In modern times, the question of how the Bible addresses slavery has raised uncomfortable questions for many Christians. The Christian world had a long tradition of slavery, and many feel the way the Bible addresses it is at least partially to blame.
Some references to slavery in the Bible
Slavery in addressed in the Bible in a way people in the modern world find shocking. For example, slaves, and their children, are referred to as if they were any other kind of livestock or other form of property.
However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)
The Bible does have some conscience in that a Hebrew slave, not being an outsider, is treated differently (although it should be assumed that foreigners felt the burden of slavery just as painfully). However, even the treatment of these slaves is leaves a lot to be desired with family values as it allows wives and children to be used as hostages to keep the father a slave.
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT)
In defense of the Bible on slavery
In defense of the Bible’s position on slavery, Christians, who are aware of what it says, will often counter that slavery was different in those times, and that slaves were more like servants in the modern sense. However, there are some serious problems with this assertion.
First, whatever the conditions these people lived under, they were certainly bought and sold as a form of human livestock in ancient times, just as they were until the practice was formally outlawed. To live in such a manner has to be horrible even if your master is more humane than most.
In addition, as anyone who has ever worked under a boss will know, power tends to go to people’s heads. With even free people in modern times suffering sexual and other forms of abuse from those above them at work, it is certain that slaves/servants suffered a million times worse. Moreover, while it is clear that some slaves in the ancient world were not so bad off, as a general rule, all evidence points to ancient slavery actually being harsher, as was life in general, in more primitive times than it was before the world outlawed it. Surviving accounts told of slaves being routinely abused, tortured and worked to death as their owners saw fit.
The treatment of slaves in the Bible
The Bible itself says a lot to prove that the slavery-was-not-so-bad-then excuse used by some Christian apologists does not hold water. For example, the following says that a slave can be beaten nearly to the point of death! As long as the slave survives the beating, there is no limit to the pain and horrors that can be inflicted!
When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)
As the history of slavery has always shown, giving one person ownership over another leads to sexual abuse. The following not only allows for women to be used and forced into marriages where they must serve a man’s every need, but even condones fathers selling their own daughters as slaves! Again, what kind of family values does this teach?
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)
It should also be noted that slavery is not just a problem of the Old Testament that was cleared up by Jesus. Never does Jesus say anything to condemn slavery, and the following, sometimes used by slaveholders to justify slavery until relatively recently, are condoning slavery.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)
Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)
In fact, Jesus even condones severe punishment (in those days, this was always a horrible beating) of slaves, and this went as far as punishing those who were not aware of exactly what they did wrong!
The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. “But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.” (Luke 12:47-48 NLT)
Some Christians claim that by regulating slavery, the Bible brings about its eventual abolition. However, the very harsh standards for how slaves could be treated and the time it took for slavery to be abolished in the Christian world does not support this. In fact, regulating a practice is, in fact, condoning it. Besides, if God wanted to stop slavery, why not just say so? At the very least, why not set a timetable for stopping slavery or strictly forbid the taking of new slaves?
The end result
Whatever excuses are made, the result of the way that the Bible addresses slavery is that:
Christians were able to practice slavery on a massive scale and give biblical justification for their actions. Slaveholders in the south before the American Civil War are a great example of this (when abolitionists critcised them, they used the Bible in their defense saying slavery was part of the natural order created by God).
Many millions suffered the most horrible fates under slavery by Christians.
Furthermore, it is not only what did happen that should be considered, but what could have happened if the Bible had clearly condemned slavery as the word of a just and merciful god would be expected to do. Apart from Christians having to take the morally bankrupt position of defending slavery in the Bible in the modern world, there is the lost opportunity of the example they could have been. If the Bible had clearly condemned slavery, the Christian world could have been a great moral example from the very beginning. Why wouldn’t a god want Christians to be this example? Why would he leave them free to carry out the horrible practice of slavery? Why not save so many people from suffering such a cruel and horrible fate?
Slavery was never necessary. On the economic as well as the moral level, it was evil as it forced so many people to act as human cattle where they could contribute nothing to society and made so many others cruel owners dedicated to keeping others suppressed. Even when the human misery factor is thrown out, society still would have been much better off if it had been stopped long ago. Both the Bible and the Quran utterly failed in this respect and betrayed their origins by proving they were far from flawless on the very important issue of slavery.
More recommended reading on this topic can be found here.