We’ll continue our analysis of a Christian defense of God’s barbaric Old Testament rules regulating slavery. What does God really think? And how much leeway must you give a society that has immoral laws?

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God makes clear that he’s on board with slavery for life (chattel slavery). But is there a loophole?

I’m responding to a recent post, “Did God Condone Slavery?” by Amy Hall of Stand to Reason. In part 1, I responded to her argument that Jesus sometimes updated Old Testament moral dictates that were necessary because of the hard-heartedness of society. Jesus has an audience for his update because, apparently, society has matured.

Hall spends the rest of the post reading God’s mind and imagining a society that learns new things very, very slowly.

God’s ideal

Hall points out the difference between what’s legal and what’s moral.

The Law was not meant to be a list of everything moral and immoral. It functioned as every national set of laws functions—as reasonably enforceable rules to govern their society. And the Pharisees had made the mistake of focusing on merely staying within the regulations instead of going beyond them to seek the goodness of God’s ideal.

What was “God’s ideal” for slavery? And how do you know? Jesus didn’t give one of his “You have heard it said that X, but I tell you Y” corrections for slavery.

In addition to slavery, God regulated commerce, and 11 verses demand that merchants use accurate weights and measures. Did God hate commerce like you say he hated slavery? How do you know?

We modern Westerners are unified in our rejection of slavery, but it’s cheating to retroject modern morality into the mouth of Jesus. Let him speak for himself.

I agree that the Law can’t address every conceivable moral error, but if the Ten Commandments has “Don’t covet,” surely it could find room for “Don’t enslave.” The omission is easily explained by seeing Yahweh as a Bronze Age invention with Bronze Age morality. Slavery for life was just part of the culture of Yahweh worshippers 3000 years ago. Morals change.

Hall rushes to God’s aid, starting from Jesus’s update on the rules for divorce:

As with divorce, the same was true for slavery. The rules regulating slavery were added “because the hardness of the hearts” of humanity had created a situation where slavery existed and served certain functions in their societies.

And yet the Bible doesn’t say this. It never apologizes for its rules on slavery, it never updates its rules on slavery, and it never blames Man for slavery. Let the Bible speak for itself, and it’s clear that God supports slavery. I understand your motivation, but you can’t substitute your modern morality for God’s Bronze Age morality.

Society moves slowly

Deeply ingrained cultural patterns don’t change overnight, but must be redeemed over time. Slavery was intricately woven into the cultures of the day, so, as with divorce (neither being the situation God desired), God made rules to keep the evil of the practice to a minimum.

Slavery was also intricately woven into the culture of the U.S. South before the Civil War (1861–5). How would you have weaned that society off slavery?

Let’s look for precedents in the Bible. The Israelites had more than a thousand years with slavery in their culture before the time of Jesus. Are you saying that Israel/Judah was slowly maturing during that time? You find no evidence of this given Jesus’s silence on slavery—he’s clearly not enlightened on the subject. Or maybe the clock should instead stop with the anti-slavery work of William Wilberforce in the early 1800s. Unlike Jesus, Wilberforce and others actually did make significant progress. From the Exodus until the end of slavery in Great Britain was three thousand years. Do you really want to point to this glacial progress as evidence of God’s marvelous plan?

Hall said that “deeply ingrained cultural patterns don’t change overnight.” So if not overnight, how long would the culture of the South need to adapt to a post-slavery economy? Should we have also given it three thousand years?

But God can move quickly

And why can’t an institution like slavery be changed overnight, given that God is omnipotent? He imposed the Ten Commandments overnight, and the penalty for violating most of them was death. He could’ve set down new laws that forbade slavery and incorporated the formerly enslaved into the economy as free persons. And then give the economy a kick with better healthcare, universal education, agricultural innovation and irrigation, improved varieties of livestock and plants, new technology, and so on. God could have given Israel the strongest economy in the world, yes, overnight. The Creator of the universe would surely not be hobbled by primitive human institutions.

If you kidnapped someone and made him a slave, you were put to death [Exodus 21:16]. If a slave escaped from his master for whatever reason, you were not allowed to return him [Deuteronomy 23:15–16]. If you harmed so much as a tooth of your slave, you had to let him go free [Ex. 21:26–7]—in other words, no person was allowed to keep a slave if he mistreated him or her.

So now you’re promoting Old Testament rules to govern slavery! I thought those were imperfect rules, designed for a primitive society—no? (And while you’re collecting rules, don’t forget those for slaves for life in Leviticus 25:44–6.) It sounds like the parallel with divorce and hard-heartedness have been discarded.

Let’s not blur these laws together, because there are two kinds of slavery, just like there were in the U.S. Using modern language, the Bible supported indentured servitude, which was temporary slavery for six years. This was for fellow Israelites. There was also chattel slavery, which is slavery for life. This was for people from other tribes. God approved both kinds.

If the Ten Commandments has “Don’t covet,” surely it could find room for “Don’t enslave.” But the omission is easily explained by seeing Yahweh as a Bronze Age invention with Bronze Age morality.

Biblical laws undercut American slavery?

Hall continues:

Slavery in Western countries would never even have gotten off the ground had these rules been followed; the first rule alone would have prevented it.

Your first rule is no kidnapping to get slaves. But “slavery in Western countries” must mean chattel slavery, and Africans sent as slaves to the Americas were typically prisoners of war, just as the Bible allows for (“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves”). Biblical and American chattel slavery were pretty much identical, so this rule in the Americas would have prevented nothing.

The third rule (you must release a slave you’ve injured) refers to indentured servants, not chattel slavery, so that’s not a relevant comparison. But slavery of Africans in the U.S. did have rules. For example, here’s an 1833 Alabama law that imposes the same penalties on someone who injured or killed a slave as if they had committed the same offense to a free white person.

Concluded in Biblical slavery: turn that frown upside down!

See also: How Good Was Jesus if He Didn’t Eliminate Slavery?

When you realize you can just enjoy this life
instead of trying to position yourself for a better next one,
a huge burden is lifted from you.
That’s not nihilistic at all.
That’s a relief.

— Hemant Mehta

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...