Does the Bible Condone Slavery?
Like the just war theory that acknowledges the reality of war and seeks to eliminate horrible injustices in war like torture, the Old Testament acknowledges the reality of sin expressed in things like slavery and divorce, and lays down rules to eliminate horrible injustices that often arise from them, without ever holding them up as something that’s good (Leviticus 25:53-54, Mark 10:4-6).
When the Bible goes after slavery, it goes after the real evil of slavery – treating people as sub-human. So much so, that scholars of the Hebrew Old Testament argue that “Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only of servanthood” (Alec Motyer, The Message of Exodus, 239). The Old Testament passages about slavery make it very clear that slaves are to be treated with dignity and respect.
In fact, God allowed his people Israel to go into slavery themselves so that they would know what it was like, and therefore treat their servants with dignity and respect (Deuteronomy 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). Moreover, Jesus himself explicitly goes after the evil underneath slavery: looking down on others as less valuable than yourself (something that people still do today). Jesus said:
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
According to the Bible, slavery through kidnapping was a capital offence (Exodus 21:16), the only slavery that was allowed was poverty-induced indentured servanthood. As one scholar puts it: “servanthood existed in Israel precisely because poverty existed: no poverty, no servants in Israel. And if servants lived in Israel, it was a voluntary (poverty-induced) arrangement and not forced... God didn’t want there to be any poverty in Israel (Deuteronomy 15:4). Therefore, servant laws existed to help the poor, not harm them or keep them down” (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 126-127).
If a slave was struck and therefore lost a tooth, he was to be set free (Exodus 21:27). Killing a slave was a capital offence (Exodus 21:12). Slavery was not for life, but for seven years at the most (Deuteronomy 15:12-15). And slavery was never allowed to break up a family, masters had to take in their servant’s spouse, and both had to be freed together (Exodus 21:3).
Moreover, slaves had the right to take their masters to court if they violated their rights (Job 31:13-15). And if a slave fled from their master because of abuse, they weren’t allowed to be returned but had to be relocated to live wherever they chose (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). In other words, what the Bible describes as slavery is very different to what most people think of when they hear the word “slavery”. It was much more like the indentured servanthood of a live-in nanny or housekeeper.
One of the more difficult texts that atheists often cite as evidence that the Bible condones slavery, is Exodus 21:20-21: “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” In isolation, these words sound quite repugnant, but in their context, we see what the Bible is really saying:
“If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed. Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property (lit. it is their silver)” (Exodus 21:18-21).
The context tells us that these instructions are about financial compensation for causing an injury that incapacitates someone from working, resulting in financial loss, whether they’re a servant or not. If someone is assaulted so that they can’t work for a period of time, “the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed”. However, this instruction for financial compensation simply didn’t apply if the injured person was the servant of the guilty party; the financial loss was automatically incurred by the guilty person in the time that their servant took to recover: literally, it is their silver.
This is what last clause of Exodus 21:21 is talking about. Though it’s often translated along the lines of “since the slave is their property”, the word “slave” isn’t in the text, it’s the pronoun he/it; and the word translated “property” is the Hebrew word for “silver” (kasef). It literally reads “since it is their silver”. It’s not talking about the slave being property, but about the compensation for the assault of one’s servant being their silver lost during the recovery.
The reason why slavery as we know it (from the new world slavery of North America) is so evil, is because it treats people as mere possessions rather than as people. However, in every mention of slavery in the Bible, commands are given to treat them as people, not as mere possessions. Slavery in biblical times was much more like voluntary indentured servanthood, and so the biblical authors went after the real evil underneath what would become the horror of slavery as we know it today.
It is for this reason that the abolitionists fought to end slavery in the West, and why Christians are still leading the fight against slavery today. Abolitionists like William Wilberforce testified that it was their Christian convictions that led them to fight against slavery, and this is still the case today in groups like The Freedom Project.
If we are merely social animals, then it’s not obvious why a social structure like slavery is evil. But if we’re people made in the image of God, then it’s obvious why treating people like mere possessions is objectively evil, and loving our neighbours, even when it’s costly, is objectively good.