Kevin Rudd (Australian PM) is misinformed on slavery in the Bible – Biblical law is life-giving for slaves too

So the Bible says that slavery is a ‘natural condition’, Kevin Rudd (Prime Minister of UnknownAustralia)? You are misinformed. Slavery was a central pillar of ancient Near Eastern society – the cultural background for the Old Testament (OT) – so naturally the OT addresses slavery in detail. Yet the OT challenges slave law and custom. Poor families are to be treated generously so that they never fall into slavery (Deuteronomy Ch 15). And slaves must be treated like royalty, or they may flee! (Deut. 23:15-16) Read in their historical context, Old Testament slave laws are life-giving.

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About Mark Glanville

Mark Glanville is a pastor-scholar who ministers in a missional urban community, Grandview Church, Vancouver. Mark is Professor of Old Testament and congregational studies at the Missional Training Center, Phoenix (missionaltraining.org), and he teaches at Regent College, Vancouver. Mark's research focusses upon the Pentateuch, biblical ethics, and mission. Mark has authored a book on Exodus (Lexham, forthcoming), numerous refereed articles (including in the Journal of Biblical Literature, forthcoming) and chapters on the Pentateuch, mission, and refugee related issues, as well as numerous popular articles. Mark is presently co-authoring a book, "Providing Refuge: A Missional and Political Theology." Mark is regularly called upon to speak on in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. His previous career was as a jazz pianist in Sydney, Australia (Chick Corea and Wynton Kelly are his musical heroes).
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4 Responses to Kevin Rudd (Australian PM) is misinformed on slavery in the Bible – Biblical law is life-giving for slaves too

  1. Red Cedar says:

    Yes, the bible challenged slave laws and customs in a progressive way, but did not reject slavery outright. In Deuteronomy for instance, slaves are to be freed after seven years work. That’s life giving in a context that presumably expected slavery for life, but horrendous today. Just because the biblical pronouncements were progressive at the time, we should not overlook the fact that those progressive pronouncements are now pretty barbarous. Reading in historical context leads to moral relativism – why should we assume that the authors of the scripture, were they around today, would still want to be progressive by our standards? Does Christianity always position itself just slightly to the life-affirming side of the status quo?

    • Thanks for your comments Red Cedar. I think your point is that OT law was ‘progressive’ but not sufficiently ‘progressive’. I suspect that your sense of what possibilities there are for ‘redemptive’ law in an agrarian ancient context needs fine tuning. While on one hand there was certainly very oppressive slavery in the ancient Near East, on the other hand in an ancient peasant agricultural society slavery was the only means available of repaying a debt. And while debt cancellation was a happy aspect of OT law, without the possibility of debt repayment there is little opportunity for a peasant to secure funds for the next season’s crop. So the hope that an embattled peasant farmer would work for his/her debter in order to pay off the debt, opened the possibility of loans. I quickly add that the kind of ‘slavery’ (the word is not very helpful in this discussion) that Torah permits bears little resemblance either to the oppressive slavery of the ANE or the kind of slavery so well known from the colonial period.

  2. Josh says:

    Sad to see such cheap and loose language from a person in such a position of power. Aside from the textual points you correctly address, Mark, it just isn’t serious intellectual history to think that our modern day “progressivism” is somehow independent of the radical social and cultural developments that owe their existence to the Bible and its commentators. The architects of modern liberal democracies are speaking the language of the Scriptures when they use categories such as liberation, equality, etc.–even conciously so (Locke, Kant and even Marx, among many, many others). It’s ironic that PM Rudd attributes the idea of “natural” slavery to the Bible when in reality it was the Judeo-Christian imagination, relying on the biblical tradition sustaining it, that was needed eventually to provide what they (and we) understand to be a corrective to Greek tragedy (i.e. submit your life to the natural course of fate, even and especially if you’re a slave). There is no progress without history, there is no history without the eschaton, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a historically relevant tradition with a robust account of the eschaton that is also independent of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    My very best regards from Toronto!

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