Exodus 21:1-6, 26-27
As I mentioned before, biblical Christianity gets criticized sometimes because of its relationship with slavery. Since the Torah addressed this issue more than once, this might be a good point at which to examine it further.
First, let’s look at the accusation, namely that the Bible condones slavery. It is absolutely true that the Bible nowhere explicitly says that slavery in and of itself is wrong. The Torah regulated it and mitigated it, but it didn’t outlaw it. Jesus never spoke a word against it, and Paul only told slaves to obey their masters and masters to treat them well and not to threaten them. Unfortunately, many preachers from the pulpit, especially in the South, used the Bible to attempt to justify the “Peculiar Institution.”
However, there are a few points to consider:
1) The Torah explicitly outlawed slavery of one’s fellow Hebrew. The most any Israelite could be made to serve would be seven years (today’s passage), which would be roughly equivalent to indentured servitude. If someone was so poor that they couldn’t eat or support their family, they could sell their labor to someone else for a specified length of time. It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s not permanent slavery.
2) Even if someone (a foreigner) was a permanent slave, the Torah eased their burden and curbed abuses. For example, it forbade physical discipline that resulted in any permanent harm (vss. 26-27). Kidnapping was a capital crime, fugitive slaves were not to be returned to their masters, and you can see how Paul viewed slave-traders in 1 Tim. 1:9-10. All of these practices--which God outlawed--were perfectly legal in American race-based slavery, for the simple reason that these practices made American race-based slavery possible and sustainable.
To explain, I need to give credit to Dennis Prager. If you can walk away from your position at any time, and the owner has to let you go, then is that "slavery" as we normally use the term? Think about this for a moment: Under God's law, a slave who fled his master could not be returned to him. This is the exact opposite of the "Fugitive Slave Laws" of the Antebellum United States. These were the (shameful) laws which required that if a slave escaped his master to another community or territory or state, the government of that new area was required by law to return the slave to his master once the master showed up to claim him and haul him back to the plantation. So I ask you, why did the slave owners push this type of legislation? Because if slaves could walk away, the system of slavery was completely unsustainable. They couldn't hope to keep slaves without that type of enforcement. Again, I have to remind you: Under God's explicit command, slavery as practiced in the United States could not have existed.
3) This argument in no way condones the crime and injustice of slavery, but it should be recognized that by placing any limits on the institution, the Bible made huge strides in reform. There's never been a culture, society, or nation, that didn’t practice it at one time or another, and there were almost never any legal restrictions on how one could treat his slaves. For all recorded history, it was practiced almost universally, and no one questioned its intrinsic morality. Few rejected slavery in principle. There were slave revolts, because no one wanted to be a slave, but the former slaves usually turned around and owned slaves as soon as they got the chance. Then suddenly, about two hundred years ago, some believers started examining their Bibles and concluded that the whole institution was completely incompatible with Christian practice. Within less than a hundred years, slavery went from being practiced everywhere to being practiced almost nowhere (at least legally). This is almost completely due to an abolition movement which was almost entirely led and populated by fervent Christians who explicitly took God's word seriously. We’ll take a look at their reasoning tomorrow.
Father God, I don’t want to just examine your word, I want your word to examine me. Help me not make it say what I want to hear.