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Slavery and the Bible

04/08/08 | by [mail] | Categories: faith/skepticism

The BibleI have a question for my friends and readers who consider the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. Some of my friends are Christians, but they're willing to admit that at least parts of the Bible are not inerrant. You guys are off the hook for today. Those of you who say that the Bible is inerrant should really think about this question and leave a comment (or email me) with your take on the subject. Here's the question.

Why does the Bible condone slavery?

I have asked this question to a few believers and I have yet to hear a good explanation. Here are a few of the things I have heard.

"The slavery mentioned in the Bible is not like the slavery practiced in pre-Civil War United States." The first difference they point out is that Biblical slavery was based on economic class rather than on ethnicity. I'm not sure why it would be preferable to turn a person into property because they are poor rather than because they are a of different race, but more importantly, that's just incorrect.

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

Leviticus 25:44-46

Sounds to me like some slavery condoned in the Bible was based on ethnicity. There was a version of slavery for Hebrew people that was less harsh. It included freedom after seven years (with some exceptions). But the rules for enslaving foreigners were different.

The second part of that explanation is that slavery in Biblical times was less harsh.

If a man beats his male or female slave with a club and the slave dies as a result, the owner must be punished. But if the slave recovers within a day or two, then the owner shall not be punished, since the slave is his property.

Exodus 21:20-21 (NIV)

This sounds pretty similar to US law. There were cases of slave owners being executed for killing their own slaves. Actually, I think the Biblical version of the rule is worse. It says that if you beat the slave and he dies right away, you're to be punished (not necessarily executed -- apparently killing a slave is not as grave an offense as adultery, homosexuality or breaking the Sabbath). If you beat the slave and he dies from those injuries, but he takes more than two days to die, then you're fine. The English Standard Version translates the passage a little more clearly:

When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.

Exodus 21:20-21 (ESV)

This guy lived more than 2 days after his beating, so it would have been ok under OT law.So, when people explain Biblical slavery by saying that it really wasn't all that bad, then they either don't know what the Bible says or they have a strange idea of what "not that bad" means.

"The Bible records real history and tells about all sorts of bad things that people did. Just because it mentions that Israelites held slaves doesn't mean that it was condoned." The two passages I quoted above come from laws that were supposedly received directly from God and they certainly condone slavery. If you think that the Bible is telling the truth when it claims that these laws came from God, then this explanation won't get you anywhere.

"Slavery was common back then. These laws actually made Israel more civilized than surrounding countries." If the God of the universe, a morally perfect being, was going to give laws to a tribe of people, wouldn't he set his sights a little higher than this? Why not just ban slavery? Besides, this smacks of moral relativism, which goes against the idea of a timeless moral standard from God. Christians can explain away some of the awful things in the Old Testament by pointing out that they were overturned in the New Testament. That's not the case with slavery.

"The abolition movement was led by Christians." This is true, but irrelevant to the question about why the Bible condones slavery. Many Christians, especially Quakers and Catholics, fought against slavery, but what religion were the people who fought for slavery? Christian, of course. For example:

[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.

Jefferson Davis at his home c.1885The Southern Baptist Convention is one of the largest denominations in the country. It was formed because in 1845 a group of southern churches broke off from the Baptist church when it made a rule requiring missionaries to not own slaves. The SBC didn't officially reverse its position on slavery until 1995.

Christians should be proud of the fact that some of their number fought against slavery. They should keep in mind that plenty of the Christians at the time thought that the Bible condoned slavery.

"We don't understand God's ways, but we need to trust him." People generally only resort to this explanation after trying some of the others and failing. These Christians want to believe that the Bible is inerrant and God is loving and just. When they come face to face with a passage that makes it impossible to hold both of those beliefs simultaneously, they either change their thinking or they punt. Once I hear this answer I know to move on. The discussion is over. This idea could be used to justify any belief. It's dangerous.

I know of only one explanation that makes sense. "The Bible condones slavery because it is set a human documents created by a primitive culture. The laws quoted above were not received from God." If someone knows of a better explanation, I'd like to hear it.

PS. If you'd like to learn some trivia about slavery in the Bible (and you like sarcasm), then try taking this quiz.



You sure do mention “Christians” quite a bit when quoting from the Hebrew bible.

f4!1ur3 [Visitor]04/09/08 @ 04:03

The issue of slavery and the Bible is a difficult one with no easy answers. However, your conclusions doesn’t follow from the argument. Just because the scripture make allowances for slavery, this doesn’t then mean the Bible was a document without inspiration from GOD. In order to prove your point, you will need to read the Bible in the context in which it was written. You did some of this by looking into culture and the surrounding cultures, but you fall short in using textual criticism and word interpretation (for instance what were the actual words used to describe slavery (bond/maid servant). It is imperative that we read the Bible with this context in mind as well as what the entire scriptures say about slavery. Since the New Testament forbids the practice of human right violations which eventually lead to the abolishment of slavery throughout the civilized world (a practice that continues to this day), and the New Testament has authority through prophecy fulfilled (and foretold in the O.T), unity of the message (both NT and OT), and the Bible’s coherence to the way the world actually works, and Jesus’ reliance on the Old Testament, it can be logically assumed that the entire Bible (in it’s original writing and context) is inspired. If this is the case, it should be assumed that GOD decided not to address the practice of slavery and instead put guidelines in place to insure the practice was a least a little civilized. Slavery, like polygamy were allowed, but not without consequences . I think your article is right on in the scope in which it was intended, however, we shouldn’t make the mistake of making a conclusion that doesn’t follow from the argument. I personally think there are better ways to attack the authority of the Bible than to bring up the slavery issue. If I were going to go on the offensive of the Bible, I would look at what textual critics have to say about it’s authenticity of it. My goal would be to prove that the Bible is not inspired (not my position – I think it is), you have to first disprove that the prophecy is inaccurate, and the miracles of Jesus didn’t occur (as Jesus points to the OT scriptures all the time – something he wouldn’t do if he knew that scriptures were wrong). You also have to take into account that if the book was a fairytale, the writers would have taken out these difficult parts. Parts that are written all over the New and Old Testament.

I am curious as to your motivation. Are you a believer that doesn’t agree with the authority of the Bible, are you following a different religion or are you an atheist/agnostic? If you are the former, I appreciate your desire to seek the truth (a truth only found in Jesus Christ), if on the other hand you are the latter, I question for motives, after all, if there is no point to the world, why are you wasting your time fighting against slavery when slavery is nothing more than man acting in a primitive way. Why waste your time on an ancient writings when there is no point to the world anyway…

Jason [Visitor]http://schooloffish.wordpress.com04/09/08 @ 08:07
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/09/08 @ 08:19

You assume that Danny feels “there is no point to the world.”

Danny is making the point that the Bible is written and put together by man, not God. Slavery is wrong, flat out wrong.

Danny (of and by himself - not “Jesus” or “God” or the almighty FSM) sees a better way in how to treat others.

I wish Christians would take a long serious hard look at their Bible. Oye ve.

gringo [Visitor]04/09/08 @ 08:20

Seriously Danny, can you please please please do a better job of including the context on that Exodus citation!?! I’m pretty sure with some more context, and a far richer understanding of the culture of the time, I could better understand how it was OK to beat a slave (oh wait, maybe it was a bond servant…no wait…maid…no wait…a gardner) to death as long as they died slowly.

But pity me, I can’t read the original hebrew, so my understanding must be jacked.

I’m off to hunt some babies and eat the remainder of the corpse I’ve got stuffed in the fridge. That’s how I roll, because, ya’ know, there’s no point to life and I just feel so free to do anything I want! Props to Jason for getting it so so right about that one.

I’ll possibly post a more serious comment later.

Brendon [Visitor]http://www.techfreak.net04/09/08 @ 09:03

You sure do mention “Christians” quite a bit when quoting from the Hebrew bible.

Umm… last I heard, “Christians” still believe in the Hebrew Bible. But you can correct me if I am wrong.

Danny… as to your question, I don’t know why the Bible condones slavery.

The Bible was written by men in the context of a society that condoned and embraces slavery. And I am okay acknowledging that there is some pretty f’d up stuff in the Bible.

I do believe that the subversive teachings of Jesus changed a lot of the f’d up stuff though.

dave [Visitor]http://www.mindfulmission.com04/09/08 @ 14:37

I would agree that beating a person is wrong, however, by what means do you ground right and wrong? If it is by what society wants, then it wouldn’t be wrong for the Jews to beat or kill anyone. If it is left up to the individual to decide than nothing is ultimately wrong. If, on the other hand, you are using the term objectivity, as the Bible uses it, then this makes it wrong for everyone. If this is the case then I would guess that you aren’t a moral relativist. That’s good news at least. It seems that you want to accept the moral rights and wrongs derived by the Bible (and just plain common sense derived from a desire to do the right thing – I would say delivered by our creator), but these come from mere men and as we know men are fallible so why accept them as truth at all?

Jason [Visitor]http://schooloffish.wordpress.com04/09/08 @ 16:31
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/09/08 @ 16:58

This is a sincere question, so forgive me if it sounds otherwise: in the above comment you say the secular humanist morality is not “perfect” but is “willing to change,” and adapt towards what is presumably “more perfect.” This seems to me to imply a moral code independent of the humanist morality, but which the best humanists are striving to discover/achieve. What makes this “perfect” morality perfect?

Doug [Visitor]04/14/08 @ 16:20

Why is whatever god a certain person follows say is right…actually right?

Brendon [Visitor]http://www.techfreak.net04/14/08 @ 18:50

Typo, make that “says”

Brendon [Visitor]http://www.techfreak.net04/14/08 @ 18:52
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/15/08 @ 06:17

I guess I’m still not sure what it means to have a “better” morality if morality is ultimately determined by a society. By whose standard are the slave holders of the American South worse than the Abolitionists? (I certainly believe slavery was wrong, but my reasons are ultimately based in the “Do Unto Others” teachings of Jesus which I have a hard time fitting into a “survival of the fittest” paradigm).

But about the main point of the post: I believe I probably fit into the group let “off the hook” in this discussion in that I’m not afraid to say that the human nature of the Bible means there are mistakes in it. Mostly, though, I think these mistakes are incidental to the authors point (who got to the tomb first, when exactly Jesus died, etc.). I’m less willing to say the clear moral message of a passage is wrong, and this is the issue raised in this post.

I feel like we have only a very vague notion of what life/society was like in the Exodus period. Roman slavery, which seems different anyway, exists in a society more like our own, and though it isn’t exactly condemned by the New Testament, Paul does encourage those who can get their freedom to do so.

As to why God allowed a slave to be beaten within an inch of his life…I don’t know. I would tend to favor the explanation that says that the law placed humane limits on evil. I understand the complaint that God seems to have set his sightes too low, but this is a problem that extends way beyond inerrancy debates. I mean, I wouldn’t think things like hurricanes that wipe out poor churches would be a good thing either, yet we have to somehow fit them into our theology. I’m uncomfortably ok with the Job solution of just admitting that I don’t know why God allows evil to exist in the world. I suspect it is tied up in things like free will and the fall, but I don’t know. The point of most of the Leviticus passages, though, seem to be a limit on inhumanity rather than an authorization of it (there are passages that are harder than others to classify this way, but in general I think this is the case).

Doug [Visitor]04/16/08 @ 19:09
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/16/08 @ 21:04

I guess I think of the laws about slavery in the OT as analogous to Congressional limits on carbon emission. If CO2 is killing us all, and the poor among us most quickly, isn’t the only moral action to immediately curtail all carbon emissions to the point that global warming can begin to reverse? Yet we don’t do that because our society would collapse if it was dictated that all cars had to be electric and all power plants had to use renewable energy. So most reasonable people instead seek to set limits on CO2 production and advance principles which tend towards abolition ("break the bonds of the oppressed…etc"). I don’t think that this applies to American slavery because by then economic and governmental systems had evolved to the point that abolition was a possible (if costly) option. I should say though, that I have no idea if that is the reason slavery was permitted in the Old Testament, again, I’m willing to suspend judgment in this case because of the huge cultural and chronological gap between then and now. This is important, I think, for how I read the Bible. One of the errors of fundamentalism, I think, is ignorance of these contexts and a pointless and dangerous attempt to take Biblical commands out of their contexts and stick them into a new contemporary one. We need a more sophisticated hermeneutic than that!

Doug [Visitor]04/18/08 @ 05:55

One other question. Imagine a scenario in which avian flu morphs and can pass easily to humans, but only humans of a particular race-Brogmoids from Brogmodia. This is a very deadly form of the disease with a 100% mortality rate. It’s also discovered that people of other races can catch the flu as well, but only from Brogmoids. In a morality based on the continuance of the species (that is, the ultimate evolutionary “good"), wouldn’t the most “moral” thing be a genocide which eliminates Brogmoids. Yet, I feel this would be terribly immoral within the Christian morality. What do you think?

Doug [Visitor]04/18/08 @ 06:03
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/18/08 @ 06:07

Right, but if our sense of morality tells us that eliminating the Brogmoids is wrong, then is it because of maladaptive genes which haven’t yet been sorted out?

Using the omlet analogy, we presumably base our opinions of good or bad omlets on a variety of factors (taste, nutrition, presentation, etc.) which are all (with the possible exception of presentation) likely based in our evolution–nutritious omlets are better for the species, and taste is, at least at some level, developed for the preservation of the species in the most common conditions (our obesity epidemic is due to very unusual conditions of wealth).

If parts of our morality grow from but are distinct from evolution, how do we determine/sense right and wrong?

Doug [Visitor]04/18/08 @ 07:08
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/18/08 @ 07:15

I do agree with that, but I locate morality in the transcendent nature of, perhaps even identity of, God. At the very least, both of us seem to be affirming a super-natural (outside of the physical) morality that is slowly being discovered or refined. You deny a Platonic ideal of morality, but any measurement is in some way based on a standard (however conventional or relative). Your condemnation of Old Testament slavery implies you believe in a morality that exists outside of any particular generation and by which the generations are judged. Is this morality super-physical (even if not necessarily Divine)? If not, where does it come from?

Doug [Visitor]04/18/08 @ 08:32


I would guess that at some point pushing away from the fundamentalist dock that you were tethered to for so long will require a more clear statement of what you do actually believe (even if it is hidden in the critique). Avoiding certain difficulties with atheist ethics by saying, “Everybody’s morality runs into difficulties,” seems to me a version of, “We can’t understand God, but we just have to trust him.” The point is that your atheism precedes your judgments about hypothetical (?) epidemics, which means that you are not willing to become born again (again) just because you aren’t sure how to answer some of Doug’s questions at present.

That said, your morality seems to be based on two things: evolution and a complex of reason, compassion, and empathy/enlightened self-interest. These will need to be defined, as will your ability to leave behind the unpalatable implications of a morality governed only by survival advantage. When you enjoy quarantine more than genocide, you grant that it is not consistent with a strictly evolutionary morality. But reason, compassion, and anything else we possess must have come from the evolutionary process and, as such, are intended to give a survival advantage.

What I am saying is that it does not logically follow that when you are uncomfortable with the implications of a very strict evolutionary ethic you can simply embrace traits that evolution brought us. Compassion persists because it has given us a survival advantage, but you have used it to justify a decision for quarantine over genocide that runs counter to the survival advantage ethic. In that case, it is either a mal-adapted gene (as Doug suggested), or it is based on something else entirely–something that must not be governed by evolution.

Your omelet analogy is telling. You compare the progression of omelets with the progression of morality. Your point is that there is no cosmic omelet to which all others progressively point. But the real argument is about how we even know that progress is occurring. If there is no end point, then there is no way to judge the qualitative, intrinsic progression of the omelet phenomenon. All you have really determined is that your preference for the latest omelet is greater than your preference for the former. I can hardly believe that cultivating preference, or the refinement of taste, is really the foundation for ethics that you consider more solid than the evolutionary process that created it.

You are uncomfortable with an ethic based strictly on survival advantage because you believe that we can somehow choose better than what a blind evolutionary process would select. You assume this ability would be granted to us by that same evolutionary process, which means that this ability would have to be secondary to and therefore governed by that evolutionary process. I fail to see how your ethical decision-making in this post is anything but a misapplication of the gifts that evolution has given you. I think CS Lewis used to say something about the devil not creating anything, but getting us to misuse the good things that God created. Change the terminology and I think you’re getting there.

In the end, there is no way to adjudicate between preferences, except by recourse to “what most prefer.” This, of course, means that the prevailing morality will be decided by power (those with the survival advantage), and you have not escaped the uncomfortable implications of evolution to inhabit a more enlightened plane of existence.

Wow this is long. By the way, thanks for chatting with me at work the other day. Things like that definitely present a survival advantage where a difficult day is concerned.

much love,

peter [Visitor]04/18/08 @ 23:01

Now I’m just overstaying my welcome….

Just to mention: You say an unnuanced importing of the words of a sacred text into a modern situation is foolish, but it is clear that your reading of the text is a quintessential example of modernist, fundamentalist prooftexting. Your method of interpretation is exactly the method that you call dangerous when in the hands of Christians. And if your method of interpretation is no better, then how are your conclusions any stronger?

peter [Visitor]04/18/08 @ 23:14

Wait, the devil exists? Does he have a pitchfork and party with Charon at the pub on Tuesdays?

If a moral system is flawed without an external absolute, where then is the external absolute to god’s moral system? I’m not just trying to be snide, I really do think that this type of logic is completely ad hoc; one minute people are trying to say it makes more sense, and the next minute, god is “special” and it doesn’t apply to him.

I wonder if a moral system would prove superior & more sensible to what Danny would try to get at, if it used the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system for its external guidelines.

Brendon [Visitor]http://www.techfreak.net04/20/08 @ 13:43

I was not really arguing that a moral system is flawed without an external absolute, but that naturalist ethics has no external absolute even if you name it compassion or Dungeons and Dragons. Within a naturalist worldview, there is no room for this, unless you are willing to call it mere preference.

In the epidemic analogy, a strict application of reason would tell us that genocide makes better sense from a survival point of view. But it is in conflict with compassion, which we also possess to help us survive. In this case, why would we go with the sense or trait that is not refined enough to do its job properly?

If you’re going to argue that we ought to leave belief in God behind because its survival advantage has been outlived and now we know better through the application of reason, then you ought to be consistent even when the implications are less satisfying.

peter [Visitor]04/20/08 @ 16:25

One could imagine that the next step in human evolution would remove compassion altogether so that human survival could be guaranteed by our cold and calculating rationality.

Now that we have seen behind the curtain, what real need is there for such a thing as compassion? Maybe it’s nice and seems to add enjoyment to life, but if it leads us away from what is best for our survival, then would it not be better to be a human being who no longer enjoyed the warm, fuzzy feeling of compassion so that he could choose what is best for survival unhindered by negative emotions?

peter [Visitor]04/20/08 @ 16:40

Peter, the epidemic hypothetical doesn’t inform me to pick genocide. I would doubt it tells Danny that, either. Part of the reason for this is that I wouldn’t simply whip out my calculator to do a body count to figure out the “reasonable” way to proceed. I wouldn’t negate all the other qualities and beliefs I possess in confronting such a horror.

Compassion does have some preservation based motives in that, when we are compassionate we are hoping to build a sort of social-security for ourselves and those we love. That is, if I help the guy next to me when he can’t help himself, perhaps he (or someone) will do the same should I fall on hard times. Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t try to relegate compassion to expecting something in return, but I do think this is one survival benefit of the trait. There must be more to compassion still. People will show compassion towards animals and rescue them if they are hurt, establish wildlife preserves to protect them from poachers, etc. If it was solely about getting a helping hand from or preserving our kind, it would be tough to imagine such acts.

Some researchers have observed acts of compassion and empathy by animals other than humans. Frans de Wall has written about compassion displayed by bonobos, while Jane Goodall has documented it among chimpanzees. There’s a recorded case of a dolphin saving whales of a different species. Most animals don’t show concern for the death of another outside their kind, but elephants will demonstrate it for others, even if they are outside their own family. Gorillas have cared for other animals such as cats and dogs as pets (perhaps they were just really confused?).

There’s been attempts over time to link the theory of evolution (usually called Darwinism to some kind of derogatory effect) to eugenics, genocide, etc, with an emphasis on “survival of the fittest". While Darwin undoubtedly said some unsavory things in his life, I’d like to quote him for reflection. I realize you did not directly invoke Darwin, rather, I am invoking him because in him we have a famous naturalist or two sorts who doesn’t make the conclusion you deem necessarily consistent.

“but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil”

But, I suppose, Darwin was just being inconsistent to himself.

I’d like to pose a question as well. If morality was just a preference, do you think that would be inferior to a system which relied upon external absolutes?

Brendon [Visitor]http://www.techfreak.net04/20/08 @ 20:48
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/21/08 @ 05:14

god let it happen because isreal was in a bad position and if they didnt have slavery they would be dead so god gave them slavery AND he did it to show them that he would save them

bobobbo [Visitor]04/21/08 @ 18:52

I disagree with bobobbo, but his/her comment helps define what I think about the Old Testament law in response to Danny’s question about my belief in inerrancy. I don’t believe God “gave” the Israelites slavery, but rather permitted it because, as Jesus later says about divorce, “their hearts were hard.” In the Gospel’s Jesus interprets the permission to divorce one’s wife “for any reason” as a concession. This implies that, at least in Jesus’s view, the law was not perfect in the universal/complete way many fundamentalists want to define perfect. The writer of Hebrews argues that the Gospel ushers in a “superior” covenant. This, I think, sets up a view of morality that is not so different from the way Danny’s understanding of morality seems to work in practice. Although I locate perfect morality in God (who in Jesus, incarnates the concept), I think there is a way to see the Biblical moral system as one of gradual discovery/revelation rather than as a set of universal declarations (although I do think some universals have been revealed).

Doug [Visitor]04/22/08 @ 19:56

I agree completely with this post. If God lets something happen and it’s justified because it was in a different culture, then I can justify anything I do “because it’s my culture.” And if the biblical moral system is “one of gradual discovery/revelation rather than as a set of universal declarations,” it would mean that God (remember that he is perfect) gave a law which was sinful. Now, if one agrees that it is perfectly possible that beating a slave in biblical times was not sinful, AND beating a slave today, or even owning one, is sinful, it follows that you must accept moral relativity. It’s interesting that God would create this universe knowing in advance that most of the people he created would be going to hell.

Derek [Visitor]04/24/08 @ 21:21

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