I can’t believe I even need to say that. But there it is. A Christian acquaintance recently objected to my criticisms of the Bible. (For context, I posted this image.)
A few days later, hallelujah! A rebuttal was posted, explaining that slavery in Biblical times was more “indentured servitude” than slavery, and that slavery in the Bible wasn’t such a bad thing, really. Biblical slavery was like being part of the family! (No, seriously, there are actually people who say this.)
Now, to be fair, in the Old Testament, there were two types of slaves – Hebrew slaves, and slaves taken from other nations. The laws governing the ownership of Hebrew slaves were significantly more humane than those governing Gentiles owned by the children of Israel. For instance, in Leviticus 25, there is a clear contrast between the two classes of slaves:
39 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
See how that works? You must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly, and you can only keep them for six years. Anyone else? Whatever. Yours forever. Pass them down to your kids as an inheritance. SWEET.
But, but… it was like being part of the family, right? It wasn’t a bad life for those slaves, right? Silly atheist, you’re confusing slavery in America with Biblical slavery – two totally different things!
20 “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. 21 Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.(Exodus 21:20-21)
Huh. I don’t know about you, but being beaten with a rod isn’t acceptable treatment in my family, regardless of whether my “smiting” puts me in a morgue. Should I die immediately or a couple of days after the beating, I have a feeling our judicial system would view it as something slightly more problematic than a property loss for my assailant. And — I’m gonna go out on a limb here — even if I fully recovered from this figurative beating, it would still be legally actionable. Because, you know, BEATING SOMEONE WITH A ROD.
Historically speaking, slavery was never a super awesome situation (for the slave, anyway). Theologian William Barclay, in his study of the letter to the Ephesians, examined the historical context in which Paul’s epistles were written:
…basically the life of the slave was grim and terrible. In law he was not a person but a thing. Aristotle lays it down that there can never be friendship between master and slave, for they have nothing in common; ‘for a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.’ Varro, writing on agriculture, divides agricultural instruments into three classes—the articulate, the inarticulate, and the mute. The articulate comprises the slaves; the inarticulate the cattle; and the mute the vehicles. The slave is no better than a beast who happens to be able to talk. Cato gives advice to a man taking over a farm. He must go over it and throw out everything that is past its work; and old slaves too must be thrown out on the scrap heap to starve. When a slave is ill it is sheer extravagance to issue him with normal rations.
There’s a lot more where that came from, but you get the idea. If not, allow me to sum up: SLAVERY BAD.
Assertions that attempt to minimize the injustice and outrage of slavery in Biblical times are not just silly – they’re dishonest. They require a blatant disregard of clear Biblical texts and historical evidence. You can’t truthfully dodge the issue of the Bible’s failure to condemn owning human beings as slaves. And if the only way you can defend the Bible’s track record on slavery is to lie, you’re hardly in a position to rhetorically stick it to militant lady-atheists like me.