The Bible commands slavery

It’s widely known that the Bible contains many passages which seem to implicitly condone slavery. For example, Exodus 21, which gives various rules for slavery including the rule that Hebrew slaves are to be freed after six years, or the infamous law from Leviticus that says you can only own foreigners as slaves. Then there are the various places in the Epistles where slaves are told to obey their masters (e.g. Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Peter 2:18).

What Christians often say about this is that God was making the best of a bad situation, and if he had started off giving sinful humans a command not to have slaves at all, no one would have listened. So instead he gave some commandments to limit the severity of slavery, which was better than nothing. That doesn’t mean God approves of slavery. And the stuff about slaves obeying their masters can be interpreted in line with the stuff about turning the other cheek, and walking a second mile when forced to walk one mile.

However–and I don’t understand why more people, in particular critics of fundamentalism, don’t notice this–the Bible doesn’t just occasionally seem to condone slavery. The Bible commands slavery. Exodus 22:3 commands that theives who can’t make restitution be sold into slavery. Similarly, Deuteronomy chapter 20 commands that conquered peoples be enslaved when it isn’t commanding they be exterminated.

Seriously, why don’t more people notice this?

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    We notice. Maybe we need to notice it more often, and more vocally.

  • MNb

    You have noticed it. And be sure I won’t forget it. The Pentateuch is awful, no matter if you take it literally or metaphorically.

    • Blair

      Jews wrote it. Does that mean the Jews were awful?

      • MNb

        What do you think yourself? Or is this subject so difficult for you that you have to ask me?

      • Jon Hanson

        The problem with this kind of language is that it makes it seem like “the Jews” that wrote the book are the same as “the Jews” who are walking around today. They’re not, case in point no modern Jews own slaves.

        I would contend that “The Jews” of Biblical times were pretty bad by todays standards, in the same way that most people were bad back then.

      • mikespeir

        If it had just been the Jews doing it, the implications might be more negative. I think the basic point is that the Jews weren’t any better than the peoples around them, despite the fact that they were supposedly following the commands of an all-good god.

        • MNb

          Of course. You two guys are kicking open doors. That’s exactly why I think Blair’s question insulting; because of its underlying assumption.

  • Blair

    The Bible actually contained the means of eliminating slavery. Slave who run away are NOT to be returned to their masters.

    If that had been followed, slavery would have disappeared in a few years.

    • Jon Hanson

      Are we talking Old or New testament? Because the new Testament features Paul returning a runaway slave.

  • Blair

    Reference, Deuteronomy 23:15-16
    That sure doesn’t support slavery.

    • MNb

      It sure doesn’t forbid it either, Mr. Blair Cherrypicker. If it had been followed thoroughly the runaway slaves still would have been slaves, albeit with other masters. Not to mention all the slaves dying on their way to better masters.

    • MNb

      But let’s assume for a minute that you’re right, that the Bible actually contained the means of eliminating slavery. You co-believers needed a frigging 25 centuries to put those means in practice and then only after the stimulus of anti-christian Enlightenment.
      Yeah, something to be proud of.

  • Patrick

    The worst part of the “no one would have listened if God told them to stop keeping slaves” argument is how stupidly internally inconsistent it is with half the other stuff mainstream Christian churches like to say about God. Like, claiming that Jesus was a revolutionary that brought about wild and new and crazy ideas that absolutely shook the halls of power.

    And yet apparently he couldn’t do anything about slavery because no one would listen.

    Good to know the limits of his power, and the limits of his message. The Good News only transforms so much, it seems.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Wow. I’ve been at this a long time, and I never even thought of that.

    • Jon Hanson

      Seriously, I’ve always thought this. People talk about the Bible as God working with people to slowly change them, which is very confusing because if you look at the books of law God sure is quick to lay down the law when someone is picking up sticks on the Sabbath, but slavery? Can’t do anything about that, we gotta work on that one slowly over the course of a couple thousand years.

    • Niemand

      The god of the old testament is very into smiting every time someone does something he doesn’t like. Cities destroyed because of their lack of hospitality to strangers, the whole world flooded for unnamed sins, etc. If he’s really that against slavery, why not just declare slavery evil and smite a couple of slave holding cities? It might be evil (a lot of collateral damage being done, including to the slaves being held there), but it wouldn’t be out of character for the OT god. If he were really against slavery.

  • Henry

    Slavery, and the question of whether a society considers it moral or immoral, is inversely proportional to the availability of more efficient alternatives. If God existed and wanted to discourage slavery, he would have told the Israelis about electricity.

  • http://skepticiality.wordpress.comhttp://skepticity.blogspot.com Lord Griggs[ IgnosticMorgan,InquiringLynn,Fr. or Rabbi Griggs, CarneadesofGa]

    Misanthropes made up Yahweh and his evil commands! And WLC and haughty John Haught just feel fine about the commands! Haught claims that hope is the theme,not morality, all through the Bible [buy-bull;bye-bull].Yes, errantists can rationalize their execrable scriptures!

  • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

    As usual, your point (and the counter-arguments/proof-texts) simplify the question considerably. You and I both agree that slavery is rotten (in general terms) but we haven’t tightly defined what exactly slavery is (by common sense we recognize it when we see it but that’s not a definition) or exactly *why* it’s a bad thing.

    For example, a contract worker has effectively given over *some* of his freedom to his employer but we don’t consider that slavery. We might consider the way workers in various Far East countries are treated to be a form of slavery but most of our clothing still says “Made in China” and for many of those workers, the factory work is an improvement over what they had previously been doing. True human trafficking of course still exists throughout much of the world (if you don’t believe me, go read some Nicolas Kristoff in the NY Times).

    If we can agree on some definitions it will go a long way towards furthering this conversation in a productive direction.

    Or do you really think that you’re the first person to read that passage and ask your question? hmm?

    • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

      ugh, should read “over-simplify the question” in the first sentence

    • MNb

      And what exactly is your point concerning the subject of this article, ie slavery in the OT?

      • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

        2 points really. That’s it’s not as simple as saying slavery=bad, bible commands slavery, therefore bible=bad because the terms are ill-defined.

        2nd that a common failing in our culture is to believe that we’re the first person to ever notice an inconsistency, discrepancy or contradiction in the Bible and that somehow, for nearly 2000 years no one else noticed there was an issue. It’s a particularly American/Western hubris and it’s unfortunate because a lot of ink gets spilled covering ground that has been covered many times before.

    • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

      Dan F.,

      Kudos to you for thinking critically, asking questions and challenging assumptions. You know, all that stuff the “rational” folks are supposed to do.

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  • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

    Careful scholars avoid tossing emotionally charged modern keywords thousands of years into the past. The atheist utterly depends on evocative language and a loaded meaning of “slavery” to make the case here.

    The Bible commands slavery.

    What do you mean by “slavery” here, Mr. Hallquist, and why don’t you give the opposing arguments, especially after crucifying William Craig as a “liar” for not doing so? After all, you *DID* state that Bill Craig’s strategy was “lie about it” after he resolved not to present atheist arguments without theist rebuttals, right? Is “lie about it” your strategy as well? I mean, since you fail to give counterarguments and all… right? I mean, why else wouldn’t you tell your readers about 1 Tim. 1:10, which condemns “slave traders” as “contrary to sound doctrine?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Briefly:

      1) I’m pretty sure legitimate historians talk about slavery in the ancient world all the time.
      2) Your description of my criticisms of Craig is inaccurate.
      3) Without some other reason to read Exodus and Deuteronomy differently, 1 Timothy 1:10 is just another example for the Biblical contradictions file.

    • Havok

      Bit late to the party, but here goes:
      CL: I mean, why else wouldn’t you tell your readers about 1 Tim. 1:10, which condemns “slave traders” as “contrary to sound doctrine?
      The word translated as “slave traders” translates more accurately as man stealers, and refers to those who unjustly reduce free men to slavery, or who steal the slaves of others.

      1 Tim 1:10 is not a condemnation of slave traders or slavery.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

    Hallquist,

    I’m pretty sure legitimate historians talk about slavery in the ancient world all the time.

    Did I say they didn’t? No. I said they don’t throw around emotionally charged keywords, and since you couldn’t read between the lines, I guess I should have added, “to bolster their own preconceptions.”

    Your description of my criticisms of Craig is inaccurate.

    Well, if you want to be a pedant, sure, it is a little inaccurate. Your “lie about it” remark wasn’t in response to Craig’s statement that he wouldn’t present an atheist argument without a theist rebuttal. It was actually what you speculated Craig’s strategy would be when he can’t avoid talking about an argument he can’t answer (paraphrased, so don’t be all anal again). When I took you to task for this, one of your faithful commenters told me that “lying by omission is still lying.” Okay, then, by that commenter’s standards, you’re a liar. Why? Because you cherrypick verses that you think support your point while omitting the ones that don’t.

    So, only 1 of 3 things can explain this data: you’re either ignorant of the subject matter you profess to know so much about, or, you knew about the verse I cited and for some reason didn’t want to give your readers the whole story, or, you’re a liar (according to the standards of your faithful commenter). I don’t know which of those is true, and unlike you, I won’t pretend to know motives when I can’t, but either way you cut it, it ain’t good.

    • Chris Hallquist

      In graduate school, I once heard a professor cite Aristotle’s that a good war is one where Greeks get to enslave “barbarians” (i.e. non-Greeks) to show how deeply flawed Aristotle’s moral views were. Was he guilty of throwing around an emotionally charged keyword, and therefore not a legitimate scholar?

  • NamelessRange

    Since slavery is such an “emotionally charged keyword”, let’s just say it differently.

    The bible has within it, directions on how hard to beat people you own.

    But wait,….maybe we should define “beat” and “own”.

    Because they’re so emotionally charged. Ya know?

    • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

      I’m more than happy to have an intelligent discussion but empty rhetoric won’t get us far. Do you agree or disagree that Hallquist omitted verses that challenge his position?

  • smrnda

    If the Bible is an enlightened book, it ought to be against all exploitive labor practices. I would argue that even people who aren’t in any sense legally owned by their employers can be for all practical purposes slaves for lack of any other alternatives. The Bible should have been way ahead on these issues – it should have been spelling out employee-owned cooperative models.

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