This is partly the fault of Christians who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, used certain passages of Scripture and certain manufactured concepts to support their own justification of owning slaves. They pulled passages like Leviticus 25:44-46 (KJV) out of context to make their case:
American slaveholders said Africans were "heathen" so that supposedly justified owning them as slaves. (Also, by this logic, as soon as a slave became a Christian, as many did, he or she was no longer a "heathen," right? And should therefore have been freed. Hmmm.) But isolating a passage like this does not give a clear view of God's opinion on the matter, particularly when terms like "bondmen" (or "slave"), and "buying children" are not clearly defined in accordance with the intent of Scripture.
So, let's start there: When the Bible calls someone a "slave," how is it defining the term (as opposed to when we here in the 21st Century call someone a "slave")?
The answer is complicated, because the word can refer either to voluntarily or involuntary servitude. And there's a huge difference (obviously!) between the two.
There is a lot of argument about this, depending on your perspective on who God is and the integrity of His Word; as well as your understanding of cultural norms at the time the Bible was penned. I believe that when the Bible uses the phrase "bondsman" or "slave," the base concept is of (primarily voluntary) indentured servitude.
So what is an "indentured servant?" There are several definitions of "indenture," but here is the one closest to the meaning of the phrase in Scripture: "A contract binding one person to work for another for a given period of time." Contracts are (obviously, again!) an agreement struck between two or more parties. In most cases, in biblical times, those two parties were the buyer (the "master" purchasing the servitude), and the one selling the servitude -- most often the "slave" him (or her) self, or else another who had the legal right to sell the servitude of that person (for a set of very narrowly defined reasons in Scripture ... keep reading!).
One can argue that even a person selling themselves into voluntary servitude was the result of economic injustice and poverty, and so often that was true. While the Bible certainly addresses these issues (economic justice and how the poor should be treated) in many other places, the fact of poverty was (and remains) a reality, and a very persistent part of the cultural fabric not only of biblical times, but also of ours.
Jesus famously said, "The poor you always have with you ..." and those among us inclined to cast dispersion upon Him often cite this as an example of His "unwillingness to speak out" against the injustice of poverty. But you and I know that's not what it was. This was not a case of the indifference or antagonism of the wealthy against the poor. Jesus Himself was poor. ("The Son of Man has no where to lay His head.") He commingled and identified with the poor on so many levels (as he also commingled and accepted as human beings those from within the system that oppressed them).
Those who take in and grasp the context of His quote understand that He was addressing the excuses of those (like Judas) who would say "The social mission is the top priority!" His words were a retort: "No, your top priority should be your heart, and loving and honoring God with 100% of it."
So, what does this matter of heart have to do with the question of whether or not the Bible condones and even supports slavery?
First let's read about the various parameters that the Bible wraps around the relationship of master to indentured servant:
- Except under very limited circumstances, which follow, no human being was ever to be "kidnapped" and forced (against his or her will) to become a slave. To do this, in the Old Testament, was a crime punishable by death! Read Exodus 21:16 ... "“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” Selling the victim? Possessing the victim? What this verse is talking about seems pretty clear.
- The narrow circumstances under which a slave could be forced involuntarily into servitude included:
- If a nation went to war with Israel and its people were captured, they could be turned into slaves. (Think about the terrorists who have attacked the United States. Do we have the right to make them do forced labor at Guantanamo? You bet.)
- If a person was convicted of committing a crime against you (theft or violence) but had no resources to pay restitution, you then had the right to force them into servitude in order to pay their debt. But even these rights were limited by the points that follow.
- Slaves were to be afforded compassion. Slaves (owned by others, who escaped and fled and needed help) had dignity and were to be shielded from a return to slavery. Read Deuteronomy 23:15-16 -- “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him."
- Indentured servants were to be treated with dignity and respect, as humans, and their needs provided for. Many passages support this, some found in Exodus 21, where it is revealed that if a master strikes a slave and kills him, he is guilty of murder. It also says that if a master knocks out his slave's tooth, that slave must be freed! And that if a master marries a slave woman, she is entitled to all of the rights as his wife. If he becomes displeased with her and decides to set her aside, he must free her and allow her to choose her own way.
- When it comes to slavery, Deuteronomy 15 is one of the most revealing chapters of Scripture. It makes the case that because Israel suffered horrific slavery under the Egyptians for 400 years, they were to be much more sensitive and just to the slaves within their midst. For instance, slavery was never to be life-long; when someone gained a slave for any reason, they were required to free them after the sixth year of servitude (the Jubilee principle). Not only were they to free them, but they were to let them go with generous provision from the master's house!
- The goal of the master was also to be to treat the slave so well that the slave wouldn't want to go free. Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 both make provision for slaves who want to voluntarily commit themselves to life-long servitude of their masters. (The first "ear-piercing" came from these chapters! Read them.)
Frankly, the way slavery was conducted in the 18th and 19th centuries by so-called "Christians" from Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere, is so clearly and horrifically anti-biblical in nature that one should make the case that slave traders and slave owners should have been executed for their practices. Did these slavetraders and slave-owners use their religion to justify their treatment of other humans? In some cases, yes. But abusing and justifying the Bible to support something that the Bible condemns is not a condemnation of the Bible, it is a condemnation of human nature which so often seeks to justify its own sin.
The truth is, the Bible holds a redemptive view of slavery. Right now our young adults group is studying the Apostle Paul's letter to Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy slave-owner whose slave, Onesimus, wronged him (probably stole something) and ran away. Paul became friends with Onesimus at some point and led him to Christ. Paul then appealed both to Onesimus to return to Philemon voluntarily; and for Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus as a brother in Christ, to forgive him and to treat him as an equal.
Paul even said that if Onesimus "owed anything" to Philemon, he would himself pay it! In other words, he himself would pay whatever debt Onesimus owed for however he had wronged Philemon before he became a believer. Talk about redemptive!
We don't know what happened after Paul's letter to Philemon (the shortest recorded in the New Testament), but there are hints that it worked. The early Christians attitudes toward slavery and indentured servitude were to be as the Israelites: grace-filled, merciful, and redemptive.
So: After reading what the Bible really has to say about slavery, please tell me again how it proves that God is evil?
Did God tolerate slavery under very limited circumstances (just as He mercifully tolerated other evils, such as divorce)? Yes, indeed. Does that mean He condoned it, approved of it, ignored it, whatever else modern anti-biblicists accused Him of doing? Absolutely not. To argue this demonstrates a reprehensible misunderstanding of what Scripture says about who God is and what He is like.