A Post by Disraeli at ATS
The social laws of the Pentateuch were not designed for the modern world,
They were clearly designed for a different kind of world, a mainly agricultural society.
But since they were published in the name of the Biblical God, they can still throw light on his nature and intentions.
Which gives us a new reason for reading this collection even if the laws themselves have been superseded.
Let’s take, for example, what God’s law says about the treatment of slaves among the Israelites.
They are forbidden to acquire them by abduction amongst their own people.
“If a man is found stealing one of his brethren, the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave and sells him, then that thief shall die”- Deuteronomy ch24 v7
Slaves ought to be purchased, instead, from the peoples around them, in which case they may be held indefinitely;
“You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever”- Leviticus ch25 vv45-46
In the case of Hebrew slaves, though, there’s a limit on the time they can be held.
“When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing”- that is, he will not be expected for pay for his freedom. Exodus ch21 v2
The law in Deuteronomy is even more generous;
“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 wine press; as the Lord God has blessed you, you shall give to him”- Deuteronomy ch15 vv13-14.
These instructions are part of the law on the limitation of debt, since that’s how most Israelites would have become slaves in the first place.
At the end of his time of service, the slave may not want to depart.
This may be, as Deuteronomy says, “because he loves you and your household”.
But Exodus offers a more pragmatic possibility;
“If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons and daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone”.
If the slave wants to stay with the family his master has given him, he must remain with his master, and a hole will be bored through his ear with an awl to mark his new status- Exodus ch21 vv3-6
The view taken by Leviticus is that these debtors should not be treated as slaves at all.
“If your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave; he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner”- Leviticus ch25 vv39-40.
While if the brother is obliged to sell himself to outsiders, he benefits from the “Jubilee” law outlined in the same chapter, which allows him to redeem himself or be redeemed by a “kinsman”.
Some scholars try to reconcile Leviticus with the other laws by suggesting that “Hebrew” was a wider social or ethnic category than “Israelite”.
But since the word “brother” is also used to describe Hebrews, it is probably better to see the injunctions of Leviticus as representing an ideal which wasn’t always attained.
As long as they remain slaves, there are laws to protect them from injury;
If a man strikes his slave with a rod so that the slave dies, the man will be punished- providing the death happens soon enough to be assigned to that cause. Exodus ch21 vv20-21
“When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free for the eye’s sake. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free for the tooth’s sake”- Exodus ch21 vv26-27
Other laws regulate the treatment of women who have been taken as concubines.
One possibility is that the woman has been sold by her own father.
The basic principle seems to be that she has been bought as a wife, not as a harlot, and her master should treat her accordingly.
“If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”
If he bought her as a wife for his son, he should respect her as a daughter.
If he does decide to send her away, “then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt faithlessly with her”. Exodus ch21 vv7-11
If she was a captive taken in war, she receives the same consideration.
She must be allowed time to detach herself from her old life;
“You shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall put off her captive’s garb, and remain in your house and bewail her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her , and be her husband , and she shall be your wife.”
He parts with her, if at all, on the same terms as he parts with the purchased concubine;
“If you have no delight in her, you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her for money, you shall not treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her”- Deuteronomy ch21 vv1-14.
What can these laws tell us about the God who endorses them?
They deal with the state of slavery as something which exists, but their purpose is to regulate the treatment of slaves and impose restraints on the power that is exercised over them.
This God is apparently unwilling to allow slave-owners the kind of absolute control which would have been available to them in most other slave-holding societies of the time.
The owner cannot hold one of his own people in slavery for longer than a limited period.
There are laws to prevent the treatment of slaves from descending into brutality, and laws to rein in the exploitation of female slaves.
Since most of the Israelite slaves would have been debt-slaves, all this can be seen as one aspect of care for the poor.
It points to the same concern for the weak and vulnerable that can be seen in many other Israelite laws.
In fact the general tenor of these laws is unfriendly to the very existence of slavery, at least among the brethren.
Almost uniquely among slave-owning societies, Israel has a law which forbids the return of “fugitive slaves”;
“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you”- Deuteronomy ch23 vv15-16.
Acting in the same spirit, Jeremiah once moved the people of Jerusalem to make a general proclamation of liberty, releasing all the Hebrew slaves of the city, “ so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother”.
When the people went back on their word, he proclaimed, in the Lord’s name, that this act of disobedience would cause the Lord to hand them over to their enemies – Jeremiah ch34 vv8-20
This episode, and the injunctions found in Leviticus ch25 are signs of a developing awareness that the God of Israel does not want his people to be treated as property.
We may think these laws would have been improved if the final renunciation of slavery had been brought forward, and if the concept of “brethren”, who should be left free, had been extended to the world at large .
That may have been God’s final will, but such an intention meets resistance from human “hardness of heart”.
Thus the qualified and rather grudging toleration of slavery found in these laws would reflect his willingness to compromise.
Those further steps were not taken because the Israelites were not yet ready to receive them.
So this shows us a God who deals with people as he finds them, starting with the customs they’ve got already and allowing time to improve them.
He is prepared to deal with people in ways that they can understand, before trying to lead them further.
The attitude of contemporary societies on the slavery question can best be observed through their laws on “fugitive slaves”.
In the Babylonian code, they are detailed and rigorous.
16. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.
17. If any one find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.
18. If the slave will not give the name of the master, the finder shall bring him to the palace; a further investigation must follow, and the slave shall be returned to his master.
19. If he hold the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death.
20. If the slave that he caught run away from him, then shall he swear to the owners of the slave, and he is free of all blame.
Roman law is equally relentless.
If anyone helps a slave to escape or helps to conceal him, that may be regarded as FURTUM, an act of theft.
There is a law which imposes a fine on any landowner who finds a runaway slave on his property and does not report him to the authorities within twenty days, or if he refuses to help or actively hinders the search for a slave on his property.
Another edict provides that the magistrate must guard any slave that is brought to him, binding him if necessary. He must make a note of any physical characteristics, such as scars, and include them in his report so that the slave can be identified and claimed by his owner.
I can see no laws in the Code of Hammurabi regulating the treatment of slaves, though the law does limit debt-slavery to four years, as compared with the seven years specified in Israel.
Otherwise, the Code’s main concern is with protecting the investment of the purchaser.
278. If any one buy a male or female slave, and before a month has elapsed the benu-disease be developed, he shall return the slave to the seller, and receive the money which he had paid.
279. If any one buy a male or female slave, and a third party claim it, the seller is liable for the claim.
280. If while in a foreign country a man buy a male or female slave belonging to another of his own country; if when he return home the owner of the male or female slave recognize it: if the male or female slave be a native of the country, he shall give them back without any money.
281. If they are from another country, the buyer shall declare the amount of money paid therefor to the merchant, and keep the male or female slave.
282. If a slave say to his master: “You are not my master,” if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear
Code of Hammurabi
So in both societies the idea that slaves are reclaimable property is unquestioned.
Roman and Babylonian law is designed entirely in the interests of the slave-owner.
Whereas the Israelite laws have the purpose of protecting the welfare of the slave.
It’s a completely different atmosphere.
Instead of making a completely fresh start, he takes the customs that they’ve got already and allows time to change them in a gradual way.
He is prepared to deal with people in ways they can understand, before trying to lead them further.
I am the son of two schoolteachers and the grandson of a third.
I may have mentioned this before.
This provides me with a very accessible analogy for the way God approaches the question of giving laws to the people of Israel.
He behaves like a teacher.
A good teacher is always conscious of the capabilities and limitations of his pupils, and he tries to give them teaching at the appropriate level.
He talks to them in terms which they will be able to understand, and sets out to improve their understanding in gradual ways.
If their reading abilities have taken them to the end of the first of the “Janet and John” books, then he offers them the second book.
If their mathematical skills have taken them as far as adding up and “taking away”, then he might begin showing them how to multiply and divide.
What he’s not going to do is start scribbling Einstein’s equations on the blackboard.
Teaching is not about “zapping” people with instantaneous advanced knowledge (except in science fiction stories).
It is the slow and patient work of gradual training.
We find a similar patience in the way the God of Israel deals with his people.
Thus his intention for marriage was that “a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Genesis ch2 v23).
Yet in the Old Testament laws he accepts, for the time being, the practice of divorce, which Jesus blames on “the hardness of their hearts” (Matthew ch19 v8).
And why does God allow them to fall short of the intended standard?
Because their minds are not yet ready for the intended standard.
They are still in training.
He finds this people living in a very patriarchal society, like all the other societies of the time.
Whatever he thinks about this, he does not try to change it at a stroke.
He modifies their behaviour gradually, beginning with mild restraints on the husband’s power.
He finds them owning slaves, like all the other societies of the time.
Whatever he thinks about this, he does not try to abolish the custom at a stroke.
He modifies their behaviour gradually, providing slaves with some legal protection, and trying to discourage them from enslaving their own people.
He finds them loving their brothers and other kinsmen and encourages them to treat the rest of the nation in the same way.
However, they are not yet ready to extend the concept of “brothers” to the world at large, so that part of the training is postponed for a later stage.
In short, what we see in the laws of the Old Testament, and in the overall history of the Old Testament, is the slow and patient work of gradual training.
God does not “zap”. He teaches.
When modern critics are assailing the laws and the culture of the Old Testament, this is precisely what they are complaining about.
They don’t think God should have been giving his people this patient teaching.
They think he should have “zapped” them , instantly, to a state of spiritual maturity comparable to their own.
If they had been in God’s place (and they would certainly have done the job better) they would have “zapped”.
The God of the Old Testament is much more patient than they are.
He finds his people at the “cuh-ah-tuh-CAT” level of spiritual education, and he lifts them gradually.
A lot of work will be required before they can reach the kind of spiritual heights from which these critics can look down haughtily at the junior versions of themselves.
The fact that God is willing to undertake this slow and patient work is very revealing.
It shows us that God is a teacher.
This has a bearing on the question of whether these laws can be changed.
We find in the classroom that lessons vary according to the age and circumstances of the pupils.
The books used in the infants’ class are not the books used in the university lecture hall.
I’ve heard a physics graduate complaining that he had to re-learn the laws of physics at every stage in his education.
In the same way, the guidance which God gives to his people might be expected to change according to the level of their understanding as well as the condition of their society.
And the fact that these laws are so closely bound up with the needs of a particular kind of society is another reason for regarding them as temporary.
They can only be “God’s laws”, if at all, for a period in Israel’s history, rather than for all time.
The details of the laws might be variable, as long as the principles which lay behind them were respected.
In other words, as Paul might put it, the letter of the Law would be less binding than the spirit of the Law.
The laws of the Old Testament gave men freedom to divorce their wives at will, and leave them without support.
When Jesus was asked about this, he said it clashed with God’s real intentions, that husband and wife should join together and not be separated.
Why, then, was the procedure of divorce made available in the law?
It had been allowed to them only because of “your hardness of heart”. Matthew ch19 vv3-9
Given this clue, we can find other instances of the same problem, that God’s final will is resisted by human “hardness of heart”, resulting in a compromise which finds expression in the laws issued in his name.
Such as, for example, the laws permitting slavery.
This permission is hedged about with enough restrictions and qualifications to suggest that the practice is being tolerated only grudgingly.
Evidently the God of Israel does not like having his people being treated as slaves.
He forbids the practice of abducting men into slavery.
He limits the time that men can be held as slaves when they have sold themselves to pay their debts.
In fact the lawmakers of Leviticus want these debtors to be managed in the same way as hired servants rather than treated as slaves.
I’ve already referred to the general “Emancipation Proclamation” which Jeremiah promoted, and his anger, in the Lord’s name, when the people of Jerusalem reneged on their covenanted promise.
Jeremiah evidently believed that slavery was not part of God’s will for his people.
I’ve described the elaborate provision made for the welfare of slaves, including the gifts that were to be made to them at the end of their term of service.
The regulation on the treatment of women captives is particularly striking, given what normally happens to captives taken in war.
We should also take note of what’s missing in these laws; there is no “Fugitive slave” law in this collection, setting out rules for the relentless pursuit of slaves and the punishment of those who help them.
This code of conduct is far removed from the assumption that slaves are property and nothing more, which is the essence of the treatment of slaves in most slave-owning societies.
And it all seems to indicate that the God who endorses these laws is fundamentally unfriendly to that assumption.
In the New Testament period and afterwards, the struggle against “hardness of heart” continued.
Paul told the Galatians that there was no difference between slaves and free men in God’s eyes.
He felt obliged to send Onesimus back to Philemon, as secular law would have demanded, but he made a direct appeal to Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother”- Philemon vv15-17.
But he’s not going to vex the authorities by disturbing social relations, so he confines himself to recommending better treatment.
The earliest Christians, as their critics began to observe, were more likely to be slaves themselves than slave-owners.
Once the church had more influence, though, it could point the way by encouraging men to liberate their slaves as an act of Christian charity.
It took several centuries to overcome the resistance, but by the end of the Middle Ages slavery had been abolished by the laws of the greater part of Europe.
Then came Columbus and the new opportunities of the transatlantic slave trade, and the institution took off again.
Nevertheless, the slave trade was abolished in turn, and Christian teaching was a major factor in achieving that result.
There were Christians who were beginning to focus on the conflict between the slave trade and the gospel teaching about human relations.
They came to the conclusion that the Bible demanded the rejection of slavery, at least implicitly, and began campaigning to convince the rest of society.
The message could be summed up in the famous slogan calling the slave “a man and a brother”; in other words, they took the Leviticus teaching that the brethren should not be enslaved and extended this principle to the world at large.
I know most about the English side of things (that’s what they taught me in school).
At the end of the eighteenth century, the lead was being taken by a group of Evangelicals who were nicknamed “the Clapham sect”, including figures like William Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay (father of the historian).
Wilberforce, in his speech to the House of Commons, had arguments to deal with the practical objections of his opponents, but he described his own motivation in religious terms;
“And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God.”
As a result of these campaigns, the slave trade was abolished within the British Empire in 1807, and slavery itself in 1833.
After which, Victorian evangelicals like David Livingstone could switch their attention to the slave trade in other areas of the world;
“And if my disclosures regarding the terrible Ujijian slavery should lead to the suppression of the East Coast slave trade, I shall regard that as a greater matter by far than the discovery of all the Nile sources together.” – [Livingstone]
This illustrates the way that modern efforts to abolish slavery have been motivated either directly or indirectly by the New Testament principle- and the Old Testament law- that “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.