I was reading a comment about an article from the Christian Post with a person saying the Bible shows that white people today need to pay reparations to their black neighbors. Is this twisting scripture or taking it out of context.
Those who claim the Bible provides support for reparations of victims of slavery have improperly interpreted the Bible. Their use of Scripture reveals a misunderstanding of biblical principles. The purpose of this article is to clarify some misunderstandings and answer the question, “What does the Bible say about reparations due to slavery?”
Definition of Reparations and Restitution
The highly regarded 2007 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the root word of reparations is “repair.” That is, the primary concept or meaning of the word reparations is to repair a situation. This helps us understand that reparations can include making compensation or restitution. An example of compensation would be making payment for the death of an animal, since the animal cannot be restored to life. However, “restitution” is “the act of restoring or giving back something to its proper owner.”  An illustration of restitution is a thief returning stolen goods to the owner. The thief may have stolen jewelry, money, or an automobile. The guilty thief gives back or returns whatever he or she stole.
What the Bible Says About Reparations — Compensation
Understanding the definitions of reparations and restitution helps us understand the Bible’s examples of reparations: compensation and restitution. Some claim that Exodus 12:30-31, 35-36 is an example of reparations or compensation because the Egyptians had enslaved the nation of Israel. The passage states,
Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead. Then he called for Moses and Aaron at night and said, “Rise up, get out from among my people, both you and the sons of Israel; and go, worship the LORD, as you have said.” Exodus 12:30-31 (NASB)
Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. Exodus 12:35-36 (NASB)
Those who claim these verses are an example of reparations cannot prove that point. The context of the passage states that the Egyptians had lost their first sons (Exodus 12:2-32), and consequently, were willing to give articles of silver, gold, and clothing to the Israelites as they were asked. As the Israelites left, they asked for and received some of the Egyptians’ wealth to take with them. Verse 36 states that the Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians. Those who claim this is an example of reparations have insulted God. In Exodus 3:19-22, God clearly states that the king of Egypt would not let the Israelites leave the land. Therefore, God would “stretch out” His hand and smite Egypt with plagues. God described a war between Him and the pharaoh of Egypt, and God would win. As a result, verses 21-22 state that then the Israelites were to plunder the Egyptians. Thus the plunder was not reparations, but the spoils of war that God won against the gods of Egypt. Further the word “plunder” occurs 72 times in the the Old Testament, and it always refers to the spoils of war or conflict. Here are a few occurrences: Number 14:3; 31:9,32; Joshua 8:2, 27; 11:14; Luke 11:22.
For those who disagree and believe Exodus 12:35-36 is describing acts of reparations, then it is important to notice that the actual Egyptians who had enslaved the Israelites were the ones who made the compensation. In other words, if Exodus 12:35-36 does describe acts of reparations, then the guilty individuals who had enslaved the Israelites made the compensation – not future descendants of the slave masters.
Other examples of compensation also exist in the Old Testament. Leviticus 24:17 gives an example of capital punishment.
“If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death.” Leviticus 24:17 (NASB)
Those who use the Bible to promote the concept of reparations for past sins, should also be consistent and support capital punishment. Otherwise, they are guilty of “cherry-picking” the biblical laws that they like and rejecting others. The truth is God is always just. He punishes wicked people. Leviticus 24:17 is not about reparations. Instead, it states the punishment God has prescribed for murderers.
Leviticus 24:18-21 is an example of compensation or reparations.
‘The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death.'” Leviticus 24:18-21 (NASB)
In every example, the reparations or compensation is performed by the guilty party – not by a future descendant. The guilty person makes the reparations.
What the Bible Says About Reparations — Restitution
Examples of restitution do exist in the Old and New Testaments (Leviticus 6:2-5; Numbers 5:5-7; Proverbs 6:30-31; Ezekiel 33:15-16; Luke 19:1-9). Here is Leviticus 6:4-5,
. . . then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full and add to it one-fifth more. Leviticus 6:4-5 (NASB)
In every example, the guilty party makes the restitution. That is, the guilty paid back what he stole or the theft he committed by fraud. These examples of restitution result from criminal activity. In each example of restitution, it is the person who violates the divine law who makes restitution, and not another person, a future descendant, or society. The guilty person makes the restitution!
What the Bible Says About Reparations — Misunderstood Examples
Some have claimed that Exodus 21:2-6 is an example of reparations. A related passage is Deuteronomy 15:12-15. Both passages are about slavery, but they are not about reparations by either compensation or restitution. Each passage is about Hebrew men or women who were sold or sold themselves as a servant to another Hebrew. The purpose of their service was to pay a debt or provide for themselves due to lack of income. In the Exodus passage, at the end of seven years his freedom was restored. In Deuteronomy the individual was freed along with provisions to enable him to return to making a living on his own.These passages define the legal conditions for the agreed upon service. In both passages, the master was required to fulfill the agreed upon contract – not a future descendant.
What Does the Bible Say About Reparations Due To Slavery?
There are three important principles that we must follow in the discussion about reparations due to slavery. Sadly, at times these principles are missing in the public discussion.
First, it is clear from the Bible that a person is not responsible for the sins of their father or ancestors. Only the guilty are responsible for the wrongs that occurred. We have already learned that from the previous examples. That is also the message of Ezekiel 18:19-20.
Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Ezekiel 18:19-20 (NASB)
In this passage our just and holy God states that each person is responsible for their own sins, and not the sins of their father, parents or ancestors. We are not responsible for a parent’s decision to divorce. We are not responsible for a parent’s lies or criminal behavior. Also, living individuals or societies of today are not responsible for the slavery that occurred in the past. Biblical reparations is the responsibility of the guilty.
Some refer to Exodus 34:7 and claim that it teaches we are responsible for the sins of our parents or ancestors.
“. . . who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Exodus 34:7 (NASB)
But since God the Holy Spirit wrote both Ezekiel 18:19-20 and Exodus 34:7, it is clear they cannot be contradictory, and they are not. The difference is that Exodus 34:7 (see Exodus 20:5-6) refers to the consequences and influences of a parent’s disobedience being passed on to their children. One example is that the children of idolatrous parents tend to also be idolatrous. Children of fathers who are criminals tend to often follow their example. Children of divorced parents often also to divorce. Exodus 34:7 is not stating that children are guilty for the sins of their parents. It is teaching that the conduct of parents has an influence on their children and often consequences of a parent’s sin falls upon their children.
The second important principle is that in the New Testament it is clear that God does not want us to personally seek revenge. For example, Jesus disagreed with the teachings of the religious leaders who advocated personal revenge for every offense. Listen to Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount. He said,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42 (NASB)
Matthew 5:38 quotes Leviticus 24:20 (see discussion above) which is about reparations. The Pharisees used this passage to teach that if someone hurts you then you are entitled to hurt them. But Jesus rebuked them and taught that we should be willing to suffer wrong rather than seek revenge. We are to figuratively “turn the cheek,” “let them have your coat also,” and “go an extra mile.” Jesus said to not resist an evil person. His message is that our heart should not seek revenge, such as the pursuit of reparations. Our heart attitude should be one of forgiveness and a willingness to suffer wrong.
Romans 12:16-21 is a powerful passage that makes that point. It begins by calling every person to be humble and to never seek to pay back someone. It says,
Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:16-21 (NASB)
God says it is better to show kindness to others. God will repay the guilty. When He repays someone, He does it justly.
It is important to know that immediately following Romans 12:16-21, the Holy Spirit teaches us that when our civil laws are violated, it is the government that is to punish the evil doers. Why? Because Romans 13:1-5 says that God has established government for the purpose of punishing evil. The Old Testament established capital punishment. The purpose of government is punish those who violate the civil laws. It was the Pharisees who turned those laws into personal revenge for every large and small hurt. We are as individual persons to be willing to forgive.
The third important principle comes from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. It teaches us that we are to love others when we have been wronged. This passage defines love. Notice that loves does not seek its own and does take into account a wrong suffered.
Love is patient, love is kind and bis not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NASB)
In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus told us to love our enemies. This biblical principle should be quoted more than calls of reparations.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .” Matthew 5:43-44 (NASB)
The fourth important principle, is that those who have been wronged are to forgive even their enemies.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:32 (NASB)
Love includes forgiveness. Remember that Jesus forgave those who were crucifying Him as He was dying (Luke 23:34. Also, the first Christian martyr forgave others while he was being stoned to death (Acts 7:59-60). That is unconditional forgiveness that displayed a heart of love for those who hated him.
Therefore, we have reached the biblical conclusion that the advocates of reparations are not only misinterpreting Scripture, they are in violation of numerous biblical commands 1) to not seek an eye for an eye, 2) let God repay evil for evil, 3) love others, and 4) forgive others. We are to let the government punish criminal activity. Remember that “love does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered.”
1. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2007. vol. 2, p. 2532.
3. Ibid. p. 2552.
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