Over at The Gospel Coalition, I recently got into a friendly debate over Biblical slavery. (Side note: our debate has almost nothing to do with Jarvis Williams’ original post.) Obviously this is an intimidating topic for anyone to tackle, but I’m going to try to whip my thoughts into a coherent analysis.
Part of the problem with Biblical slavery is that websites that delve into it fall into one of two partisan camps: the theodicy argument (slavery is evidence that God is evil and/or the Bible isn’t morally trustworthy) and the apologetic argument (Biblical slavery wasn’t really that bad).
The theodicy view is admittedly the stronger argument. It’s difficult to deny that slavery is a repulsive institution, and it’s a matter God Himself establishes via Old Testament Law. And personally I find most apologetic defenses weaselly and intellectually dishonest (although I’ll give credit to my debate partner for conceding the uglier aspects of slavery). In general evangelical Christians tend to downplay the most ruthless verses and – most importantly – the unspoken implications of said verses -and paint a Disneyfied picture of well-behaved slaves obeying their kindly (and temporary) masters.
As I see it, the first thing we need to do when we approach the topic is to set preconceived assumptions about the Bible aside. Christians tend to begin with the premise that because the Bible is Holy, slavery must be contorted in such a way so that it keeps God’s reputation untainted, while nonchristians use slavery as a wedge to topple the Christian position.
So let’s look at Biblical slavery as a practical problem. We’re dealing with a group of nations who were constantly at war with each other. Something needed to be done with the collateral damage (i.e. prisoners of war and civilians). In Joshua’s case, the answer was genocide. In most other cases, slavery was the answer. The third option – letting survivors practice their faith and culture under Hebrew rule – wouldn’t have been realistic. The odds of facing organized revolt or a collaboration with a third invading nation were too great. So slavery was the least awful option.
The problem is that once we concede that something horrible was going to happen to the losing side, we’re left with the choice between secular justifications and divine justifications. The Bible supplies divine justifications, and just as importantly, God’s rules for Biblical slavery are more reprehensible than they had to be.
Now I’m sure at this point I’ve lost a lot of evangelicals. To even entertain the notion that God may have instituted a morally bankrupt system violates what my debate partner called “the righteousness of the Law…and the Lawgiver.” As I’ll get to later, I do believe that there are ways to condemn Biblical slavery and maintain faith in the righteousness of the Lawgiver.
Given the breadth of this topic, I’m going to break my argument down into a multi-part series.
I’ll call Part 2 Starting Into The Abyss. By that I mean that if we’re going to talk about Biblical slavery, we need to get beyond the tendency to focus on the letter of the law and focus on the implications it had for the men, women, and children who suffered as slaves, and remember that these were living, breathing people as real as you and I.
Part 3 will focus on the plight of Female Slaves.
Part 4 will be Weighing the Christian Arguments. Even though much of the Christian defense Biblical slavery tends to compare it favorably to American slavery, I’m going to avoid discussing American slavery as much as possible. In my view we don’t need to cite American slavery to critique Biblical slavery any more than we need to cite The Trail of Tears to criticize Joshua.
And speaking of Joshua, I’m going to resist exploring the genocide issue as much as possible. The two topics are often paired together, but I think Biblical slavery warrants examination on its own.
In Part 5, I’ll attempt to Reconcile What We Know, which I think speaks for itself.