Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh acts like a deontologist. Here are some passages where God hands down categorical prohibitions against various behaviors (all passages are ESV. bold mine).
If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten.
If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag.
This is only a small sample of deontological statements in the O.T. But I’d like to look at one more passage:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.
So, what do various apologists have to say about slavery in the bible? Here’s a few sources.
Jesus lays down a method of interpretation that has to be taken very seriously. He makes it clear that certain Old Testament commandments were to be understood as concessions to the hardness of the human heart rather than as expressions of God’s holy character. [...] The regulation of slavery should therefore be seen as a practical step to deal with the realities of the day resulting from human fall.[...] While the Bible does not reject slavery outright, the conclusion that it actually favours slavery is patently wrong.
The Bible does not specifically condemn the practice of slavery. [...] What many fail to understand is that slavery in biblical times was very different from the slavery that was practiced in the past few centuries in many parts of the world. The slavery in the Bible was not based exclusively on race. [...] In Bible times, slavery was more a matter of social status. People sold themselves as slaves when they could not pay their debts or provide for their families. [...] Another crucial point is that the purpose of the Bible is to point the way to salvation, not to reform society.
This sort of response is quite common. But distinctly lacking is an explanation as to why there is no categorical condemnation of slavery to be found, as there is for so many other things. Where’s the verse that reads, “You shall not keep slaves as property. This is an abomination.”?
Throughout the Old Testament, God acts as a strict deontologist. But when it comes to the issue of slavery, suddenly his attitude changes dramatically. He’s making concessions, he’s guiding the Israelites, he’s not interested in social reform. Furthermore, the answers given for all this might be somewhat satisfying with regard to domestic “slaves” (I can’t see much wrong with being legally required to work off one’s debt); but when it comes to foreign slaves, it’s clear that there’s strong similarity to the slavery practiced in the American south.
The reason that southern slavery was immoral is not just that it was race-based, although that’s certainly a major point against it. In addition, it was immoral because it was a method of treating other people not as people, but as property. If all the slaves in the American south were white, it would *still* be a morally disgusting practice. So the apologetic that OT foreign slavery wasn’t race-based doesn’t save the practice from immorality. As is clear in Leviticus 25, such slaves were treated as property, and could even be inherited.
I categorically condemn owning human persons as extremely immoral. Why doesn’t Yahweh?