With the establishment of detailed rules governing its practice, the Bible is explicit in its endorsement of slavery. Yet this fact does not undermine faith in the sound moral character of the Hebrew god Yahweh (Jehovah, in the Christian tradition, or Allah, in the Muslim tradition). In rationalizing these passages, apologists argue that, in addition to being a moral guide, the Bible is also an historical document; the slavery described in the Bible reflects the social relations of ancient Hebrew society, not God’s will. Slavery is regulated by tribal law; it is not God’s law. But when the rules of slavery are discussed in Exodus, chapter 21 (the chapter immediately following the presentation of the ten commandments), the context makes it clear that slavery is God’s law. Through Moses, God conveys the rules that govern slavery.
The context is a conversation between God and Moses, which occurs between the two of them in a thick darkness. The Israelites are terrified by God, whom they cannot see in the smoky blackness, and ask Moses to tell them what God says. Moses punctuates the moment. “God has come to test you,” he says, “so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (According to the Abrahamic traditions, people cannot be good for goodness sake but must terrified into a moral life.) So Moses goes off into the darkness to receive God’s law. There, God instructs Moses: “Tell the Israelites that you have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven.”
Right away God gives Moses instructions on how to build an altar (unworked stone with no steps so that no genitals are exposed). You will recall, if you have read the Bible, that the first half of the ten commandments God gives to Moses and his followers concerns devotion to him. God asserts that he is lord, that Hebrews can have no other gods but him, that they cannot manufacture idols, that they cannot insult him, and that they are to devote an entire day of every week worshiping him, a day on which they are not allowed to work. (So important is this worshiping business that the first capital case under the new law was the stoning of a man to death for collecting firewood on the Sabbath.)
Then God says, “These are the laws you [Moses] are to set before them [the Israelites].” First on the list? slavery.
God tells Moses that a Hebrew can buy another Hebrew, but he has to free him in the seventh year. However, there is an exception to this rule. Unlike chattel slavery in North America, Hebrew slaves are allowed to marry. If a slave marries a woman while he is a slave, his seventh year release does not cover his wife. The master retains her as his property. This is true for the slave’s children, as well; they, too, are the property of the master. Only a woman who marries a slave before he becomes a slave can be freed with her husband. The married slave will look to his seventh years with dread, since this will be the time that he will either have to leave his family and be a free man or stay with his family and be a slave for the rest of his life. The latter is an option as long at the Hebrew slave chooses it for himself; “the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’” If he does this, then his master will publicly brand him by piercing his ear with an awl, and the slave will be a slave forever. Otherwise he will have to leave his wife and children, since they don’t get the seventh year release deal.
One hell of a dilemma, no? How is it not wicked to make a man choose between freedom and slavery by exploiting his love for his family? Only cruel and immoral men make rules like this. But this is the one true and perfect God making the rule. How Christians can continue clinging to their faith in the goodness of God given the reality of this passage is a useful illustration of cognitive dissonance.
The horrors of God’s slave law do not end there. “When a man sells his daughter as a slave,” God tells Moses, “she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are.” This is an important part of the law, since this is what allows the master to manipulate his male slaves into lifelong slavery. However, the man who buys the woman may sell her back to the father if he doesn’t like her (buyers remorse). But the owner cannot sell the daughter to the gentiles. Jews can own other Jews, but non-Jews cannot own Jews under God’s law. If the master of the female slave gives her as a wife to his son, then she becomes his daughter, which frees her from slavery. This presents another dilemma: if a woman wants to be free, she has to marry the master’s son – or marry the master himself. As long as he sleeps with her, he can keep her. There is one other way for a slave woman to become a free woman: she can buy her freedom if she has the money and the master is willing to take the money in exchange for her freedom.
What happens when a man sells his daughter as a slave who then becomes the buyer’s wife and the husband finds out that she is not a virgin? The husband and the other male villagers are to bring the woman to her father’s house and stone her to death (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). This cruel law applies to marriage generally. What happens to a husband who is wrong about the virginity question? He pays a fine. That’s right: he pays a fine for attempting to incite a mob to stone a woman to death.
Are there any regulations on how slaves are to be treated? Yes. A Hebrew slave master is permitted to beat his slaves with a rod. But he must be careful not to beat the slave to death on the spot; beating a slave to death is a punishable offense. But if he is clever and beats his slave such that he or she dies the next day, then he cannot be punished. Why? Because the slave is his property. The idea here seems to be that it is unreasonable to suppose a man would destroy his own investment, so the death must be unintentional.
We established using text from Exodus (21:2-11) that gentiles can’t own Jews (the beating rule comes from same chapter, verses 20-21). What about Jews owning gentiles? That is permitted. God tells the Hebrews that they “may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.” What about children? Yes, they can buy children to keep them as slaves. “You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.” The rule concerning purchasing gentiles is found in Leviticus (25:44-46). We have to assume that, in the case of Hebrew slaves, as discussed in Exodus, that the awl through the ear ritual is an exception to the rule that you must never treat “the people of Israel” as you would gentile slaves.
The explicit use of the designation of people as property tells us that this was chattel slavery. In other words, God tells Jews that it is okay to own other human beings, to sell them, to beat them, to even kill them (as long as you don’t look like that it what you intended).
Christian apologists often say that this is Old Testament law and that God, in establishing his new covenant in the New Testament, through the human sacrifice of Jesus, negated much of the obviously troubling ancient Hebrew law. It is unfortunate for their argument that the New Testament do not condemn slavery. Quite the opposite. In Ephesians 6:5, God instructs slaves to “obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear.” Indeed, they are to serve their masters as “sincerely as you would serve Christ.” One would think that Christ would command the most sincere servitude from his followers, but God puts slave masters at the same level. 1st Timothy 6: 1-2 also instructs slaves to obey their masters.
Apologists will say that these commandments are not coming straight from Jesus. However, in the gospel of Luke (12:47-48), Jesus tells a parable in which the following verses appear: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Here, Jesus is asserting the righteousness of slavery and of severely beating disobedient slaves. The man who is the truth and the light, the glory through which all must pass if they desire eternal life in heaven, tells his followers that it is right to own slaves and beat those who displease their masters, even the ones who did not know they were displeasing their masters. This is the man that Christians have chosen to follow.