Does the Old Testament Condone Slavery?
Someone once said, “Do you advocate for slavery and genocide? If not, you’re more moral than the God of the Bible.” First of all, as I always wish to point out, the atheist has no objective moral ground on which to stand. Compared to what objective standard is slavery and genocide immoral? I have an answer to that, but I’m not an atheist. Hurling claims of immorality at God seems ridiculous coming from someone who can’t account for the existence of mind-independent, objective moral facts.
Nonetheless, there are parts of the Old Testament that are questionable. Did God promote, or even command slavery? I want to examine many such claims against the Old Testament, but let’s start with the question of slavery.
The modern conception of slavery would be something like this: a person owns another human being and forces them to work. The slave is viewed as less than human and this is often because of race or ethnicity. In the West, such atrocities have been abolished. It seems so obvious now that slavery was wrong that it’s almost impossible to imagine how anyone ever rationalized it in the first place. I’ve read the biographies of William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano, two men whose struggle to end the slave trade is truly remarkable and inspiring. I highly recommend reading them.
Bringing this modern conception to bare on the Old Testament text is a mistake. A grave mistake of Post-Modernism is its inability to read old texts through any lens other than its own. The Post-Modern lens reads old texts looking for the oppressed and the oppressors. This lens assumes there is foul play afoot. So, when it sees words like “slave” or “servant” in the Old Testament, it assumes something immoral is happening. In actuality, the exact opposite was happening, but you have to actually read the text thoroughly and understand the context. Something most critics don’t want to do.
“If your brother among you becomes destitute and sells himself to you, you must not force him to do slave labor. Let him stay with you as a hired worker or temporary resident; he may work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released from you, and he may return to his clan and his ancestral property. They are not to be sold as slaves, because they are my servants that I brought out of the land of Egypt. You are not to rule over them harshly but fear your God.” -Leviticus 25:39-43
Some key distinctions between the Old Testament conception of “slavery” and the modern conception should be pointed out:
- Voluntary. Notice the text says the brother “sells himself”. This isn’t forced, and it isn’t because of race or ethnicity. So, that’s distinction number one.
- Temporary. This wasn’t to be a life-long thing. This was just until the brother could get back on his feet and take care of himself. Part of the system was that these servants would be released and freed from any debts ever-so-often. In Deuteronomy 15 we see that debts were to be canceled every seven years. I’ve often wondered what a modern practice of debt cancellation would look like.
- Purpose. The purpose of this servant-hood was to prevent poverty, not cause it. If you found yourself in poverty, you could “sell yourself” to your brother as a hired hand. This is more like the modern notion of employment. Does my boss “own” me? Not in the sense that I’m her property, but she does own my contract and pays me a salary for my work. Perhaps a better example would be professional athletes. We literally call their bosses “owners”. Jerry Jones is the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. His players aren’t his property, but he does “own” them in the sense that he’s the boss and he pays their salaries.
- Treatment. Servants were not to be treated harshly, but instead a “master” should fear God. This seems to highlight the fact that God created all human beings in his image and to mistreat them would be to mistreat the image of God. Therefore, the Israelites were not to mistreat their servants, but to treat and pay them fairly.
It’s clear from the text that servant-hood among Israelites in ancient Israel is incomparable to the modern notion of slavery. To be morally outraged about a system designed to prevent poverty and mistreatment is just ridiculous. This highlights that the critic isn’t interested in the truth, but only interested in bashing on the religion. When this is your motive, who cares about the facts?
“Your male and female slaves are to be from the nations around you; you may purchase male and female slaves. You may also purchase them from the aliens residing with you, or from their families living among you — those born in your land. These may become your property. You may leave them to your sons after you to inherit as property; you can make them slaves for life. But concerning your brothers, the Israelites, you must not rule over one another harshly.” -Leviticus 25:44-46
Here the text makes a distinction between native servants and foreign. You can almost hear the critic crying out, “Xenophobia!” To a certain degree, this is understandable. The text does make a distinction and almost seemingly implies that it is permissible to rule over a foreign servant harshly. If this is the only text you had to go by, it would be understandable why you would interpret something immoral. However, this isn’t the only text we have on Israelite-foreigner ethics.
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You will regard the alien who resides with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” -Leviticus 19:33-34
From these verses, it is clear that no matter your economic status, race, or ethnicity, in Israel you were to be treated as if you bore the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Any deviance from this was immoral and punishable by law. Whatever the laws about “slaves” in the Old Testament are about, they are not about condoning the mistreatment of another group of people. They seem to be an attempt to relieve and reduce poverty. They very may well not be ideal, but they are an honest attempt to reduce suffering, not cause it. The Israelites were commanded to love the foreigner as God does, for they were once foreigners in Egypt (Deut. 10:19). The Israelites were to show compassion to the foreigner and allow them to maintain their non-Jewish practices (Deut. 14:21). The treatment of foreigners by the Israelites was unprecedented compared to the other nations living at the time.
Here is some very simple advice to remember when someone claims that God sanctioned immoral treatment of some group of people in the Old Testament.
- God created all humans in his image (Genesis 1:27).
- God loves the foreigner (Deut. 10:19).
- God does not discriminate and he executes judgment on those who do (Deut. 10:17-18).
A skeptic can be persuasive when they quote a verse out of context and make an accusation against God. However, they have no objective standard of morality to compare God to, and their claims become baseless as soon as you actually read the whole text. There are some hard to understand passages in the Bible. Most are straightforwardly clear, but there are some confusing parts. The confusion is in large part due to our being far removed from the original culture and context. Understanding the text as a whole, and learning a bit about the background can usually help clear the air. When someone uses a verse to make a claim against God or the Bible, don’t assume that you have been duped by the Christians you know, assume that the accuser doesn’t know what they are talking about. Perhaps they do know what they are talking about, but assume they don’t and do your homework. Actually go read the verse, the surrounding verses, and see what else the Bible has to say about the subject.
Does the Bible condone slavery?
What other verses/topics are used to “show” the immorality of the Bible?