How can we trust the Bible when it permitted slavery?

I am a young new believer in Christ but I have some doubts with my faith.

I am African American so my ancestry runs into slavery at some point along the way. I know that the bible does not support the idea that people from European descent are not superior to other ethnicities but I am not sure what to say to people when it comes to the topic of slavery.

Recently I am seeing atheist and people within the LGBT+ community speak about this as a means of attacking or discrediting the Bible. It is a sensational topic and I know that they will bring it up to sway people.

I am not an Old Testament scholar so I can’t speak definitively about this but this has been annoying me for a long time. It is… disheartening when I see these accusations and can’t respond due to my lack of knowledge. I can’t trust people on social media sites like YouTube to get a clear answer (particularly because there is a whole subgroup of Christian apologist and atheist debaters).

I just want to know the truth and speak of the truth even if I do not like it. I will really appreciate your honesty since you know more than I do about apologetics.

There are a couple of ways to consider this.  First and foremost, we should acknowledge that slavery as practiced in ancient Israel was nothing like slavery in the southern United States.  Consider Leviticus 25, a chapter often quoted from by critics of the Old Testament.  If one reads the whole chapter they will come across Leviticus 25:49-50 which gives provision for a slave who has prospered to buy himself back out of slavery.  Consider what is assumed here.  It is assumed that a slave may earn wealth of his own that he may trade to his owner to buy himself out of slavery.  The slave owner does not own the slave’s property or else such a transaction would be nonsensical.  Slavery in the Old Testament was more like indentured servitude (a form of working off one’s debts) than the chattel slavery that occurred in the US.

The second thing we should consider is that ancient Israel did not have safety nets to care for the poor.  Slavery was a way that a family facing abject poverty and possibly starvation could survive along with their family.  There were laws in the Old Testament to protect slaves from harsh treatment, but to ban the practice altogether would have left these poor with no way in which to survive.

I recommend that you have a look at Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan.  He deals extensively with the issue of slavery in the Old Testament and his insights may help you deal with these sorts of critiques.

Matt Bilyeu
Chapter Director, Reasonable Faith
Master of Arts in Apologetics, Luther Rice University and Seminary