One may read Old Testament passages on the topic of slavery and question the morality of God or if there is any value in reading the OT. Some suggest that difficult topics in the OT are simply recordings of how the Israelites perceived God’s guidance rather than what God actually guided. There are other possible explanations that don’t seemingly undermine the Bible being inspired by God. I get it if some decide they just can’t read the OT because no interpretation seems possible based on what a loving God should be like. We are made in God’s likeness so we are not totally clueless of God’s character. We must not lose sight of that we worship a God and not a book. But, can slavery in the OT be explained that doesn’t make God a moral monster?
The truth is that Old Testament servanthood did not compare to slavery in the South that many of us are most familiar with. Paul Copan in Is God A Moral Monster explains: “By contrast, Hebrew (debt) servanthood could be compared to similar conditions in colonial America. Paying fares for passage to America was too costly for many individuals to afford. So they’d contract themselves out, working in the households…until they paid back their debts” (p.125). Israelites often could not pay off debt and only could offer their labor. Servants were always freed from their labor and debt at the end of six years, thus avoiding lifetime servanthood.
The protection of servants and fair treatment is clear in the OT. In other ancient near Eastern laws, owners had no such accountability. Israel owners who injured a servant must let the slave go free (Ex. 21:26-27). Why didn’t God outlaw masters touching their servants? The Israelites perhaps were as close-minded to not disciplining servants physically that some are to not spanking their children. Simply stating that a parent must never touch their child accomplishes nothing if they are going to do it anyway. Laws help to protect children. The discipline of servants was tolerated and regulated for simply disallowing does nothing.
Why didn’t God simply abolish servanthood? God didn’t desire poverty and approve of behaviors that often lead to such conditions. To completely abolish servanthood during these times would leave many without care and food. God did command the golden rule (Lev. 19:18), but laws were set up when people treated servants as objects. God like we do made laws to protect victims. God allowing freedom means He must tolerate certain behaviors. God know people simply hide, not change their actions, if not done on their own accord.
The apostle Paul in the NT is often indicted for not just abolishing slavery. Paul, much like God with the Israelites, sought to change society within rather than demand immediately what he thought was right. If Paul had focused on abolishing slavery, Christianity would have been viewed as threat to the Roman empire and put people in more danger. Paul Copan says it best: “Paul (and Peter) didn’t call for an uprising to overthrow slavery in Rome. They didn’t want the Christian faith to be perceived as opposed to social order and harmony” (152). Paul was clear what he thought of slavery: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
God hates divorce as much as we do for the sake of children. God not outlawing divorce or polygamy didn’t mean He approved of such behaviors. Simply outlawing divorce doesn’t protect the victims who are often women and children. God knows power corrupts, but, God allowed Israel to choose Kings. Sometimes, we only accept the truth after suffering consequences of our choices. God did not create a patriarchal relationship between Adam and Eve. Is God supposed to continually wipe out cultures that fall into less than ideal relationships? God doesn’t overthrow societies but works within societies to hopefully make lasting change in the hearts of their citizens. Freedom is necessary for authentic, lasting change. God’s interference or dictatorship may actually prevent a superior world from developing as a result of the moral improvement of free creatures.
There certainly are passages that can make it challenging to defend God’s character. Most accept the first five books of the OT as a literary unit. One can point to passages that seem to protect servants and passages that enable their continued victimization. The editors were surely aware of and did not attempt to rewrite the supposed contradictions. There may be plausible explanations than assuming the bible editors were mindless enough to contradict themselves. A master could lose their live if they killed a slave. Servants could be freed if harmed. Servants were considered equal and not to be denied justice when they had a grievance (Job 31:13-15). Mistreated servants were not to be return to their abusive masters (Deut. 23: 15-16).
But, one may question the following passage that discusses how masters are to treat servants. I would make a law for a master to not lay a hand on their servants, but we discussed God didn’t always insist on His ways for those that would not hear it. The Bible recognizes that servanthood is a reality in a world of poverty and gave regulations for treatment by masters. Exodus 21:20-27 states if a master harms a servant that they die, it was understood the death penalty could be used. If they survived, why is there no punishment? Likely, it was assumed the loss of money via the servant’s labor was some punishment. The passage does go on to say that if a master knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.
I am suggesting there are plausible explanations for God allowing servanthood type relationships in the OT. I obviously did not tackle all the difficult passages one might question when reading about the laws for such relationships. I encourage one read Paul Copan’s book that I have cited. We have to consider the issue of poverty at the time and the amount of wars which left foreigners without a means to survive. I have suggested that God works with the moral circumstances He is handed and attempts to lead in change that last. Perhaps within this backdrop the reader may understand why God guided the way He did and that the OT does not suggest God is schizophrenic – claiming to be moral but acting immoral.