One of the persistent criticisms made against the Christian faith is the claim that the Bible supports slavery. The “New Atheists” argue that the Bible’s support for slavery demonstrates that the Bible is an immoral book, an ancient text better left to the Bronze age, from which it came. Overly-enthusiastic defenders of the faith, eager to answer such critics, can sometimes overreact in the opposite direction, ignoring some of the more difficult statements found in Scripture.
The answer is, as is the case with all “social justice” issues, is a bit more complicated. For the critics, they have a point in that Leviticus 25:44-46 looks to be, on a surface reading, to be condoning chattel slavery, treating persons as property, that can be bought or sold. However, Tyndale House linguistics scholar Peter J. Williams makes the case that passages like these require a more thoughtful reading, paying closer attention to the historical context in which they were made (see video below).
Many people today find the Bible’s comments on slavery disturbing, because they often confuse the Bible’s discussion of slavery, with how Americans in the antebellum South practiced slavery, with dark-skinned Africans. Many Americans, particularly in the antebellum Old South (and even perhaps some even today!!), based the enslavement of dark-skinned Africans on a rather crude reading of Noah’s “Curse on Ham”, as found in Genesis 9:20-27, when Ham’s son, Canaan, was cursed by Noah, after Ham uncovered “the nakedness of his father.” What is striking right away is that the curse was actually made against Canaan, Ham’s son, and not Ham himself. The “African slavery” interpretation is all the more alarming, when one considers that Canaan is the ancestor of the Canaanites who populated the Promised Land, that Joshua and the Israelites settled. There is no evidence in Scripture that Canaan had any African descendants.
By the 15th century, an interpretive tradition became popular, identifying the practice of enslaving Africans, as a result of this so-called “Curse on Ham.” But according to semitic and Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser, in an episode of FringePop321, this particular Bible interpretation is woefully flawed, in multiple ways, failing to take into account, the critical presence of metaphor in Genesis, that can be seen by a more broad reading of Scripture, following the practice of interpreting Scripture with Scripture (see second video below).
So, what was the whole “nakedness of [Noah’s] father” all about? Dr. Heiser makes the compelling case that it had EVERYTHING to do with Ham seeking to usurp his father’s clan leadership, and absolutely NOTHING to do with skin color.
The bottom line? Whatever criticisms can be levied against the Bible regarding the practice of slavery, such slavery can NOT be equated with the kind of racial-based slavery practiced in the antebellum American South.
Bible interpretation matters, folks. Bible interpretation matters.
For a helpful summary of the Bible’s teaching on slavery in general, please read this excellent article over at Alisa Childers’ apologetics blog. For a critical interaction with the idea that the Bible only endorses indentured servitude, and not chattel slavery, consult this YouTube video by Digital Hammurabi (also this additional video by Digital Hammurabi: scholars appear to be divided on this issue concerning chattel slavery). For a summary of scholarly views on the Genesis 9 text, with an extensive interaction with Dr. Heiser’s exegesis, read this article by Kathleen Kasper at YourBibleBlog. Dr. Heiser’s work largely depends on research done by Roman Catholic scholars John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Hahn. Peter Leithart summarizes Bergsma and Hahn. This current blog article updates the research I did regarding the “Curse of Ham,” for a previous blog article I wrote in 2015.