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Does the Bible Support Slavery?

How to answer this common question from aggressive skeptics

The triumvirate of complaints about the Bible from atheists typically consists of denouncing its science, denouncing its God, and denouncing its morality. Here we’ll handle a classic moral objection: the Bible is an evil book because it supports slavery (thus disproving Christianity and theism by implication).

For example, in 2012, provocative atheist Dan Savage gave a keynote speech at a conference for high school journalists. The topic was supposed to be bullying, but instead he spent most of the speech criticizing Christianity and the Bible:

The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slave owners waved Bibles over their heads during the Civil War and justified it. The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn’t say “Christians don’t own people.” Paul talks about how Christians own people.

We ignore what the Bible says about slavery, because the Bible got slavery wrong. Tim — uh, Sam Harris, in A Letter to a Christian Nation, points out that the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong.

How do we respond?

Even a quick examination of the New Testament and the letter to Philemon shows that Savage misses the mark in his interpretation. St. Paul exhorts Philemon to grant freedom to his slave Onesimus. In a key passage of the letter, Paul says:

Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me (15-17, emphasis mine).

It’s true that Paul doesn’t use the phrase, “Christians don’t own people,” but he doesn’t have to say that to teach that slavery is no longer acceptable. It is plain from his teaching here, as well as in his other letters, that Christ has ushered in a law of love and that Christians ought to live by that love in how the treat others. Savage twists Paul’s teaching to make it seem like it condones slavery when it does not. That’s a specific example you may want to memorize when discussing slavery in the Bible.

But this is not the main challenge we face. Skeptics will insist that the Old Testament is full of rules for buying and owning slaves, and it never gives a hint that such an institution is wrong. Since it got this easy moral teaching wrong, it’s untrustworthy in everything else.

Although this slogan does not directly argue against God’s existence, it is typically put forward as a kind of circumstantial proof, as well as to make Christians uncomfortable, and so we want to have some additional answers.

To answer this challenge well, you should be able to do two things. First, draw important distinctions about biblical slavery. Second, explain specifics surrounding particularly difficult passages. We will lay the groundwork for that first task, which can generally then be employed to address the difficult passages.

“Slavery” in the Old Testament context does not mean what most people today, especially in America with the evils of slavery in its not-too-distant past, have in mind. There are at least three different ways to use the term.

  1. There is the “chattel slavery” that most people call to mind, which involves forcing people into service indefinitely, unwavering cruelty, and the reduction of people to mere property. Although this was common in the African-American slave trade (and gravely wrong), it’s not what the Old Testament describes. 
  2. Old Testament slavery commonly refers to a process of indentured servitude that the poor and destitute (or those with enormous debts) would make use of temporarily. They could “sell themselves” as servants (“slaves”) to pay off a debt or obtain sustenance for themselves and their families in a time and place with no government welfare programs. Although this type of “slavery” is a hard thing to experience, it is not intrinsically wrong.
  3. Sometimes “slavery” refers to penal servitude in which where wrongdoers are punished with forced labor. This is also not wrong in itself (even today, some criminal punishments include “community service”), although depending on circumstances it may not always be prudent.

People objecting to biblical slavery rarely make these distinctions, so we must. Reveal these distinctions to the skeptic, and you will enhance the conversation. Ask, “Have you considered that the word slave or servant can be understood in several ways?” Point out that in the Old Testament it usually refers to indentured servitude.

Even after hearing these distinctions, a skeptic may press two additional objections:

Let’s address each of those objections in turn.

Why didn’t Jesus condemn slavery? We could say first that Jesus had a greater purpose than eliminating slavery or any other particular social evil. His mission transcended all social and political issues. He came not to be the perfect political leader that some were expecting, but rather the Messiah who would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Next, we must note that Christ’s teaching to love God above all things and to love our neighbors as ourselves does mean that the practice of chattel slavery is intrinsically wrong. He may not have laid out a policy plan against slavery in particular, but he spoke plainly and powerfully about a way of love that is incompatible with chattel slavery.

But what about passages that clearly refer to chattel slavery? Consider this often-raised excerpt from the book of Leviticus:

You shall not rule over him with harshness, but shall fear your God. As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property (25:43-45).

Certainly, the atheist alleges, that is chattel slavery and the Bible plainly condones it!

We need to make several points to put the passage in context. The life of ancient Israelites was far removed from our modern way of life and we must fight the temptation to foist our own perspective upon the text.

First, none of the “slaves” of the Old Testament could be forced into labor through kidnapping. Exodus 21:16 expressly forbids kidnapping people to keep or sell as slaves, making such acts punishable by death. When other passages speak of “buying” slaves, people may assume that these were auctions of kidnapped slaves held against their will, as with African slaves in the mid-nineteenth century. But even the “buying” of slaves included a voluntary element more akin to indentured servitude, in which slaves often sold themselves into servitude as a form of survival. In the New International Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce points out, “As was the case generally in the Near East, freeborn citizens most frequently fell into slavery through poverty and insolvency.”

One can find scriptural support for what Bruce describes in Genesis 47:13, where Joseph’s brothers come to him begging to become his slaves due their poverty and hunger: “Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land may not be desolate” (Gen. 47:19, emphasis mine). The brothers beg to be “be slaves” to preserve their lives.

Second, just because the Bible regulates slavery doesn’t mean the Bible endorses slavery in an unqualified way. The importance of this point can’t be understated. Just as Moses allowed and regulated divorce for pragmatic reasons without thereby approving of it, the Bible regulated the existing practice of slavery (mostly indentured servitude). The biblical laws regulating slavery made the institution much more humane and respectful of the dignity of persons than in any other ancient Near-Eastern culture, all of which practiced slavery in some form. So, the Bible takes a gradual approach to the slavery question: first regulating it and making it more humane and later exhorting Christian slave owners to free their slaves.

Those pushing the slogan may still insist that the word property in Leviticus 25 has to imply chattel slavery. But the word was broad enough for the author of Leviticus to include things that we might not deem appropriate today but are not equivalent to chattel slavery. In Exodus 20, we see a presentation of the Ten Commandments, and in verse seventeen it says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Notice the listing of things not to covet: a neighbor’s house, wife, servants, and anything that is his (that is, his property). Ought we to conclude that the writer intends to put all things on this list in the same category? No. Especially since we learn from the opening chapters of Genesis that God creates both male and female in his image. Houses and other property do not bear the image of God. Yet, in the statement of Exodus 20:17, all of those things could be put together with a possessive description that does not require diminishing the dignity of wives or servants; they are not reduced to objects of possession like houses or animals. Similarly, the writer in Leviticus, who tradition tells us is Moses, could use the phrasing “and they may be your property” in such a way that does not entail chattel slavery.

At this point you may be accused of exegetical gymnastics. In that event, you can still stand on two solid points: First, no matter how repugnant these descriptions are to modern ears, it is entirely plausible to read them as regulatory rather than obligatory; and second, we don’t have to assume that the word used by the ancient author of this verse in Leviticus carried with it the exact same significance it bears today.

This article is adapted from John DeRosa’s book, One Less God than You, now on sale at the Catholic Answers online store.

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