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The Jubilee Year and Abolitionism

Written by Gary North on February 13, 2016

More startling than any degree of influence, however, is what Reconstructionists actually propose for society; the abolition of democracy and the reinstitution of slavery, for starters.

The sort of half-baked journalism represented by Rodney Clapp is of no consequence in the long run, but Mr. Clapp raises a potentially disturbing point. If there was a system of permanent slavery in Old Testament Israel — and clearly there was (Lev. 25:44-46) — then on what basis can the Christian today maintain that the abolitionists were morally correct in their vision, though not always with their tactics? Are we wiser than God was in the Old Testament? If the Reconstructionists’ hermeneutic (principle of interpretation) is correct — that Old Testament laws are still in force unless abrogated in the New Testament — then how can we escape the accusation of being defenders of slavery? And if we cannot find such an “escape hatch”, then how can anyone take seriously the hermeneutic of the Reconstructionists?

The answer is found in the proper understanding of the jubilee land tenure laws (Lev. 25), in the middle of which the Old Testament’s permanent slave laws are found. We must also understand that these slave laws related only to heathen slaves. Hebrews were temporary bondservants, and it was illegal to enslave any Hebrew, except for criminals making restitution to their victims, for more than seven years (Deut. 15).

The jubilee laws were an aspect of Israel’s military spoils system, as we shall see. These laws were given by God before the invasion of Canaan to govern the post-conquest land distribution. Thus, any discussion of permanent heathen slavery must begin with a discussion of the command of God to Moses to annihilate all the residents of Canaan: “…thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy to them” (Deut. 7:2). The Hebrews repeatedly violated God’s requirement that they annihilate the Canaanites. Instead, the tribes made local Canaanites pay tribute to them, which was only legitimate in distant foreign wars (Deut. 20:11). The Canaanites of Ephraim’s land paid tribute to them, but were not driven out (Josh. 16:10). The same was true of Manasseh (Josh. 17:12-13; Jud. 1:28) and Zebulon (Jud. 1:30). The Hebrew tribes preferred to receive tribute rather than continue the war. The result, as God had predicted, was repeated apostasy. The Hebrews began to follow the gods of Canaan. For this sin, God repeatedly placed them in slavery to foreigners, whose societies were based on worshiping the demonic “first cousins” to the gods of Canaan.

Once the land was cleared of Canaanites, Israel was then supposed to use indentured servitude only to subdue evil “within the camp” — repayment for debt and criminal restitution — and, in the case of foreign slaves, to remove them from bondage to foreign gods and to place them under lifetime slavery as a means of evangelism. Foreign heathen adults and the children of resident aliens were to be redeemed — bought out of bondage to demons and placed under the authority of godly households (Lev. 25:44-46).

Permanent Slavery

The jubilee slave law unquestionably taught that it was legal for the Hebrews to import slaves from foreign lands. These outsiders were moral slaves because they were in subordination to foreign gods. They had been judged externally by God, having been sold to Hebrew families by their military conquerors or else by their nation’s own slave merchants. Resident aliens in Israel could legally sell themselves and their descendants into slavery. The jubilee legislation was emphatic:

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