Slavery and the Bible

Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?

Paul Copan defends the notion that Biblical slavery was different than American slavery in the antebellum South and shouldn’t have been used to justify it. [“That’s Just Your Interpretation”, pp. 171-178]. Even if this is true, the Bible was still used by Christians to justify the brutal slavery in the American South. Distinguished Princeton professor Charles Hodge defended American slavery in a forty page essay written in 1860, just prior to the civil war. Just read the debates over this issue in Willard M. Swartley, Slavery Sabbath War & Women (Herald Press, 1983), pp. 31-66. Then you’ll see just how unclear this issue really was to them. So again, why didn’t God tell his people, “Thou shalt not own, buy, sell, or trade slaves,” and say it as often as he needed to? Why was God not clear about this in the Bible? Just think how Copan’s own arguments would resonate with him if he were born into the brutal slavery of the South! Speaking of American slavery, Sam Harris claims, “Nothing in Christian theology remedies the appalling deficiencies of the Bible on what is perhaps the greatest—and the easiest—moral question our society has ever had to face.” [Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), p. 18].


Anonymous said...

I suppose because He didn't come to condemn, He came to set the captives free?????

nsfl said...

My "favorite" verses on this topic:

18 "If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist [d] and he does not die but is confined to bed, 19 the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed.

20 "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, 21 but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

22 "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [or miscarriage] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

So the order of value seems to be:
free man > fetus > slave

I've heard people use Ex 21:22-23 as a defense of abortion -- I don't know if it is a valid interpretation or not, since it hinges on the Hebrew word used for "miscarriage". Rabbis have argued that miscarriage is the proper way to read the passage. Some argue against that. The idea is that the fetus is not considered valuable if there is just a fine for causing a miscarriage. If the woman herself has serious injury, the situation is different, of course. And, if God up and decides that He wants to abort fetuses, then it's A-ok ;)

Not to divert the thread onto abortion.

I just wanted to point out that we have a clear difference in the values of life of slaves versus free people here, and possibly [arguably] a difference in the value of a fetus vs. a free person.

Thus it doesn't appear very valid to argue that God valued all lives equally. Certainly this seems obvious to us skeptics who read about the conquests, but it is even clear here for people who weren't "doing evil".

Bahnsen Burner said...

The Christian god never condemned slavery because the primitives who imagined it never developed a theory of individual rights. So its spokesmen never had the intellectual currency needed to condemn slavery. In fact, an objective theory of individual rights would be anathema to the religious program of Christianity. The point behind Christianity is to ensnare men into the fisherman's net, reel them aboard the fishing boat and take them back to the slaughterhouse where they can be canned into Christianity's psychological straightjacket. To do this without using physical violence, the religionists figured out a way to get men to willingly surrender their rationality and self-esteem. It's pretty hard to get men to do this when they understand that they have the right to live for their own sakes. So they resorted to sleight of hand. It's worked on many.


Anonymous said...

You're right - it's all God's fault. If we could just erase Him with disbelief, we'd all be better off. He's a slave driver! People have a much better track record of being empowered and in authority over other people. Jesus was completely misguided. Power to the people! !!!

DagoodS said...


No one says it is God’s fault. It is the “fault” (which is not really the term I would choose) of the people who created the Christian God. They were humans, limited by their time and existence, and could only conceive of a God that was limited by their own knowledge.

If we created a God today, we would have it safely proclaim slavery is sin, and be done with it. Because we know differently than first century Palestine. To them, a world without slavery was inconceivable.

None of us think we would be “better off” either with or without a god. For all we know, we could be far, far worse off with Baba-Yaga. Or far better with a Universalism God. The idea of this is not to “pick the team with the snazziest uniform” but rather to determine what is most plausibly true.

Are you saying that God approves of slavery, and always has? Or that times have changed, humans have changed, and (not surprisingly) how God runs the world has changed. If so, how is that very divine? Looks very human.

Anonymous People have a much better track record of being empowered and in authority over other people.

For better or worse, we at least have a track record. There is no “track record” of a God in authority over humans. At best, all we have our humans claiming to have an edict from God, and using that edict to have authority over humans.

And, as with most human endeavors, there are some good examples, and some not-so-good examples.

And yes, if Jesus supported slavery he WAS misguided. Are you saying that Jesus supported slavery and was not misguided? Am I reading you correctly that you support slavery?

Anonymous said...

Do you think people like to hear, "love your enemy?" from God? I don't think so.

Brother D said...

Perhaps because being a slave in this life is not the worst thing that can happen to a man. A man who has gained the whole world yet forfeits his own soul is much worse off. The bible clearly states in fact, that those of us who have given ourselves to Christ are slaves to righteousness, are we not? A man is a slave to whatever has mastered him, many men willingly allow themselves to be enslaved by the things of this world. Slavery as we knew it in the south was bad, slavery that leads to men losing their eternal soul is worse. The bible does address this, it's just not what you wanted to hear.

Noogatiger said...

So, Dbull you submit that the God of the Bible never condemns slavery because what is a little hell on earth compared to an eternity in hell. Mans treatment of man is not important to God, only that he believe in God. That does explain a lot, like why God also never addressed womens rights, or polygamy, or genocide.

So, in the end it was really man who's advancing human enlightenment has improved the lives of women, slaves, and declared genocide to be a bad thing, because God doesn't really give a sh!+ about such things, but he loves us so much.

Anonymous said...

In a way, Dagoods, I have been involved in slavery as a codependent to addictiveness. Mentally and emotionally, at a young age, it was not okay to "not know" something - people were not available for nurturing curiosity and a love of learning. If I didn't know an answer, I would be viewed as stupid or bad. I did not have the freedom or the trust to say "I do not know the answer" without fear of reproach. With God, I know that I am not expected to be omnipotent - I do not have to know the reason for everything He does because He alone shoulders the burden of omnipotence - attempting to know everything crushes us - it is a distraction that kept me from doing what I did know about God - that He wanted me to practice responding with love. Jesus said that it is good to be like the teacher without having to be the teacher. That practice of self-righteousness was destructive for me. But, I trust Him - I know that He is not abusive or inhumane - that is faith. I think many people can be trusted with faith and do not corrupt it while others label pride as faith and try to subordinate others into their own agenda.

nsfl said...

Do you think people like to hear, "love your enemy?" from God? I don't think so.

So you're saying that because Jesus said something that people don't want to hear, then Jesus was definitely speaking for God?

So was Confucius speaking for God, a prophet, when he said, "do unto others" in the 6th BCE?

Notice that the Jews were given a relativistic ethos: "do unto others" -- where others is subdivided into 1) neighbor, 2) Canaanite/Hittie/Amalekite...

This is obvious in context (Lev 19:17-19) -- all the while they are told to love neighbors as themselves, they are told in chapter 20 to kill anyone who does such "terrible" things as marrying a woman and her mother (burn them to death, even the women), cursing ones parents, and of course the broader context of the conquests, where they are told to kill people whose "sin" was inhabiting a land that God had "given" to the Israelites.

Philosophers have said many things throughout antiquity that were wise. Whether Jesus was simply repeating something already found in Eastern philosophy [giving the benefit of the doubt to the text], or whether someone like Hillel said it, it matters not.

Hillel, The Babylonian Talmud (Seder Mo'ed) (Persia, 30 A.D.)
What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.

So if I say, "God wants you to give me all your money," does that also prove I'm the Messiah? After all, no one wants to hear that, do they? People don't "like to hear that from God", do they? Many people have said it, and many suckers have believed exactly that.

I'm sorry, but this is quite a pseudo-argument, if you're attempting to show that the sorts of "wise" things Jesus said render him as a real prophet or the Messiah, rather than just a wise man or a parrot of other wise men.

nsfl said...

anonymous said:
attempting to know everything crushes us

The question is -- given what we do know, such as the claims of the OT Yahweh, is it more reasonable or less reasonable to believe that this god of the Hebrews is GOD? Should we evaluate the evidence and characteristics of this god before we abandon the responsibility, as you have, of using our minds to ascertain as much knowledge as possible, and just believe?

If we do not evaluate this god, then how do we know whether to believe it, or to believe another god, like Allah, or Krishna?

And when we look at all of these gods, as DagoodS pointed out, they are all but reflections of the people who made them -- anthropomorphic projections of these peoples' myths and beliefs.

Funny thing: each culture's god justified war and favored the culture's own people. Interesting, eh? You never see ancient people worshipping a god that loves another culture more than their own, do you? Why is that, I wonder?

Even funnier, all of these gods became the way that the cultures explained why good or bad things happened -- if the former, then people were serving god, if the latter, than god was angry.

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel - I love learning now - but I also appreciate spontaneity and less compulsion - my words were "having" to know everything (out of fear of reproach versus out of a love of learning). I love scientific discovery but I'm not a scientist. Just as I love God, but I'm not Him. I don't believe God is intimidated by our studying Him. I've written here before about how we project our own character upon deity many times before so I'm a little tired of writing about it and how Jesus's words rightly divide in scripture what is human projection and what isnt. Jesus said something that was not characteristic of human nature -love your enemy - and He did not do this in a distant, meditate-away the hurt sort of practice, but in a passionate, proactive, committed way - I confess that my level of faith is not like His . I wasn't ready to love my enemy because I didn't understand that God would heal my hurt feelings first. But it's okay with Him. He doesn't have a sneaky ulterior motive like we often can. Thanks.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

First, a request. If you HAVE to post as 'anonymous' can you PLEASE sign your comments with some sort of name, just so we can refer to you and know which of several 'anonymous's' we are talking about. It doesn't have to be a name that identifies you in any way, just something. (John, could you make this a policy?)

And, to Anon 3:54, please don't attempt to analogize your way out of this dilemma. "Slavery" is a particular legal/social relationship. It meens you are the property of another human being. It has nothing to do with a choice to submit yourself to a discipline ('slave to righteousness') or a habit that it is possible to break given help and motivation (an addiction -- and a member of my family broke herself of an addiction, on her own, because she realized that her partner was so ill that the family member could not afford to be unavailable if her partner needed her), or even a voluntary relationship like a BDSM one.

Slavery means that you are owned, and you can only break away through a revolt or by killing the slave-owner and escaping from the jurisdiction that permits such slavery.

And it is wrong, under any circumstances, and I would agree with Sam Harris here. This was the greatest and the easiest moral question our society -- or any society -- ever had to face, and it is a demonstration of the failure of the gods of the sacred text that they did not condemn it unambiguously and totally.

Anonymous said...

To Prup - okay, I can use a name - that's alright with me.

I disagree with you about your reference of slavery being strictly a particular legal/social one. People are often manipulated and suffer from mental/emotional abuse which is every bit as destructive as legal/social slavery.

I agree that slavery is wrong for both the slave and the slave keeper. Jesus said He came to set the captives free - that is for both the slave and the slave-owner -