Some people struggle to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, because of its treatment of the institution of slavery
Slavery is one of the ugliest institutions that has ever existed among mankind. The idea that someone could be property degrades them from what they actually are, which is an eternal being created in the image of God, loved by Him and for whom Jesus died on the cross.
This value of a human being is echoed throughout the Bible. The slavery of the Israelites in Egypt was decried as being against the will of God. So why then, would the book of Leviticus expressly allow Israel to make slaves of foreigners. Are not foreigners people too?
Two things get called slavery in the Bible. One is a voluntary, economic slavery. It is a way to pay off a debt before the days of bankruptcy. We might call that indentured servitude rather than slavery. If someone has an indentured servant and treats them well, it wouldn’t seem to be sinful, as long as proper credit is given for the person’s labor. The Jews were allowed to take even their own people as indentured servants, but the term of servitude was limited to six years.
For foreigners this term of service could go on indefinitely. The debt could even be passed to your children. It is not clear from the text whether this could include involuntary slavery of conquered peoples. The discussion of this can be found in Leviticus 25:39 and following.
Why would God allow this? The answer lies in how God used all of Levitical law. It will seem strange to you, but, again, God’s ways are not our ways. One way God used Levitical law, (henceforth just referred to as OT law), was to create limits within which a civilized society could function. Keep in mind that the Israelites had been slaves for 400 years. The only law that governed them was the law of whip in the hands of their masters. They were treated like animals, and it seemed that they still acted like animals as Moses took them through the desert. They needed social structure and the OT laws provided that. These limits were broad and achievable within a generation. They don’t necessarily express God’s ideals for mankind, but they were on the way.
I can say this because Jesus himself pointed out a contrast between OT law and God’s ideals in Matthew 19:8:
He said to them, “It is because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
“From the beginning”, God’s ideal and definition of right, was that a man and woman remained married for life. Because of sin, God allowed this exception. The same would be true for the slavery issue. From the beginning God made people in His image and not as property. The OT law makes limited exception.
Another way God used OT law was in a prophetic function. The requirements for animal sacrifice was not because God valued dead animals. He makes that clear in several places. Still, God requires these sacrifices because God is foreshadowing a sacrifice that will actually matter. It is the sacrifice that Jesus would make of Himself on behalf of all mankind.
If you look again at Leviticus 25, it starts to talk about “redeeming” somebody in slavery. Jesus said, “Every who sins is a slave to sin”. Jesus’ death “redeems” us. The style of slavery temporarily allowed by OT law is a prophetic parallel to our condition under sin, and reminded people that they were slaves even if they were free and still needed a redeemer.
Would everybody get that? Probably not. But it was God’s way to embody a profound truth in a historical situation. In theological circles we call that a “type”. It in no way endorses slavery. It especially forbids the mistreatment of people in all positions of life.
In the New Testament, many slaves become Christians. Paul doesn’t tell them to rebel but rather to serve to the best of their ability. In this way they are to give a witness to who they are in Christ. New Christians who might be slave owners (in this case indentured servant owners) are to treat their “slaves” as brothers in Christ. The most notable person of this type is Philemon.
Does the Bible ever call out slavery as sin. Yes it does, in 1 Timothy 1:10 where Paul lists “enslavers” as sinners in need of the Law.