How the Bible doesn't exactly condone slavery

Is the slavery in the Bible like the slavery we know from history? Not exactly. Is there much room for moral criticism given what the Bible says about slavery? There’s good reason to doubt that.

There’s some good stuff in that blog, but the rhetoric and spin is so heavy that it isn’t likely to help anyone actually struggling with that topic.

Here’s just one example. He looks at some verses in Exodus 21: “When a slave-owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. … When a slave-owner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth” (Exodus 21:20–21, 26–27).

This is his take on these verses:

To summarize: If an owner kills their slave, they’re punished. Makes sense. If the slave is dealt a significant injury, such as the loss of an eye or a tooth, they must be immediately freed. If the slave is only dealt a small injury such that they quickly recover (i.e. within 1-2 days), the owner is not punished. Clearly, such a quick recovery would suggest that the injury wasn’t a big deal to begin with, although the owner may admittedly be able to get away with minor discipline like a slap. Overall, this passage clearly bans the abuse of slaves.

Note the ‘clearly’s and the difference between recover and survive, between strike with a rod and slap. Even if you translate the Hebrew as “recover,” the contrasting situations are whether the slave dies immediately or recovers within a couple days. More likely it is whether the slave continues to live at least a few days (as in more literal or older translations, such as the NASB or KJV). This is recovering – or not immediately dying – from a life-threatening injury, not getting over the sting of a slap!

The amount of spin in his explanation is dizzying. And if this is how he deals with a text that anyone can quickly look up, how much do you think skeptics are going to trust his reading of history?

I have a soft spot for apologetics, but this kind of apologetics gives the rest of us more to apologize for. We need to spin less and be more fair to other perspectives if we want anyone outside of our echo chamber to consider our message. I know that’s something I need to work on too.


I’ve never understood any ‘moral criticism’ of Jesus made entirely in hindsight from the C18th at the earliest by naive liberals.

Perhaps they were reacting to the holocaust of the Atlantic slave trade which was well established for two centuries by then.

That’s a valid criticism. I’ve revised that section of the article to note that what’s going on isn’t really a slap at all, more like a rod hitting. But the idea that there’s any “spin” is ridiculous. The NIV reads “if the slave recovers after a day or two”, not “survives”. I took a look at the Hebrew and found out you were right that this really should read “survives”. But that’s hardly my fault or involves any “spin” going on. I simply read a reputable translation and made a simple mistake. Looking at the NRSV, it does in fact read “survives”.

Furthermore, you fail to note anywhere in your comment here that this same article constantly points out moral problems in the Torah’s treatment on slavery before moving on to the NT. You make it sound like it’s trying to justify ever tittle and tattle of how the Torah treats slaves, when the explicit point of the article is that the Torah’s laws are morally imperfect and temporary and these problems in slavery are all fixed when Jesus comes along and perfects the Law. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss the whole article when you’re offering more of a caricature of the argument.

I have a soft spot for apologetics, but this kind of apologetics gives the rest of us more to apologize for. We need to spin less and be more fair to other perspectives if we want anyone outside of our echo chamber to consider our message. I know that’s something I need to work on too.

There’s little to nothing that this article gives anyone need to “apologize” for. What should be apologized for is dismissing an article with dozens of points as dishonesty and spin on the basis of one mistranslated reading. The article has been corrected. Are there any other mistakes or “spin” in the article you see? If there are, please discuss it with me in a way that doesn’t immediately presume dishonesty. The way apologetics is advanced, you see, is by offering constructive criticism rather than dismissing a whole and massively thorough article that discusses thousands of years of history on the basis of a single mistranslation. Since I have fully edited the article to retract this error, I believe you should also retract your comment.

Hi Korvexius, I’m just getting going on a move across the country right now, so I’m not able to respond in detail.

Sorry for being so harsh on your blog post. I didn’t realize it was yours – I thought you were seeking feedback on someone else’s article. I can see how “spin” would come across the wrong way, and I only mentioned the positive in passing in my first sentence.

My example wasn’t meant to caricature the article, but to give one clear example of something I found throughout, especially in the Old Testament section. While you may not have been trying to exonerate the OT, you borrowed quite a bit from Paul Copan who does, often with what I called “spin.” Also, do you think you were as fair and even-handed to Thom Stark as you wished I had been to you? I’ve read a book from each, and while Stark is cranky and rude, he also tends to be right. The way you lean on Copan and throw sand at Stark was partly why I felt the need to respond. I think Stark does the Christian apologist a favour in seeing what won’t preach beyond the choir, and I thought he deserved a fairer hearing.

Anyway, I’m glad you edited the article and I retract what’s now been corrected. And sorry for being harsh in my critique.

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I thank you for your apology and retraction of the claim of spin. I was upset in my response earlier, but because of your recent comment, you come off as a genuine person to me who isn’t looking to mislead.

I’m kind to Copan and rude to Stark because Copan is kind and Stark is rude. In any case, I have in fact read Stark’s critique and revised a number of my claims in light of it while writing that article. Because of Stark’s critique, I made the decision to stop recommending Copan’s book as I had before. Copan’s understanding of the facts is, in fact, totally fallacious. However, the points I retained from Copan (which were actually quite few: literally two) were not disputed by Stark. In any case, I found it would be useful to add a few sentences on the merits of Stark’s response to Copan in the article so that others wouldn’t get the same reception again.

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Not this Christian apologist, at least. if at all interesting to you or @Korvexius, I’ve also read a book from each, though some time ago… and while i seem to recall getting the impression of Copan playing a bit fast and loose with facts in order to defend his position, I recall being a bit astounded by Stark’s willingness to play fast and loose with biblical data in order to create problems for Scripture that simply weren’t there. i found Stark to be by far the more disingenuous of the two, for what it is worth… on the same level as Bart Ehrman, having a deep agenda to find problems or contradictions in Scripture - and so committed to that agenda that they will not let facts stand in their way.

I know the ‘slavery thing’ has been beat to death [I know - tone deaf choice of words there …sorry], and so at the risk of not exactly following the OP topic, but venturing into a very related one: I had what I thought might be a small ‘epiphany’ while reading a text from Luke 16 and thinking of it in a new way (for me) that I don’t recall thinking before.

Jesus is going back and forth with the Pharisees - telling them that a man cannot serve two masters, and chastising the Pharisees for being lovers of money and for prizing the wrong things. He goes on to say (v. 16 NRSV):

The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. […or “is strongly urged to enter it.”] But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.

[Portions italicized by me.]
Given all our brouhaha around here about the relationship of “old law” to “new covenant”, that last bit is no doubt taken as a slam dunk by the people who are anxious to see law upheld, or at least not dismissed or denigrated in any way or ‘superceded’ by some presumptive grace.

But then … given the context and the rest of what Jesus said leading up to that statement, this new thought hit me: this is sarcasm on full display! And it makes sense that way! He’s just finished giving a statement that essentially speaks of “term limits” on the period of the law … “the law and the prophets were in effect until John came;” … then speaks of the new good news of the new kingdom that is the great new thing in town everybody is trying to force their way into. And finally he caps it all off with the observation “…but it is easier for earth and sky to all go away than for people to let go of their precious, established law and order.”

I don’t know why I can’t remember ever seeing it in this passage before - perhaps this is common knowledge already to all of you and every commentary if I had just read up on these verses - I’m sure I’ll be corrected here by many if this is way off base, but it seems compelling to me now that I see it. And it isn’t like sarcasm is a foreign concept to scriptures such as Jesus would have read … ‘No, I can’t speak plainly to them … otherwise they might turn and repent and be forgiven.’ or … ‘there is no way a prophet can be killed outside Jerusalem’ … Jesus loves to press points home with sarcasm and hyperbole turned up to sledge hammer volume! It just fits his style; as well it should, coming from the prophetic tradition from before.

One is still left with his sermon on the mount where he teaches that he is come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Yet that too, turns out to be a reminder of the inadequacy of the law to accomplish the real job. It’s a start … but it awaits its real fulfillment from something (somebody, rather) quite beyond the reach of any legalism. Transactional religion is being dealt its death blows, and yet … rich men will pass through eyes of needles, earth and sky will wax and wane before our cold fingers will be pried away from our treasured transactional mindsets, even still now! Even after it has been laid bare and exposed for us to see, we still can’t let it go. Imagine how revolutionary it was for those hearing it from Christ’s lips then!

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Interesting. But then, as one, I expect you remember, who firmly believes that the Lord’s Day of rest is the Christian Sabbath (since God likes an arbitrary law of love now and then), I don’t believe irony is intended in 1 John 5:3 (cf. Jeremiah 17:21). Maybe you do? Or is the correspondence just a fluke.

And what commands is Jesus talking about here?:

He who is having my commands, and is keeping them, that one it is who is loving me, and he who is loving me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. - John 14:21

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

I’m afraid I have great difficulty in seeing the “sarcasm” here that you seem to.

Oh - I agree with you about that; I was not at all referring to anything from the the sermon on the mount recorded by Matthew when I was speaking of sarcasm, but only of the one line given by Luke (though as I said before I think there are plenty of other examples of sarcasm in scriptures, even if not from the sermon on the mount).

But the sermon on the mount is also a curious place to attempt to defend the old law, when it contains all the “but I say to you …” rejoinders. And this ties in with @Dale’s response as he wonders what Jesus is talking about when he says those who keep my commands are the ones who love me.

Did you notice, Dale, that the passage didn’t say “he who keeps the law and the prophets are the ones who love me”? Instead he says “he who obeys me”. The sermon on the mount is where Jesus showcases how much further one would need to go beyond the old law in order to be perfect like God. You think it’s enough to not steal? to not murder? to not commit adultery? Let me tell you how far above all those things you would have to rise to truly be approved by God. And then he proceeds to raise the bar so high that the old “lower bar” of the law may as well not even exist at all. I.e. If anybody was able to “clear that higher bar”, the low bar would no longer be a concern to them whatsoever - they would be so far removed from breaking it in spirit. Of course … none of us can do that … apart from Christ. Hence our continued love affair with the former transactional religion that still rears its old head even in the midst of our new covenant understandings - as we try to keep using our old wineskins to hold our new wine. [You all really love that old security blankey, don’t you! Heaven and earth would pass away before you let go of that tattered thing.]

The verse, 1 John 5:3 that you bring up, Dale, is a reminder, though, that this is no matter of “clearing high enough bars” at all - at least not legalistic ones. We have only one simple bar to clear - and that is to obey Christ himself, and we are reminded that his commandments are not burdensome to us - which sounds a lot different than the sermon on the mount makes it sound to those of us who struggle with sin. From our fallen perspective, it is hopelessly burdensome that I should not only follow the old law, but now Jesus’ newer higher one as well. But once my redeemed self focuses on Christ and simply obeying him, all those legalisms fade into the background. When the bridegroom is with us, all that old stuff falls away, because we now finally have all that we need. We then honor the Sabbath (and indeed every other day too) as we never had before.

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You neglect to remember that the commands we are to keep are laws of love – “Thou shalt not steal”, for instance. If our hearts have been changed, Father’s commandments are not burdensome, a wearying check list that we have to keep looking at. Oh yeah, 1 John 5:3 :slightly_smiling_face::

Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome.

If God’s commandments are so wearisome, how could Paul be rejoicing in them in Romans 7:22?

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law.

Or David, a man after God’s own heart, rejoicing in God’s design and instructions for proper use of the equipment, in all of Psalm 119?

I agree, the bar has been raised. That certainly does not mean that there is no bar to test ourselves against, as antinomians want to imply. Paul repeatedly tells us to test and examine ourselves. Test ourselves against what?

Sure… but if we follow the basic hermeneutical principles of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, and allowing the clearer passages to inform those that are more ambiguous, then I have a hard time seeing anything in Luke that can be appropriately interpreted to mean nearly the opposite of what the words conveyed in Matthew.

I know, right? What is with all those Christians that somehow think rules about adultery and murder still apply? Don’t they realize Jesus abrogated all those laws with his “but I say to you…” rejoinders that entirely nullified those archaic laws?

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It would appear there that you failed or refuse to understand anything thing I wrote!

[…and I’m loath to get into any fights about ‘higher laws of love’ - as that seems rather counter-productive. But, of course, I’m always curious to hear correction if anybody is able to provide any from scripture.]

Exactly. The higher law of love subsumes and includes the command not to steal. Who would you rather have as a neighbor … one who does not at all love you, but slavishly makes sure that he is “technically” following all the rules. He finds other ways to make your life miserable, but always stops short of stealing or killing or anything rulishly forbidden. Or would you rather have a neighbor who actually has your well-being in mind and cares about you? [And would you the be worried about that latter sort stealing from you? ]

What about standards to test yourself against, like “Thou shalt not lust”? (Where did that obnoxious rule come from? :grin:) You stopped early, answering only my first of three replies above.

Did I mention a changed heart and rejoicing in the ‘rules’ you want to keep exaggerating, implying bookkeeping and making them obnoxious, that are not burdensome to that childlike heart? Yes, I did.

All childlike heart might be looking at those obnoxious rules and asking how to do them better, how I can please my Father more.

Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, and to be generous and ready to share…

Instruct them to do what? That is a list. A list of what?

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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