Our Bible is full of references to slavery. So why was it right then? The short answer is, IT WASN’T!
In many cases, enslavement was a form of punishment sometimes for the terrible crime of being born female, or being born poor, or going to a foreign land to escape a famine.
God is speaking to Moses in Exodus 3: 7-10 NIV:
“The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 1So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’”
God recognizes the misery. God recognizes the mistreatment. So why did “good white Christian” landowners feel they had the right to enslave Africans? I don’t have the answer to that question. The following quote hypothesizes that the Bible may have been interpreted, or misinterpreted, to support that action. In an article from “Time” dated February 23, 2018, author Noel Rae adapts the following from his book “The Great Stain:”
Out of the more than three quarters of a million words in the Bible, Christian slaveholders—and, if asked, most slaveholders would have defined themselves as Christian—had two favorites texts, one from the beginning of the Old Testament and the other from the end of the New Testament. In the words of the King James Bible, which was the version then current, these were, first, Genesis 9, 18–27:
“And the sons of Noah that went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole world overspread. And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: and he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years.”
Despite some problems with this story—What was so terrible about seeing Noah drunk? Why curse Canaan rather than Ham? How long was the servitude to last? Surely Ham would have been the same color as his brothers?—it eventually became the foundational text for those who wanted to justify slavery on Biblical grounds. In its boiled-down, popular version, known as “The Curse of Ham,” Canaan was dropped from the story, Ham was made black, and his descendants were made Africans.
The other favorite came from the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians 6: 5-7:
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.” (Paul repeated himself, almost word for word, in the third chapter of his Epistle to the Colossians.)
The rest of the Old Testament was often mined by pro-slavery polemicists for examples proving that slavery was common among the Israelites. The New Testament was largely ignored, except in the negative sense of pointing out that nowhere did Jesus condemn slavery, although the story of Philemon, the runaway who St. Paul returned to his master, was often quoted. It was also generally accepted that the Latin word servus, usually translated as servant, really meant slave.
The Smithsonian Institution, on its website, publishes the following article about the origin of the newly declared Federal holiday, June 19th, “Juneteenth,” that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States:
On “Freedom’s Eve,” or the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom in Confederate States. Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation end slavery throughout the United States.
But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were set free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas.
Why did it take 158 years for June 19th, “Juneteenth,” to be recognized for the importance it carries? Juneteenth is indeed a day to celebrate. But, disparate treatment and oppression still exists.
Prayer: Lord, we ask not for equality, but for true parity in all things and for all people. We ask for an end to oppression in all its forms. We ask that interpretation of your Bible be done always with goodness, empathy, compassion, and virtue. Amen.