[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.
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…
- God actively commanded slavery. In fact, the worse the form of slavery, the more actively he encouraged it.
- 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?
- God was perfectly willing to enforce radical economics in other ways.
- 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?