Slavery and the Dignity of Human Beings

Joseph-Being-Sold-Into-Slavery - Alexander Maximilian Seitz (1811-1888)

Image: Joseph Being Sold Into Slavery

Painter: Alexander Maximilian Seitz (1811-1888)

The origin of slavery has been lost in antiquity. The institution of slavery existed in the ancient Near East and it was practiced for millennia in many countries of the world. Most free societies today recognize that slavery is morally wrong. Although different forms of slavery can be found in some societies, slavery has been condemned as a violation of human rights and human dignity. However, societies that buy and sell human beings still exist in the twenty-first century. In an article dealing with slavery in the 21st century, Andrew Cockburn said that there are millions of people in slavery today.

Cockburn wrote that there are “27 million men, women, and children in the world who are enslaved—physically confined or restrained and forced to work, or controlled through violence, or in some way treated as property.” According to Cockburn, this is the largest number of slaves alive at any time in human history.

The Loss of Personhood

Slavery is abhorrent because it violates the rights of men and women as individuals and because it denies them their freedom. The declaration that slavery is abhorrently wrong is based on two fundamental concepts. One, slavery is wrong because it deprives individuals of their dignity and their rights as human beings. Second, slavery degrades individuals by treating them as chattel, as property that can be bought and sold, as individuals that are considered to be less than human. Slavery deprives men and women of their freedom since the majority of slaves remain bound to their masters for an indefinite period of time, with no possibility of redemption or liberty.

Slavery is forced servitude in which a person becomes the property of another person and works for the economic benefit of the master. Slavery is the exploitation of persons for the benefit of those who enslave them. Slavery is degrading because it treats human beings as property and not as individuals with worth and dignity. Slaves become objects that can be used and disposed of without regard for their feelings.

Freedom is a basic human right of every individual. Slavery is a denial that every human being has intrinsic value and has the right to liberty and freedom. Slavery demeans personhood by treating people like animals, by denying them some of the basic rights enjoyed by their owners. Slaves are not free to leave their situation of dependency because slavery is considered to be a form of forced imprisonment.

In many ancient societies, codes of law provided legitimation to the institution of slavery. Slaves were the legal property of their owners. In many cases slaves were exploited and mistreated by their masters. Some slaves faced hard and cruel mistreatment, lived in degrading conditions, and in case of insubordination, they faced cruel punishment at the hands of their owners. The most nefarious aspect of slavery was the dehumanization of men and women. The dehumanization of slaves occurred when human beings were not treated as humans but as subhuman beings, as animals. The degradation of slaves deprived them of their humanity and did not permit them to achieve their full human potential.

The Dignity of Human Beings

Slavery was a reality in the Ancient Near East. Slavery was also a reality in ancient Israel, a nation that was born when it was delivered from its oppressive situation in Egypt. Egypt was a nation which a biblical writer called “the house of slavery” (Exod 13:3). Slavery existed, and still does, because a person claimed the right of ownership over another person. In many situations, slaves had to endure brutal treatment, sexual abuse, and many other hardships because slave-owners had the power of life and death over their slaves and had complete control over those individuals whom they considered to be their property.

In the ancient Near East, the legal system recognized the institution of slavery and gave individuals the legal right to buy men, women, and children to become their personal property. The same legal system allowed human beings to be bought and sold as commodities and gave masters the right to require slaves to work against their will, to punish slaves for disobedience, to brand slaves in order to identify them as the property of a master, to give their slaves to another person, and to trade a slave for another slave. The main characteristic of slavery is depriving an individual of freedom and personal rights. Slavery was a form of forced servitude, but there were other types of servitude where a person may have enjoyed some modicum of freedom, such as debt slavery, servile concubinage, and voluntary servitude.

Although slavery was a reality in ancient Israel, the laws about slaves in the Old Testament are designed to regulate a practice that was already in existence in the ancient Near East thousands of years before Israel came into existence as a nation. In addition, Israelite laws were designed to improve the treatment of slaves and provide them with some rights, rights that were not given to slaves in the legal codes of other nations.

The Genesis narrative shows that in the creation of the world, all things were created by a declaration of God, as if following a plan. However, when it came to the creation of human beings, God created them in consultation with his divine council. This act of consultation reveals how the people of Israel understood the nature and character of human beings. This different act of creation separates human beings from the rest of creation and it serves to emphasize the special relationship humans enjoy with God.

The creation of human beings in the image and likeness of God reveals the preeminence of humans in God’s creation and affirms the dignity of every individual. Human dignity can be defined as that which is great and noble in a person’s character, nature, and vocation. Human beings have dignity because they were created in the image and likeness of God. The biblical declaration that human beings are created in the image of God provides the basis to affirm the dignity of every human being. On the other hand, Darwinism and the evolutionary views of human development dismiss the view that humans were created in the image of God, thus depriving them of the unalienable rights and dignity given to them by God.

The Dehumanization of Slaves

The story of creation in Genesis 1 declares that God created human beings in his image and likeness. Both men and women are persons with dignity whose life is important to God. Life is a divine gift. In creation God gave human beings certain authority and rights, rights which they must maintain and promote. God endowed individuals with the power and liberty to act freely as they exercise dominion over the animals and over everything God created. Although human life is important to God, human dignity can be degraded by the way human beings treat one another. A violation of these rights by one person will result in untold misery upon other humans. God will not intervene with the liberty and powers he vested on human beings to correct their mistakes or their inhumanity against each other.

As persons created in the image of God, humans must use the powers given to them. Human dignity comes in the exercise of these God-given powers. These powers include the power to will, the power to choose, and the power to be free. When human beings are unable to use the power given to them by the creator, they person lose their dignity as a human beings.

Human dominion over God’s creation has been perverted in many ways. In their desire to subdue the earth, as commanded by God, human beings have exploited and abused the natural resources available to them. Such abuse has resulted in disastrous consequences for humans and for nature itself. In addition, human dignity has been debased when men and women are treated as property, when they are exploited, oppressed, and abused by individuals who have little regard for the rights of other human beings.

People are dehumanized when they are perceived as less than what they are, unique individuals created in the image of God. Biblical laws were designed to provide rights to slaves as human beings. The Bible declares that slaves are persons who were created by God and share a common humanity with their masters. The book of Job offers the best perspective on the dignity of slaves: “If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves, when they brought a complaint against me; what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? And did not one fashion us in the womb?” (Job 31:13-15).

Biblical laws concerning the treatment of slaves were designed not to dehumanize slaves but to affirm that they are human beings and not the property of another person. The Hebrew Bible does not recognize slaves to be objects that can be bought and sold, but as persons capable of making choices and entitled to live their lives in freedom and liberty. If some Hebrew slaves were denied their rights as individuals, it was because some people in Israelite society failed to live by the ideals given to them by the God who redeemed them from their own slavery in Egypt.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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