It’s a momentous week in American history. Not only do Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, but the legacy of the American Civil War looms heavily in the background this week as we mark the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Siege of Vicksburg. Those two military campaigns together comprised the turning point in a war that divided not just a nation, but churches and families.

A scene from the Battle of Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup. Restored by Adam Cuerden.

A scene from the Battle of Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup. Restored by Adam Cuerden.

I’ve been reading a lot about the Civil War in the last few weeks, as many blogs, radio shows, and other media have focused on that conflict. You can’t read very far into Civil War history before being struck with a deeply uncomfortable fact: there were earnest Christians on both sides of the conflict. It’s difficult to even imagine—followers of Christ, split over a moral issue as stark and obvious as slavery!

A clear reading of Scripture shows that it was wrong and un-Biblical for Christians in the 19th century to quote the Bible in defense of the barbaric practice of slavery. But it should concern us that so many people did look to the Bible to support the practice of slavery, and it’s fair to consider the Bible critic’s charge: “How can you trust God’s Word if it can be used to justify inhuman behavior like slavery?”

Much has been written on this topic, and I won’t attempt to reproduce it all here. However, I’ve found this excerpt from an interview by Lee Strobel to be a useful starting point. Here’s Lee Strobel, talking to author Paul Copan about his book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God.

Lee Strobel: What about those slavery texts in the Old Testament? They conjure up images of slavery in the pre-Civil War South.

Paul Copan: Servitude in Israel was radically different than slavery in the antebellum South. Although people on both sides argued that the Bible does—or does not—endorse slavery, I argue that we have good reason to think that the “biblical case” for Southern slavery doesn’t hold up.

For one thing, the term “slave” or “slavery” in the Old Testament is often a mistranslation. The Mosaic Law typically refers to “servitude” as indentured service—much like arrangements in colonial America: those who couldn’t pay for their voyage to the New World would work for seven years to pay off their debt, and then they were free to operate in society as ordinary citizens.

What’s interesting about contracted servitude in Israel was that it was, first of all, voluntary: a person would “sell himself” or parcel out family members to work, and they would in return receive clothing, a roof over their heads, and food on the table. Servitude was also limited to seven years unless the servant voluntarily chose lifelong servitude, which brought both stability and security in difficult economic times.

Furthermore, if Bible-readers of the South had adhered to three Mosaic laws, slavery wouldn’t have been an issue: (a) Anti-harm laws: The Law of Moses calls for the release of servants maimed by their employers (Ex. 21:26-7). (b) Anti-kidnapping laws: The Mosaic Law also condemns kidnapping a person to sell as a slave—an act punishable by death: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 21:16; cp. Deut. 24:7). (c) Anti-return laws: Unlike the antebellum South, Israel was to offer safe harbor to (foreign) runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16)—a marked contrast to the Southern states’ Fugitive Slave Law. This law was also a marked contrast to other law codes in the ancient Near East. In Babylon, harboring a fugitive slave meant the death penalty!

As Copan would certainly acknowledge, his answer above is just the beginning of a larger discussion about perceived barbarism in the Bible. (And it’s focused on the Old Testament; the New Testament contains further statements related to slavery that merit careful study.) But I think it lays out a good framework for responding to criticisms that the Bible promotes barbaric practices like slavery. I take away two important points:

  1. Context is important. It’s hugely important to consider troublesome or controversial Bible passages in the cultural and literary context they were written in. In the example above, “slavery” as mentioned in the Old Testament was very different from the slavery practiced in the United States, and it was inappropriate for Christians to use those verses to justify modern slavery.

    “Look at the context” isn’t a magical phrase that will set your mind at ease about every difficult passage in the Bible. But if we don’t ask questions like “Who was this written for and why? What did these words mean to the original audience?”, we’re not reading the Bible responsibly.

  2. If our interpretation of a Bible passage causes us to violate a clear teaching of Scripture, we’ve made a mistake. Pro-slavery Christians during the Civil War interpreted specific Bible passages as supporting slavery… even though those interpretations were at odds with one of the most resounding teachings of Jesus Christ: As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Christians believe that the Bible is a unified, coherent revelation from God; it does not contradict itself. If our understanding of a difficult Bible passage is at odds with the clear general teaching of Scripture, we must exercise humility and consider the possibility that our understanding is flawed.

The question of how Bible-believing Christians used Scripture as justification for slavery is one that should humble us even today. None of us is perfect, and none of us is completely immune to the temptation to read into Scripture what we want to see. But the next time you’re challenged by a troubling Bible verse, slow down and consider the context—both its place in the cultural history of God’s people, and its place in the general teaching of Scripture—and be careful not to imagine that God’s Word says something it doesn’t.

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