By Davis Carlton
Reading Joel McDurmon’s Lamb’s Reign blog gives the impression that the most pressing issue in the world that Christians ought to address is antebellum slavery and white racism. Virtually any problem of real importance is utterly ignored in favor of Joel’s persistent complaining about slavery. To this end Joel has re-posted his father-in-law Gary North’s essay about The Jubilee Year and Abolitionism which was originally published in Biblical Economics Today in 1988. The subject of this essay is to argue for the abolition of slavery on the grounds that the permanent servitude that was allowed in Lev. 25:44-46 has been abolished along with the entire Jubilee law in which this passage is found.
To his credit North has done something that virtually no abolitionist even tries to do; namely prove their case from the text of Scripture. Most abolitionists were overt heretics or apostates who openly scoffed at the authority of the Bible. A famous example is from the prominent abolitionist John Brown who urged other abolitionists, “If any obstacle stands in your way, you may properly break all the Decalogue in order to get rid of it.”1 It’s certainly a tall task to try to read an abolitionist imperative into the Bible, so let’s see what Gary North has to offer.
North gets off to a bad start that demonstrates that his interpretation of relevant texts will be driven by his foundational conviction that abolitionism is right and any moral system must be in line with it if it is to be received as legitimate. North writes, “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?”
North approaches the relevant text in Leviticus with the a priori assumption that abolitionism is morally correct and that any position which allows for permanent servitude must be wrong. Thus North is compelled to look for an “escape hatch” in his own words. If one is looking for an “escape hatch” to avoid the obvious implications of a passage interpreted within a consistent historical-grammatical framework, then it’s virtually assured that their interpretation will prove to be wrong. That being said, North does make several points that have merit. I believe that North is correct to note the connection between the Jubilee land laws and the permissibly permanent servitude of non-Hebrews.
Many of the laws of ancient Israel established a difference between the privileges of ethnic Israelites and non-Hebrew foreigners. The land given to Israel by God was to remain within the tribes to which it was originally given. Non-Israelite Hebrews2 could not permanently own land outside of walled cities but were also not permitted to be taken as permanent slave, while non-Hebrews could be kept in perpetual servitude and their labor even inherited. North is right to point out that this type of labor would have been more expensive than Hebrew indentured servants and generally cost-prohibitive to amassing large numbers of slaves. The continual partitioning and returning of land to original family owners at the Jubilee year, in addition to protecting Israelite families from generational poverty, would have prevented individuals from accumulating enough land to make the ownership of large numbers of slaves profitable.
This natural limitation on the extent of permanent slavery built into the Law does seem to indicate that God did not intend for this kind of slavery to become a prominent part of the labor in Christian societies, or at least not as prominent as it did become on wealthy Southern plantations in the 18th century. Whatever usefulness slavery had in meeting the need for labor in the early stages of English colonialism, it certainly did outgrow the modest place in society that could reasonably be called healthy, and many of the South’s greatest thinkers recognized this and accurately predicted the problems that this would cause for future generations.
Nevertheless, North seeks to make a case for the total abolition of the kind of permanent slavery that existed under the land tenure system of ancient Israel. This is made difficult by the fact that the Apostles don’t seem to hint that this is to be expected since we find several injunctions in the New Testament for servants to obey their masters. North’s solution is to suggest that the entire Jubilee system, of which the permanent servitude of racial foreigners was a part, was abrogated with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
This is where North’s case runs off the rails. North writes, “[T]he lifetime slave-holding provisions of Leviticus 25 were an integral aspect of Israel’s jubilee land tenure laws, and therefore when God annulled the latter, He also annulled the former. By transferring legal title to His kingdom to the gentile world (Matt. 21:42), and by visibly annulling Israel’s legal title to the land of Palestine at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, God thereby also annulled the Hebrew land tenure laws. What had been a God-approved spoils system for a unique historical situation — the military conquest of Canaan by Israel — became a dead letter of biblical law after the fall of Jerusalem.”3
There are two problems with North’s argument. The first is that North’s end date for the Jubilee law is arbitrary and contradicts what he has written elsewhere. The second is that North takes an “all or nothing” approach to the Law that isn’t fails to recognize the distinction between the specific circumstances of a particular law and its underlying principle. Let’s examine each of these in turn. North doesn’t provide adequate evidence to demonstrate that the date of A.D. 70 signified the end of this law. North has elsewhere argued that the Jubilee law was abrogated after Israel was ejected from the land during the Babylonian captivity.
North writes, “[T]here was an expiration date on this [the Jubilee] law. Ezekiel announced this. “So you will distribute the inheritances for yourselves and for the foreigners in your midst, those who have given birth to children in your midst and who are, with you, like the native born people of Israel. You will cast lots for inheritances among the tribes of Israel. Then it will happen that the foreigner will be with the tribe among whom he is living. You must give him an inheritance—this is the Lord’s declaration” (Ezekiel 47:22–23).” Later North concludes that the law of restoration of inheritance within the tribes of Israel was specific to Israel’s divinely sanctioned conquest of Canaan, and for this reason “the jubilee year has nothing to do with the New Testament era.”4
When writing about the provision for permanent servitude found in the Jubilee law North writes, “[T]he fall of Jerusalem ended Israel’s old order, leaving Christ’s new order as the covenantal basis of redeeming society. All of this took at least 40 years. In other words, it took time, yet it was essentially one event, covenantally speaking: the coming of Christ’s New World Order. The legitimacy of lifetime heathen slavery and inherited slave ended with Israel’s final jubilee year in A.D. 70. In principle, that jubilee event came with Christ’s announcement of the meaning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-21). But the development of this jubilee principle of release progressed for one generation until God destroyed Jerusalem, in order to destroy the liturgical and political foundations of the Jewish religious leaders who had refused to let their spiritual slave go free. The leaders had rejected Christ’s message of final jubilee release, and so had most of their spiritually enslaved followers; in response, God destroyed their civilization.”
Hopefully the problem with North’s arbitrary dating of the end of the Jubilee law is obvious. At different times North has argued for an end date at the Babylonian exile, but when arguing for the abolition of slavery he has to push the date back to the fall of Jerusalem in order to push it past the New Testament ratification of the master/servant relationship. This is textbook ad hoc reasoning in which North arbitrarily assigns an end date for the Jubilee law to support the specific argument he is making. There is good reason to believe that neither end date is correct. The book of Tobit 6:10-12 demonstrates that Israelites continued applying the principles of inheritance taught by laws such as the Jubilee even after being ejected from their ancestral homeland.5 Likewise, the passage from Ezekiel that North cites is couched in symbolic language. All peoples becoming permanent landed residents of Israel’s countryside would be a physical and geographic impossibility, and more likely refers to non-Israelites become heirs of the covenant promises made to Abraham who was made “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13) by faith.
The A.D. 70 date is even weaker as an end to the Jubilee law because Israel remained a national entity even after this particularly devastating defeat and was even able to mount another attempted rebellion called the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the early 2nd century. It’s also difficult to imagine that the Apostles intended their teachings on the subject of servitude to pass away within a couple of decades since they give absolutely no indication of this. Ultimately this amounts to nothing but an unsubstantiated assertion on Gary North’s part.
Moving on to North’s second problem; that he tends to take an “all-or-nothing” approach to the case laws in the Old Testament, in which a law either applies exactly as it did to the ancient Israelites or it doesn’t apply today at all. To ask when the Jubilee law expired is to pursue the wrong question. The Jubilee land partition and restoration should rightly be classified among the civil laws of Israel in which the specific historical circumstances of ancient Israel have passed, but the underlying principles being taught are universal.
Mickey Henry eloquently explains that “[T]he laws regarding tribal boundaries, cities of refuge, Levitical cities, temple taxes, etc., were peculiar to Old Covenant national Israel. What was not exclusive to that time, place, and people, however, are the animating principles of those laws. The norms, patterns, and fundamental sociological organization of national Israel have a modern equity for Christendom.”6 The Jubilee law, while not binding in the same way to people living outside its original ancient Israelite context, still reveals the importance of preserving tribal distinctions by preserving the landed inheritance of each tribe’s constituent families. Christians have historically gone to great lengths to preserve inheritance given the importance assigned to it here and elsewhere.
The Jubilee law as well as debt forgiveness for Israelites also teaches the importance of limiting the extent to which people can contract and be burdened by debt. The provision for the permanent servitude of non-Israelites and their descendants also accentuates the difference in the rights and privileges of native born inhabitants of the land with those of foreigners. There is no good reason to believe that God is suddenly no longer concerned with maintaining separate tribes as he was among the ancient Israelites. North himself sees an underlying purpose for this provision in ancient Israel: “Better to serve as a slave in a Hebrew household than to be at ease in paganism outside the land. Pagans, then as now, went to hell if they were outside the household of faith. They then become eternal slaves under God, the Eternal Slave-Master. Thus, enslavement in ancient Israel was a means of potential liberation for the heathen.”
Why couldn’t this apply in Christendom with the taking of slaves from heathen backgrounds? I see no good reason to believe that this principle would not apply today. Certainly Gary North hasn’t provided such a reason. Ultimately North’s “escape hatch” fails to account for the continuity of the underlying principles taught by the precepts of the Old Testament. Next I am going to demonstrate that North’s grasp of history is even worse than his interpretations of the relevant Biblical texts.
1 This and other quotes can be found in Slavery: Its Morality, History, and Implications for Race Relations in America, Part 4 under the heading The Nature of Abolitionist Exegesis.
2 The terms Hebrew and Israelite are similar but not interchangeable in the Scripture. Hebrew is more generalized and includes all Semitic descendants of Eber from whom the word Hebrew is derived.
3 Emphasis original to North.
4 Gary North, Christian Economics: Scholar, Chapter 51: The Jubilee Year
5 The information provided from the book of Tobit sheds light on the practices of the Israelites in captivity regardless of whatever status one assigns to its place in the canon. Even if this book is relegated to the apocrypha that still doesn’t erase its historical witness.
6 Mickey Henry, God’s Law is the Rule of Life In All Spheres of Authority, published January 8, 2018.