I’ve written quite a bit on the ways in which Christians bend over backwards to justify scripture, and it’s inspired me to devise a simple thought experiment to articulate my concern to a Christian audience.
When you ask a Christian apologist whether the Bible supports slavery, she typically begins by explaining that what we mean by “slavery” today differs from the ancient practice, which was more analogous to indentured servitude. Rather than take her word on this, let’s take a brief look – for a detailed discussion on this topic is not the purpose of this short post – at our source material.
Leviticus 25:45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule one over another ruthlessly.
The Christian has a problem. The Bible doesn’t merely use the word “slavery” by some mistranslation but also defines exactly what it means by it. A Jew was sanctioned to own a person as property, force him to work, beat him as punishment (with some few restrictions), and his slave was transferable to his children upon his death. You could not ask for a more straightforward description of what slavery is, and not incidentally, laws on slavery were based on race, of all things. Note the above passage advises Jews not to be ruthless with other Jews with no such sanction on foreigners.
Rather than argue the finer points (as though there were finer points to argue), I’d like to pose a question in hope that Christians would devote some serious thought to passages like this. Consider the following hypothetical: suppose the Bible condemned slavery outright. Pretend that instead of using up a commandment on graven images, the third commandment was “thou shalt not own a person as property.” Take out all the provocative bits in the Bible that relate to the topic, and put them in a little pile.
Now, if you can, take that pile of verses on slavery and pour them into the Qur’an. You’re now living in a world where the Bible condemns slavery as a core doctrine, and a rival religion’s book openly endorses it. My question is this: how would you interpret these passages if you read them in the Qur’an?
Suppose you pick up Islam’s holy book to see what the fuss is about and find passages like the one quoted above. There are even instructions on how severely to beat slaves. Would you conjure vague justifications about “context” and “progressive revelation”? Would you split hairs on the translation of the word “slavery” from Arabic and argue, based on the Qur’an’s description, whether it’s really the right word for us to use?
I invite you to think freely and allow honesty to prevail over any worries you may have over the potential implications your response carries. There is no cause to be disturbed or wonder whether you’re doing harm to your faith – this is, after all, a hypothetical. Ask yourself whether you might boast the Bible’s superiority to the Qur’an in this scenario? If not, why not?
It’s not unusual for me to make observations about scripture and then moralize about them for a few hundred words, and I fear at times this serves only to bore my allies and annoy my opponents. Today I leave you with your own thoughts and my best wishes as to where they might lead you. You might conclude you still revere the Bible but disagree with its policies on slavery. In that event, it will be your pleasure to notice the world does not crumble around you, nor do the trumpets of Armageddon blast overhead. You may even feel that rare sense of alignment which comes when we finally manage to be honest with ourselves.
Great post Cole. Very well said. Whenever I’ve raised the subject of the Bible’s endorsement of slavery to believers, they immediately say, “no the Bible doesn’t endorse it!” which is usually followed by “it was different back then” (indentured servitude). As those verses (and others) clearly point out, it was the epitomy of slavery. And I think we can safely conclude that slaves in the Old Testament times were likely treated far worse than the way the early Americans cruelly treated slaves brought in from Africa.
Yes, what a range of responses we get from Christian apologists on this point! “It wasn’t slavery.” “OK, it was, but it wasn’t that bad.” “OK, it was bad, but not compared with other contemporaneous cultures.” “OK, it was just as bad as its contemporaries, but God was leading Israel progressively toward…” At least their being obtuse is a sign they know there is a problem with these verses. Perhaps the Holy Spirit privately revealed this to them, but I suspect they owe a greater debt to the enlightenment which paved the way for our modern values.