Slavery and the Bible

Ed Brayton has been carrying on some very interesting discussions on a specific topic of biblical morality, the subject of slavery and why the Bible doesn’t condemn it. It’s fascinating to see how some Christians have tried to argue about the subject with him.

The subject of slavery in the Bible is one of the main reasons Ed came to the conclusion that the Bible isn’t the word of God. He sets out his initial statement in a post aptly titled “Slavery and the Bible,” where he argues against a specific comment by David Heddle from an earlier post. Ed argues that Heddle’s position–that the Roman law had to be obeyed–entails the result that we must condemn those who fought slavery in the U.S. while it was legal. He goes on to argue:

Now, a Christian might reply that Paul’s admonition only applies when the government’s law does not violate God’s law, but bear in mind that there is not a single verse in the Bible that condemns slavery and dozens of verses that support it. At no point in the 1400 years or so that God was allegedly speaking to various authors and inspiring them to put his commandments into writing did he ever inspire one of them to write that owning another human being was a sin; all of them assumed, like all other cultures of their time, that slavery was normal and acceptable.

There are extensive comments on this post, many of which are well worth reading. A number of replies led to Ed writing “Slavery and the Bible, Take 2,” which addresses a number of comments in more detail. This has been followed today with two more posts. In the first, “Mark Olson on Slavery and the Bible,” Ed points out:

In no other case in the Bible that I’m aware of, even on the most mundane of actions, does God bother to take halfway measures to get a moral point across. On even the most minor and irrelevant of things, like wearing different types of fabrics, his commands are simple and bold: do not do it, period. Yet on this extraordinarily important moral question, the Bible is not merely silent, it explicitly condones the institution.
Surely if God can find the time or interest to give us explicit moral condemnations of premarital sex and refusing to impregnate our dead brother’s widow, he can find the time or interest to explicitly say “don’t own other human beings and treat them as property.” But instead, the Bible explicitly declares that slaves are one’s property to be handed down to one’s children, and it doesn’t even say that you can’t beat them severely (as long as you don’t kill them immediately, according to Exodus 21, you can beat them to your heart’s content).
To take two statements, both allegedly from God, out of the very same text – one saying “love your neighbors” and another saying “slaves are your property, so as long as you don’t kill them you can beat them severely” – and pretend that it’s the first statement that he really, really meant and hoped would hold sway, simply is not credible to me. There is a conflict here, and it’s a genuine conflict; such shallow and silly rationalizations do not make it go away.

In the second, “Neufeld on Slavery and the Bible,” Ed points his readers to a commentary by Henry Neufeld, a Hebrew scholar and director of a Bible Institute, which he describes as “eloquent” and respects because it “insists on accepting what the text says rather than trying to rationalize it away.”

All of these links are to Ed’s blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, one of the many blogs hosted by Seed magazine’s

Religious Experience – Recognizing God
The Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity
Jerry Coyne Blocking: Episode II
Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8
About Jim Lippard
  • Leandro

    I’m 24 and been Secular Humanist/Atheist for a few years now. In my daily run in with the many suck in the “God” delusion, I’m slowly coming to the understanding that these people are beyond help, beyond reason. ( I guess we’ve always kind of known that )
    Not only do they believe full heartily in their delusion, but they want to believe.

    Earlier this week I had a long 3 hour debate with my hyper religious high school bud. I brought up the slavery argument. This best retort was how God teaches to love your slaves like your brother. How you’re supposed to treat a slave special.

    I continued with, “but its still wrong,” but his faith rung louder in his ears thinking to himself, “Slavery isn’t bad if you follow the word of God, and treat them like you’d treat a brother.”

    I continued, but it was futile. My friend is so gone. We are still good friends, but it’s a shame! He’s now started to refuse to see movies in theaters because it will only take him away from God.

    -Guy Loosing his friend to madness

  • Jim Lippard


    Thanks for commenting. Sorry to hear about your friend. Is his stance on movies a sign that his faith is weak–that he’s adopting the defensive tactic of preserving belief by avoiding contrary evidence–or that he thinks secular influences are corrupting? Maybe he’s not as far gone as you think.

  • Einzige

    Now I’m curious about what the Koran has to say on the subject.

  • Jim Lippard


    Looks like the Koran is similarly non-objecting about slavery:

    It would be interesting to see what the Christians defending the Bible on the issue of slavery have to say about the Koran on the same topic.

    It wouldn’t surprise me to see some inconsistencies emerge.