Slavery in the Bible

Those who reject Christianity have been quick to argue that the Bible is not a good guide to morality because it condones slavery. The more I think about this issue, the more I have to agree with them.  This question matters because Christians argue that God, as described in the Bible, is the only real foundation for morality.  So what kind of morality do we get from the God of the Bible?

Consider Exodus 21:20-21 (ESV):

When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.

This clearly condones brutality to slaves. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as in the American South, but it seems to me that it wasn’t far behind — and since when do we judge a supposed guide for morality against one of the worst counter-examples in history? Christian apologists sometimes argue that this passage needs to be understood in the context of the Ancient Near East, or that God’s way of dealing with sin was to let man continue in it. But this portrays God as a moral compromiser, and part of the core message of Christianity is that God is absolutely not a moral compromiser.

Christians often say that passages like this need to be considered in context. But this passage is actually *more* absurd when taken in context. I know that many, probably most, of my readers know about the biblical account of Israel’s history. So just think for a moment about the pivotal event in this history, and see if you can guess why it would be a problem, in light of this event, to condone slavery.

See what I’m getting at?

OK, I’ll spell it out. The Israelites had just come out of brutal, oppressive slavery in Egypt; you can read it for yourself in the first several chapters of Exodus. All these people were encamped around Mount Sinai, ready for their lives to take a dramatic turn for the better, so no one could argue that God didn’t want to shake things up for the slaves in this society, since these people *were* slaves not long ago. In fact, one would expect God to say something like, “I just brought you out of slavery in Egypt. You remember all too well what it was like to be a slave. You shall not do to others what you would not have them do to you. Therefore, you shall not have slaves.” Incidentally, why isn’t the golden rule in the ten commandments?

(Note: I’m not saying that the biblical account of Israel’s history is true; I’m simply using it to show that the Bible is grossly inconsistent with itself.)

Keep in mind that I’m not judging God, because I don’t currently know of any evidence to suppose that God exists. Rather, I’m judging the claims that people made about God, and rejecting these claims as absurd. Christians do this with the claims of other religions; I know of no good reason to regard Christianity as any more likely to be true. Christianity may be more appealing in some regards, but that doesn’t make it any more likely to be true.

To my Christian readers, am I missing something here?


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One Response to “Slavery in the Bible”

  1. Andrew Says:


    Thanks for pointing me back to your blog, I got lost in my free time after finals were over and have been mildly lazy (like, I turned my mind off for a few days…).

    Before I go into the issue of slavery, can I just get an understanding of your worldview as it stands right now? By that I mean, where do you think we came from (questions of origins), how do we understand evil or right and wrong (questions of morality), what are we here for (questions of purpose), etc. I’m familiar with the beliefs of others that you’ve referenced, but I’m interested in what you believe, since for so long you’ve held to a Christian worldview. If you’re going to refer to me and other as “you Christians,” I’m interested in what you would call yourself.

    I can’t really discuss these matters with you without knowing your viewpoint (I’m interested here in a viewpoint that is more than just defensive against Christian beliefs). I guess I could, but my Christian worldview will seem like foolishness to you since (like everyone, religious or not) I hold some foundational metaphysical beliefs by faith. I guess I would like to answer some of those questions before arguing over 2 verses plucked out of the story of Bible (though I would like to get to that at some point).

    *I will say, though, that these discussions will be difficult if we don’t both have at least a mildly high view of Scripture (which you definitely do not), as my reading of individual verses will be remarkably different than yours simply because I take the Bible to be inerrant and completely consistent with itself. I read the Bible the way that it was meant to be read, as God’s *story* of redemption; it must be read as such, in a progressive and linear way.* /endexcursus

    I’ll be glad to discuss some of these things once we get past a few of the *bigger* questions; if we’re going to talk about evidence, I want to take it all the way to the root.


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