Does the Bible condone slavery?
The short answer is that it doesn’t. Especially not in the way that the term “slavery” is typically used today to refer to the horrendous practice of race-based oppression in the U.S that stole hundreds of thousands of Africans from the 16th through 19th centuries. The principal way in which those native peoples were enslaved was through kidnapping from their homelands. The Bible has a very specific command for that situation:
Exodus 21:16 – Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves.
It is obvious that God never approved of this terrible mistreatment of people created in His image. In fact, if the world had simply enforced this one biblical command there never would have been a slave trade.
But what about the dozens of times that the Bible uses the word “slave” or defines some civil ordinance about “slavery”? It is helpful to remember that most of the time the Bible mentions “slave” it is speaking about a voluntary kind of bondage that we today might call “indentured servitude” (it is not racial and it does not involve kidnapping the innocent). For example:
Leviticus 25:39 – Suppose some of your people become so poor that they have to sell themselves and become your slaves.
To be sure, there are verses in the Bible that speak about the administration of slavery, even if people entered into this institution voluntarily (since kidnapping carried the death penalty). Perhaps the most difficult verses in the Bible regarding slavery for us to understand today occur in the book of Leviticus:
Lev 25:44-46 – As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you… they may be your property, you may also pass them on as an inheritance to your sons after you as a possession forever.
It is also helpful to remember that ancient Israel existed in a world where slavery was as ubiquitous as marriage and commerce. It existed everywhere, and everyone simply accepted it as a normal way of life. Every civilization in all of history has had slavery. God made allowances in the law regarding some wicked things because He knew our hearts would be so hard and stubborn, not because he condoned these abhorrent behaviors. An example of this concept is when Jesus himself explained why God allowed for there to be divorce, even though that was never His will:
Matthew 19:8 – Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.
It may be helpful to try to imagine a society where all of God’s laws WERE followed. As an example, if both the letter and spirit of only the ten commandments were obeyed by all people there would be almost no injustice in our society. But God knows that because of our sinfulness people will NOT follow His laws, even only the ten commandments. So He gave another set of laws to help constrain wickedness in the face of our disobedience. But we must not mistake God’s pragmatism as an endorsement of the evil of our sin. God did not try to make things perfect through the law, the ultimate resolution of sin comes only through Jesus Christ.