You are aware of this challenge. I asked James of Isaiah 53 to answer either here or on his blog, and out of kindness he dug out an old post he had done which answers this particular challenge. As I told Peter separately on another blog, his post doesn’t answer my question. I will quote a comment from the post, my comments will be in red.
Skeptic: “You know your Bible contains scores of verses that mention slavery. But nowhere does it ever condemn the practice, per se.”
Believer: I agree.
Skeptic: “Well, why not? If the Bible is the word of God, why wouldn’t it condemn such evil?”
Believer: In a sin-fallen world, the battles we fight have to be chosen carefully. The same thing goes for the manner in which those battles are going to be fought. If the world is fallen, who made it thus? Why has an all loving god let the situation continue in this way? It would be useless to claim that A& E are responsible for how things have turned out. An infinite god had no business creating a world with fallen creatures or creatures with capacity for failure.
Believer: The Bible was never designed to serve as a manifesto on controversial political issues. It is rather primarily the story of how God, over time, has worked His sovereign will in this universe, and is still able to do so, through the hearts and minds and lives of those who trust Him. If the bible and the world are anything to go by, god has been a big failure. The people who believe in god are not any wiser, don’t fare any better than non believers, they still suffer anxiety, failure, disease and worse, they even fear they may go to hell! The apologist has rationalized the bible to be a scheme of how god is saving the world. I don’t think the bible says so about itself. And if we allowed the claim to be true, the bible is about a chosen family, a chosen tribe, a chosen nation, not a sovereign of the whole universe. How does the believer, a non Jew pretend to say it talks about his family?
Skeptic: “But slavery isn’t just a political issue. It’s a moral issue. Isn’t the Christian Bible supposed to be a moral guide?”
Believer: Of course. But as a rule, the best way to change moral behavior is to transform moral views. And guess what. Beginning in the second century, many masters, upon converting to Christ, began to release their slaves. Slavery was abolished in Great Britain after people began being converted to Christ under the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield. To claim that many masters released their slaves doesn’t help the bible story. They did this despite of the bible. The text is there in the bible. The same argument would equally apply against witch hunts. The text is still there in the bible but nobody, at least, that we know of, is burning witches anymore.
Skeptic: “But why doesn’t the Bible just come right out and condemn slavery in so many words?”
Believer: Did you know that in the Old Testament, slaves were often prisoners of war? The Law of Moses in fact served to regulate the care of slaves by their Hebrews masters, i.e. Exodus 21:20 and 26, Leviticus 25:40. Consequently, Israel never captured and sold humans as did the Phoenicians and Philistines. How does this improve the moral status of the bible? It’s well to have slaves, if they are prisoners of war! What blasphemy against an all wise god. Does the good god condemn war then? Is there anywhere the good god says don’t go to war, it may make slaves of your fellows?
Skeptic: “But what about in New Testament times? Why didn’t Jesus, as a moral authority, speak out boldly against slavery?”
Believer: “Well, numerous New Testament texts, such as Colossians 4:1, Galatians 3:28, and the Book of Philemon, make the case for the inherent spiritual worth of slaves, which effectively laid a base for deep down authentic change in social practice, over time. God’s way is often to work from within, dealing primarily with the spiritual component. Jesus was typically apolitical. Otherwise, encouraging direct confrontation over such a hot button social issue may have fomented revolution, providing Rome with a political excuse for persecuting Christians.”Maybe they were just spiritual slaves. Maybe there really were no slaves in the bible. It was all a metaphor for the spirit and this is why god doesn’t say anything against. How sick are these people?
Skeptic: “Well for me, slavery is slavery. It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and the Bible should be against it.”
Believer: On the contrary, slavery in Bible times significantly differed from slavery in modern times. It was not based on race. It was often less imperialistic. Some believe that in many cases it was actually more of an indentured servant type arrangement. Slaves then were really not slaves, they were free men and women. They were volunteers, they just didn’t have a word for it in those days of ignorance.
Skeptic: “In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus 25:44-46, slaves are actually referred to as possessions. And Jesus Himself sometimes used analogies that seem to tacitly condone slavery.”
Believer: Again, the Bible primarily details the account of how God has chosen to deal with the tragic results of a sin-fallen world down through the ages. While recognizing the reality of slavery as it existed in various forms, the Bible never actually condones it. It rather gives slaves, both then and more recently, a spiritual basis for worth, dignity, equality, and hope to face difficult circumstances. A god who the believer claims, to anyone willing to hear, is all powerful and loving chose to give rules for treating slaves instead of simply declaring you should hold no slaves. A god who found no qualms in sending bears to maul children that offended a prophet or send birds to feed another could not find it worthy to end slavery? I am appalled by what people believe. And disgusted that they can preach it!
It is strange that this god believers would very quickly condemn anyone who would do the things they excuse their god for. Mark Twain was right when he wrote in the Letters from the Earth, and I will quote at length, for it matters;
Human history in all ages is red with blood, and bitter with hate, and stained with cruelties; but not since Biblical times have these features been without a limit of some kind. Even the Church, which is credited with having spilt more innocent blood, since the beginning of its supremacy, than all the political wars put together have spilt, has observed a limit. A sort of limit. But you notice that when the Lord God of Heaven and Earth, adored Father of Man, goes to war, there is no limit. He is totally without mercy — he, who is called the Fountain of Mercy. He slays, slays, slays! All the men, all the beasts, all the boys, all the babies; also all the women and all the girls, except those that have not been deflowered.
He makes no distinction between innocent and guilty. The babies were innocent, the beasts were innocent, many of the men, many of the women, many of the boys, many of the girls were innocent, yet they had to suffer with the guilty. What the insane Father required was blood and misery; he was indifferent as to who furnished it.
There is nothing in either savage or civilized history that is more utterly complete, more remorselessly sweeping than the Father of Mercy’s campaign among the Midianites. The official report does not furnish the incidents, episodes, and minor details, it deals only in information in masses: all the virgins, all the men, all the babies, all “creatures that breathe,” all houses, all cities; it gives you just one vast picture, spread abroad here and there and yonder, as far as eye can reach, of charred ruin and storm-swept desolation; your imagination adds a brooding stillness, an awful hush — the hush of death. But of course there were incidents.
and he finishes with this beautiful commentary on the beatitudes
The mouth that uttered these immense sarcasms, these giant hypocrisies, is the very same that ordered the wholesale massacre of the Midianitish men and babies and cattle; the wholesale destruction of house and city; the wholesale banishment of the virgins into a filthy and unspeakable slavery. This is the same person who brought upon the Midianites the fiendish cruelties which were repeated by the red Indians, detail by detail, in Minnesota eighteen centuries later. The Midianite episode filled him with joy. So did the Minnesota one, or he would have prevented it.
The Beatitudes and the quoted chapters from Numbers and Deuteronomy ought always to be read from the pulpit together; then the congregation would get an all-round view of Our Father in Heaven. Yet not in a single instance have I ever known a clergyman to do this.
I rest my case against this madness about people apologising for a tyrant, a monster and fiend!