The debate over what the Bible says about slavery is a matter of more than academic interest to proponents of LGBT equality. If the Bible is “wrong” on slavery, that is, if it seems to permit it, then aren’t we free to believe that it is “wrong” on the morality of same-sex relationships (assuming that the texts of terror do speak uniformly against such relationships–which is a whole ‘nother debate.)
Writing for the Huffington Post, Greg Carey of Lancaster Theological Seminary says it is easier to use the Bible to support slavery than to oppose it, and that attempts to argue that Biblical slavery was of a different character than the slavery we encounter in American history textbooks miss the point:
Don’t let anybody tell you that biblical slavery was somehow less brutal than slavery in the United States. Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies. The Bible engages remarkably diverse cultures — Ethiopian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman — but in every one of them some people owned the rights to others. Slaveowners possessed not only the slaves’ labor but also their sexual and reproductive capacities. When the Bible refers to female slaves who do not “please” their masters, we’re talking about the sexual use of slaves.
The Bible does not attempt to hide the presence of slaves. Beware modern translations that use “servant” to cover up slave language. Slaves were ubiquitous in the ancient world. Imagine ancient Rome, where slaves made up between one-third and one-half of the inhabitants — perhaps half a million people! The Senate once considered requiring slaves to wear identifying marks, but they stopped short in the face of a chilling realization: if slaves could recognize one another, what would prevent them from organizing and pillaging the entire city?
There’s a simple explanation for nineteenth century debates on slavery and the Bible: the Bible isn’t exactly clear on the subject. If anything, the Bible made it easier for slavery’s advocates than for its opponents. On the other hand, Robert E. Putnam and David E. Campbell suggest that while religion contributed greatly in the motivation of abolitionists, their adversaries would have promoted slavery with or without religion.