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The Bogus ‘Bible Endorses Slavery’ Argument


EvilBible.com, a web-site “which preaches Atheism by exposing the many evil crimes in the Bible committed by God and his followers,” defines  Slavery in the Bible this way:

“Except for murder, slavery has got to be one of the most immoral things a person can do.  Yet slavery is rampant throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Bible clearly approves of slavery in many passages, and it goes so far as to tell how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them, and when you can have sex with the female slaves.” (bold mine)

Hearing such objections come from atheists shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s when you start hearing them from professing believers that there might be a problem.

Andy Whitman, one-time reviewer for Paste magazine, used this argument to rebut opposition to gay marriage:

It’s worth noting that the Church has moved away from a literal, inerrantist interpretation of the issue of slavery, although the Bible contains far more verses that give tacit approval to slavery as a cultural institution than it does about homosexuality. Of course, it took a couple centuries of cultural foment throughout Europe, and a bloody Civil War in the U.S., to help usher in that change. But eventually the inerrantists became less inerrant, and we’ve now reached the point where no serious Christian would defend the institution of slavery. So there is precedent, and perhaps there is hope. Let’s pray that it doesn’t take a couple hundred years. In the meantime, conservative Christians are left with the “God’s agin’ it and so am I” literalists and the well-intentioned semantic gymnasts.

You can find the entire thread of Andy’s post HERE.

Whitman’s charge is commonplace and used across the board on social issues, not just homosexuality. It looks something like this:

  1. The Bible condones slavery.
  2. Anyone with a heart and a brain knows slavery is immoral.
  3. So the Bible endorses something that is immoral.
  4. Therefore, we must reject a literal, inerrantist approach to Scripture.

For the moment, forget that the main premise is skewed (that the Bible condones slavery). This line of reasoning is tactical and designed to neuter one’s approach to Scripture. Meaning

If the Bible condones slavery, why should you trust its position on ANY social issue?

Whitman frames the problem as “a literal, inerrantist interpretation” of Scripture. Inerrancy is a rather squishy term but basically means that the Bible is without error in any area. (For a brief, helpful description see Why I Am an Inerrantist — and What That Means at Reboot Christianity.) So when the Bible gives commands about slaves and how to acquire and/or treat them, the literalistist is forced to take that at face value. The non-literalist, non-inerrantist, on the other hand rejects such biblical instructions and sees them as evidence of the Bible’s cultural irrelevance and out-datedness.

Thus, the goal of such arguments (by atheist or anti-literalist) is often twofold:

  • To make the Bible look archaic and in need of serious interpretative overhaul, and
  • To make Christians who cling to a literalist position look like buffoons.

Whitman accomplishes both, but especially the latter by describing “conservative Christians” as “God’s agin’ it and so am I” hillbilly literalists.

So are biblical inerrantists back-assward rednecks who endorse slavery? And is the answer for the Church to “[move] away from a literal, inerrantist interpretation of the issue of slavery”?

Ad hominem attacks aside, the literal reading of Scripture is the best argument against slavery.

Paul Copan is a Christian theologian, analytic philosopher, apologist, and author. He is currently a professor at the Palm Beach Atlantic University and has written extensively on this subject. In Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery, PART ONE and PART TWO, Copan describes the common objection to the Scriptural position on slavery as one of  “misperception.”

When Christians and non-Christians read about slaves or slavery in Israel, they often think along the lines of antebellum slavery, with its slave trade and cruelties. This is a terrible misperception, and many — including the New Atheists — have bought into this misperception. Sam Harris writes that slaves are human beings who are capable of suffering and happiness. Yet the Old Testament regards them as “farm equipment,” which is “patently evil.”

Is this true? Does the Old Testament really view slaves as nothing but “farm equipment”?

In rebutting this misperception, Copan isolates Three Remarkable Provisions in Israel that categorically distinguished Israel’s approach to slavery from that of the ancient Near East (ANE) and would eventually lead to the institution’s reformation and undoing.

  • Anti-Harm Laws –“God did not allow physical abuse of servants. If an employer’s disciplining his servant resulted in immediate death, that employer (“master”) was to be put to death for murder (Exodus 21:20) — unlike other ANE codes. The Mosaic Law… held masters to legal account for their treatment of their own servants.”
  • Anti-Kidnapping Laws — “Another unique feature of the Mosaic Law is its condemnation of kidnapping a person to sell as a slave — an act punishable by death (Exodus 21:16; cp. Deuteronomy 24:7)”
  • Anti-Return Laws — “Israel was to offer safe harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15,16).”

Copan concludes:

If the South had followed these three clear laws from Exodus and Deuteronomy, slavery would have been a nonissue. What’s more, Israel’s treatment of servants (“slaves”) was unparalleled in the ANE.

So while some argue that Scripture was the basis for the perpetration and justification for slavery in the South, Copan suggests that view is based on a complete misreading and misperception of Scripture.

So why weren’t the writers of Scripture more blunt in their denunciation of slavery? Isn’t this evidence of endorsement or complicity?

In Why is the New Testament Silent on Slavery — or Is It? Copan continues:

Critics wonder why Paul or New Testament writers (cp. 1 Peter 2:18–20) did not condemn slavery and tell masters to release their slaves. We need to first separate this question from other considerations. New Testament writers’ position on the negative status of slavery was clear on various points: (a) they repudiated slave trading; (b) they affirmed the full human dignity and equal spiritual status of slaves; (c) they encouraged slaves to acquire their freedom whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:20–22); (d) their revolutionary Christian affirmations, if taken seriously, would help tear apart the fabric of the institution of slavery, which is what took full effect several centuries later — in the eventual eradication of slavery in Europe; and (e) in Revelation 18:11–13, doomed Babylon (the world of God-opposers) stands condemned because she had treated humans as “cargo,” having trafficked in “slaves [literally ‘bodies’] and human lives” (verse 13, NASB). This repudiation of treating humans as cargo assumes the doctrine of the image of God in all human beings. (bold mine)

It was these principles of human value and dignity that reformed the practice of slavery in the ANE and fueled the abolition movement in the 18th and 19th century.  Furthermore, these same principles energized America’s civil rights movement in the 60s.

So then what are we to make of the standard argument that “the Bible endorses slavery”? In Deconstructing the ‘Bible Endorses Slavery’ Meme, this author goes straight for the intellectual jugular:

..this ever-so popular argument is really just another lazy, uncritical, decontextualized, factually-deficient and hypocritical canard.

…yes, we must grant that slavery is not condemned in Scripture; it is recognized as a legitimate social institution for which rules must be developed and applied.

But if that is all one knows or says about the topic of slavery in Scripture, then one knows very little indeed.

Some will hedge at the admission that “slavery is not condemned in Scripture.” But the larger, more literalist, more nuanced, more revolutionary approach is the approach employed in Scripture. Slavery would be dismantled from within, not by stricter laws or societal revolution per se, but by moral and spiritual enlightenment and repentance.

Rather than partaking in violent iconoclasm and revolutionary destruction, Christianity seeks to humanize every situation men may find themselves in. If slaves and masters must exist, and at that time there was simply no way that they weren’t going to exist, then masters must treat their slaves with a certain dignity and respect. This was the greatest good that could have been accomplished without engaging in the vast moral evils that accompany violent revolutions and upheavals.

Contrary to what some suggest, the best rebuttal against the “Bible condones slavery” argument is not to abandon a literalist, inerrantist approach to Scripture. In fact, the literal reading of Scripture is the best argument against slavery. Which is why, sadly, atheists, progressives, and social engineers so often resort to this “lazy, uncritical, decontextualized, factually-deficient and hypocritical canard.” I mean, why take time to grapple with what Scripture teaches when you can just lay back and lob bogus sound bites at us back-assward redneck literalists?

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Jay DiNitto July 29, 2013, 10:11 AM

    I don’t know if Copan mentions this in his two posts (I have yet to read them), but some slaves were former members of defeated tribes. If tribal infrastrictures were sometimes demolished from warfare, the person had a choice of starving to death or working within the winning tribe’s infrastructure. They were slaves by circumstance, not by direct maliciousness.

    Basically it’s a fallacy of ambiguity, in this case. The critic leverages the broad definition of the word “slavery” to equivocate between “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” slaves and war refugee slaves.

  • Guy Stewart July 29, 2013, 11:18 AM


    Too bad it won’t make any difference…*sigh*. Too many people (myself included) tend to laziness NO MATTER WHAT THEIR PHILOSOPHY (or eating habits, or exercise or life habits) is. This is preaching to the choir, Sir and it’s excellent. You just need to get it placed in the American equivalent of some of the secular places Lewis wrote like THE SPECTATOR, THE COVENTRY EVENING TELEGRAPH, TIME AND TIDE (defunct British weekly political and literary review magazine), RES JUDICATAE, and of course, THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.

    Then more people than the choir can hear what you have to say!

  • Bob Avey July 30, 2013, 11:37 AM

    My thoughts on the subject somewhat mirror what jay DiNitto said. I might add that while ancient people were subjected into slavery as a result of war, the conditions were not always intolerable. Both Daniel and Joseph represent examples of slaves finding favor with their masters. Others even entered voluntarily into slavery, or indenture to pay off debts.

    During biblical times, the term, slavery, encompassed some of the same meaning as the word does today. However, the connotation of the ancient term was vastly different than that associated with modern usage.

  • Matthew Sample II July 30, 2013, 12:47 PM

    There is an interesting correlation between employment and slavery. What if you worked at a place that provided food and lodging (perhaps at a price, but a lower price than elsewhere in the community)? That kind of sounds like slavery, doesn’t it? I worked at a place like that for 10 years. So, was I a slave? What is the difference between a kind master and his slave, and my former employer and me? I’m not sure. Now if he kidnapped and beat me, that would be something else.

    Don’t get me wrong! I’m not arguing for slavery! But perhaps some of what we call slavery in the Bible is something like employment.

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