Famed neuroscientist, philosopher, and atheist Sam Harris, in his Letter To A Christian Nation, wrote:
Consider the question of slavery. The entire civilized world now agrees that slavery is an
abomination….Consult the Bible, and you will discover that the creator of the universe
clearly expects us to keep slaves.
What is he talking about? He goes on to reference Leviticus 25:44-46:
Your male and female slaves are to be from the nations around you; you may purchase
male and female slaves. You may also purchase them from the foreigners staying with
you, or from their families living among you—those born in your land. These may
become your property. You may leave them to your sons after you to inherit as
property; you can make them slaves for life. But concerning your brothers, the
Israelites, you must not rule over one another harshly.
There are a lot of difficult words there. Slaves. Purchase. Property.
"You keep using that word—I do not think it means what you think it means." - Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
Although Sam Harris is a smart guy and respected philosopher, he is not a theologian. As I wrote in a previous post, correctly interpreting the Bible takes thought, care, and certain considerations.
One such consideration is that the Old Testament was originally written mostly in ancient Hebrew. What we read in English is a translation, and translations aren't always perfect because the meanings of words tend to evolve over time. For example, when Americans think of the word "slave", we immediately recall the unimaginable horror of the kidnapping, abuse and forced labor of African Americans in the antebellum South. It's important to remember that in the time of the Old Testament, that hadn't happened yet. Our modern definition of slavery is based on our experience of what slavery means in our time and in our culture.
Slavery was a much different construct in ancient Israel. In fact, even the word that the Bible uses for "slave" didn't carry the same negative connotation it does today. The Hebrew word that is translated into English as "slave" is 'ebed, which is related to work, and is better translated as a type of "servanthood."(1) As J.A. Motyer writes, "Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only servanthood."(2)
What exactly was an 'ebed?
The temptation to read the Old Testament narratives through the lens of our modern cultural experience is incredibly difficult to resist. However, we must remember that we are talking about a period in history where people were not independent like they are today. Sons and daughters didn't go off to college at eighteen and start careers. People generally lived as families in small villages where their main livelihood was growing things like grain, lentils, and beans. If the crops failed, the whole family could potentially starve to death. (3)
In such cases, individual family members could enter into a contractual agreement working as a servant for another family to pay off a debt. This servanthood was not based on race, and it was voluntary and temporary. An 'ebed was given food, shelter, legal rights, and protection from mistreatment. After seven years, they were released from debt and servitude and given a generous gift of flocks, wine, and grain. (4) It wasn't an ideal situation, but it was a way for people to avoid destitution and actually come up and out of poverty.
Old Testament scholar John Goldingay wrote, “There is nothing inherently lowly or undignified about being an ‘ebed”. (5) In actuality, this type of servanthood wasn’t much different than being a paid employee in our cash-based society.
It's interesting to note that Abraham was called God's 'ebed, (Isaiah 41:9) and he was also called God's friend (James 2:23). That's not exactly the picture of slavery we think of today.
What about the "purchase" of slaves as "property" from surrounding nations?
Again, words matter here. In Hebrew, the terms for "selling" and "buying" were not necessarily associated with attaining for money. For example, the same word translated "purchase" in Leviticus 25, is the Hebrew word qanah, which means "acquire." It is used in Genesis 4:1 when Eve gives birth and says, "With the help of the Lord I have "gotten" (qanah) a man." In Ruth 4:10, it is also used to describe Boaz "acquiring" Ruth as his wife. If you have ever read the breathtaking love story of Boaz and Ruth, there is no implication that it was anything but a partnership, and not a master/slave type relationship.
According to Leviticus 19:33,34, Israelites were expected to love foreigners and not oppress them. The laws found in Exodus 21 protect all servants from mistreatment, not just Israelites. In ancient Israel, kidnapping a person for any reason was forbidden and human trafficking was punishable by death.(6) This type of "chattel" slavery is not what Leviticus 25 is talking about. Paul Copan wrote:
Serving within Israelite households was to be a safe haven for any foreigner; it was not
to be an oppressive setting, but offered economic and social stability. (7)
Nowhere in the Bible is slavery condoned or expected. Paul Copan notes that if the anti-kidnapping, anti-harm, and anti-slave-return laws from the Old Testament would have been followed in the antebellum South, slavery would never have arisen in America. (8)
For a concise and easy to remember "quick answer" to this question, see my previous post,5 Apologetics Questions Every Christian Should Learn to Answer.
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(1) Peter Williams, Does the Bible Support Slavery?, Lecture, The Lanier Theological Library, Houston, October 30, 2015
(2) J.A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus (IVP Academic, 2005) p. 239
(4) Deuteronomy 15:12-18
(5) John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (IVP Academic, 2009) p. 460
(6) Exodus 21:16
(7) Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster? (Baker Books, 2011) p. 144
(8) Ibid, 132