Atheists like Sam Harris say that the Bible advocates chattel slavery. To say that’s an uncharitable reading is an understatement.

Is the Bible pro-slavery?

“If God loves us and wanted to guide us with a book of morality, it’s very strange to have given us a book that supports slavery.” 
Anti-religious atheists like Sam Harris love making statements like these. They do carry a lot of rhetorical force. And they do seem to throw the character of the God of the Bible in question. Is the “Good Book” not so good after all?
 
When modern people think slavery, our minds go to pre-Civil war times in America. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the horrible chattel slavery in the South. And the sad reality of it is, there were clergymen who condoned and even promoted this kind of behavior. But the truth is, had these men actually read the Bible, slavery in America would never have got off the ground. Why?

Condoning Slavery disregards the “Jesus hermeneutic” of the Law of Moses

Hermeneutic is a fancy word for interpretation, particularly when it comes to the Bible. Moses permitted some sort of slavery. We’ll see here in a bit that it’s not what you think, but it’s important we talk about this “Jesus hermeneutic” first.
 
Jesus said he didn’t come to get rid of the law, but fulfill it. Rather than relax the law and lower the bar, he often raised the bar and called back to God’s original intentions. It’s why he said repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount “you heard it was said X, but now I say unto you…” And he’d increase the moral demands. Don’t only avoid adultery, don’t even look at a woman with lust. Don’t only not murder, don’t even hate someone.
 
Jesus was once pressed about what we’d call “no-fault divorce” today. Jesus admitted that God, through Moses, permitted it. But he pointed out a very important reason why God permitted it – the hardness of the human heart. (Matthew 19:4-6) In other words, Jesus was saying that God permitted certain behavior during certain times and circumstances, but he regulated it. 
Jesus then referred back to the creation order of things – the way God intended from the start.He also taught his disciples to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. There’s no slavery in the new heavens and new earth. There was no slavery in Eden. Slavery is not God’s ideal.
 
OK, so now that we got that out of the way, let’s look at the Old Testament that people like Sam Harris refer to:

For starters, God said “no kidnapping”

Exodus 21:16 says: “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.”
 
Well, so much for the slave trade. This undermines its whole basis with one verse. To justify slavery, you had to dehumanize Africans. We know from the Dred Scott case they were considered 3/5ths human. Abolitionists pointed to the fact that everyone is created in the image of God.
 

God also said “you harm a slave, you lose your slave”

Exodus 21:26-27 says that if you injure a slave, you’ve forfeited him. He’s freed. End of story. Furthermore, if you killed your slave then you received the death penalty. (Exodus 21:20). We’ve heard stories and seen pictures of the horrific treatment of slaves in the South. So this isn’t the same thing at all.

God also said “protect runaway slaves”

Far from there being a need for being an underground railroad if a slave ran away, he was to be able to go wherever he or she pleased. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16) They were not required by the law to be returned to their masters. This is in stark contrast to the nations around them in their time. And it’s a stark contrast to what was going on in the South.
 

Finally and most importantly, slavery in the Old Testament wasn’t really “slavery”.

Slavery was more of a safety net in case you ran into some hard times. In an agrarian society, things could get rough sometimes. If you couldn’t pay your debts, you sold yourself to serve someone else. You got the benefit of food, shelter, clothes and all that good stuff. You were to be set free after 7 years, and your debts would automatically get canceled. And at the end of the 7 years, they weren’t sent away empty-handed, either. (Leviticus 25:35-43) Your “master” was to send you off with plenty of provisions. (Deuteronomy 15:12-18)
 
And if liked your situation and your “master” liked it too, you could make it a permanent arrangement. This is much closer to indentured servanthood than actual slavery.
 
Furthermore, God had other measures against poverty. God commanded Israel to not charge interest to fellow Israelites. (Deuteronomy 23:19) During harvest time, he told them to not harvest everything but leave some for the poor. (Leviticus 19:10-11) Throughout the Bible we see admonition to give to the poor and to not mistreat them. God’s ideal was that “there would be no poor among you”, but he knew that some would fall short of that ideal. (Deuteronomy 15:4-11) 

Why didn’t Jesus condemn slavery then? And why did the apostles tell slaves to submit to their masters?

Earlier I mentioned the “Jesus hermeneutic”. You might say OK, so why didn’t he address slavery? Why didn’t his closest followers do something about it? Instead, we read them saying “Slaves, submit to your masters”.

Jesus and slavery

Jesus mission was not to overthrow oppressive systems from the outside all at once. Rather, he came to do so from the inside-out. Quoting Isaiah, he said that he was anointed to “proclaim liberty to the captives” and “set at liberty everyone that is bruised. (Luke 4:18-19) But he addressed heart attitudes of greed, envy, and fear. He preached love, generosity, contentment, and faith in God to provide. These teachings demolished the immoral underpinnings of slavery and gradually worked themselves out into society.

The apostles and slavery

So why did Paul and Peter write “slaves, obey your masters?” (Ephesians 6:5, 1 Peter 2:18) There are a few things to consider here.
 
  1. Paul condemned slave traders in 1 Timothy 1:10.
  2. In 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 he admonishes slaves to become free if possible. For those that were free, they were not to become the slaves of men.
  3. Paul affirms that in Christ there is neither male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. All are one in Christ Jesus. All have the same status before God. (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11)
  4. Paul also doesn’t only address how slaves are to behave, but how masters are to treat their slaves. He reminds them that they too have a Master – God and to treat their servants well. (Colossians 4:1)
  5. One overlooked fact is that coming out with a hard anti-slavery stance could have been seen as overthrowing a large part of the economic system of Rome. They didn’t want to go against the Roman social order and bring worse persecution. This is why they admonished believers to “honor the king”, even if the king was evil. (1 Peter 2:17) Christianity wasn’t trying to be revolutionary in a political sense. There’s a huge difference between standing against slavery in democratic system vs. an absolute monarchy. 
  6. Finally, we can see Paul’s attitude towards slavery. Look no further than his letter to Philemon.
It’s a fascinating read. In a nutshell, Onesimus ran away from Philemon. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. He may have ripped off Philemon in some sort of way. Onesimus ran into Paul while in prison and became one of Paul’s helpers.
 
Paul appreciated the help and loved Onesimus like a son, but he knew he had to do the right thing. So he sent Onesimus back and asked Philemon to receive him no longer as a slave, but as a brother. Paul asks Philemon to “receive him as you would receive me”, and even offered to cover Onesimus’s debt. Here we see the gospel in action, which makes people equal.
 
There’s a lot more to be said here. There are other passages that still bug me. Ultimately, I look back at Jesus and his call to the creational order. I look at Paul saying that there is no longer “slave or free”, everyone is equal before Christ. I see how Paul deals with a runaway slave, and how he takes that slave’s debt on himself and asks him to be freed. Harris says the Bible advocates using people as farm equipment. Taking what I’ve said here into consideration, I don’t think that’s the case.

For more: 

This is a fantastic breakdown of Paul’s letter to Philemon and its implications.
Paul Copan is a philosopher and the author of the book “Is God a Moral Monster?”. He devotes three chapters in his book to the subject of slavery. This talk is a good breakdown of those chapters.  If you’re a Kindle person, it’s only $2.39 at the time of this writing!

Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. Other interesting stuff about Erik: He’s a baseball nerd. His baseball writing has been published in ESPN.com, Fangraphs.com and has been mentioned in the WSJ. He’s a web designer by day and is the co-owner of a small decor business with his wife. He’s a dad of four and lives in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area. He’s passionate about the intersection of evangelism, apologetics and the local church.

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