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.

Hebrew “Slaves”

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

Foreign “Slaves”

“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.

  1. God created all humans in his image (Genesis 1:27).
  2. God loves the foreigner (Deut. 10:19).
  3. 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?

 

25 Replies to “Does the Old Testament Condone Slavery?”

  1. “The atheist has no moral ground on which to stand”… those who believe in the word of the Bible do not have the power to claim a monopoly on what is good/ evil/ moral.

    Instead of looking at slavery, why not look at the conflicting views of “love thy neighbour” and Leviticus 18:23…

    So the Bible’s moral authority is “love thy neighbour but not if he’s homosexual”?

    1. The Bible says in Mark 12: 28-31 (NIV), One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” So the Lord gave no specification as to whom we should love. The only law is to LOVE. Those who live by the Word are not to condemn anyone for their lifestyle, once we do that then we begin to step into God’s position, and God said there is no other god above Him. So then when we judge, God will submit judgement upon us.
      The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11 (NIV), “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men [homosexual] nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” So the Bible is saying that REGARDLESS of what sin we choose to commit, if we do it knowingly against the will of God then we will not inherit the kingdom of God but if you turn from those ways then God will wash you of the sins, cleanse you of the old ways, and you will be accepted into the kingdom of God. But our responsibility is to show love and kindness to everyone, and to all people, regardless of the lifestyles they lead. God does NOT see homosexuality any differently than he sees adultery, or sex before before marriage. It is all sins of the flesh. I hope this helps. Much Love!

  2. Powerful words – especially these: “A grave mistake of Post-Modernism is its inability to read old texts through any lens other than its own.”

  3. Wow! I learned a lot about Biblical slavery. Thank you for gathering the scripture together and creating a bigger picture than the abuse of one verse by the skeptic.

  4. Agree with your post. I wouldn’t even bother arguing with atheists over it. Also I would like to add that if you think slavery has been abolished, then you don’t realize that unless you are a business owner and make huge profits from that and your investments, you will likely be working FOR someone else who decides how much you are worth, when you have to be at work, if you get any benefits other than a paycheck and what you can and can’t do while at work and lately even when you’re not at work , lest you get fired for saying the wrong thing on social media. This means the majority of people in the world are controlled by their employers. And even the middle class is at the mercy of the tax and regulations imposed by the elite class. Change the word ‘slave’ in the Bible to ’employee’ and you have the more appropriate understanding. In Ancient Rome, MOST people were slaves for the wealthy. Consider the factory workers of the beginning of the Industrial age. Very slave-like. And they really had no other options to get money. Is it really any different now?

      1. Ah … “The majestic equality of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” (Andre Gide)

      2. Is there another way to get money besides working ? There are millions of people who don’t have the resources or skills to start their own business.

      3. Sorry, that quote is Anatole France after all.

  5. This is a great post. Many people use the quotes in the Bible to serve their own needs and not G d’s. The biggest answer to this question is in the story of Passover. The ten plagues were exacted to FREE the Hebrew slaves. In his goodness, G d gave Pharoah nine times to do the right thing. Pharoah could have stopped the killing of the firstborn if he had taken G d seriously after hail or locusts. He chose not to and G d forced his hand. If that story doesn’t describe G D’s hatred for slavery, I don’t know what does.

  6. You are certainly correct in what you find in the Bible and it’s misuse of trying to explain why slavery is repulsive. But what apologists for slavery in our country suppose is that our form of slavery was no worse than that in the Bible. I don’t agree – the Romans of Biblical times were a ruthless people who treated slave and free peoples of non-Roman populations with harshness solely for the benefit of Rome. Our system of slavery was built on the premise of racial inferiority. We have to look no further than Thomas Jefferson for his justification of the system or John Newton for his descriptions of the total moral depravity in the treatments of slaves being transported and sold in the new world. We have only our own history to look to and the contrast in the Bible of how even “slaves” were to be treated. The Bible shows that even in “slavery” each person is to be valued which does nothing to let us see clearly in our own system of “slavery” people were not valued.

  7. Good stuff. We recently spent time in our church unpacking the “slavery dilemma” in the NT. Can you just imagine the wonder and awe of the first century world as slave masters began to treat slaves as brothers? Oh the wonder and beauty of grace. By the way, thanks for visiting my post. Keep on keeping on.

  8. Haden: I want to thank you for following me … “Jesus Saved Chris …” … it has meant a lot to have you present. I don’t know whether you can believe all that happened to me, but at least you were willing to listen … to follow along for a while. It has been two months since my dad died … God has enabled me to process a lot. I think that I am finished writing on the blog … at least for the time being. But I appreciate your companionship, friendship … your listening ear … to what was probably more a conversation with myself and with my Abba Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit within me. I like the looks of what you are doing here. What I have been through … ritual abuse … is just a small part of what is wrong in this fallen world … but thankfully we have a King who rules the nations even now … and He is coming again to set all things right. I’m sure that we shall meet someday in “the Celestial City” (as John Bunyan put it). As Jude, the half-brother of Jesus said, “You are beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” God bless. Chris

  9. You stated: “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.”

    I think your viewpoint is in conflict with the biblical truth. God clearly states that they are indeed oppressed by oppressors.

    Exodus 2: 23
    23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.

    Exodus 3: 9
    9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.

    You also talk about “The modern conception of slavery” and make a distinction between how we view slaves now as opposed to when they were Voluntary. The slavery of America looks just like what the bible described.

    Exodus 21:20-21
    20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

    I also wrote an article about this topic but I find it interesting that we did not come to the same understanding.

    https://realitydecoded.blog/2017/11/15/slavery-in-the-bible-is-god-for-it-or-against-it/

Leave a Reply