I’d like to condense the major arguments with regard to the Bible and slavery, as it appears that at least a couple of people have missed the point at which I’m hooking into this debate. (Please resist the idea that because I use lists when summarizing that I’m actually trying to reduce this to formal logic.)
First, the starting point argument could be summarized as follows:
- Slavery is immoral
- The Bible condones slavery
- God or God’s word cannot condone something immoral
- The Bible therefore cannot be God’s word.
I originally entered this debate after reading posts and comments on Ed Brayton’s site. His Slavery and the Bible – Take 2, was particularly clear. I want to reference Mark Olson as well, whose Slavery and the Word of God illustrates some of the approaches I’m discussing here.
Now one can attack the position expressed in my little list at several points. For example, one might believe that slavery is not immoral. One might believe that God’s word does not condone slavery. We have seen the following:
- A response using both points #1 and #2, i.e. that the Bible does condone some sorts of slavery, but what it condones is not the sort of thing we condemn.
- A response based simply on God’s authority–God gets to do whatever he wants, which really deals with point three. In this response God indeed cannot condone something immoral, because apparently what he commands is transformed into something moral. (Theologically this is possible, but in practice there is the simple question of how one tells when God is commanding something if God can command anything. Why not child sacrifice, for example?)
- My own response which deals with the relationship of the Bible to the concept of God’s word. There’s an unstated assumption almost everywhere in this discussion that the Bible and God’s word are either equal or unrelated. My argument comes in here and is simply this: The Bible is a human-divine cooperation, and therefore shares imperfections of the human element. There will be things in the Bible that we do not want to implement today.
My approach allows me to take several options with some of the nasty points in the Bible. I used the example of the commanded genocide of the Midianites in Numbers 31, and I’m going to continue to use that.
- It’s quite possible that the incident never happened. We’re still left with the fact that the slaughter is forcefully commanded. I would note that at a minimum, I would say that the numbers killed and enslaved are almost certainly exaggerated. Again, I don’t view this as a real solution to the moral dilemna for a Bible student. “Slaughtered” is bad. “Slaughtered a few less people” remains bad.
- The people wanted revenge, and conveniently became convinced that God had commanded it. This would be an all too human situation. I could use the story as a moral story with precisely that moral. In fact, I see this very human side throughout the stories of the conquest.
- God gave a command adapted to circumstances. This one disturbs me to some extent. I do believe that God gives commands adapted to circumstances, and this is in fact the type of approach that Alden Thompson uses in chapter 6 (The worst story in the Old Testament — Judges 19-21) of his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m uncomfortable with that option here simply because I cannot see the moral justification for the additional slaughter. I do think that was common to the culture, and it seems more likely to me that people simply exercised their desires and justified it by appeal to God’s command.
Since I said “condensed” let me just say one thing in response to Mark Olson (post linked above). I do believe that one can find good in the Bible, and that one can even find the ideal to pursue. I believe, however, that in order to find that ideal one does have to recognize the human-divine combination in scripture which means that not everything can be fitted into the divine ideal. Paul certainly embraces the equality of slave and free (Galatians 3:28) but he doesn’t do anything public about it. Rather, he gives instructions for slaves to be subject to their masters. I think he’s walking a very difficult line here with the Roman Empire, and Romans 13 is part of that. I cannot, however, see where Romans 13 is simply a softening of the rest of the letter, but then I often find that N. T. Wright presents arguments that are thoroughly researched and brilliantly argued, but that I think are wrong. In this case, I will certainly make the effort to acquire Wright’s comments on this text and see if he can change my mind.
[Note: In the interests of full disclosure, let me note that I am the publisher of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?.]