Why Doesn’t The Bible Do More To Condemn Slavery?

imagesMy last post responded to a claim made by “new atheist” Sam Harris that the God of Abraham “got wrong” the question of slavery. I pointed out that the whole notion of slavery being wrong first depends on the existence of God, to ground the rules of right and wrong. If we are no different than animals – if we are simply the unintended result of natural selection operating over time – then survival of the fittest is the rule, and what one man, or one tribe, does to another is not a cause for outrage; it is simply a consequence of who is stronger or faster or smarter.

A commenter to the post disagreed, saying:

The point Harris was trying to make is that in the OT the god seems to be trying to communicate some rules to the Israelites. That would have been an excellent opportunity for him to mention the indisputable objective moral truth that it is wrong for any human to own another human. He didn’t. Jesus could have as well, he could have said, by the way, those rules in scripture about how long you can hold each other in servitude, that doesn’t mean it is ok to own, by and sell each other. Just point it out so that you don’t get centuries more slavery and a terrible civil war in the US with both sides claiming god is on their sides. And while you’re at it don’t hit your kids either. No. The character called The Lord in the Bible obviously felt it necessary to communicate rules. A prohibition on slavery would have been radical at the time, but incredibly obvious to a deity with an insight into what Christians consider objective morality. It’s absence calls into question whether this deity was the source of the text, or existed in the first place.

This challenge is succinct and well-written. It appears to present a dilemma for the believer – either there is no God, on the one hand, or if there is one, he isn’t the source of the text. But is there a third alternative, concealed by the unspoken assumption of the argument? I submit there is, and that is that the Bible was not meant for the purpose the challenger assumes.

Let’s take a closer look at the unspoken premise – “slavery” is bad, the Bible’s purpose is to condemn bad things, so the Bible should have condemned slavery.

But is the premise true? Was God’s purpose in inspiring the Bible to provide mankind with a list of “bad things” that we shouldn’t do? Was it intended as a blueprint for the model society, a constitution for the governance of a free and moral people? Even a cursory review of the Bible would quickly put the assumption to rest. The Bible is not a rule book telling us how to organize a civilization. It is not a penal code to structure our justice system. It is not a play book to guide our social interactions. Yes, it touches on such topics in a variety of places. But that is not its purpose.

The writer is correct, however, that God intended to communicate “rules” to the Israelites. The question is, why did he do so? What was the purpose of the rules?

The writer assumes that the reason was to set forth “indisputable objective moral truth,” including that no one should “own” another human. Christianity teaches that the purpose of the “rules” of the Old Testament was something quite different: yes, there are moral overtones to many of the rules, but their purpose was to separate the Israelites from all other then-existing cultures so that from them the Savior might emerge; the rules were designed to make the Jews a distinct people. A review of history would suggest that God succeeded in that purpose. Millennia after the Canaanites, Moabites or Amalekites perished from the Earth, the Jews remain a vibrant and distinct people.

But why didn’t God also use the Bible as a blueprint for creating the perfect society on Earth? Quite simply because Earth is not our final destination. Whatever paradise may have existed in the Garden, man’s chance for the “perfect life” here is over. In this fallen world, we will never achieve paradise regardless of how many rules God gives us.  The point now is what will happen in the life to come, or put slightly differently, is there a way for man to restore his relationship with God? The Bible, in the pages of the New Testament, provides us the answer. Coming in the form of man, Jesus – the Christ – lived the perfect life and substituted his righteousness with God in place of our sin. He “atoned” for our misdeeds and earned for us what we could not accomplish on our own – reunification with God. But to attain this gift we must place our trust and faith in Jesus. We must get our hearts right, so that Jesus can do for us what we can never do for ourselves.

This is not to say that the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, is devoid of moral instruction. Reading and reflecting on the life and teachings of Jesus would convince any reasonable mind that he was a wise and moral man. Much of his teaching provided moral wisdom, as do the writings of the other authors. No one making the effort to understand and implement a Biblically based method of human interaction could honestly conclude that one man should “own” another.  “Slavery” is indeed condemned. The fact that so-called Christians of the past tried to justify slavery is a comment on their honesty and integrity, because Christianity’s message of universal brotherhood is not reasonably susceptible to such a conclusion. 

The skeptic may respond that, even so, there was no good reason that God did not make clear what he expects from us. What’s so hard about God saying somewhere in all those pages, “Oh, by the way, stop practicing slavery?”

Consider the question from the perspective of a parent. I want my kids to behave correctly and I have a pretty clear picture in my mind of what that means. But even more importantly, I want them to be the kind of people who want to behave correctly. If my kids want to go around hurting others but refrain from doing so because they fear being arrested, I will not consider their “good” behavior much cause for celebration. The rules I want them to obey flow naturally from the message that Christianity embodies – love God with all your might and love your neighbor as yourself. If they can internalize this message, they won’t need to be told not to practice evil; they won’t need a laundry list from me of all the behaviors I want them to avoid. They will be able to figure it out for themselves. So too with God – he is interested in the subtle stirrings of our hearts, not simply with outward behavior of our bodies. That’s why, for example, Jesus explained that lust was itself worthy of condemnation, even if never acted upon. 

There is a final problem with the challenge. For the atheist, there is no God who is there to set the standard. Where, then, does the notion derive that such a thing as “truth” exists, or that there are “indisputable objective moral” truths that can be identified? The whole concept is nonsensical without God to ground such assertions. If nature is all there is, we are no different than any of the animals of the world. They do what their nature propels them to do; they don’t hold to lofty principles about how they should act. Why would man be any different, if he has no Creator to whom he one day must answer?

 Yes, it’s possible that Christians are getting it wrong. Perhaps, as the challenger asserts, there is no God or perhaps God did not inspire the Bible. But noting that the Lord failed to provide a rule book for civilization – failed to set forth exacting guidelines for “right” living – won’t get you there. That’s not what he was doing when he inspired the Bible.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. zilch says:

    Al- I’ll agree with you about a few things: about the commands Jahweh gives the Israelites in the Old Testament, for instance: their purpose was to separate the Israelites from all other then-existing cultures so that from them the Savior might emerge; the rules were designed to make the Jews a distinct people.

    That’s pretty obvious: the Israelites are told not to eat foreign foods, not to worship foreign gods, not to enslave their own people, and sometimes, to kill entire enemy tribes including pregnant women and children. That’s all stuff that tends to make your own people distinct.

    But that leaves you with a problem as a Christian. Since you’re not an Israelite, what do you do? I find it very commendable that you emphasize the messages of love that are undoubtedly to be found in Jesus’ words. But do you toss the entire Old Testament? When I was growing up, that’s pretty much what most Christians I knew did: in church, there was very rarely any mention of the Old Testament outside of the more harmless stuff. And while lots of Christians today talk about the New Covenant, we both know (at least we’ve discussed it here before) that exactly what it is is anything but clear- you can squeeze just about any position on the relevance or lack thereof of the Old Testament out of the New.

    In any case, as you also know, slavery is not condemned in the New Testament either, although lots of other stuff is- looking at a woman with lust in your heart, for instance, which ranks somewhat lower on my list of evils than slavery. If you go the route of saying that the only “real” message of the Bible is love and brotherhood, which of course many nominal Christians do, that’s fine: as you say, slavery is not consistent with love and brotherhood. Whether or not that makes you a Christian, I’m not the one to say.

    About us atheists not having “objective” morality, and thus not being in any position to talk about morality at all, we’ve been through that too. All I can say is, I don’t kill or steal or hold slaves, and I do it without benefit of “objective” morality. The same is true of many others, of course. So what good does “objective” morality do me, or more importantly, those who are affected by my behavior?

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

  2. DGS says:

    You may be interested in this article regarding the Early Church’s position on slavery:


    • zilch says:

      Thanks for the link, DagoodS- I could only read the abstract, but it’s not surprising. If slavery is wrong, why were there no Christians speaking out against the practice (as far as I know) until the Enlightenment? This sounds suspiciously to me like jumping on the bandwagon.

      As I’ve said before, that’s fine with me: I’m glad that Christians on the whole have allowed their morality to evolve along with everyone else. But you have to do some fancy dancing to attribute an anti-slavery position to Scripture.

      cheers from autumny Vienna, zilch

  3. DGS says:


    Sorry about that. I had downloaded the .pdf years ago, and assumed (wrongly) it could still be downloaded. However, a google search on the similar topic does come up with various articles referring to early church fathers’ positions. They basically accepted slavery as a fact of life (like current Americans accept differing economic classes), and made little movement to order believers to free their own slaves.

    Curiously, manumission was common amongst pagans. Owners freed certain slaves upon the owner’s death, owners granted freedom as gifts, and slaves purchased their own freedom. At one point, it became common enough Caesar Augustus enacted laws limiting manumission! Indeed, there were enough freed slaves, they had their own social class—Freemen—with laws prescribing what political positions Freemen could or could not hold.

    While Christians often shrug away slavery in the Tanakh as, “gee, the best God could do considering the culture of the times” they often fail to address slavery in the New Testament, considering manumission was inherent within the culture! Imagine our world if Jesus or Paul or an Apostle had bothered to write, “Even the pagans free their slaves, how much more so should a Christian, who has been released from the bondage of sin, release their own slaves.”

    Instead we get, “Slavery…meh. What can you do?”

    • zilch says:

      Thanks for the info, DagoodS. I’ve never really understood how Christians can take this “the best God could do” or “part of God’s evolving (sorry, “unfolding”) plan” position about slavery in the Bible, especially considering how God apparently cared enough about linsey-woolsey and lust in one’s heart to condemn them. It seems blindingly obvious on a plain reading that the authors of both the OT and the NT saw nothing wrong with slavery, as long as it was “humane”.

      cheers from Vienna, zilch

      • Al says:

        Zilch and DagoodS, thanks for weighing in. I’m not sure you can reduce what I said to “Slavery… meh. What can you do?” but I enjoy your sense of humor. What’s funny to me also is how many skeptics believe we can’t know anything about ancient times but here I am told to believe that it was the pagans that had the enlightened view on how we should treat others. Was it the pagans who tried to stop abortion? That cared for the sick when the plagues occurred? That eventually built the hospitals and charitable organizations? People may be slow to fully grasp – and then practice – what Christianity teaches, but the doctrine that stems from Christ speaks for itself.

  4. BGA says:

    “the rules were designed to make the Jews a distinct people.”

    Really? How does this make any sense? First, many of the rules, such as “thou shall not kill” and “thou shall not steal” do nothing to distinguish the Jews from pretty much any other society, then or now.

    Second, did not God already distinguish the Jews by asking for their foreskins?

    Third, what does the rule about only beating your slaves so that they don’t die too soon have to do with distinguishing a people? What about the rule that disobedient children be taken to the outskirts and stoned to death? Could not God have written some more humane ways to distinguish his chosen people?

    Fourth, wouldn’t an absolute prohibition on slavery or indentured servitude be a much better way to distinguish the Jews? I mean slavery and servitude was very common for all of the cultures around. This would have both distinguished the Jews and made them more moral.

    And finally, why does God need to distinguish a single people in the first place? If his salvation is going to be for everyone anyway, why not just come and save us?

    None of it makes sense if the god Christians believe in exists. A maximally good, maximally powerful deity would not allow such awful and arbitrary rules to be written in his name.

    • Al says:

      Brian, all good questions. I can tell from your tone that you prefer ridicule as a rhetorical device, so it’s fairly obviously that you’re not really interested in hearing an answer. Having sound bite answers would be nice, but history is a bit messy. So is human nature for that matter. I wonder where you get the notion that the rules are both awful and arbitrary. If there is no God, then a value judgment like “awful” would not make much sense, and “arbitrary” would be akin to random, as in what evolution would produce. The alternative – that God might well engage in progressive revelation to people in rebellion, in a way that is messy and not black and white – coheres with what we actually find when we look at the history of the human race. We’re making progress toward the good, though we’ll never reach it – not in this life anyway. That may be why he doesn’t just “come and save us all” right now…there’s something a bit more complicated – a bit messier – at play. But thanks for weighing in.

  5. BGA says:

    Your parenthood analogy is also quite lacking.
    Good parents tell their children what they think is the best way to learn to do the right thing. They don’t make generally immoral rules and let their kids follow their intuitions. Let’s take the example of bullying. By analogy it would be a parent telling a child that it is okay to have some authority over other kids, based on brute force, but just don’t beat up other kids so bad as to break a bone or require stitches. While all along knowing that any kind of oppression between children is wrong and all kids should be nice, share and love each other as much as themselves.

    • Al says:

      Brian, thanks for taking the time to write. I can see that you would like black and white, clear cut answers. I too wish the world was simple in that way, but the fact is it isn’t simple. I’m saying that God set forth clear general rules, rules that men are by disposition not inclined to follow. I’m saying that revelation is progressive and appropriate to the context. The rules you pluck out of the OT are examples of contextual progressive development. They don’t apply today and I can’t tell you (to your satisfaction, anyway), from my distant perspective, exactly how they marked an improvement. But they did. Your Civil War example doesn’t really help. Some Southerners were indeed good Christians who fought for their States despite their understanding that slavery was wrong; others were mistaken about God’s view and still others weren’t Christian at all. Again, not black and white, but we can’t judge a religion by what any particular adherent happens to do. Your childraising example misses the mark as well, since parents have around a decade to instill values, whereas we’re talking about cultural development occurring over the course of centuries. It seems from your writing style you favor ridicule as a way of making a point, but keep in mind that this doesn’t really advance your argument; it just shows me you feel really strongly about it.

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