The Bible contains quite a number of broad, vague, and even contradictory statements, so whenever the Bible is used to justify an action, it must be placed in context. One such issue is the biblical position on slavery. Race relations, especially between whites and blacks, have long been a serious problem in the United States. Some Christians’ interpretation of the Bible shares some of the blame.
Old Testament View on Slavery
God is depicted as both approving of and regulating slavery, ensuring that the traffic and ownership of fellow human beings proceed in an acceptable manner.
Passages referencing and condoning slavery are common in the Old Testament. In one place, we read:
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 a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. (Exodus 21:20-21)
So, the immediate killing of a slave is punishable, but a man may so grievously injure a slave that they die a few days later from their wounds without facing any punishment or retribution. All societies in the Middle East at this time condoned some form of slavery, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find approval for it in the Bible. As a human law, punishment for the slave owner would be commendable—there was nothing quite so advanced anywhere in the Middle East. But as the will of a loving God, it appears less than admirable.
The King James Version of the Bible presents the verse in an altered form, replacing “slave” with “servant”—seemingly misleading Christians as to the intentions and desires of their God. In fact, though, the “slaves” of that time were mostly bondservants, and the Bible explicitly condemns the type of slave trade the flourished in the American South.
“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession” (Exodus 21:16).
New Testament Views on Slavery
The New Testament also gave slave-supporting Christians fuel for their argument. Jesus never expressed disapproval of the enslaving of human beings, and many statements attributed to him suggest a tacit acceptance or even approval of that inhuman institution. Throughout the Gospels, we read passages like:
A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master (Matthew 10:24) Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. (Matthew 24:45-46)
Although Jesus used slavery to illustrate larger points, the question remains why he would directly acknowledge the existence of slavery without saying anything negative about it.