In a famous debate with Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris criticises the Bible for explicitly promoting slavery:
But if you go to the books, and try to figure out what the creator of the universe wants with respect to the owning and needless immiseration of other people, he expects you to keep slaves, and he’s told you how to do it.
Is that right? Is God okay with the slave trade?
The Testaments consistently and unambiguously teach that you cannot own, and must not abuse or exploit, another person.
The short answer is no—the Old and New Testaments consistently and unambiguously teach that you cannot own, and must not abuse or exploit, another person.
For a longer answer, I want to begin with Moses.
Moses, the Emancipator
The US treasury department recently announced it will resume efforts to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Her story is amazing. Born into slavery in Dorchester County, she escaped in 1849 and made it the 144km journey to Philadelphia and to freedom. But hearing that her niece and two children were about to be put up for adoption, she took an unimaginable risk and went back to rescue them. How she pulled that off is a story in itself, involving cunning disguises and a dummy bid at her niece’s auction. But she wasn’t done. By the time she died aged 91 she had rescued hundreds of men, women and children from slavery. That’s how she got her nickname: Moses.
But why would they name a woman famous for freeing slaves after the man who wrote down all those Old Testament slave laws that Harris thinks are so immoral?
Before receiving the Ten Commandments, Moses was famous for something else. God sent him on a daring mission to rescue a whole nation of slaves (Exodus 4-15). They came to Egypt originally as economic refugees during a famine, but Pharaoh subsequently forced them to work as slaves and subjected them to systematic, dehumanising and racist abuse.
God heard Israel’s cries and took down a superpower to get them out of slavery.
The ‘Exodus’ was the defining moment in Israel’s history when God heard their cries and took down a superpower to get them out of slavery. The experience of being rescued from slavery would shape Israel’s national identity and laws in ways that are impossible to overstate.
At one point Sam Harris says that he wishes one of the Ten Commandments was ‘thou shalt not own slaves.’ Indeed, Moses never said that in the Ten Commandments. But in the very next chapter after the Ten Commandments he does say this:
Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:16)
The penalty for being involved at any point in this kind of human trafficking was death.
To steal a person here refers to the slave trade—the evil practice of abducting children and adults and selling them as if they were property in slave markets. It was common all over the ancient world, and continues to this day. It is what happened to the Israelite’s ancestor Joseph (that’s how he ended up in Egypt). The penalty for being involved at any point in this kind of human trafficking was death. That’s worth noticing: God values life, and reserves the death penalty for the worst of the worst crimes.
You might be wondering: if the slave trade is outlawed and even being found in possession of an involuntary worker will put you on the wrong end of a death sentence … then where on earth are people going to get their slaves from?
Two Kinds of Slaves
Some historical context is required here. Ancient people used the common word ‘slave’ for two main types of arrangement: the abduction type, and the bankruptcy type. Owning the abducted type of slave is bad for life expectancy, so that leaves the other main type, the bankruptcy or debt repayment situation.
Say you went bankrupt and you’d already sold the farm. Your options at this point were simple: you and your children could starve to death, or you use the only thing you had left (your labour) to pay off your debt and try to get back on your feet. Under this kind of arrangement you would voluntarily and temporarily become part of someone else’s family business, working alongside them and their children for a limited period of time to pay off your debt.
All this is hard for us to imagine. But if you have a mortgage or an employment contract longer than a day then, in the ancient world, you would have been called a slave. LinkedIn hadn’t been invented yet, nor had companies or social security. Remember, these were brutal times and options were limited: starve to death in the desert, or work in someone else’s household as a slave.
The fine print qualifications ultimately undermined the very idea that someone could own another human being.
Slavery was everywhere in the ancient world. But God’s laws given through Moses condemned the dehumanising slave trade with the most serious penalty of all. He put measures in place to ensure nobody would go bankrupt and lose the farm in the first place. But he also made some concessions to ameliorate an imperfect reality: the slave trade was death penalty material, but for now you could still do bankruptcy-slavery . Yet even then, he put a huge asterisk on it—the fine print qualifications ultimately undermined the very idea that someone could own another human being.
Rights for Slaves
Moses gave slaves rights.
Just think about this for a second. Slaves with rights makes about as much sense as a vegan bacon burger with extra cheese. The whole point of slaves is that they don’t have rights; slaves are somebody’s else property. That’s how it works.
But as a Hebrew bankruptcy slave you kept your rights and dignity even while you worked temporarily for someone else:
- You could bring lawsuits against your master for mistreatment (other ancient lawcodes allowed masters to sue other people for harming their slaves, but nobody else let slaves take their masters to court!).
- Your master owned your time and labour but not your body (if they damaged even one tooth of your body you walked free immediately).
- Your master owned your time and labour but not your soul. You had the right to a religious life, including a day off for the Sabbath, and you retained your identity and protection as part of your family and broader community.
Israelite towns were commanded to give refuge to runaway slaves … if you didn’t like the way you were being treated you could simply walk to the next town.
And here’s the kicker: Israelite towns were commanded to give refuge to runaway slaves. In any sane slave-owning society, escaped slaves would be punished severely and returned to their masters (those harbouring escapees were also punished, sometimes with death). But in Israel, if you didn’t like the way you were being treated you could simply walk to the next town and they would be obliged to protect you. The reason for this bizarre and backwards rule goes back to the start and their core identity: the nation of Israel was founded by runaway slaves from Egypt (c.f. Deut 15:15).
But if slavery was voluntary, time-limited, and you could leave at any time if you didn’t like how you were being treated—didn’t all this fine print basically undermine the whole idea of treating people as property?
Yes. That’s the point.
The law given to Moses begins the take down of one of the most persistent and insidious institutions across almost all cultures in human history. Is it a compromise? Yes. On the one hand, God accepts that for the time being there will be some forms of slavery within Israel—and gives judgments that reflect that fact and try to limit its worst excesses. At the same time, God’s laws lock in the destination of the total abolition of slavery. They make crystal clear that, while you can buy someone’s time and labour, you can never own another human being.
There is an Akkadian proverb from a different ancient civilization that says ‘man is the shadow of a god, a slave is the shadow of a man’. In other words, some people are just born to be slaves. The Bible says this is rubbish. Whoever you are, God made you, and you matter to him. Circumstances might have brought you into economic slavery, but you are no less human, with rights and dignity as an image of God (Genesis 1:27).
Pointing to Justice in the Mess of Reality
The exception for temporary bankruptcy-slavery was still not ideal (nor was the exception for enemy prisoners, which I have not gone into here). Such arrangements were certainly open to abuse. It would be thousands of years before humans invented an alternative way of structuring an economy that was less open to exploitation. Even today, forced labour remains the second biggest illegal trade after drugs—and most of it is funded by western nations. Christian organisations like International Justice Mission are still working to free slaves today.
The Law is not just about the ideal; it’s about pointing towards God’s justice from within the mess of sinful reality.
We might wish Moses was more than an emancipationist and a pioneer of human rights—maybe we think he should have been the first abolitionist too, and decreed all forms of slavery illegal overnight. I really do understand that feeling. But the Law is not just about the ideal; it’s about pointing towards God’s justice from within the mess of sinful reality. Slavery was part of the situation Moses was confronting.
Eventually Christians in all sorts of times and places—in the early church, medieval Europe and later in England with William Wilberforce—would campaign to abolish it forever. But Moses started that campaign.
Ironically, it is this same biblical doctrine that nobody can own an image of God which explains why, for audiences in post-Christian countries, the idea of God supporting slavery feels so intuitively wrong (despite the fact that nearly all cultures in all times and all places have practised it). Only the biblical illiteracy of our present moment makes the claim that God is okay with the slave trade plausible. This worries me, because it was this same biblical illiteracy that enabled slave owners in the nineteenth century to argue, with a straight face, that the God of Moses and Jesus was cool with them dehumanising, abusing and exploiting other people based on their race.
 He also made some other exceptions, e.g. for enemy prisoners, and for slaves who chose voluntarily to remain as part of their master’s household past the end of their debt.