Every thinking reader of the Bible is bound to ask at some point in time, “Does this book actually condone slavery?”. To be sure, slavery is not the only issue the Bible causes us to question. The Old Testament is rife with palace intrigues, polygamy, divorce, violence and the like, and godly people are very often part of the problem. Although the New Testament is decidedly improved, it still seems to fall far short of that which twenty-first century human rights would expect. There are no women among the twelve disciples of Jesus and Christian masters do have slaves working for them.
To address issues of this kind, we need to step back and ask three larger questions: What are the theological, political, and cultural contexts in which the Old Testament narrative unfolds, and how is the behaviour of God’s people in the Old Testament expected to be different from those of other cultures? What are the major developments in the New Testament that give us a clue to interpretation of Old Testament ethics? And are we expected to further extrapolate changes in behaviour beyond the New Testament times to the present day?
To begin with, it should not be forgotten that the Old Testament narratives contain codes which are ethical, ceremonial, and social. Therefore, their application to the present day should not always be considered in literal terms. The social elements of those narratives need not apply to us, and the ceremonial ones are largely fulfilled in the completed work of Christ. It is the ethical aspects of Old Testament teaching with which we should be concerned, and there is indeed much to consider.
As an example, on the way to Canaan, God tells his people through Moses that the alien, or foreigner, among them should not be oppressed (Exodus 23:9). The reason given is fascinating: the people of Israel know in their hearts how it feels to be oppressed! —The word translated “alien” is not the same as slave, but the experience of the Israelites in Egypt was certainly that of slaves— Thus, we see the first statement on human rights: the alien was to be treated as a citizen; in fact, he was to be loved as one of their own (Leviticus 19:33-34). Even when Hebrew law and custom shared in the common heritage of the ancient world, there is a unique care in God’s Name for those people who by status were not considered people—something absent from the codes of Babylon and Assyria.
The New Testament further gives us a paradigm to interpret Old Testament practices. In one of their notorious fault-finding missions, the Pharisees test Jesus on the subject of divorce (Matthew 19:1-9; Mark 10:2-9). He initially appears to play into their hands, asking what Mosaic Law has to say on the subject. When they gleefully quote the permission of Moses to divorce one’s wife, Jesus lays down a method of interpretation that has to be taken very seriously. He makes it clear that certain Old Testament commandments were to be understood as concessions to the hardness of the human heart rather than as expressions of God’s holy character. He goes on to reference how this was not the state of affairs in the beginning—that is, before the fall.
The regulation of slavery should therefore be seen as a practical step to deal with the realities of the day resulting from human fall. The aberrations that lead to alienation among individuals, races, and nations are the result of a fundamental broken relationship between humankind and God. Within this tragic scenario, Scripture comes as a breath of fresh air as it seeks to redeem the situation and sets us on a path of ever-increasing amelioration of our predicament. While the Bible does not reject slavery outright, the conclusion that it actually favours slavery is patently wrong. Scripture does reveal that slavery is not ideal, both in Old Testament laws forbidding the enslavement of fellow Israelites, the law of jubilee, and in New Testament applications of Christ. In fact, the Bible teaches that the feeling of superiority in general is sin (Philippians 2:1-8)! The abolition of slavery is thus not only permissible by biblical standards, but demanded by biblical principles. The pre-fall statement that should guide and ultimately abolish such (and any) practices of superiority is the declaration that all humans—men and women—are made in the image of God.
On this principle, the Bible even lays the foundation for progressing far beyond what was possible in New Testament times by addressing the very economic discrimination and favouritism of which slavery is the worst expression (James 2:1-9; 5:1-6). Of course, lamentably, it must be admitted that the Church has taken many centuries to live out what Scripture taught long ago, and no doubt we continue to drag our feet. The time delay between the Word of Scripture and its implementation in society is often due to the “holy huddle” mentality prevailing among Christians who are largely unconcerned about issues outside of their immediate periphery. Another reason many Christians continue to remain silent in the face of injustice is the platonic view of the cosmos we have adopted, implying that life in the hereafter is the only issue to be addressed, while we watch the world go by in its destructive way. Both mentalities are sadly misguided.
Those of us who say that we believe the Bible to be the Word of God have to raise our level of awareness and involvement regarding social issues. Having failed to do so, we have let these issues pass into the hands of those who may not be Christians, but are better informed about social injustice and concerned enough to fight wrong practices through legal means. While they have no logical basis to do what they are doing, the real tragedy is that we who do have a basis to address these issues remain largely indifferent. May the Lord of Scripture open our eyes to see that God is interested in the redemption of the whole of creation and not just disembodied souls and spirits!