Did God Intend to End Slavery by Changing People’s Hearts?

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark.]

Bible-believers are sometimes troubled by the fact that the Bible never outlaws slavery. In fact, it seems to condone or even command the practice.

Continuing with our series on slavery in the Bible, we will now evaluate one more justification that is sometimes offered for this puzzling state of affairs. It is exemplified in this excerpt from the AIIA Institute’s Socratic dialog on biblical slavery: rather than outlawing slavery directly, God chose to work slowly over time to change people’s hearts.

BIBLE ADVOCATE: “…as a rule, the best way to change moral behavior is to transform moral views. And guess what. Beginning in the second century, many masters, upon converting to Christ, began to release their slaves. Slavery was abolished in Great Britain after people began being converted to Christ under the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield.”


BIBLE CRITIC: “But what about in New Testament times? Why didn’t Jesus, as a moral authority, speak out boldly against slavery?”

BIBLE ADVOCATE: “Well, numerous New Testament texts, such as Colossians 4:1, Galatians 3:28, and the Book of Philemon, make the case for the inherent spiritual worth of slaves, which effectively laid a base for deep down authentic change in social practice, over time. God’s way is often to work from within, dealing primarily with the spiritual component. Jesus was typically apolitical. Otherwise, encouraging direct confrontation over such a hot button social issue may have fomented revolution, providing Rome with a political excuse for persecuting Christians.”

To me, this does not ring true for at least four reasons.

Before we get to them, let’s review what we mean by biblical slavery. As I explained in prior posts, it ranged from unobjectionable indentured servitude to the capture and lifetime enslavement of whole cities full of women and children, topped off by the forced “marriage” of the best-looking women to the very men who had just killed their husbands, fathers and sons. In one episode, God commanded Moses to distribute 32,000 virgins as plunder and spoils of war, with half to go to his soldiers and one out of 50 to go to the priests. The Bible allowed Hebrew masters to beat or whip their foreign slaves to the point where it would take up to two full days for them to get up. So…not a pretty picture.

OK. Deep breath.

Now for the reasons why I am not persuaded that God was working in people’s hearts, over a long period of time, to effect true change from within.

1) In the Bible, God did not just tolerate slavery; he commanded it.

God actually commanded the worst kinds of slavery, as we saw in a prior post. If he was just waiting for people to change from within, why did he command the practice?

To me, this fact alone is enough to deep-six the “God was working slowly over time” hypothesis. If his deep, long-range wish was to end slavery, why did he work against his own purposes by commanding it?

2) If God was just waiting for mankind’s morals to develop, his priorities were askew.

Are we to believe that God was content to let people enslave each other for thousands of years while he slowly forms their character with such important commands as these?

Deuteronomy 22:11 – Don’t wear clothes made of a wool-and-linen blend.

Deuteronomy 22:12 – Put a tassel on each corner of your cloak.

Leviticus 19:27 – Don’t cut the hair on the sides of your head. Don’t trim your beard.

Are we to believe that a God who micro-managed people’s haircuts and clothes was reluctant to instruct them not to capture, enslave and rape each other?

3) The biblical God was an economic radical in other ways; why not with slavery?

As in the AIIA quote above, some Christians suggest that God didn’t want to rock the boat. Maybe ending slavery would have been too much of a social change.

On the contrary, the God of the Bible did not hesitate to enact truly radical social reforms.

In the Old Testament, the most remarkable economic command was the Year of Jubilee. As explained in Leviticus 25:8-31, the Jubilee occurred every fiftieth year. All property that had been bought during the previous 50 years was to be returned to its original owner. For this reason, when property was sold it was to be priced based on the number of years until the Jubilee. Also, during the Jubilee year, no harvesting was to take place; whatever was eaten had to be taken directly from the fields without being stored.

If that remarkable decree were not radical enough, there was the practice of the Sabbath years.We read in Exodus 23:10-11 that the Hebrews had to leave the land completely “unplowed and unused” every seventh year.

So we see that, according to the Bible, God did not hesitate to structure the economy in ways that were disruptive in the extreme. Are we to believe that paying foreign workers instead of enslaving them would have been just too much?

As for the AIIA’s excuse that God did not want to mandate radical social change, lest the Romans persecute Christians, it’s simply misplaced. All of the laws on slavery were given when Israel was the top dog in Palestine. There was no fear of Roman persecution because the Roman state wasn’t even founded yet. In fact, Israel was persecuting the other guys.

4) In the Bible, God took a very serious line on sins that were trivial by comparison.

The Old Testament mandated the death penalty for trivial offenses. Why did God show no concern for the much more serious offense of slavery? How do you think slavery compares to the following capital crimes?

Numbers 15:32-36 – Don’t gather firewood on the Sabbath. If you do, you must be stoned to death.

Numbers 11:1 – Don’t complain about hardship when God can hear you or he may burn you alive.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 – A “stubborn and rebellious” son must be stoned to death. And in Exodus 21:15 anyone who strikes his parent shall be put to death.

Are we to believe that a God who was such a control freak that he’d kill you for gathering wood on the wrong day was reluctant to speak his mind on slavery? Are we to believe that a God who would burn us alive for the sin of complaining is a God who wishes to gently nurture us so that we learn on our own not to pillage and enslave?


The claim that God was working in mankind’s hearts to end slavery falls flat for several reasons. According to the Bible…

  1. God actively commanded slavery. In fact, the worse the form of slavery, the more actively he encouraged it.
  2. God showed himself more than willing to micromanage our lives, down to how we dress and how we cut our hair. Why was slavery less important than that?
  3. God was perfectly willing to enforce radical economics in other ways.
  4. God’s character was to punish even minor offenses severely. Why was slavery not important enough to make the list?

To me, this adds up to a refutation of the hypothesis that God was just working slowly and silently from within. Christians, what do you think?

Next time, we’ll turn to the New Testament and ask, What did Jesus say about slavery?

15 responses to “Did God Intend to End Slavery by Changing People’s Hearts?

  1. Though we find the word “slave” applied to those who serve the Lord, there is a place where the slave becomes a son. What an interesting concept. I didn’t understand the transformation or even the process. But God is not willing to own slaves. Though He ordains that we should know what it is to serve without hope of freedom, He also calls us to an obedience born of love. How beautiful it was, is, and will be, for those who serve out of a sincere love for the one who owns them. All who become sons of God will understand the true meaning of being a slave to righteousness.

    This is the very essence of becoming a son of God through the work of Jesus.

    By His Grace.

    • Thank you for your comment, HiwayChristian. I can appreciate what you said about a slave becoming a son. Also, you said that God “ordains that we should know what it is to serve without hope of freedom.” Presumably this was to make us that much more thankful when he redeems us. I can appreciate that line of thought as well. You seem to be suggesting that slavery was a passage to spiritual freedom and sonship — a freedom that would be savored all the more because of the hard times we’d been through.

      For Israel, that was certainly true. Their period of slavery in Egypt prepared them for eventual deliverance. Individual Christians may also feel that it’s true of them in a metaphorical sense.

      However, it was not true for those whose enslavement God commanded in the Old Testament (the subject of this series of posts). As I read the text, slavery is not some sort of evangelism tool by which Israel’s neighbors would emerge as sons of God. They were orphaned, beaten and raped. Not surprisingly, the Bible does not record any of the cities captured per Deuteronomy 20 turning to God after their enslavement. Likewise, the 32,000 virgins captured in Numbers 31 are never heard from again. If evangelism and redemption were God’s goal, don’t you think he would have commanded more humane treatment, or at least recorded the positive results of his program? (Please see my other posts in this series for more on those passages.)

      In any case, doesn’t it bother you that God would use such an evil device to reach people (if that’s what you’re suggesting)? I mean, suppose an evangelistic summer camp were caught abusing the children in its charge and they said, “We torture the children who have not yet become Christians so when they come to God they will be that much more thankful.” We would think that they were very sick people, wouldn’t we? For God to ordain the brutal slavery of Israel’s neighbors as part of their path to freedom seems to be to be much the same thing. Don’t you agree?

      I’d love to continue the dialog. I do hope you’ll leave more comments.

  2. I followed you in your reply for a while. Then you drew on “something other” than where my mind had been, to create the first comment. I’ll give this a try:

    There is slavery to sin. And in this slavery, perhaps bondage is the most appropriate word to use. In this case we see people bound with unbreakable hooks and restraints. Though there is Someone who is able and willing to release them, until He appears on their behalf, there is no hope for such slavery.

    There is a slavery, however, that most resembles what my target thought was. It is a slavery to ignorance, in a manner of speaking. We enter Christianity with a severely limited knowledge of what lies ahead. So we serve as slaves of righteousness as we learn His ways. But there will certainly come a point for the Christian, provided he remains at the feet of the Lord of Life, where we become knowlegable of a far more glorious calling. This place is where we learn that we, as an individual, have become accepted as a son. No longer are we subject to the bondage of religion. We become devoted to the Lord out a love more akin to that of a son to his Righteous Father. In this, the Lord spoke of how a slave does not know his master’s business. But we are to become accepted as sons. Now a son who loves his Father will certainly watch, learn, and adopt the behaviors of the Father he loves so much.

    I see what you were lifting up for us to examine. But I find no great benefit in rehashing the tragedy of the lost when speaking of the glorious willingness provoked by the sonship offered by Jesus’ sacrifice. On the other hand, perhaps I missed where you were about to go.

    By His Grace.

    • >> I find no great benefit in rehashing the tragedy of the lost … On the other hand, perhaps I missed where you were about to go.

      I don’t know whether you missed it, but here’s where I’m trying to go. I’m asking people who believe that the Bible infallibly records the words and acts of a good God to take stock of their position. If the Bible records God acting in an evil manner or giving evil commands then the Bible-believer has some thinking to do: either God really is evil or the Bible is wrong. The benefit of rehashing the tragedies, then, is to possibly align people with sobering truth and to pull them out of what might be a fantasy.

      Why do I bother with this effort? I hope you’ll stay tuned to this series. The final post, planned for November 5, will address that question.

      Thank you again for your comments. I appreciate your dropping by.

  3. I have found that every puzzle in life has at least three possible answers. The answer to the question of an evil God or an errant Bible that you are not presenting is the perception of man. I would gladly pursue this possible answer with you if you wish.

  4. I don’t blame you for questioning the validity of God being Love. And I don’t blame you for considering the Bible to be in error. It would naturally follow that if God is not completely love that the Bible would reflect that failing on His part.

    But in consideration of the third possible answer we are forced to consider what man’s make up. The following are provided as a foundation of understanding regarding man:
    1. He is limited to a “one thought mind”. We might toss around a few thoughts at any given moment. But to truly focus requires a lot of effort.
    2. The only reality we can point at is what is presented to our senses.
    3. We have all lied in one form or another. So how do we truly know that we can be trusted when it comes to making judgments regarding things we can’t present as proof?
    4. The memory of man is so very fleeting. We consider something today and look for the conclusions tomorrow, only to find that we need to revisit the entire argument to gleen even a tiny portion of what we concluded the day before.

    There are so many failings, on the part of man, that it’s a wonder that we even survive from generation to generation; let alone grasp the higher truths of life, not to mention eternity.

    With those few in mind, a foundation for discussion is laid.

    By His Grace.

    • HiwayChristian, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit.

      John 16:13 says that the Holy Spirit will lead Christians into “all truth”. In John 8:31-32, Jesus promised his disciples that they would know the truth, and it would set them free. Naturally he didn’t mean the truth about quantum physics, but surely the truth to which he referred included sound moral judgment on the basics. Don’t you think? Shouldn’t Jesus’ disciples (you, for instance) know right from wrong on a major issue like slavery?

      If so, why recuse yourself based on the “failings of man”? What does your Spirit-guided moral sense tell you about God’s commands to pillage, rape and enslave? Were those commands good or evil?

  5. To those whose eyes are tightly closed, no amount of evidence is sufficient. To those whose eyes are open, no evidence is necessary. 😉

    Thank you for this blog, my brother!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Sue.

      In connection with the main part of your comment, you’ll be interested to read my next post, The Feeling of Knowing.

      • Thanks, Sue. I love her three assumptions that we make about people who disagree with us (10:16): they’re ignorant, idiotic or evil. So true! I’ve been guilty of making all three of those, and I know I have also reaped what I have sown.

  6. Pingback: Feedback | Path of the Beagle

  7. Although the Jubilee year was commanded in the old Testament AND By Jesus himself in the New Testament no Jubilee year been celebrated since the end of the Babolynian exile in 515BCE ] after the captivity ended the Jubilee was essentially ignored, the reason was that the Jubilee was only to be observed when the Jews controlled all of Canaan, including the territories of Reuben and Gad and the eastern half-tribe of Manasseh.
    Not that it in any way affects your argument but just as a FYI

  8. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible | Path of the Beagle

  9. Pingback: Was Slavery God’s Righteous Judgment? | Path of the Beagle

  10. Pingback: Is God a Moral Monster? (Book by Paul Copan) | Path of the Beagle

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