A question about the bible and slavery

I had a discussion with a friend of mine some hours ago. I had questions and wanted to get his insight into the matter. I asked him:

“Why does the bible not identify slavery as an evil? Under the Old Testament, slavery was accepted as the norm and was even practised by the Jews. Under the New Testament, we have commandments for slaves to obey their masters. We have commandments to treat slaves fairly. Not one word about slavery being wrong. Not one command to set them free. Why?”

The bible and slavery

Here was his response: “Honestly, I haven’t thought about it. But I’m going to go on a limb and say that it’s because the Bible doesn’t see slavery as evil. Rather, the mistreatment of slaves is the evil”.

To that I replied, “That is a very long limb. The very act of enslaving someone is mistreatment because it strips them of the very essence of humanity – free will and self determination.”

“No more comments”, my friend responded. Then he asked me if I had a take on it.

My reply was that I had none at all. I can’t understand how a just God didn’t point this out and didn’t take a stand against it.

My friend sighed. I understood. It is deserving of a sigh.

So, here it is in the open. I am asking: Why does the Bible – inspired by a just God – not identify slavery as an evil? I welcome all bible scholars – everyone actually – to contribute to this discussion.

Mister Mobility

Storyteller. Mobile connoisseur. Adventurer. See his detailed profile.

5 thoughts on “A question about the bible and slavery

  1. Perhaps because “slavery” in itself is not wrong. We are slaves of God. And if slavery were to be presented as bad, wouldn’t it mean that we shouldn’t serve God? Workers should not serve their bosses? Children should not serve their parents? The word slave can be used to conote servant and service can it not? Of course, there is also a negative connotation, which the Bible speaks against.

    So, instead it is the actions of the slave owners or of tje slaves that should be seen as wrong. And contrary to your post, tje Isrealites were ordered under the Mosaic law to free slaves. It is for this that the year of Jubilee existed. And then the Apostle Paul said slaves should be in subjection to their masters (not revolt because of the legalities) but before God, there was neither slave nor freeman.

    1. Gail,

      Thanks for your response. Let’s have a look at the points you raised.

      1. With the exception of criminal conviction and prisoners of war scenario, I do not see how taking away another individual’s right to self determination and independence can not be wrong. That is what slavery is – a forceful taking away of those rights.

      2. You say we are slaves of God, and I know the Biblical use of that term. The phrase represents the Christian’s voluntary submission to God. It does not speak of a forceful taking of a person’s liberties by God. That isn’t what we are discussing here.

      3. You say that the word slave can be used to connote servant and service. I say no. A servant or one who serves can come and go as he or she pleases. A slave is owned. A slave is the property of another man. Joseph was forcefully taken away. He could not come and go as he pleased. He was not a servant or service provider in the sense you put it.

      4. The Isrealites were ordered under the Mosaic law to free slaves on special occasions as an act of magnanimity. That point is important. This in itself reinforces my earlier position that the Bible justified/justifies the practice of holding another man as personal property. Or at least, it appears to justify it.

      Freewill and freedom of choice is that very first thing that Christians claim God gave to man as an inalienable right. You know that popular line about God giving man freewill? Slavery strips man of that very thing and subjects him to the will of another.

      Oya, over to you again.

    1. Hi Jeremiah,

      Thanks for chipping in. I have checked out the Facebook post (and thanks for sharing too!).

      I understand the principle of perspectives. Here is some perspective that knocks off that argument: Joseph was sold into slavery. Against his will. The Jews were taken into slavery by the Egyptians. Against their will. The Biblical perspective does not exclude slavery in the sense that we know it – a taking away of another person’s liberties and a subjection to a life he/she would otherwise not have chosen.

      Contrary to what Francis Emele submitted in his Facebook comment, the above examples show that slaves were actually lower humans. They were property – sold, bought, and used. Regardless of how well treated a slave is, the very fact that he is someone else’s property is a problem. He has no life of his own. That God would sanction/endorse the practice, no matter how benevolent…

      Perhaps I am still missing a perspective to it. Please, feel free to contribute some more. Thanks again.

  2. My take on this.. The bible is not just a religious book. It is also a book on cultural practises.

    Not all cultural accounts in the Bible have any religious implication .

    The bible is written when men were highly territorial, and were more or less savages. (We are still savages, but at least we cover things up a bit now).

    Enslaving men physically (as against economic , religious, social and intellectual enslavement we have now) would be well in the character of those cavemen of that period, and so biblical accounts would support that mentality.

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