections and sentiments belonging to this comparatively low state.

If such Christians do not ascend higher, they are yet suffered by the Highest, and blest by Him to the utmost of their ability. They are. the lower vessels of the heavenly house: the doorkeepers of the kingdom of God.

Let us recur again to the law of the punished slave, so hastily misconstrued by the Bishop of Natal. As punishment was only inflicted on the decision of the Judges, and with the appointed rod (the shebet), we must assume that the case contemplated is that of a criminal person justly punished, but that undue haste and severity are condemned by this law. If he died at once, the punishment would be held to be too severe, and the harsh inflictor would himself be punished; but if the criminal continued a day or two, no undue severity could be supposed.

Let us regard this law in its symbolical character. The bondman condemned would then represent a person never more than an external member of the church, one yielding obedience, but not having an earnest love for the truth which makes the Christian truly free. The punishment of the rod would represent the condemnation of such an one by the rule of the Divine Word, for the same rod which consoles the good condemns the bad. Severity being forbidden which would bring speedy death on the punished slave, teaches, that in judging and punishing the evil we are not to be hasty nor harsh. We must not exceed in severity, but deal moderately and justly: if mischief then ensue, the fault will not be ours.

The purely spiritual sense of the Word unveils the divine character of this law still more perfectly. We muse regard persons as the type of principles. Servants, then, represent principles which serve, and the truths which serve us so well in our regenerate life, are like servants of different ranks and degrees. Bond-servants mean apparent truths, such appearances as are pressed into the service of truth, but are not really in perfect harmony with it. Such as the statements about the anger of God in the Scriptures, because the purity and order of His laws repel and pain the wicked as much as if anger sustained and enforced them; the early allegories of the Word, which veiled the wisdom of the primeval church, and yet revealed enough for the simple piety of past ages; the fleshly dispensation of the Jews, together with its outward sacrifices of sheep, goats, oxen, which kept the flickering torch of holy light still shining in the valley of darkness, though for ages the souls which held it up were of the earth, earthy. All these and many others are but bondmen in the House of the Lord.

When we, who in our pupilage have revered these, see apparent truths and merciful accommodations, and apply the rod of real Divine Truth to them, discover their contrariety and reject them, we must not do it recklessly and irreverently, but calmly and thoughtfully, as things needful to childish states of mind, although if done patiently and reverently, men may put away childish things. This divine rule of charity and wisdom is inculcated in the law before us, and in many a symbol of the Holy Word. The snuffers which removed the spent ashes of the light which burned unceasingly before the altar, were golden snuffers. Many of the supports of the piety of past ages may not be necessary to us, but they were essential to them. Like the clothes of early childhood they were good for their day, and they should only be removed with a loving and careful hand like that of the tender mother, who retains for many a year the little clothes of that lost one who once was the glory and the joy of
home.

If he continue a day or two, the law declares the master shall not be punished, for he is his money (in the Hebrew, his silver). This continuance of the dying bondman for a day or two represents the regenerating Christian doing judgment upon past and useful fallacies with full consideration, he must continue a state or two. When the soul in its upward progress rises above the letter of a precept into its spirit, though he rejects the form he once revered, if he does so with serious thought and reverent feeling, he sees the same truth in a diviner light: it becomes his silver. Too much haste in changing old views for new, is to be avoided, as well as too much delay. Let judgment be done when judgment is needed, but let it be done with care, with reverence, and with charity. Then, while we rise from the letter to the inner life of holy things, we shall have ample confirmation of the truth, The words of the Lord are pure words, as silver tried in a furnace of earth: the bondman will become our silver.

Author: Jonathan Bayley — From Egypt to Canaan (1869)