This is the first in a new series of posts that will focus on immoral passages in the Bible, with a different theme each week. The entire collection can be found here. This week’s theme is slavery.
In my earlier post about refuting the argument for morality for God's existence, I briefly mentioned God's endorsement of slavery in the Bible, but today we will take a closer look at specific passages.
The Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament and the Christian scriptures of the New Testament have many passages where God is clearly endorsing slavery. Slavery, what we would today consider one of the most immoral acts possible, is completely OK with God. Many modern translations will try to use the word ‘servant’ instead of ‘slave’, but do not let that fool you. The people they are talking about in these passages were clearly slaves who were bought and sold, and treated with incredible cruelty.
We can start with the Old Testament. The Book of Exodus, which mainstream archaeological and historical analysis shows to be a work of fiction, (there were no Jewish slaves who built the pyramids) contains multiple passages regarding proper slave-owning etiquette. This is of course laughably ironic given that the story is about the Jews fleeing their own captivity, but then are given license to keep slaves of their own by God.
So what does God tell the Jews in Exodus? Well, for starters:
“These are the regulations you must present to Israel.
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave, he shall leave single. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife must be freed with him.
“If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave and they had sons or daughters, then only the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I don’t want to go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door or doorpost and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will serve his master for life.” Exodus 21:1-6
Alright, so God has clear rules on how to own other people. And not only that, did you notice that in the second full paragraph up there the master gets to keep the slave’s wife and children, effectively holding them hostage to get the slave to stay? That does not sound like the kind of moral law you would expect from an all-loving creator. It gets worse, though, as the very next passage goes on to explain the rules for selling your daughter as a sex slave, and what to do with your own sex slaves.
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not satisfy her owner, he must allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. But if the slave’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave but as a daughter.
If a man who has married a slave wife takes another wife for himself, he must not neglect the rights of the first wife to food, clothing, and sexual intimacy. If he fails in any of these three obligations, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment.” Exodus 21:7-11
So God wants you to know that (A) it is really only the male slaves who are allowed freedom in the seventh year, not female slaves, and (B) you can have as many sex slaves as you want as long as you keep them all clothed and fed, and you keep having sex with all of them. Good one, God!
Well, that is just Exodus, you might be saying. Maybe God was having an off day. No, in Leviticus God makes it clear that slaves are to be treated as property, not people.
“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, 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 them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.” Leviticus 25:44-46
OK, OK, that looks bad. God is clearly giving the Jews permission to keep children as slaves and pass them down to their own children. But this is all from the Old Testament, right? God is a real jerk in the Old Testament. When the Christians came around God had apparently mellowed out a bit. Right?
Wrong. Jesus himself gives his followers the go ahead to beat their slaves.
“And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.” Luke 12:47-48
Damn, Jesus wants slaves to be punished even if they did not know what they were doing wrong. That seems harsh (side note: continue reading into verses 49 through 59 to see Jesus go crazy and state, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the Earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other!”).
And that is not the only time the New Testament drops the ball on slavery. The first epistle to Timothy also has some depressing rules for Christians to follow.
“All slaves should show full respect for their masters so they will not bring shame on the name of God and his teaching. 2 If the masters are believers, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. Those slaves should work all the harder because their efforts are helping other believers who are well loved.” 1 Timothy 6:1-2
Oh, and we cannot forget to include this gem from the epistle to the Ephesians.
"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” Ephesians 6:5-7
God really did screw up, didn’t he? The idea of owning slaves is morally reprehensible to most of us today, but not to God. You just have to own the right slaves, and follow a few rules slapped together.