Slavery – Does the Bible Support it?

Justin Taylor writes:

What do you think is wrong with the following argument?

Bible translations talk of “slaves.”
In the OT no objection is made to having slaves.
In the NT Christians are not commanded to free their slaves but are told to submit.
Therefore, biblical texts approve of slavery.
We know that slavery is wrong.
Therefore, biblical texts approve of something that is wrong.

Remember that when evaluating an argument

terms are either clear or unclear
propositions are either true or false,
arguments are either valid or invalid.

So if you disagree with argument above, you’d have to show that there is

an ambiguous term,
a false premise, or
a logical fallacy (the conclusion does not follow from the premises).

In the lecture below, delivered on October 30, 2015, at Lanier Theological Library, Peter Williams gave a fascinating lecture responding to this argument. Dr. Williams (PhD, University of Cambridge) presides over Tyndale House in Cambridge (one of the finest theological libraries in the world for biblical scholarship) and is an affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University.

His thesis is that using the most common definition of slavery, the Bible does not support slavery.

To make his argument, he examines the key Old Testament and New Testament texts said to support slavery. Along the way, he looks at the biblical words commonly associated with slavery and how their translation has changed over time. He also looks at the logic of the Old Testament world and the way ancient societies were structured quite differently from ours.

The lecture below is under an hour, and then he takes Q&A for around 20 minutes:

Slavery in the Bible

magnifying-glass5Andrew Schmidt writes:

There is a scene in The West Wing where President Jed Bartlett fires off round after round of ridicule as he pretends to apply Old Testament laws to his life. Should he put to death his staffer for working on the Sabbath, or get the police to take over? Should footballers wear gloves to avoid touching the pigskin ball? What price could he get if he sold his daughter as a slave?

How would you answer? A monologue like this is liable to make even well-informed Christians lose their nerve. We don’t always know how to respond to mockery of the Old Testament laws, many non-Christians are appalled that the Bible does not abolish slavery as simply and cleanly as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights does:

Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Why can’t the Bible be just as unequivocal? Well, I suggest that slavery is a more complex issue than may be suggested by Article 4, and the Bible, in refusing to be simplistic about it, says some things which force us to think very hard. It is both necessary and possible to mount a spirited defence of the slavery rules in the law of Moses, as it gets to the heart of what God sees as freedom.

The big verse
The first verse to notice is Exodus 21:16: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death”. Paul alludes in 1 Timothy 1:10 to this verse when he says that God’s law opposes slave traders. It shows that God’s word was always against the white people who captured Africans to work on American plantations, even though tragically those white people took centuries to realize it. One of the early rumblings of the movement to end the slave trade was a pamphlet published in 1700 called The Selling of Joseph, drawing attention to Exodus 21:16.

Israelite slaves
Of course, being captured and sold has never been the only way to become a slave. The Bible also contemplates that slavery might result from poverty (Exod 21:7; Lev 25:39) or from stealing (Exod 22:3). Some of our contemporaries might say that even these sorts of slavery are unacceptable, and write the Bible off as barbaric because it fails to share our society’s zero-tolerance attitude to slavery. However, such people ought to suspend judgement until they have learned how slaves were to be treated in Israel. Continue reading

Handling Moral Objections to the Old Testament

Peter Williams – Moral Objections to the Old Testament: Part 1

Peter Williams – Moral Objections to the Old Testament: Part 1 from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.

Peter Williams – Moral Objections to the Old Testament: Part 2: The Case of Slavery

Peter Williams – Page Lecture Series – Moral Objections to the Old Testament – Part 2: The Case of Slavery from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.

Slavery and Racism in the Bible?

Comment: God allowed Israel to take slaves from other nations. This is immoral and racist. So if Christians were consistent they would also reinstate slavery and institutionalized racism.

Response from John Hendryx at We must remember, the removal of the Canaanite peoples was a judicial ruling by God. Consider, in the USA we give people rights. But those rights can be taken away if people commit a crime. It is called prison.

Is that hypocrisy to say people have rights (out of one side of our mouth) but then put them into prison (out of the other)?

No, because those persons gave up their rights when they committed a crime. There were no prisons in Canaan. As a judicial ruling, God told Israel to dispossess the people in the land. They were either to kill them or in some cases enslave them. The Canaanites had already lost all of their rights and were under God’s just judgment. There was no justification for arbitrary chattel slavery in the Bible — (the kind which we knew in antebellum times) … in fact the slavery which kidnapped people and sold them as property was punishable by death (Exodus 21:16).

No, they were ONLY to kill or enslave under God’s direct verbal orders. Remember, He is God so His judicial ruling is more just than any human court has ever been since He knows all of our crimes perfectly. So when Israel killed people they were simply acting as God’s hand, speeding up the death sentence we all justly deserve.

You think this racist because it targets foreigners? Think again. God also warned the Israelites that they were not immune from the Canaanites’ judgment: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.’ “(Numbers 33:55-56).

So not only were foreigners made slaves … when the Israelites disobeyed God – REMEMBER – they were carried off in the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. So God is not partial or racist.

Again, the Israelites deserved judgment just like the others, whether Egyptian or Canaanite. This should serve to remind us that we may not assume that those who suffer unique or catastrophic calamities in this life are any worse than we ourselves, since it is only the grace of God in Jesus Christ which makes us to differ from anyone (see Luke 13:1-5; 1 Cor. 4:7).

Also Christians, being consistent with the scripture and understanding this, would never enslave people. God has commanded us to set all men free with the gospel. The time between Christ’s coming and His return is a time of forbearance. But the time is coming when God’s patience will end and justice will be carried out in full measure. So it is important to differentiate what God commands as a way of life for us and his judicial rulings. The confusing of them causes college professors to misrepresent the beliefs of both Jews and Christians, and many atheists, who are ignorant of the fullness of what the Bible says, take this up and make unfortunate misrepresentations of the Bible in public. But at least it gives us an opportunity to bring the truth to light. So for this I thank you.

Lesson: We must learn to distinguish God’s judicial pronouncements from his commands about a way of life for us so as not to mix apples and oranges.

Homosexuality, Slavery and Prayers for a President

Josh is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington DC and a member of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, Warrenton, VA. I thought this short article he wrote regarding the Presidential Inauguration Prayer debacle “Not one word?” was excellent:

This past week saw yet another public controversy erupt regarding a Christian pastor and matters pertaining to sexual ethics. Most of you are aware of President Barack Obama’s first choice of Pastor Louie Giglio to give the benediction at the upcoming second inauguration. As the story goes, Giglio was effectively canned because he preached a sermon years ago in which he affirmed biblical teaching that homosexuality is sin. Needless to say, this was too much to bear for an administration devoted to “tolerance” and “diversity” (whatever those terms mean these days). The homosexual activists who supported the President’s re-election got what they wanted and so the pastor will not give the benediction after all.

But the controversy didn’t end there. It only escalated to a rather absurd level. This week, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell gave his take on the matter along with an interesting commentary on using the Bible in the swearing-in ceremony:

This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the book will be held by a First Lady who is a descendent of slaves. But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting someone near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.

First, let’s give credit where credit is due. We need to thank O’Donnell for at least having the honesty to admit that the Bible does indeed teach that homosexual behavior is a sin, although he couches this teaching in emotionally-dripping language of “condemning gay people” (echoing the culture’s attempt to make one’s perverse behavior into a personal identity). It’s a subtle attack on Christian orthodoxy to be sure, but the acknowledgement of what the Scriptures teach on that subject is duly noted and appreciated. Yet the same can’t be said regarding his statements on slavery.

Does the Bible uphold the type of chattel-slavery which existed in Antebellum America to which O’Donnell makes reference? Absolutely not. The Old Testament does indeed uphold and regulate various forms of servitude. We’ll certainly acknowledge that. Indentured servitude, for example, allowed an individual to sell himself into slavery in order to pay off debts. It was a sort of social safety net in the ancient world which prevented individuals and their families from starving to death. That’s the context that’s often missing from these discussions. James White and others have talked about this at length. But it is beyond absurd to assert that this is somehow comparable to plantation slavery in 19th century America.

Yet O’Donnell says, referencing America’s practice of chattel-slavery, that there’s “not one word” condemning it. Really? Is he sure? Let’s take a look at Exodus 21:16 to see if that’s true:

He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.

So we see here that the practice of man-stealing (to use another term) and the subsequent selling of the kidnapped individual into slavery were ruled by God to be capital offenses. In practical terms, this means that the practitioners of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade–both of sellers and the buyers–would have received the death penalty. Just the other night as I led my family through our daily Bible readings, we came across a similar provision in Deuteronomy 24:7. Not one word, Mr. O’Donnell? Hardly.

Given what we see here, there’s one of two possibilities: either O’Donnell is being deliberately dishonest about what the Bible clearly teaches on this subject or he is simply ignorant of what the Scriptures contain. Either way, one can safely assume that his audience won’t know any better. Biblical illiteracy is ubiquitous in modern American society. That’s why so many critics on television can get away with such ridiculous rhetoric. They’re not seriously engaging the text of Scripture, but instead burning bibles they’ve constructed themselves out of straw. Certainly nothing new under the sun.

Josh Dermer