The Bible, Slavery and Morality

One criticism often levelled against Christianity in particular and the Bible in general is that both have appeared to tolerate slavery. This objection is used to suggest that Biblical morality is no better than any other, and is offered as another reason why we should reject belief in God. This is how one atheist somewhat sloppily put it in a comment on another person’s blogsite:

“If the rights came from God, then… well…  ‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.’ – Leviticus 25:44-46
If rights really did come from God, then why does God seem to say on several OT occasions that its perfectly acceptable to keep slaves? Also, God is strongly against the ‘all men created equal’ part of the declaration of dependence: A great many OT laws give one rule for israelites and another for forigners.
And dont give me the ‘But Christ overturned those laws!’ excuse. It doesn’t matter if God later invalidated a law. He still made it.”

This comment raises a number of issues, and makes a number of points, some misleading, and some just plain wrong. But we can regard it as a more or less fair comment, with the general tenor of the complaint worth exploring in more detail.

Several responses can be made. First, slavery was widespread throughout the Ancient Near East. It certainly predated the period described in Leviticus. So this has nothing to do with Yahweh somehow commanding or creating the institution of slavery, any more than he ordered the habits of eating or sleeping. Slavery was simply a way of life common to all peoples of the ANE.

What the various regulations about slavery in the Pentateuch do provide are means to humanise and regulate a widespread practice. While it is not eliminated, the conditions of slavery are greatly moderated and improved, in contrast to the surrounding cultures. And to put guidelines on the activity is not to confer moral approval of it.

Indeed, this critic is selective in his use of OT passages. A few chapters earlier in Leviticus there appears this quite incredible command: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 19:34 – see also Deut. 10:19). This is a radical departure from the view of foreigners in other ANE cultures.

And many other humane provisions can be cited concerning the foreign slave in Israel. For example, a bodily injury inflected upon the slave by the master resulted in his emancipation (Ex. 21:26).

A similar picture is found in the New Testament. Slavery was also a fact of life during this period. There were far more slaves than freemen in the Roman Empire. But slaves back then were treated much better than slaves, say, in the US prior to the Civil War. They had a number of rights and privileges, and they could often procure their own freedom.

The NT writers do not necessarily rebuke the practice of slavery, but neither do they condone it. What they do is greatly alter the conditions for it. They seek to mitigate and make easier an existing social custom. Thus Paul instructs slave owners to treat their slaves fairly and kindly, something unheard of in Greek and Roman culture. In the various household codes (Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col 3:18 – 4:1; Pet. 2:13-3:7), instructions are given on how slaves are to submit to their masters, but also on how masters are to treat their slaves.

There were already Roman household codes in existence, which the NT authors not so much adopted as adapted. These codes dealt mainly with three areas: marriage (husband and wife relationships); family (parent and child relationships); and workplace (master and slave relationships). The Romans made much of one side of the equation: eg., wives obey your husbands, children obey your parents, slaves obey your masters. But the NT writers add responsibilities on to the husbands, parents and masters, making it a two-way relationship. This was quite revolutionary and radical in the culture of the day.

Also, Paul didn’t speak against slavery for the same reason Jesus didn’t speak against Rome. He had a more important mission to carry out. But he took a revolutionary approach to the matter. He put both slave and master on an equal footing, and said we are all slaves to Christ.

Indeed, the general message of the NT is that all men and women are equal in Christ. Thus Paul can say in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And it was the Judeo-Christian message of the equality of all men – because all are made in God’s image – that led to the eventual elimination of slavery, at least in the West. Most of the abolitionists were committed Christians. Believers such as William Wilberforce and Charles Finney were at the forefront of bringing slavery to an end. Thus because of these Christian endeavours, the West is today free of slavery. However, Muslim countries like Sudan and Mauritania still deal in slavery.

Finally, what about the charge of favouritism? What about the complaint that God had one set of laws for Israel, and one set for foreigners? This too could make for a whole article in itself, but a few quick thoughts:

God did choose Israel out of all the nations of the earth (Hosea 11:1; Amos 3:2). But this choice was based on God’s grace, not Israel’s worth or merit. This is made quite clear in passages such as Deuteronomy 7:7,8; 8:17, 18; and 9:4-6. And with this calling went greater responsibility and greater accountability.

But even though Israel was God’s chosen nation, in the end, he treated both Jew and pagan alike. Both were held to high levels of morality and justice, and both were judged when they failed in those areas. Indeed, the prophetic word of judgment brought against Israel often reads like the same word brought against the foreign nations. The same language is often used, and the same reasons for judgment are often cited. So God treats all nations the same, in that sense at least.

In sum, the effort to suggest that the reality of slavery somehow means that Biblical morality is just not up to scratch and it is another reason why we should reject the Judeo-Christian worldview, just does not hold up here. Biblical morality, like all morality, is complex and nuanced, but it stands up well on its own terms, and in comparison to other ethical systems. Atheists and critics will have to come up with another tack if they want to convince us of Christianity’s inherent deficiencies.

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