If the Bible is Inspired, Why Didn’t God Outlaw Slavery?
The question of the Bible and slavery illustrates for many people in the Western world today a foundational reason why the Bible can’t be anything but just another human creation and the God asserted by it an outmoded expression of the primitive cultures from which it arose.
If there is an all powerful, all knowing God who is responsible for the contents of this book, why on earth wouldn’t such a God be smart enough or good enough to include in this book a clear call for the abolition of slavery?
The argument implies that Western civilization’s consensus regarding slavery and abolition demonstrates a superiority to the morality found in the Bible and demonstrates why contemporary expressions of morality ought to have priority over injunctions found in the Bible.
The Book of the Covenant and Hebrew Slave Laws
While “spiritual” people may want to glean inspirational words and ideas by carefully picking “enlightened” chapters and verses from the Bible, other Christians who profess a “higher view” of the Bible scoff at this.
In defense of the “spiritual” most Christians are less different from the “spiritual” in practice than they care to admit. Most Christians glean inspiration from a sub-canon of the Bible, focusing on familiar Old Testament stories, Psalms, a few pretty passages from the prophets, and then a more general appropriation of the New Testament. Christians with a professed “high view” of scripture often avoid long stretches of the 5 books of Moses unless there is a specific behavior they wish to condemn.
Skeptics observe this practice and pounce. Christians read their Bible selectively just like the “spiritual” who are perusing the texts and practices of other religions for inspiration and meaningful moments. Christians might claim “it’s all God’s word” but behaviorally they tend to have a canon within the canon.
While Christians may like to fly the “10 Commandments” flag they seldom pay much attention to “The Book of the Covenant” which follows it. This is a section of laws pertaining to lots of different areas of life.
Peter Enns in his commentary gives a small outline of its contents.
A. Worship: Idols and Altars (20:22–26)
B. Social Responsibility (21:1–22:17)
1. Freedom and Servitude for Hebrew Slaves (21:1–11)
2. Humans Injuring Other Humans (21:12–27)
3. Various Injuries Involving Animals (21:28–36)
4. Concerning Matters of Property (22:1–17)
C. Worship and Social Responsibility (22:18–23:19)
1. Worship: Sorceresses, Bestiality, and False Sacrifices (22:18–20)
2. Social Responsibility: Oppression and Loans (22:21–28)
3. Worship: Offerings, Firstborn, Holiness (22:29–31)
4. Social Responsibility: Testimony in Court, an Enemy’s Animal, Oppression (23:1–9)
5. Worship: Sabbaths and Festivals (23:10–19)
Enns, P. (2000). Exodus (pp. 440–441). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Right near the beginning are laws pertaining to the treatment of Hebrew slaves.
I doubt anyone would read this passage for “inspiration”. It does raise a lot of questions.
- Does a passage like this demonstrate that the Bible is outmoded as an authoritative religious text?
- Does this impeach God as being an outmoded cultural expression?
- Does it serve the church to continue to carry texts like this or it is a sort of vestigial organ? Is it like inactive DNA for the church?
- Can the ongoing presence of such a text teach us something about God and how he interacts with history?
- Might it have something to say about Jesus?
Unrealistic Expectations of a Holy Book
A good place to start in exploring these issues is with our expectations of what we imagine a holy book is and how it comes into our hands.
Other religions assert that they holy books are somehow dictated by God for us. Islam asserts that the Quran was begun by the Angel Gabriel dictating to Muhammad. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter day Saints (the Mormon church) believes that Joseph Smith found tablets buried in upstate New York and with the help of seeing stones wrote the Book of Mormon.
A lot of Christians I know imagine that the Bible came about in a similar sort of way, but that isn’t really what the Christian church has believed is the way the Bible comes to us. Christians believe that the Bible is all written by people who God moved through the course of history and their lives. The Bible is a book written not by angels but by people even as it reveals God to us. Jesus didn’t write the Bible either. God worked in history through the work of people and cultures to give us the book we have.
The Bible was also written to specific groups of people for specific reasons at specific times. These contexts naturally impact what is written, how it is written, and the purpose it is written for.
We might imagine that God should be able to write a “perfect” book for all people outside of time and culture. I’d assert the problem with this idea is a failure to understand how people and communication work. We can’t understand anything outside of culture or context. Christian theology asserts that God accommodates himself to us so that we can understand.
Feeling Proud About the Sufferings of Others
Just like it is nice to imagine God delivering to us a good book apart from history or culture, so we also imagine that the “good” we imagine in our own stories stands apart from history and culture.
If there is a part of the American story that we imagine to be truly good and inspired, it is the story of the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement is the gold standard for morality and goodness for many Americans.
Most Americans, however, cheaply appropriate the good of the civil rights movement for themselves.
Americans are notoriously inconsistent when it come to talking about “the good”. Christian Smith notes that young Americans believe both that moral goodness is “self-evident”, or obvious to everyone while at the same time believe that moral goodness is contextually relative and can’t be imposed on another. These two statements seem obviously inconsistent to me, but this obviousness it seems is not shared by many.
While American may disagree about the morality of a great many things the majority can agree that the struggle for racial equality under the law and full citizenship has been the defining moral triumph of American history. If there is a self-evident wrong for Americans it was slavery, and if there was a self-evident moral struggle it was the abolition of slavery won in the Civil War and then supposedly completed by the racial civil rights movement led by Dr. King. This struggle has become the baseline moral ruler by which all other social justice struggles are compared. This struggle becomes the prototype for other issues seen as social justice challenges.
Many African Americans note, however, that it was their blood that was shed for many of these victories and that other folks who suffered little or not at all come in late to the struggle, sometimes not recognizing how much social injustice remains.
Because the struggle against slavery has such a dominant position in our moral imagination we find a strange discomfort in the LORD not simply condemning slavery in the Bible like we imagine any moral God should. How could an all good God have missed this one? Didn’t God know slavery was wrong and if he did why didn’t he just simply ban it in Israel so it could be a light to the nations? This is no easy question.
The Moral Holiness Problem and the Holy Book Problem
I suggest that the moral holiness problem of God has everything to do with the Holy Book problem of God. How might a truly holy God communicate goodness to creatures such as we are so completely surrounded by moral compromise.
My assertion of our moral compromise might seem to you overblown. Surely any standard of conduct that follows the Tao places us on sure moral ground. Am I simply appealing to motivational sins? Are these sufficient to ground my assertion of our position of deep moral corruption?
Sin, Culture and History
Abraham was a slave owner. David, even being an outrageous polygamist still managed to commit murder for the sake of adultery all for sex. How many women did he really need? Weren’t dozens of wives and concubines enough? Joshua was ordered to commit Canaanite genocide. Jesus rebuffs the Syro-phoenician woman. The Bible seems littered with words and deeds we find highly questionable if not outrageously wrong.
From our cultural and historical point of view we have definite ideas of right and wrong with respect to the behavior of others. These judgments are our own.
While there are a great many stories in the Bible that are universally seen as displaying and condemning immoral behavior, there are others with split the moral opinions of observers from different times and places.
A survey of the moral judgments of others on similar texts yields different answers even within our same cultural stream. A hundred years ago people’s perspectives on the Bible were different from our own. Do we imagine that a hundred years from now our descendants won’t do the same to us?
What Might God Say To Us?
There is a reason we call “blind spots” blind spots. Because we can’t see them even if others can. Part of what we do is find our own flaws and sins small and justifiable and those of others to be beyond pardon. We imagine that if we stay within the lines that we think are important that God must surely agree with our own standards.
I can think of another of areas in our culture and society that I can easily imagine God could take complete offense at.
1. The idea of national identity, citizenship and rights: If you are born a Haitian or in most African countries you are a prisoner of those lands and the economic fate of your people. If you are born in America your options are drastically improved. All are people. This one tiny idea determines the life, death and welfare of billions.
What if God came to us and said “your whole system of national identity, citizenship, rights and privilege is an abomination to any sense of human equality. Do away with it tomorrow!”
How might we respond to such a command? How could we? It would turn our entire world upside down.
2. Money: Nothing else in scripture, not the devil, not evil, is set against God like money is. “You can’t serve two masters, God and mammon”, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”.
What if God came to us and said “this money thing you’ve got going is unjust and causes untold suffering and injustice. Do away with it. Food, clothing, shelter, medicine, education, etc. should all be given without money.”
What would we do with such a request? Can any of us imagine a world without money? We’d quickly protest that to simply do away with it would cause enormous suffering and injustice too. Would we be right? I don’t know. The thought is unthinkable.
3. Banish the use of fossil fuels: Suppose God decided that the used of fossil fuels is destroying the earth and must be stopped for the welfare of future generations. No more coal burning power plants. No more gasoline or diesel engines. Period.
What would we do?
I can go on. The point is, that there are institutions that we simply assume are necessary for the world as we know it. Slavery was such an institution.
Historians have long recognized a large cluster of analogous institutions and relationships extending across the globe and over millennia as variations on a condition called slavery. The most crucial and frequently utilized aspect of the condition is a communally recognized right by some individuals to possess, buy, sell, discipline, transport, liberate, or otherwise dispose of the bodies and behavior of other individuals. Within this definition would fall individuals who might be agents of supreme political power, such as eunuchs of an emperor’s court. They might be incorporated into an elite band of warriors as the mainstay of imperial authority and military expansion. Their lives could be materially abundant or miserable. They might be pampered sexual servants of the wealthy. They might be short-term captives whose main value was as subjects of elaborate ritual sacrifice or as candidates for deadly medical experiments. They might be subject to rulers, corporate institutions, or individual members of a society. They might serve economic, military, sexual, reproductive, or religious ends. Such individuals were, at least initially, unprotected by ties to the community. Slaves were usually designated as outsiders, either by the fact of initial captivity, purchase, or inherited status.
Drescher (2010-05-01). Abolition (Kindle Locations 174-183). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
When Americans think of slavery they think of one specific historical manifestation, one of the most cruel in all of human history. The depths of the depravity of perpetual-race-based African slavery as it came to be in the American South ought to cause us to doubt the myth of progress that we imagine abolished it. Slavery as an institution in world history is nearly as universal, nearly as diverse and nearly as ancient as marriage.
We should also pay attention to the fact that just because a form of control changes shape and names we have many ways of enforcing the outcomes of slavery in the modern world without the institution itself. A wealthy and powerful person may cheer the glories of protecting personal property and denouncing theft while profiting from the legal means of exploiting the labor of others and their misery. We might think we avoid murder and adultery by avoiding killing and intercourse but Jesus notes that there are many ways to violate our neighbor without physically invading their personal space.
Christian theologians have long used the word “accommodation” to describe ways in which God shows patience and grace because of our rebellious and limited state.
My mother recently found a quilt my wife made for my parents when Phillip was small. A grandchild in their small use of language asks to relate, to be received, to be loved. The child knows little of what the grandfather knows so the grandfather accommodates himself in all sorts of ways and gives the child but a small part of the goodness and the glory the grandfather wants for the child.
God is patient with us, longing for us to grow in the kind of generosity and strength that he possesses and intends to give to us.
We might say “but if he had only banished slavery then when he had the chance…”
Oh that undoing this broken world were so easy. Did he banish murder by telling us not to? Did he banish hatred by telling us to love?
The Fulfillment of the Law
Christianity asserts that the law is a pointer, it points us towards love. Jesus says the law can be summed up in two commands, love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. We right away point out that owning and abusing someone is no way to love them, and we would be right.
The most important book in the Bible on the subject of slavery and the way the gospel undoes it is the book of Philemon. In that book the Apostle Paul appeals to slave owner Philemon to forgive and receive back his runaway slave Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother. It is important to read the brief letter. Paul doesn’t “force” this on either of them, he wants them to embrace their new relationship freely because of Christ.
Why because of Christ?
Paul understood the gospel to not be that God tells us what to do and we do it out of fear, but that we respond to the mercy, beauty and love of God and in response do right by our neighbor.
In the American context slavery was abolished, but many slaves were freed to starve, to be bound again by Jim Crow, and to suffer racism and injustice that forged chains that could not simply be undone by changing the law. We continue to live with the bitter legacy and injustice of slavery.
The truth is that whether an institution like slavery is mediating it or not, it is our inability to love to keeps us offending God, hurting ourselves and each other.
The law puts a burden on the wrongdoer. The poverty of the law is that if the wrongdoer lacks the strength, moral or otherwise, to do right by God and our neighbor, the entire community remains in poverty. The community suffers in the original sin or crime, and then again in the punishment.
What God does for us in Christ is offer a bailout. We are poor and can’t buy our way out, so he comes to pay for us. He becomes our slave. He becomes the object of our spite, our violence, our evil. He becomes both the victim of our crime and pays the penalty due us for our treachery and gives us his freedom.
What Paul says to Philemon is that this greater goodness has been done to him and for him. Won’t he embrace the power of Christ to likewise extend costly grace to his slave Onesimus? Paul also asks Onesimus to forgive any wrong done to him by his slave master, releasing Philemon from any debt and himself act like Christ to Philemon and come humble as a free servant. Paul’s hope is that while the two may or may not be seen in the eyes of the world under imperfect laws that in their relationship they may transcend these thin and poor roles and become brothers under one Lord Christ.
You might hear this sermon and say “what does this have to do with me? We have no more slaves?”
That institution may by grace no longer be with us, but we all live in a world of pecking orders and we all know it. We rank each other by money, power, beauty, and innumerable other subtle ways, playing games to advantage ourselves at the expense of others.
Jesus, by becoming our slave becomes our king and invites us to be the serve each other.
Matthew 23:11–12 (NET)
11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.