Slavery is an institution whereby human beings are divested of their freedom and personal rights; the slave is wholly subject to the will of another. Slavery has been practiced, in varying degrees, since the earliest of ages. In Genesis 10:8ff there is the record of Nimrod, who was “a mighty hunter.”The context suggests that he was a hunter of men; an ancient tyrant who enslaved others (see Stigers, p. 125).
During the Patriarchal and Mosaic periods, slaves were acquired by military conquest (Num. 31:9), through purchase (Gen. 17:12), by birth from other slaves (Ex. 21:4), through voluntary submission (Lev. 25:39), or, a slave might be received as a gift (Gen. 29:24). Under Hebrew law the slave primarily suffered the loss of civil liberties; otherwise, he was treated as a household member. The Old Testament thus sought to regulate an institution that was prevalent in the antique world. Slavery, in Hebrew society, was far superior to that which existed among the pagan nations of that era. It was never the ideal will of the Creator that one person should own, or completely control, another.
Christianity was born into the Roman world. It is estimated that there were 60 million slaves in the Roman empire. A slave, under that system, was not a person; he was a thing — a piece of chattel to be used, abused, and disposed of at the whim of his master.
Some have faulted the Christian system for not meeting this evil head on. God knows, however, that human hearts are not changed by revolution; rather, moral persuasion is the divine ideal for the transformation of human attitudes from bad to good (cf. Rom. 12:2). Barclay wisely noted: “There are some things which cannot be achieved suddenly, and for which the world must wait, until the leaven works” (p. 312). The teaching of Jesus Christ contained the moral seed which, when understood and received, would lead to the abolition of this abusive institution (Gal. 3:28; Philem.; Eph. 6:5-9).
Slavery was a blight upon our own country in the days of its youth. Slaves were brought to the American colonies in 1619. Two centuries later, in the famous Dred Scott decision of 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the “descendants of Africans who were imported into this country and sold as slaves” are “beings of an inferior order ... so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Accordingly, the “negro” did not qualify as a part of that body of “people” (i.e., citizens) to which the Declaration of Independence referred. Blacks, therefore, were not entitled to the “rights, and privileges, and immunities” guaranteed by the Constitution. Practically speaking, they were viewed as property rather than persons (Commager, pp. 339-345).
Our own age is plagued with a situation not altogether dissimilar to the ancient vice of slavery. We speak of the abuse of pre-born human beings, and indeed, potentially the misuse of others as well.
A synthesis of the available biblical material can only lead to the conclusion that, from God’s perspective, a human person commences to exist from the time of his conception (union of sperm and egg) within a mother’s body. Reflect upon these points.
Old Testament: Unborn Child As Valuable As Mother’s
The Old Testament considers the life of the unborn child as intrinsically of value as that of its mother. Moses wrote: “If men strive [fight, struggle], and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart [she gives birth prematurely], and yet no harm follow, he shall surely be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth ...” (Ex. 21:22-24 – ASV). The word “fruit” in Hebrew is yeled, which means a “child.” Compare Genesis 21:8 where the word is used to describe Isaac as an infant.
The passage thus suggests that if two fighting men injure a pregnant woman, so that she gives birth prematurely, if any harm follows (to either mother or child), the perpetrators shall be judged proportionate to the damage done. As one scholar has noted: “...the unborn fetus is viewed in this passage as just as much a human being as its mother ...” (Hannah, p. 141).
David: A Person In His Mother’s Womb
The inspired prophet David clearly considered himself as a “person” in his mother’s womb. “For you [God] did form my inward parts: You did cover me in my mother’s womb” (Psa. 139:13). Observe the personal pronouns. The “entity” growing within the mother’s body is a living, human person. This cannot be disputed logically.
Same Words Used For Pre-born Child and Infants
The Greek word brephos is found several times in the New Testament. It is defined as follows: “an unborn child, embryo, fetus ... new born child, infant, babe” (Thayer, p. 105). John the Immerser, as a brephos, leaped in his mother’s womb (Lk. 1:41). Jesus, as a brephos, was laid in the manger (Lk. 2:7, 16). The same term is used of both children. The difference between the pre-born and the newborn is time, not worth.
Life By Definition
James characterizes physical death as the separation of the spirit from the body. The body, apart from the spirit, is dead (Jas. 2:26). Here is the divine equation. Body – spirit = death. The reverse would be: Body + spirit = life. If there is thus a new living creature from the moment of conception (as everyone concedes there is), it necessarily follows that the spirit is present from conception onward. Body + spirit = a person. Personhood thus commences at the point of conception.
In addition to these biblical premises, until abortion became legal thirty years ago (Roe v. Wade, 1973), and a “new ethic” was adopted in this country, the testimony of science was unequivocally in favor of the proposition that human existence begins at conception.
Even though he was a militant evolutionist, Dr. Ashley Montagu, in his book, Human Heredity, admitted:
“The health of the infant and child begins at conception. ... Once the conception has been brought about the care of the infant and child begins with caring for the human being developing in the womb” (p. 91).
Theodosius Dobzhansky, another prominent evolutionist, wrote that: “A human being begins his existence when a spermatozoon fertilizes an egg cell” (p. 10).
The past thirty years have seen some shocking advances in scientific technology. As far back as the 1940’s, scientists have been experimenting with the fertilization of human eggs outside the body. In those days, the embryos only lived a short while before they died. In 1961, Dr. Daniele Petrucci, an Italian biologist, fertilized a human egg which grew outside the body for 59 days. He claimed that a heartbeat was discernible. He destroyed the little creature, he said, because it became enlarged and deformed. He claimed it was a “monstrosity” (Howard & Rifkin, p. 106-107).
In 1966, a team of Russian scientists announced that they had succeeded in keeping more than 250 human babies alive in “test tubes” for periods of up to six months. Ten years ago it was estimated that there were 10,000 frozen embryos in the United States (Elmer-Dewitt,p. 69). We are talking about 10,000 (more than that now) human beings floating around in liquid nitrogen baths throughout this country. As far as many scientists are concerned, these human persons have no rights at all. They are merely fleshly pieces of property to be experimented with and disposed of at leisure. Consider the following.
In 1981, an article in Parents magazine reported the following:
“Water Tower Place, a shopping center on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, houses some of the most exclusive shops in the world. There you can buy everything from eighteenth-century Chinese screens to remote-control robots. But now, in the commercial office section of Water Tower Place, in a suite marked ‘Reproduction and Fertility Clinic,’ a new item is going up for sale: human embryos” (Andrews, p. 67).
What is the appropriate term for the selling and buying of human beings?
In October of 1993, at a meeting of the American Fertility Society in Montreal, Jerry Hall, a scientist who was the director of the in vitro fertilization [the combining of sperm and egg in a Petri dish to effect a human conception] laboratory at George Washington University, announced that he and his colleague, Dr. Robert Stillman, had replicated a human embryo. Starting with 17 microscopic embryos that ranged from the two-cell to eight-cell stage (that represents 17 tiny humans), they divided these little beings into 48 others.
The infants lived only a few days, but some scientists are suggesting that if the process is perfected, cloned humans could be raised to provide spare parts for others. A recent survey indicated that 24% of the American public would have no moral objection to that procedure. But Professor Hans-Bernhard Wuermeling, a medical ethicist at the University of Erlangen, was quite right when he labeled this concept “a modern form of slavery” (Elmer-Dewitt, p. 69). Slavery indeed, and more!
Several years ago, scientists developed a procedure known as Electrical Stimulation of the Brain (ESB). Small electrodes were implanted in the brains of animals and, under the influence of electrical stimulation, the animals’ behavior could be remarkably regulated. Cats and monkeys performed like battery-operated toys. Since these scientists believe that man is but a highly evolved animal, they contend that such techniques could work on human beings as well. Some have suggested that sockets could be implanted in an infant’s head a few months after birth. The youngster would then be programmed to operate as a machine. C.R. Schaffer, an electrical engineer, has argued that this would be an economical source of labor — “... the once-human being thus controlled would be the cheapest of machines to create and operate” (Coughlan, p. 104).
Is it possible that men could so degenerate as to be serious about projects such as the foregoing? Of course it is. Humans are perfectly capable of enslaving their fellows. This is not science fiction; it is a present reality.
If people of moral fiber do not inform themselves, and stand ready to oppose these Frankenstein-like enterprises, who can say what horrors are in store for the human family.
[Note: For further discussion of these points, see “Courier Publications” for our book, Biblical Ethics & Modern Science.]