The most favorite criticism of the Bible from skeptics and atheists is the Bible's alleged endorsement of slavery. This is usually the end-all, beat-all criticism of the Bible, and Christians have supposedly never answered it.
The skeptics are blowing smoke. The Bible does not endorse slavery.
Slavery in the Bible is seriously misunderstood. It was closer in nature to the modern employer-employee relationship, minus an at-will contract. I'm not suggesting that there were no other differences, but when the Bible speaks of "slavery" it is not the African Slave Trade under discussion.
This is another example of the skeptic's outright refusal to understand the Bible on its own terms. They are reading a modern idea into an ancient document. The writers of the Bible knew nothing of the brutality of the African Slave Trade, which involved the kidnapping and forcible transplanting of an indigenous people -- a practice that is forbidden in Mosaic Law.
Slavery was first eliminated in the Roman Empire and beyond in the early part of the first millennium by Christians because they saw it as a moral evil and an abomination in the sight of God.
Slavery was resurrected over strenuous papal opposition with the African Slave Trade of the 1700 and 1800s. This would not have been endorsed by the Bible. The end of the African Slave Trade in the mid-1800s marked the second time slavery was abolished from the world -- and it was again accomplished by Christians. Atheists have made every effort to cast non-Christians as the key players in abolition, and often cite sermons of leading pastors that endorse slavery. They do everything to isolate Christian abolitionists from Christianity. But the fact remains that abolition was a Christian movement.
For a document that endorses slavery as much as skeptics claim, the Bible was somehow used twice to denounce and eliminate it.
It cannot, however, be denied that there are passages in Scripture that regulate the practice. Some even sound harsh, almost a harbinger of the brutal African Slave Trade. What the critics overlook in these passages is that slaves are named as equal partners in the covenant with God (see Gen 17:10-14). The key is that the one who is uncircumcised is cut off from God; all of those circumcised (whether blood descendants or a foreigner bought with money) share in the covenant.
The critics also overlook that slaves are to be freed every seventh year (Ex 21:2). Only if the slave chooses to stay longer is he beholden to do so. The critic points to this section only to mention that a slave who does choose to stay a slave is mutilated as a sign of his permanent slavery, but carefully reading 21:6 with no "mutilation" preconceptions sounds like a simple ear piercing described in more detail than necessary.
Foreign slaves are slaves for life (Lev 25:44-46), the critic argues. True, however, a foreigner can't share in the covenant with God. If a foreign slave were to go free, that would end his piece of the covenant by default. Mercy, therefore, is the reason that foreign slaves were slaves for life.
There are many such examples, and I'll mention one more since it gets brought up the most. In Exodus 21:20-21, it covers a case where the master strikes the slave. If the slave dies on the spot, then the master is to be put to death. However, if the slave dies after a few days, that is considered its own punishment.
Critics usually say something flip of this verse, like "It's okay to beat your slave into a coma and eventual death, so make sure they don't die immediately!"
Not the point here. Under common law, a homicide victim had to die within a year and a day of the incident for the murderer to be charged. At one time, medical science couldn't reliably establish a cause of death after that period of time. In the era of the Exodus, several days was the rule.
Modern forensic science has done away with the year-and-a-day rule. But the Bible was written well before modern forensics, hence the time span being only a few days.
But the bigger issue is whether the Bible condones this action. The Bible describes a situation and the remedy, and is clear from the context (a legal code) that it isn't passing judgment here. It is only offering the legal remedy if the circumstance happens. Notice that if the slave dies immediately (the beating is the proximate cause of the death) that the master is to be put to death. This indicates that if the cause of death could be determined reliably, then the master would still be put to death.
The Bible doesn't condone this action. The Bible is offering a remedy should the action occur.
What all of this means is that the Bible isn't condoning the brutal African Slave Trade. When it speaks of slavery, it is discussing the ancient version of labor laws. Obviously, there has been some evolution in this area -- much of it because of the Bible, not in spite of it. Slavery is an abominable practice that was rightly eliminated, and is not supported by the Bible. Rather, attempts to read slavery into the Bible are misguided.
Cory Tucholski is a passionate defender of the Christian faith. He is the husband of one amazing woman and the proud daddy of two fantastic children. Cory runs the apologetics blog Josiah Concept Ministries (http://josiahconcept.org).
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