An Observation on the God of the Bible and Slavery

God meme "kills thousands of Egyptian children in order to free his people *from* slavery (Exod 12:29-30) immediately instructs his people how to *make their own slaves* (Exod 21:2-7; Lev 25:44-46)"

Has anyone ever noticed that in the Bible, God slaughters thousands of Egyptian children in order to free his people from slavery (Exod 12:29-30), BUT then immediately instructs his people on how to make slaves of their own (Exod. 21:2-7; Lev. 25:44-46)?

Exodus 12:29-30

“At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. (30) Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.” (NRSV)

Exodus 21:2-7

“When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. (3) If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. (4) If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. (5) But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” (6) then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life. (7) When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do…” (NRSV)

Lev. 25:44-46

“As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. (45) You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. (46) You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.”

So God is OK with slavery, as long as they are foreigners.

[And in the NT, slaves are commanded to continue to obey their masters.]

Col. 3:22

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.” (NRSV)

1 Pet. 2:18

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” (NIV)

Eph. 6:5

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (NRSV)

So, tell me again how God is the objective moral foundation for all time?

(And please don’t claim “prooftexting” or “out of context”: these verses mean exactly what they say, and they mean the very same thing in their fuller context. Besides, in what context would the supreme God of the universe ever say that it’s OK to own other people as property?)

(And quick, someone tell me how I am not reading this properly because I do not “possess” the seer stone Holy Spirit. Please tell me that this “revealed Scripture” doesn’t really mean what it says.)

(And before you make the “slavery was totally different back then” argument, read here.)

I welcome comments.

21 Responses

  1. This isn’t a fully fledged response, but I have some thoughts. I’m not that convinced that the “slavery was different” argument does not have some traction, at least regarding the Roman institution. It has, as I am sure you know, significant differences from North-American modern slavery, and ANE slavery. The scope for them to be kept in good conditions, even to have free time and money to spend, going to theatres and so forth, gain their freedom, surely must be mentioned and their conditions (at least of domestic slaves) carefully delineated away from other societies institutions of slavery. The objection that they were owned by someone is legitimate; but then the whole of Roman society was a tangled mess of such claims on a person’s activities and actions. Your Pater Familas could (in theory) have you killed and decide who you married, and lets not get started on the rules or reciprocity and duties to others that controlled the Roman mindset; including those instituted in the patron-client relationship. Lets be quite careful when we talk about such things to provide proper contexts for such issues as the ancient concept and practice of slavery and freedom.

    Also, one could argue that Stoicism has no right to be turned to as an appropriate repository of morality (a ridiculous idea…) because its main expositors failed to call for the abolition of slavery. Epictetus (an ex-slave) argued that one should remain in your situation, much as Paul does above, and when they had an Emperor no less devoted to the school, his response was to not wish for Plato’s utopia on earth. The reasons that scholars of Stoicism (such as Gill, Brunt, and Thorsteinsson) provide to explain this, that it was a reasoned conclusion given the extend of slavery in the ancient world and the limited leverage at which people could enact such changes, can equally legitimately apply to Christianity. You might argue that if it was being guided by God that the Bible should have been clear that when it was possible that the cessation of slavery should be enacted, but that is a different argument.

  2. these are good points. i would agree with most of it.
    i nearly didn’t even list the nt passages, precisely because i wanted the conversation to focus on the first part (from the hebrew bible) and the meme.

    there certainly were gradations of ownership of other persons, just as there were gradations of care toward those that were owned. but they were still owned.

    i’m more concerned with the theological question of why god would kill “foreign” children in an effort to free slaves, and then instruct his people to make slaves of “foreign” people. (and to a lesser extent, i wonder why the supreme god of the universe could/would/didn’t abolish slavery, but individuals from a bunch or nations centuries later can. but let’s focus on the primary question.)

  3. Thanks. I, in turn, largely agree.

    A previous lecturer of mine though, Peter J. Williams, has commented on Old Testament slavery in this interview that I’m sure will be of interest, although (from memory) I don’t think it touches on the issue you bring forth above about foreign slaves:

  4. “i’m more concerned with the theological question of why god would kill “foreign” children in an effort to free slaves, and then instruct his people to make slaves of “foreign” people.”

    Sounds to me like this religion was cooked up by the Bronze Age version of the Koch brothers. By some curious coincidence, the rules are all very convenient for certain monied classes.

  5. Excellent point, Dr. Bob.

    The comeback from the religious folks is: “We cannot question what God says or does, or judge it. We just have to ACCEPT it. . . . God furnishes to humans the standards by which He wants them to live, but He acts in his own Divine Discretion . . . which humans cannot question of judge. What may seem to be ‘hypocrisy’ really isn’t, because God does whatever he feels like, because He’s, y’know . . . GOD.”

    CLEVER, HUH ? Not only is it “clever” . . . it’s intellectually dishonest and it’s nonsense.

  6. The contention that “slavery back then” (in the times supposedly covered by the OT and the NT) was somehow “different” (and therefore perfectly “okay” by today’s standards) is one that is made from time to time. The problem is that what is offered as a basis for the argument is that what appears in the OT and NT (any versions thereof) is factually accurate, which is unsupportable and laughable (sorry . . . no one named “Eve” or anything else had a conversation with a talking snake, etc.)

    On Christian Radio one hears the contention stated as “We KNOW that slavery then was much less onerous than was slavery in the United States before the Civil War . . . ” and then the speaker simply moves on. No surprise !

    The agenda of people who argue like that is that slaves “back then” were like “cleaning ladies” and “gardeners” in our own time. WRONG.
    That supposed “rules” were stated in this or that Biblical passage (any version) does not prove anything, of course, especially since so much of the OT (any version) was written hundreds of years after the supposed events depicted (thus accounting for the accuracy of what are claimed to be “predictions” !) and . . . was a redaction (i.e., a “clean-up job”). And who seriously contends that supposed “rules” were consistently followed, even assuming that what is depicted in the Bible (any version) re: “rules” is even accurate ?

    The fact is: if you can buy and sell another human being, you are talking about SLAVERY, and NOT talking about hiring cleaning ladies and gardeners. Christian apologists may dance around all day if they want, but they can’t ignore that (as much as they try).

    I keep asking Christians to point to even ONE verse in the Bible (any version) that is ANTI-slavery and I have yet to have one cited. BTW, Paul is NOT “God” and nowhere appears authorization from “God” to speak for “God” and his musing that “there is neither slaver nor free” as far as “God” is concerned obviously clashes with verses telling slaves to obey their masters.

    Attempts by Christians to misrepresent what the Bible (any version) says about slavery is an attempt to run away from what the Bible (any version) says.

  7. […] made about the Bible’s understanding of certain social institutions like marriage and slavery, a colleague of mine responded immediately, yet indirectly with a logically fallacious and highly […]

  8. The comment from CLASSICAL TIMELINE

    “slavery was different” argument does not have some traction, at least regarding the Roman institution. It has, as I am sure you know, significant differences from North-American modern slavery, and ANE slavery.

    just blew my mind and made me laugh at the same time. How in the name of reason can someone attempt to distinguish between one type of slavery and another? That is like saying that if a child is molested by a member of the clergy the act isn’t as bad as if it were some leech hanging out at the school ground. Slavery is slavery, owning another human being is a reprehensible situation.


  9. “How in the name of reason can someone attempt to distinguish between one type of slavery and another?”

    Pretty much the same way you can distinguish between one type of imprisonment and another. Being chained up in a tiny cell laying in a pool of your own waste with a bag over your head is one kind of imprisonment, and house arrest with an ankle bracelet GPS tracker is another kind. Both are restrictions on freedom. Nobody would say the two are indistinguishable.

  10. And yet God approves of them both?

  11. Edmund,

    That is a rather irrational reply. This is what historians, and academics do: we calmly examine things. The mere fact that many people willingly sold themselves into slavery in Roman society, as opposed to any such compulsion in North Atlantic/Caribean slavery, should tell you that your parallel with pedophilia is completely inappropriate and unhelpful. Trying to analyize who I am, my race, my motivations, and my friends, when I made statements that any classical historian would is ridiculous and offensive. I never said ancient slavery was acceptable, I was just careful to place it within a context so we could better appreciate what phenomenon the early Christians (and philosophers) were responding to. Last year an skeptical group put up a billboard with a picture of a shackled African slaver and underneath the verses that Dr Cargill posted. I shook my head, not because I am a white male, but because I am a historian and the anachronism was jarring and distorting.

    I am surprised that Bob thought that Edmunds’ comment that should pass through moderation actually, or at least not be redacted.

  12. Actually yes Bob I would like the comment to be removed. Aside from trying to suggest that I agree with slavery he iissued threats (Social Darwnism).

  13. […] to interpret the following passage for me? (I only have a PhD in this subject, and have addressed this issue before, but those are the “thoughts of men” and multiple of my graduate degrees are from a […]

  14. i didn’t catch it. I’ve redacted a portion. thanx for bringing it to my attention.

  15. Jon Hendry:

    Slavery is ALWAYS wrong, no matter when it occurs. The fact that “God” in the Bible (any version) approves it is of absolutely no consequence.

    in any event, the Bible (any version) is folklore, not fact.

    i could never support any religion that is based on a book whose “God” approves of slavery. NEVER. But lots of people have NO problem with that.

  16. I have heard this argument of OT and NT slavery was different enough! Were there differences? Yes! But there were also similarities. You were still stripped naked and observed like an animal. You were still bred like an animal. You could be branded and separated from your family. In the OT life was only good for you if you were a Hebrew owned by a fellow Hebrew. There was a loophole though, you could convert to Judaism. Despite this, the NT writers clearly showed hypocrisy with their writings… They talked about how all were equal in God’s eyes but at the same time thought slavery was acceptable. Once again there were differences in SOME FORMS of Roman slavery than N. American slavery but the life of a Roman slave was still no picnic.

  17. Also about cd. dedalus stating how we shouldn’t questions God’s actions and just go with blind obedience with question, I disagree with. I cannot help but question these things. No offense cd. dedalus.

  18. typos shouldn’t question God’s actions and just go with blind obedience WITHOUT question. Typo sorry! To me actions like this in the Bible call into question the existence of the God that is illustrated in the Bible.

  19. It would seem that the biggest problem in the modern world is two huge Abrahamic based religions that worship books by or about their so called founders. This belief system type is a priori detachment from reality (like real scholarship maybe?) and we can only hope that the human race will outgrow this madness. Until the cure is found, we can only offer our knowledge and sympathy to the victims/members of these religions.

  20. Hi Michael and Mariah,

    It seems that there is *always* an excuse that Bible-believers have to justify whatever position they want.

    . . . and of course, if one doesn’t *like* the version of “the Bible” that one is reading, there are lots of other “versions” thereof. Keep looking for a version that one likes, seems to be their rule .. and then claim that “it” is the “true” version.

  21. I’m just going to concentrate on the issue of slavery in the NT.
    The teachings in the NT clearly speak against slavery; paul could not tell the christian slave masters to free all their slaves because it was against Roman laws regarding slavery. The Christian could only free some of thier slaves for example, if they had three they could only free 2, if they had 4 or 10 they could only free half, if they had 11 or 30 they could only free a third, so on and so forth, so, some of the christians still had slaves but they didn’t have to be slaves even if they still had all their slaves – they were commanded to treat their slaves as human beings and this would have even made some of the slaves to want to continue under these christians masters considering how bad slavery was at that time. Paul couldn’t tell the slaves to rebel because that would be sending them to their death and moreover paul was not their to start a movement against slavery but to preach the gosple and save souls. The slaves pauls was telling to obey their masters, were either slaves with non Christian masters or slaves who were not freed by their Christian maters or even those who might have decided to stay and continue under them. Paul also told the slaves that if they could free themselves, they should do it.
    Paul spoke against slavery in Galetians 3:28 and making that statement was something big at that time becasue slaves were not regarded as people of great importance but here comes paul saying that slaves and their masters are one. In the church, some of the slave could have been made elders, meaning that spiritualy speaking they would have authority over any slave master in the church and would be resprected by them.
    If the true message of Christianity was taken seriously, slavery would have been abolished a long time ago.

    GOD bless.

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