Appendix VI: Jesus’ Justice, OT Slavery, and the Christian’s Warfare

The following articles have been written as a form of extended appendices for Jesus’ Justice –

Appendix V: Jesus’ Justice, Racial Bigotry, and R. L. Dabney

Appendix VI: Jesus’ Justice, OT Slavery, and the Christian’s Warfare

In my previous post, Appendix V: Jesus’ Justice, Racial Bigotry, and R.L. Dabney, I addressed the disturbing reality of Dabney’s overt bigotry against African-Americans. In addition to my citations of him in my book, Jesus’ Justice, I added sections from his address to the Presbyterian Synod of Virginia, Nov. 9th, 1867, titled: Against The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in our Church and their Right to Rule over White Christians. In this address he argued that there is an “insuperable difference of race (black and white)…made by God and not by man…[making] it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians” because Africans were (as Dabney asserted) an “inferior and hostile 9781935358190_covkindlerace.” Four years later, Dabney would advance a similar argument in his popular Systematic Theology where he insisted that “the low grade of intelligence, virtue and civilization of the African in America [made it necessary for the African to have]…no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion.”[1] This assertion was made, remarkably, amidst Dabney’s teaching on the Golden Rule. According to Dabney, his license to derogate, subjugate, and enslave African-Americans was rooted in what he deemed as a God-ordained inferiority via the curse of Canaan:

It [curse of Canaan] does in the first place, what all secular history and speculations fail to do: it gives us the origin of domestic slavery. And we find that it was appointed by God as the punishment of, and remedy for (nearly all God’s providential chastisements are also remedial) the peculiar moral degradation of a part of the race. God here ordains that this depravity shall find its necessary restraints, and the welfare of the more virtuous its safeguard against the depraved, by the bondage of the latter. He introduces that feature of political society, for the justice of which we shall have occasion to contend; that although men have all this trait of natural equality that they are children of a common father, and sharers of a common humanity, and subjects of the same law of love; yet, in practice, they shall be subject to social inequalities determined by their own characters, and their fitness or unfitness to use privileges for their own and their neighbours’ good.[2]

When simplified and distilled, Dabney’s argument was that “part of the race” of humans possessed “a peculiar moral degradation” and therefore required “bondage” for the welfare of the “more virtuous.” What is key to this viewpoint is that those who claimed the high ground of virtuous living believed they had license to enslave those who possessed a peculiar moral degradation. The pivotal point in all of this is that Dabney was defending one especially prejudicial license which is being replicated by the advocates of Social Justice Ideology (SJI) in the modern day:

The right to judge an entire segment of humanity as being uniquely defective; worthy of derogation and subjugation.

Thus, based upon Dabney’s two corrupt presumptions: 1. The inferiority of African-Americans and 2. The precedent of “the Curse of Canaan,” he confidently asserted a scriptural justification for domestic slavery in his book, Defense of Virginia:

…the cavils, objections and special pleadings of the Abolitionists teem like the frogs of Egypt, engendered in the mire of ignorance and prejudice, so numerous because so worthless…Whatever may have been the leniency of the [O.T.] system [of slavery], the state of the Gentile slaves showed the essential features of slavery among us, the right to the slave’s labour for life without his consent, property in that labour, the right to buy, sell and bequeath it; the right to enforce it on the slave by corporal punishments, which might have any degree of severity short of death. (See Exod. xxi. 20, 21.) Virginians had no interest to contend for any stricter form of slavery than this.[3]

My initial response to the above quote from Dabney’s, Defense of Virginia (1867), in Jesus’ Justice is as follows:

This particular passage from Dabney’s Defense is both stunning and telling. The thought of seizing fellow human beings against their will, compelling their servitude by force (theirs and their progeny), and beating them just short of death, all in the name of Jesus Christ, surpasses credulity.[4]

At the time I wrote this I recall thinking of the potential retorts and protests that might follow, especially from those who seek to herald the Law of Moses above its station and purpose. Similar to the pro-slavery advocates of yesteryear, there are some today who see Israel’s historic license and practice of slavery as providing a scriptural grounds for the continuance of the practice, in colonial America as well as the present. It is this form of reasoning that Granville Sharp repeatedly refuted in his own day. His argument was that there was no sense in which “the Israelites, under the dispensation of the Law, either in killing, dispossessing, or enslaving…should justify our modern acts of violence and oppression, now that we profess obedience to the Gospel of Peace.”[5] The simplicity and brevity of his point deserves further attention, especially when we consider the differences between the OT and NT instructions regarding slavery. There is, in a sense, three key points that must be considered in order to understand the subject of slavery, especially as it relates to America’s historic practice of slavery: 1. The unique commands and prescriptions given to ancient Israel; 2. The categorical distinction of British and colonial slavery; 3. The commands and prescriptions given to the church in the NT.

1. The unique commands and prescriptions given to ancient Israel: As already mentioned, Sharp spoke of Israel’s unique authority “under the dispensation of the Law…in killing, dispossessing [and] enslaving,” and rightly denied that such authority can be claimed by other nations in the present day. When we consider the unique commands and prescriptions given to ancient Israel, we must remember that the very land which God had promised to Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 15:18-19) was to be conquered and dispossessed by the power of God for His chosen people, Israel: “By this you shall know that the living God is among you, and that He will assuredly dispossess [יָרַשׁ, yarash] from before you the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Hivite, the Perizzite, the Girgashite, the Amorite, and the Jebusite.” (Joshua 3:10). This English term, dispossess, is a solid representation of the Hebrew word yarash, which, objectively speaking, points to the idea of impoverishing, destroying, or making someone/something destitute. Subjectively speaking, it points to the resultant enrichment that comes through the impoverishment of another. As such, it is a term that points to the spoils of war that were Israel’s rightful inheritance through her instrumental conquest of the Promised Land. According to Joshua 3:10, it is ultimately God who is the active agent of this dispossession of the nations and Israel was called to be the instrument of this conquest (Deut. 7:1-3). Therefore, the nation was to obey Joshua as he led them into battle, or be executed for their rebellion against God (Joshua 1:18). It is against this important backdrop that we see the uniqueness of Israel’s permission to make use of Gentile slaves (Lev. 25:44-46). Slavery was a merciful alternative to death. However, though Israel was enjoined by God to conquer and dispossess the nations, those Gentiles who would be utilized as slaves were never classified as mere chattel as was the habit of the neighboring pagan nations. Instead, a man who killed his slave was murdering a human being and was to suffer retribution/vengeance [naqam] for the act – Exodus 21:20: “And if a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished [naqam].” Unlike the pagan nations which viewed slaves as nothing more than chattel, the nation of Israel was prohibited from descending to such a dehumanizing standard, as John Calvin rightly observes, “Although in civil matters there was a wide distinction between slaves and free-men, still, that God may shew how dear and precious men’s lives are to Him, He has no respect to persons with regard to murder; but avenges the death of a slave and a free-man in the same way.”[6] But the very next verse in Exodus 21 has been abused by some in order to suggest that Israel was to view the slave as mere chattel: Exodus 21:21: 21 “If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.” To begin with, we must contemplate what the slave has experienced from the hand of his master in this passage. Most translations employ the English word “survives” for the Hebrew term, amadstand. By this we have a situation in which we find that the slave stands as evidence that no serious injury was given. In this case, no retribution should be given to the master, as Calvin asserts: “For that the slaves should ‘stand for one or two days,[7] is equivalent to saying, that they were perfect and sound in all their members; but if a wound had been inflicted, or there was any mutilation, the smiter was guilty of murder. None, therefore, is absolved but he who only meant to chastise his slave; and where no injury appears, it is probable that there was no intention to kill him. Whilst, then, this law prohibits bloodthirsty assaults, it by no means gives greater license to murder.”[8] This then leads us to wonder about what is meant by the concluding, qualifying clause, “for he is his property.” This elliptical expression raises the question as to whether it is asserting the essential or instrumental value of the slave. Walt Kaiser rightly points to the latter connotation: “The point is not that men are mere chattel (which the NIV rendering tends to suggest) but that the owner has an investment in this slave that he stands to lose either by death (not to mention capital punishment as well) or by emancipation (vv. 27-28[9]).”[10] Calvin underscores the concluding expression in Exodus 21:21 as follows: “The reason, which is added, must be restricted to the private loss; because a murderer would never be absolved on the pretext that he had purchased his slave with money, since the life of a man cannot be so estimated.”[11] Though Israel was given many unique commands and prescriptions to dispossess the nations, none of them included the dehumanizing notion of chattel slavery.

2. The categorical distinction of British and colonial slavery: Though Israel was given unique authority to dispossess the seven nations of the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites, such authority has never been given to any other nation. Uniquely, Israel was God’s servant (ebed, Lev. 25:55) through which the Messiah would come to into the world and die as the sinner’s righteous substitute. As such, the nation of Israel, like the Messiah Himself, represents a singularity in human history. It is in this sense that Sharp rebuked those who falsely asserted a license to “killing, dispossessing, or enslaving”[12] Africans on the grounds of the Mosaic Law. Moreover, as was mentioned in Jesus’ Justice, “the key nations involved in [the transatlantic slave trade] (the Portuguese, British, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Danish) were not at war with any of the nations within the African continent, nor were Africans seized by these nations on any pretext of penal retribution. Instead, those foreign nations that engaged in the African slave trade were clearly involved in the act of man-stealing (securing and kidnapping humans as mere chattel for profit).” Those who tried to use the OT Law to justify their actions of “killing, dispossessing, or enslaving” clearly ignored the stark penalty prescribed in Exodus 21:16: 16 “And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” The fact that death was the prescribed penalty for this crime reveals the dehumanizing nature of the act in which victims are treated like mere chattel, a word that is derived from the word, cattle (property, goods, money). Those who were kidnapped, enslaved, and forced to labor against their will were victims of piratical criminality; and those who sought the continued enslavement of these kidnapped souls and their progeny did so without any justification, scriptural or otherwise.

3. The commands and prescriptions given to the church in the NT: As reviewed in Jesus’ Justice, the 1st century church faced a complex world of slavery within the Graeco-Roman world. Three main categories of slaves existed in their day: a. War captives; b. Criminals; and c. Children of slaves. Unlike the present day, the Roman Empire did not have long term prisons or correctional facilities with which to house domestic criminals and war captives, and for this reason such slaves lived among the population, typically, as penal slaves. A lengthy treatment of these details is supplied within the seventh chapter of Jesus’ Justice, but it is important to stipulate that one’s understanding of the applicability of the NT instructions regarding slavery are strongly aided by such historical context. Slaves were enjoined, where possible, to seek their freedom (1 Cor. 7:21b) or serve as the Lord’s freedman where such earthly freedom was not possible (1 Cor. 7:21a). However, nowhere in the NT scriptures do we find the promotion of slavery as it was sustained in the transatlantic slave trade, along with its related institution of domestic slavery. Instead, the NT’s clear and repeated refutation of chattel slavery, along with its denunciation of kidnapping (1 Timothy1:9-11), reveal how the NT Scriptures became the death knell to the systems of slavery as promoted from the 16th to 19th centuries.

All of this offers a broader context to my response to Dabney in Jesus’ Justice, where I said: “The thought of seizing fellow human beings against their will, compelling their servitude by force (theirs and their progeny), and beating them just short of death, all in the name of Jesus Christ, surpasses credulity.”[13] The thought of doing this as a NT Christian and disciple of Christ is incredulous, and should be. When James and John asked Jesus for permission to make an ash heap of those Samaritans who refused to offer support to Jesus (Luke 9:51-54), they were likely operating from the OT precedent established by Elijah in 2 Kings 1:1-16 where two squadrons of fifty men and their captains were consumed with fire from heaven for their rebellion against a prophet of God. If the disciples had Elijah in mind, they were right to remember that God is just in the execution of such judgment, and that He has used prophets like Elijah to carry out such judgment. However, as the messengers of the Gospel of Peace, they were given a very different mission and priority: “He [Jesus] turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; 56 for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Luke 9:55-56. A moment such as this supplied a crucial lesson to the disciples, reminding them [and us] that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12). It is for this reason that the Christian’s armor in this battle is not physical and frail, but spiritual and powerfully made by God, consisting of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes made of the Gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:14-17). Rather than seeking to dispossess the nations by means of bloodshed, war, and enslavement, it is the Christian’s calling to take up the divinely powerful weapons of warfare that can destroy human speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, while taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Such a war as this can only be won by means of the powerful message of the Gospel of God (Romans 1:16) which is to be proclaimed until Jesus is seen and known as the as the King of kings, Lord of lords, and supreme Despot (δεσπότην, Jude 4) over all the nations.

[1] Golden Rule: [all are]…equal in their common humanity, and their common share in the obligations and benefits of the golden rule. All men are reciprocally bound to love their neighbors as themselves…Men have by nature, a general equality in this; not a specific one. Hence, the general equality of nature will by no means produce a literal and universal equality of civil condition; for the simple reason that the different classes of citizens have very different specific rights; and this grows out of their differences of sex, virtue, intelligence, civilization, etc., and the demands of the common welfare. Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare (taking the “general run” of cases) and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly, that the African here has no natural right to his self–control, as to his own labour and locomotion. Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, electronic ed. based on the Banner of Truth 1985 ed. (Simpsonville SC: Christian Classics Foundation, 1996), 721, italics mine.

[2] Dabney, In Defence of Virginia, 1068-1073, Kindle.

[3] Robert Lewis Dabney, In Defence of Virginia (Kindle Locations 1318-31). E. J. Hale and Son. Kindle Edition.

[4] Beasley, Michael John. Jesus’ Justice: A Critical Analysis of the “Social Justice” Movement in view of the Majesty, Dignity, and Power of the Lord Jesus Christ (p. 167). The Armoury Ministries. Kindle Edition.

[5] Sharp, The Just Limitation of Slavery, 166-176.

[6] John Calvin and Charles William Bingham, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 40.

[7] A. V., “continue for a day or two.” Ainsworth, in loco: “Heb., stand, which the Greek translateth live.”

[8] John Calvin and Charles William Bingham, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 41.

[9] Exodus 21:27–28: 27 “And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.28 “And if an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished.

[10] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 2, Ed. Frank El Gaebelein, Walt Kaiser Jr., (Michigan: Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1990), 435.

[11] John Calvin and Charles William Bingham, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 41.

[12] Sharp, The Just Limitation of Slavery, 166-176.

[13] Beasley, Michael John. Jesus’ Justice: A Critical Analysis of the “Social Justice” Movement in view of the Majesty, Dignity, and Power of the Lord Jesus Christ (p. 167). The Armoury Ministries. Kindle Edition.

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