In our last blog, we began to see how slavery in Biblical times was different than the slavery we think of in American history; it was economic, not racial. We also saw how the Bible never affirmed slavery but taught believers in the Middle East culture of that day how to live righteously under those circumstances. As Dr. Paul Copan says, “since slavery was so thoroughly entrenched in the ancient Near East, this practice was mitigated, limited, and controlled in the law of Moses instead of abolished.”
More than this, the laws in the Old Testament that permitted slavery, even as modified, reveal, by the very act of modifying them, that they were ultimately incompatible with a Biblical world view. Copan points out that what we may very well have here is slavery being permitted for the same reason that Jesus (Matt. 19:8) says divorce was permitted in the Mosaic Law: because of their hardness of heart. In other words, God says that slavery came about because of our sin and, since it has, God gives direction on how to regulate it.
Copan goes on to point out how Biblical teaching begins to bring an end to slavery as it modifies it out of existence in the way that it cares for the slave. He notes that “the law of Moses addressed abuses since, according to the Bible, masters did not have absolute rights over their slaves.” He shows how this was displayed in Biblical teaching. “A master could lose his life if he killed his slave (Exod. 21:20, 23)” and “if a master inflicted bodily injury on his slave…the slave was automatically released (Exod. 21:23-26).” The slave was also to have a day of rest every week (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:4) and all slaves were to be part of the religious celebrations of Israel (Deut. 12:12, 18). Deut 23:15-16 also says that slaves who “ran away from their harsh masters were not to be returned but were to be harbored and protected.”
Israelites who sold themselves into slavery for economic reasons had to be set free after 6 years and could not be sold by the masters (Ex. 21; Lev. 25; Deut. 15; Jer 34). The above passage in Deut. 23:15-16 I find very important. “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat [oppress] him.” In doing away with the right to mistreat or oppress, the Bible brings about the end of slavery. This is why we have passages like I Timothy 1:10 that refers to slave trading as a rebellion against God and Colossians 4:1 demanding fairness (justice) for slaves as well as I Tim. 6 that speaks of slaves and masters as brothers.
Finally (though there is more to this topic) we see God bringing an end to the world system that includes the selling of “slaves and human lives” (Rev. 18:13). The Bible associates this activity with the evil of the fallen world symbolized by Babylon in the Book of Revelation. This Biblical world view has created the central opposition to slavery in the world. We cannot let the world corrupt this view at a time when slave trafficking is once again a growing problem all over the world. The fact that people have misused the Bible to support slavery in the past is not an argument against what the Bible actually says.
[Check; That’s Just Your Interpretation, by Dr. Paul Copan; What’s So Great About Christianity, by Dinesh D’Souza; What If the Bible Had Never Been Written, by D. James Kennedy; and When Critics Ask, by Norman Geisler and Thomas Home.]