Recently I saw a skeptical friend of mine share a slogan very similar to this one. It makes a very powerful point, reducing to the absurd any notion of getting morality out of the pages of the Bible. On one hand the Bible seems to be condemning a loving relationship between two members of the same-sex, while at the same time endorsing such a reprehensible act as kidnapping Africans and shipping them overseas as pieces of property. Surely we’re beyond such an antiquated and silly book by now, right?
Admittedly, Christendom does have some ugly skeletons in its closet. Historically, we know that some of the Puritans in North America engaged in such deplorable practices. And in the times of the Civil War, many southern “Christians” used the Bible to defend their right to own slaves. As Christians, we need to be honest and up front about this. But were these Christians drawing their morality from the Bible by kidnapping Africans and selling them as property?
To answer this question, we can say unquestioningly answer in the negative. The Bible did not endorse any such activity, it clearly condemned such an activity. Exodus 21:16 says “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” (New International Version) You can’t get much stricter than that! If these laws were enacted or even the principles taken seriously, the type of slavery we normally think of would never have been able to get off the ground. St. Paul echoes the Old Testament ethic in his epistle to the young pastor Timothy, saying “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 1:9-10) So here we see that Paul does not endorse slave trading, but rather he condemns it along with lying, murdering and practicing homosexuality. So that means that this little meme is grossly inaccurate.The Bible is not “OK” with either practice.
Now at this point, some might be tempted to charge me with being naïve. Clearly the Bible did endorse some form of slavery, even if it didn’t involve kidnapping people into forcing them into slavery. But was it anything like the type of slavery we see in the antebellum South? Again, we would have to answer in the negative. While it would take a bit of unpacking to get into all the nuts and bolts of the Old Testament law and slavery, the kind of “slavery” the Bible is OK with would be better labelled as servanthood. When an Israelite could not pay his debt, he would sell himself into servanthood for seven years in order to pay it off. At the end of the seven years, or every fiftieth year in Israel – the year of Jubilee – his debt was automatically cancelled. (Leviticus 25:35–43) The servant , the provisions made in the Old Testament were to help the poor, not to allow them to be owned, bullied or treated as inferior. (Deuteronomy 15:10)
Furthermore, many scholars of history believe that when Jesus preached his famous sermon out of Isaiah 61, he was announcing that the Jubilee was fulfilled in himself. In saying that he was anointed to preach good news to the poor and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, he was pronouncing a time for Israel to repent and to practice the spirit behind the Jubilee, which is to let men’s debts go free. He teaches that we are to “forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you”. (Luke 6:37-38) In Matthew we see the condemnation of those who are forgiven large debts but in return do not forgive comparatively small ones (Matthew 18:21-35). We look around today and see all the problems in the world that are being caused by people and nations being crushed by debt, both material and spiritual. Those who are trumpeting that the Bible as morally irrelevant to today’s times are the ones who are out of touch, not the reverse.
So in brief summary, the Bible does not endorse the type of antebellum slavery practiced centuries ago, nor anything resembling it. Those who would claim otherwise are either grossly misinformed, willfully ignorant or just plain intellectually dishonest. Not only does the Old Testament prescribe a way to help the impoverished, Jesus takes it a step further by pronouncing that the Jubilee has been fulfilled in himself, that we are to pray and ask God to forgive our debts, as we have forgiven the debts of others.
Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan
Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis by William J. Webb