Slavery in the Bible

This guest post is by Rev. Donald Ehrke. He is a Libertarian, a former GOP campaign manager, and ordained minister living in Alexandria, Virginia. Many thanks to Donald for his excellent work! For guest post opportunities, please use the LCC Contact Page.

In “Lincoln’s Battle with God” author Stephen Mansfield reveals private notes that Abraham Lincoln penned regarding the issue of slavery and the Bible.  Lincoln, responding to Dr. Frederick Ross’ book “Slavery Ordained by God” wrote, “Slavery is strikingly peculiar in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.”  Lincoln accurately identified the hypocrisy of those who employed Scripture to support slavery; if slavery was a blessing ordained by God then why hadn’t everyone sought to become a slave?

Slavery in the Bible is a complicated subject.  People could sell themselves into slavery as the Egyptians did in time of famine (Genesis 47: 19), Hebrews could be purchased as servants and released in their seventh year of servitude (Exodus 21: 2), and prisoners of war could become slaves (Deuteronomy 20: 10-11).  People could also elect to become servants for life (Exodus 21: 6).  Although much could be added to the discussion of slavery in the Bible, only two more points will be made here – the Bible does not endorse slavery and slavery is not a blessing.  Slavery is portrayed negatively in the Bible; to answer Abraham Lincoln, this is why people do not wish to become slaves – slavery is a detestable manner of living.

Nevertheless, today many suffer from the same malady identified by Lincoln – the belief that slavery is a blessing when intended for someone else.  Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, seeking to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary this month, boldly begins one of his television advertisements by claiming “healthcare is a right.” In practical terms this indicates that – regardless of the public’s ability to pay – a healthcare provider is absolutely obligated to perform a service for the public because it possesses a right to his or her labor.  One must assume that Gansler is drawing inspiration from Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” namely, freedom from want.  More, most voters are not healthcare providers, so Gansler assumes his is a popular sentiment.  However, individuals would respond differently if Gansler campaigned, “Everyone has a right to your labor – you must serve all people with or without compensation!”  If we are to be “free from want” then why shouldn’t the populace include gasoline, haircuts, and ice cream to the list of desired handouts?  Gansler is wise enough not to utter such thoughts; he would lose the gubernatorial primary in a landslide. Forced service is slavery and many approve of it – but only when applied to others.

Our labor is, as many have observed, the product of our life.  When someone seizes our labor against our will they are laying claim to our life, stealing it from us.  We must be equally sensitive to claiming others’ lives, even when attractively packaged as “rights.”  Christians may be further tempted when slavery is spun as “caring,” as is the case with the Affordable Care Act.  Plainly, we are commanded by God to refrain from such theft (Exodus 20: 15).

Service to one another is voluntarily contracted; the individual alone can choose to sell a portion of his or her life.  Forced service is slavery.  When speaking of his personal sacrifice, Jesus emphasized its voluntary nature, “…I lay down my life that I may take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10: 17-18).  Mankind had no right to claim Christ’s life; the beauty of his sacrifice is that it was freely given rather than stolen.  Likewise, Christian charity is not commendable when it is coerced – our offerings are God-pleasing because they, too, are freely given.

Unfortunately, when leaders speak of sacrifice they rarely purport it to be Christ-like and personal.  Sacrifice is meant for other people.  Ayn Rand famously observed, “It only stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings.  Where there’s service, there is someone being served.  The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.”

Christians must not let the carefully constructed promises of government care blind them to the reality of public theft and enslavement.  We must not consider compulsory service to be a blessing intended for others.  If we speak of service, it must be in reference to our efforts and not those of another.  We might be reminded that Lincoln, too, neglected his own insight.  The man who recognized the duplicity of tolerating slavery as a blessing became a president who drafted an army even as he attempted to keep his eldest son, Robert, out of uniform.  Anyone can fall prey to hypocrisy.

Today, American children ride publicly funded buses to school.  Once there, many eat publicly funded breakfasts.  Using publicly funded textbooks and school supplies, they are taught by publicly funded teachers in a publicly funded building that the “our greatest president” ended slavery.  If only this were true, Mr. Lincoln.