Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Bible and Slavery


Slavery in the Bible: Answering Atheist Critiques, Gavin Ortlund

What follows is my comment at the video, but meaningfully expanded:


It really is inappropriate to accuse God, through the Bible, of condoning or endorsing slavery.  God gave His standard in the opening of the Bible: man is made in the image of God. 

Genesis 1: 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

The implications of this are easily deduced, not only regarding slavery, but regarding all human interaction.

It strikes me that the root of this critique regarding the Bible and slavery is the unwillingness to acknowledge man’s fall, the depth of that fall, and the consuming power of sin over man.

If this is acknowledged, then one can grasp the idea that God understood that achieving thousands of years of ethical, Christian, progress in one day was not possible given man’s depth in sin.  Many of the Old Testament commandments are a reflection of this: God was reigning in the corruption, trying to bring it under some control, setting standards to minimize the chaos.

Slavery, along with many other behaviors that ran counter to the truth that all men are created in God’s image, was accepted as morally just in every society.  Man first had to be brought into a condition where the corruption was minimized.  They were not at all ready for returning to the condition intended in the Garden.

We know this, if for no other reason, than Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Ye have heard it said…But I say unto you….” In addition to the Pharisees and scribes modifying some of these commandments, they didn’t go all the way; they only dealt with action, the observable behavior.  Jesus made clear that the point was the heart, not merely superficial action.  Get the heart right, then you can understand and live properly with your fellow man who is created in God’s image – as God intended.

We also see this in the teaching of the apostle Paul regarding slavery, the relationship between husband and wife, parents and children.  In the Roman world of his time, with the accepted ethic of slavery, of a male citizen satisfying his desire to ejaculate in any orifice available to him, with the tossing of babies into the sewer, Paul’s message was infinitely more radical than anything we have seen since within the context of time.

Jesus’s teaching is not seen as merely reigning in the chaos; He is preaching an entirely new man – but not really a new man.  It was man as intended in creation, before the fall.  Which comes back to Genesis 1:27.  This was God’s intent for man in creation, and man’s fall tore him away from God’s design.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, taught the intent of the law, and brought to us the next level of understanding – consistent with the law, but not as a new law to follow.  He taught a change of the heart; this was what God intended all along.


Knowing the depth of man’s fall, was there another way?  A way that recognized man had free will to act?  A way that would not have turned all of mankind into God’s slaves?  

I don’t see it.


As an aside: slavery was an improvement over what came before.  In battle, defeated enemies were slaughtered, to the last.  Someone figured out that some of the defeated might be more valuable as slaves. 

I would guess most of the conquered preferred this option to death; those that didn’t certainly had the ability to change their circumstance to that which they preferred.


  1. Slavery is as prolific as ever, we've just found kinder and gentler words to describe it, such as "employment" and "job". If our labor wasn't for the financial benefit of someone else (in addition to some financial benefit of our own), no one would ever hire us. I think that much of the slavery that God appears to allow for in the Bible is very similar, with cultural differences of course, to the job market of the times.

    1. It is similar to the employer/employee relationships of today. The biggest difference is that the employee can change their employer when they want and for whatever reason. The employer doesn't get to enforce employment unless voluntarily agreed upon up front through a contract.

    2. I do not agree.

      Slavery can be defined as being held in a state of involuntary captivity and forced to produce (anything) according to the captor's will. The production could range from picking cotton to sexual favors to fighting battles in a war to paying taxes, and anything in between. All of us are in some form of slavery to one degree or another, even though we might not recognize it as such.

      As RMB has mentioned, the employee can change that by simply quitting. This assumes the employee is in an "at-will" contract/relationship with the employer and can not be forced to remain. An employee who can walk off the job at any time, for any reason, is not a slave, but a free person.

      More to come later. I'm off to work now.

    3. Todd: "If our labor wasn't for the financial benefit of someone else (in addition to some financial benefit of our own), no one would ever hire us."

      Why would they?

    4. Why do we work? Is it not because we recognize that labor (for which we receive reward) is THE means by which we make our lives better? This reward often is financial (paycheck, bonus, dividend, etc.) but it is not limited to that. In fact, much of the labor we exert is not geared toward earning money, but still benefits us and those around us.

      The real driving force behind work, however, is hunger. We work to eat, to survive, to live. Ultimately, this concept can be boiled down to one simple truth--if we do not work, we do not eat. When a person is starving, anything beyond the next meal is superfluous. Prosperity is a fringe benefit of work. It is not the main cause behind it.

      According to Genesis, the first command God gave to the newly created humans was quite simple--"Go to work. Bring the world under your control."

      "Then God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion...'"

      This order to work has never been rescinded. In Eden, work was not an option. In today's world, work is not an option. The difference is that, after the Fall, we work from a position of scarcity and hardship. Prosperity and plenty come from overcoming the scarcity through sweat labor. Many people resent this because they would prefer to simply reach out (labor) their hand and take what they want. They spend their time trying futilely to return to Eden, much like nudists trying to recreate the perfect environment because Adam and Eve were naked.

      It doesn't work. The problem is not that we have to work, but that we resent the fact. We want everything given to us without any expenditure and hate it because this does not happen. The problem is spiritual, not physical.

  2. I like it. I find it interesting that so many people, practicing Christians all, will state unequivocally that personal sanctification is a lifelong process, that no one is transformed into perfection instantly, yet they believe and expect that they (and others like them) will be "reconditioned" as soon as Jesus comes back, literally giving them a new outlook on life with one swipe of His sword and a triumphant flourish on His trumpet.

    I prefer to take the long-term viewpoint. Christ is building His Church, one brick at a time, over long periods of time. When you live in eternity, time is meaningless, but since we don't experience that in our world, we think that everything has to happen according to our perspective. Not so. I am perfectly content to help advance the Kingdom along as I can, and if I don't see any real measurable results in my life, I do not get terribly concerned about it.

    I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able...

    BTW, a word of advice, not to be critical. There are two times where you used the word "reigning" when it should have been "reining", as in bringing a runaway horse under control. If you substitute "ruling" for "reigning", it is easy to see the error. Hope this helps.

    1. Roger, many don't often consider the possibility that we ain't seen nothin' yet. We still could be living in the early Church. We can see, in Christ's example while on earth, how far we still have to progress toward perfection.

      And no issue for me to point out my errors in vocabulary, grammar, etc.

  3. Paul's commands to Philemon about how to treat his slave, who has converted to Christianity, provide a paradoxical view of slavery.

    On one hand, if Philemon treats Onesimus, his slave, as Paul commands, then slavery isn't that bad of an arrangement. There would be no racism, oppression, physical punishment, harsh working conditions, etc. It would be a loving relationship where one person provides the necessities of life and the other performs tasks which are given to him. It would be better than many employer/employee relationships of today.

    On the other hand, slavery would instantly vanish because if Philemon loves Onesimus then he will see Onesimus as fully human. Philemon would not be able to think about owning him like an animal or a shovel. He would shrink away from treating him like property.

    Therefore, for the Christian, the issue of slavery is really a moot point. The issue is love and respect and, to borrow a libertarian concept, non-aggression. That is what we should really care about, since none of get to dictate how our society is set up.