The Bible is the most profound collection of documents written in ancient times about the freedom of humanity. The overarching narrative is about mankind’s imprisonment in sin through its own actions, and its eventual return to freedom through a personal relationship with God.
So how could such a document condone the human institution of slavery?
That is one of the gravest and most devastating accusations leveled against the Bible by critics. And it is one that is increasingly used to promote homosexuality.
If the Bible can be so wrong about slavery, the argument goes, then it’s probably also wrong about homosexuals as well.
Most recently, this argument was heard from Dan Savage, a gay activist who turned what was supposed to be an anti-bullying speech in front of teens into a bigoted, anti-Christian rant during which he raved about the “b***s***” in the Bible. He then stated that the Bible is “a radically pro-slavery document.”
In actuality, the Bible is the most anti-slavery document to come out of the ancient world, and it is the inspiration that allowed Western civilization, alone among the world’s great cultures, to finally end an immoral institution.
Anyone who asserts that the Bible promotes slavery must first overlook the greatest tale of slave liberation ever told, the Exodus. The freeing of an entire nation is no small event, and it has shaped all of Judeo-Christian culture, not just as a dimly recalled holiday but in the profundity of its meaning for all of humanity.
Slavery throughout human history is a fact for nearly all cultures, and it was common in the ancient Mideast. But the institution was somewhat different from what we think of as the slavery practiced in the early U.S.:
“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” — Exodus 21:16
So simply capturing someone and putting him on the sale block was forbidden.
In the Hebrew world, people might become slaves if they fell on hard times. There were no food stamps, welfare or Medicare, so a person might sell himself and family members into slavery as a last resort to provide for them. Slavery provided people with food, clothing, care and shelter in exchange for labor.
In other words, for the Hebrews, slavery was a sort of social safety net.
Critics are right that there are many rules about slavery in the Bible, but those rules were made for the protection of slaves. Injuring or killing a slave was punishable, including possibly up to death for the offender (Exodus 21:20). Hebrews were also prohibited from forcing a slave to work on the sabbath (Exodus 21:12), having sex with another man’s slave (Leviticus 19:20), slandering a slave (Proverbs 30:10), or returning an escaped slave to his owner (Deuteronomy 23:15).
A Hebrew was not allowed to own another Hebrew as a slave (Leviticus 25:39-43). But if a fellow Hebrew was ever so down on his luck that he sold himself into slavery, he was to be treated as a hired servant, and he was allowed to go free in seven years (Exodus 21:2). Further, Proverbs counseled slave owners to pamper their slaves (Proverbs 29:21).
The New Testament comes under fire from the biblically ignorant for similar reasons, that it counsels slaves and owners on behaviors rather than condemning the institution. But context is everything.
In the days of Jesus and the Apostles, Israel was ruled by Rome, an empire in which slaves outnumbered citizens. The Romans did practice forced slavery, and as Christianity began to grow, many new Christians were called who were themselves slaves or owners of slaves.
Critics like to say that the New Testament doesn’t condemn the institution of slavery, but any thorough reading shows that it was Christianity that lit the fuse on the social dynamite planted by the Exodus generations before.
There are several passages in the letters of the Apostles counseling slaves to serve their earthly masters as they would serve the Lord. But there are also passages counseling masters to treat their slaves kindly and remember that Christ is the Lord of all. Slaves are also told, if they can do so, to obtain their freedom and never again sell themselves to men.
More specifically, masters and slaves who were both Christian were told to treat each other as brothers. This was an attitude unheard of in the ancient world.
When the Apostle Paul, writing from a Roman prison, sent the escaped slave Onesimus back to Philemon, he did not issue any orders or condemnations. Yet reading that letter makes it very clear that Philemon, a Christian slave owner, was expected to release Onesimus, who had converted to Christianity:
“For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.” (Philemon 1:15-17)
Not only is Philemon to free Onesimus, but he is to regard him as a brother of a stature equal to that of Paul himself. Hardly an advocacy of slavery.
But the New Testament didn’t stop there. It advocated equality for all humanity.
Galations 3:28 — “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Similar passages exist in Ephesians and Colossians.
That famous troublemaker Jesus himself doesn’t seem to have commented directly on slavery, but he was the inspiration for the stirrings of social change evident in the Apostles’ writings when he said things like:
“Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” — John 8:34-36
Or: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” — Mark 9:34-36
Jesus didn’t come to overturn social conventions, but he often spoke of a future time when societal evil would be overthrown. It was the Apostles who tended and nurtured those ideas that would bear fruit centuries later.
Savage and other critics who enjoy parsing the Bible for their own political purposes would do well to spend more time studying what it actually says if they want to be taken seriously.