Food for thought:
Slavery has been around in human history for a long time, and even here in America, we did not get rid of the ‘peculiar institution’ until 1864 with the addition of our 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.
We see slavery during Abraham’s time (Gen 12:16), and Abraham had to rescue his nephew Lot from slavery (Gen 14:12). Joseph was sold into slavery (Gen 37:28). Moses worked in a time when his whole people were enslaved by the Egyptians (Exodus 1: 13-14). Even when Israel became an empire, they were eventually separated into two kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah to the south, with each one being taken into captivity by the Assyrian and the Babylonians respectively (2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 25:11).
Even in the New Testament, the times of the Roman Empire, slavery was still alive and well, which is why Paul addresses bondservants in his letters, because that was the sociocultural-historical context of the time.
So from at least Abraham’s time in about 2000 BC to America’s emancipation of slaves around 1864 AD, we have nearly a 4000 year history of slavery. With that in mind, why would the Bible not talk about slavery, since it is a prevalent institution that was so ingrained into the social fabric of human society in both the ancient world and the modern world? If the Bible did not talk about the issue at all, I would be suspect of its ability to address historical realities. If God wrote humanity a book in our very particular universe, that book would naturally have to deal with the historical realities of slavery since it existed for much of our history. If that same book did not talk about slavery, it would be out of touch with our painful reality of sin, misery, and death. The Bible cannot offer a solution if it does not even address the problem first.
Sometimes I hear why didn’t God just outlaw slavery during the times of Moses? Well, perhaps, God was treating slavery like cancer. When you are treating someone with cancer, those cancerous cells are still very much a part of the individual as the normal cells. So the question becomes, how do you treat someone with an affliction that has become intimately connected to the host without killing the host? It would be one thing if the cancerous cells localized to an easily resectable portion of the body, but in the case I am discussing, it is as if the cancerous cells have effectively spread throughout the body. You end up with a situation where killing the cancer would kill the person because the two have become so connected to one another. Slavery became so intwined into human society, that destroying it would come at a heavy price. Consider how America itself erupted into a civil war over the issue (an oversimplification, but still serves my point).
Actually now that I think about it, perhaps the reason why slavery has been mostly done away in our modern times, is because of the power of the gospel to transform hearts. Going along with my cancer analogy, if the ancient world is a patient whose cancer diffused throughout the body, then the modern world is a patient whose cancer then became more localized and thus more easily resectable because the gospel transformed some of the cancerous cells into healthy ones. So instead of having an entire society engrained into the cultural framework of slavery, you only had a section of society supporting it, which was the case for America.
But before the gospel arrived with its ability to transform hearts, God gave regulatory laws about slavery to the Israelites through Moses (Exodus 21:7-11). If you cannot get rid of a cancer that has spread throughout a body, the next best thing to do would be to regulate the cancer so it does not spread any further than it already has and to limit its ability to damage the host. Perhaps this is what God had in mind when He gave laws regarding slavery through Moses.
Even when the apostle Paul writes to slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5), he is essentially encouraging them to make the best of the social structure that they find themselves in. Also the instructions to slaves is supported by the instruction to masters to stop their threatening to slaves, in light of the fact that they are accountable to Christ (Ephesians 6:9). Again, if the institution of slavery is not challenged outright, the next best thing is to regulate the institution to minimize the probabilities of abuse from both parties. This approach is in stark contrast to a slave rebellion, like the one Spartacus led, where you have a large loss of lives of both slaves and masters. Generally speaking, God seeks the preservation of life, not their perishing.
Then I sometimes hear that since the Bible talks about slavery, then I should not listen to it. The problem with this statement is that it sounds like “Since the Constitution had clauses regarding slavery, then I should not listen to it.” Why do Americans still hold true to the Constitution, in spite of its use in supporting slavery? One key word: authority. The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution establishes that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Now authority, on its own terms, is morally neutral. What matters more is how is it used.
Authority is a good organizing principle to have. We can build a safe, stable society when authority is used to promote the public good. The phrase, “law and order,” captures this sentiment well. Even when authority is abused for malicious purposes, you would not find many advocating for pure anarchy. The answer to bad authority is not so much to get rid of all authority, but to reform and correct the bad authority so it becomes good authority. This is precisely the approach that the Constitution used.
The Constitution once had the Three-Fifths Clause and the Fugitive Slave Clause codified into its text, but we removed those clauses with the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Thus when the Constitution exercised authority in a wrongful manner, we did not abolish the Constitution, but we reformed it to better align itself with moral good.
Likewise, the Bible is an authoritative text. It discussed slavery in the historical contexts that the institution was found in. For those cultural instances of slavery, the Bible exercises its authority to regulate the excessive abuses that could happen from the institution, until a more opportune time when people would no longer demand the institution.
Looking at slavery from an economic perspective, it follows the laws of supply and demand. If you want to effectively get rid of the institution, you would have to challenge the demand for the product. Part of that demand comes from a failure to see your neighbor as a fellow human being. That’s where the gospel works the best. You challenge the institution not from the outside in with a law that outlaws it or a slave rebellion, but from the inside out, where both the slave and the master see each other as fellow humans. This ability to see the humanity in one another is the moral strength behind the abolition movement in America.
Thus we can see that the Bible exercises its authority regarding slavery in a manner that actually promotes liberation and accountability. If it is able to exercise its authority in this way, we can trust its ability to do the same for other moral instructions. Also even if the Bible was found to have mistakes much like the Constitution had, why would we disregard it entirely? Even if it was a purely human product, does not the Bible still offer much timeless wisdom for our world?
To conclude my thoughts:
-the Bible discusses slavery since it was a historical human reality for at least 4000 years; if it did not, that is a long period of time for a topic to be silent on.
-perhaps God did not outlaw slavery in the ancient world outright because that would be like trying to cure someone who had a cancer that diffused throughout the body; killing the cancer would kill the person.
-the next best thing for God to do would be to regulate slavery so excessive abuses from both slaves and masters are minimized and to promote the gospel which encourages both parties to see each other as fellow human beings
-to challenge slavery, you need to challenge the demand portion of a supply-demand curve, and part of the demand behind slavery comes from a failure to recognize the humanity of your neighbor, and the gospel challenges this presupposition
-letting the gospel transform hearts creates a greater threshold of individuals who are willing to challenge slavery and acts like a therapy where a diffuse cancer becomes a more localized and subsequently more easily resectable tumor.
-the Bible is an authoritative text much like the Constitution is, and if we are willing to obey the Constitution even when it exercised authority regarding slavery wrongly, how much more should we obey the Bible when it exercises its authority for good.