Locke and Old Testament ‘Slavery’

Christians and Jews often point out that the ‘slavery’, if it is right to call it that, which is spoken of in the Bible, is nothing like the slavery which existed in the history of the Americas. There are clearly relevant differences, such as for instance that slavery was voluntary, temporary, a remedy for poverty, there were laws in the Torah against any physical abuse (on pain of certain legal consequences such as letting the slave free, or even being put to death oneself), and so on. What I was pleasantly surprised to find, though, is the following passage in Locke where he makes the very same point:

I admit that we find among the Jews, as well as other
nations, cases where men sold themselves; but clearly they
sold themselves only into drudgery, not slavery. It is evident
that the person who was sold wasn’t thereby put at the mercy
of an absolute, arbitrary, despotic power; for the master was
obliged at a certain time to let the other go free from his
service, and so he couldn’t at any time have the power to kill
him. Indeed the master of this kind of servant was so far
from having an arbitrary power over his •life that he couldn’t
arbitrarily even •maim him: the loss of an eye or a tooth set
him free (Exodus xxi).
~Two Treatises of Government, Second Treatise, Chapter 4

None of this is meant to conclude to the moral acceptability of drudgery (my observation of Locke’s observation is intended to be value-neutral). It’s just plain interesting that Locke makes this point.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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3 Responses to Locke and Old Testament ‘Slavery’

  1. writingfloridian says:

    Very, very interesting.

  2. “There are clearly relevant differences, such as for instance that slavery was voluntary, temporary, a remedy for poverty, there were laws in the Torah against any physical abuse (on pain of certain legal consequences such as letting the slave free, or even being put to death oneself), and so on.”

    I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt on this one and say you are innocently repeating in good faith what an apologist told you, rather than reporting what the plain text of the Torah says. Because literally every statement here is false.

    You want to argue that God works by progressive revelation, in stages, so abolishing slavery would eventually be accomplished in the fulness of time? Fine.

    Or that there may be some unknown purpose for the slavery God commanded, which we will see at the end of time? Okay.

    Or even that maybe not every single verse in the canon is divinely inspired, and these ugly ones crept in due to human sin? I’d at least listen to that.

    But please, please don’t go around saying that chapters like Exodus 21 don’t say what they clearly say.

    • I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt on this one and say you are innocently repeating in good faith what a counter-apologist told you, rather than reporting what the plain text of the Torah says.

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