Answers in Exegesis: Is slavery evil?

This is a difficult topic to write and think about, but I hope that you will bear with me.

“Slavery is evil!”

An atheist recently made that assertion in a conversation. I asked him a simple question, “On what grounds can you make such an amazing assertion?” He promptly replied with three philosophical positions in an attempt to show how he could make that claim, then I promptly turned them around to use them to support slavery. I did so because it demonstrates that the issue is not the institution but rather the philosophy that drives it. 
If we’re honest in our assessment of the objection to slavery, it’s not with the institution, but how people behave when they own slaves that truly disturb us. We often think about the conditions in which people who happened to have black skin were abused by whites, and I believe that it is fair to say that it was wrong for whites to abuse blacks that were enslaved by them. The obvious problem is that we still haven’t said that “slavery” as an institution is wrong, which is something that I don’t think that we can do. Looking at the history, and the arguments used to oppose slavery in the United States that ran from colonial periods up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the only consistent argument that I can find against the institution is that those who were enslaved were mistreated, and because the institution allows abuse of persons, we abolished the institution. Guess what, that still doesn’t make the institution wrong or evil, rather it makes those that run the institution wrong or evil.
The point that I am driving at is not that slavery is right or wrong, because it’s like asking whether driving a car is right or wrong since people are prone to drink alcohol to excess then drive and put other drivers in danger, rather whether or not people are judging the correct part of the issue. I would argue that certain institutions are neither moral or immoral, rather they are amoral, they have no morality in and of themselves, therefore to declare them as being moral or immoral, as being good or evil, is something of a non-sequitur.
When we look at objections raised by atheists regarding the Bible, the largest objection seems to be around the issue of slavery. And almost ever instance that I have dealt with the issue, there has been one passage thrown out, without exception, is this passage,
And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished:for he is his property. (Exodus 21:20-21 KJV)
However, I don’t think they read the entire passage, because the way that it seems that they read it is something like this,
And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand;… he shall not be punished:for he is his property.
If you’ve ever dealt with this issue, then more than likely you’ve seen it presented like that in an argument: divorced from its context, stripped of its core, and dropped like a sledgehammer on a peanut. Well let’s apply some hermeneutical principles to the issue and get at the heart of the matter exegetically.
Now what most opponents do is look at the first 11 verses of chapter 21 of Exodus, which begin laying out some of the groundwork for what will be the system under which servants (Hebrew word ‘ebed) will operate. In the Israelite system there was a dual system running: one side was voluntary, a person could sell themselves (indentured servitude) and the other side was involuntary (included prisoners of war, criminals not found worthy of death, and slaves bought from other nations), also in this system was a subcategory, the bride (yes, as cultural repulsive as it is, but that’s for another day). When skeptics and objectors come to this passage, they seem to forget that slavery was an institution that had been ingrained in cultures for probably a thousand years already. The Israelites themselves had just come out of slavery so their experience would be limited to what they understood, so God, in his wisdom, begins to gradually shift the paradigm. He identifies the groups, but notice, the people in these groups aren’t dehumanized. When we look at the majority of history, we see that in almost every culture where slavery was instituted, those people who lived under it were considered to be less than human, merely property, and could be used, or abused, for that matter, which is something we see in antebellum slavery in the United States.
Verse 12 of Exodus 21, suddenly changes the tone of the chapter,
Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. (ESV)
Then, after making a provision for accidental death (manslaughter), there the text begins to qualify what is a “man” in the law and actions that call for capital punishment, such as,
  • people who would abuse their parents (v.15)
  • man-stealers (v.16)
  • those who would abandon their parents (v.17)
  • case of injury in a fight (v.18-19)
Then, we come to verse 20,
When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged.(ESV)
Notice that the slave is raised to the level of a “man”, the slave is re-humanized, his, or her, life is just as valuable as the free man. Where other systems placed those who had to live under that institution as being less that human, the biblical paradigm raised them back, making it clear that even though they were in that position, which could be through no fault of their own if they were bought from other nations, their humanity was intact and to be respected.
Now, does that mean that every Israelite slave holder recognized this? No, of course not. The system was prone to abuse and was even one of the reasons why Israel found itself under judgement when the Babylonians invaded and destroyed them in 586BC (Jeremiah 34:13-22).
So, is slavery immoral, evil even? No, but because it is prone to abuse by wicked men, it was outlawed in the United States by the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Is the Bible wrong because it gives proscriptions and prescriptions for how the theocratic nation of Israel was to conduct the institution as it existed under its jurisdiction? No, because the Bible is simply reporting history. But as the Bible reports history, even the ugliness and abuses of sinful men, it gives us hope and understanding as to why such institutions simply have no real place in society, grounding its argument in the nature of God and that God has made man in his image.
The objections and the arguments against the Bible and Christianity, on this issue, are simply fallacious arguments when one applies good hermeneutic principles and some thought to the issue. Now some might try to argue that I’m dodging the issue. Clearly, I’m not. I’m taking the revelation that has been given to us and applying logic and reason to the issue, defining the categories according to the authors of Scripture, and applying the principles that have been revealed up to that point. If an objector is going to assert that slavery, as an institution, is evil, as my interlocutor did, then they have to demonstrate how it can be so. If the assertion is based on potential abuses of such a system, that still doesn’t make the assertion true, because, if the system were still in place,it could be argued that we could simply reform it, putting in place similar protections and recognitions that existed in the Mosaic code. But it is ultimately in recognizing the depravity of man (a reformed doctrine) that realization that reforms are only as effective as the people are willing to let them be, that nations, namely Christian nations, have ultimately outlawed slavery. So arguments to the contrary are simply fallacious because they have nothing to ground themselves to outside of the Christian faith.
For more on this series:
here, here, here, and  here
For more on the issue of slavery:
Biblical reliability:
here, here, and here


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