How would you defend the Old Testament against criticism of it apparent support of the slave trade, violence and other issues?

The Old Testament is a fascinating library of books[1] which describe the relationship between God and human beings, more specifically the relationship between God and the ancient Hebrews. It contains books of narrative history, law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, stories and to many it is the word of God. Yet even in the earliest days of the Christian church its meaning and relevance has been hotly debated, sparking off endless controversy and debate.   There is a view that the Bible shows a “progressive revelation of God’s will and character”[2]. This allows some of the more difficult parts of the Old Testament to be understood as having been appropriate to a primitive age.


This is similar to a contextual understanding of the Old Testament whereby it is necessary to understand the context in which the passages were written. And indeed much of the strangeness of the Old Testament can be dispelled once it is placed in its historical and social context. This has been made easier in recent times by the growth in the knowledge of ancient civiliations, for example the Ugarit texts, Assyrian and other Mesopotamian archaeology.


However, there are still issues in the Old Testament which are very difficult to understand, especially those in relation to the early parts of the Deuteronomic History concerning the settlement of Israel in the land of Canaan. The books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, and to a lesser extent those of Joshua and Judges, express a great hatred for the indigenous people of Canaan and insist that the Canaanites are completely worthless so that any kind of violence towards them can be justified as being God’s will. This was the political underpinning for, amongst other events, the Crusades and later European colonialism. This violence towards others and oppression seems to be in the text and racism and genocide not only appear to be taken for granted but accepted as well. However, it is necessary to understand that narrative histories of the Old Testament are edited version of traditional stories, with editorial “spin”. “It is not the accounts of individual episodes that contain the incitements to genocide but the connecting tissue of editorial comment”[3]. The accounts of the battles are little more than small skirmishes at the end of which the Canaanites are still a force to be reckoned with. The editorial comment was written from the point of view of the history of Israel and Judah and even the effects of the disastrous Babylonian exile and aimed to show this was the failure of earlier generations to annihilate the Canaanites. The genocide perhaps did not actually happen but was written at a later date by the Deuteronomic editors.


In fact the Old Testament emphasises the very opposite of racism and violence. At the very beginning God created humans “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27) with no mention of different races. The message of God’s love is shown clearly in Isaiah in chapters 40-55. The non-Israelite Ruth became one of the ancestors of David. And both Amos and Hosea condemn the abuse of human rights (Hosea 1:4 and Amos 1:3-2:8). “Love your neighbour as yourself “(Lev 19:18) and “You shall not commit murder” (Exodus 20:13) apparently contradict the violence and racism which seems to have been shown by the Hebrews against other races.


However, it is not just a matter of understanding the historical context of the Old Testament to show how it can be misinterpreted but also the actual way the words of the Old Testament can be   mistranslated. An example of this is in the support given by the Dutch Reformed Church to the policy of Apartheid in South Africa. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament was translated into Afrikaans and a revised edition was published in 1953. The Afrikaners’ theology was greatly influenced by their defeats at the hands of the British in the late nineteenth century and was based on a type of extreme Calvinism called Dopper Calvinism. The General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1976 approved a report of the biblical justification for Apartheid called “Human Relations and the South African Scene in the Light of Scripture”. This stated that the Bible contains “universally and eternally valid principles of conduct”.[4] This report cites 50 texts but two of the most obvious examples of misunderstanding are in Genesis 1:28, and in Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel. The Afrikaans Churches interpreted Genesis 1:28 as a positive commandment to divide into “separatevolke with different cultures.     In Genesis 11, the coming together and uniting of all the people of the earth after God had instructed them to spread out and separate was a sin, not the people’s arrogance or their ambition to take over God. Thus the Report supports racism and also supports the idea of the development of separate races and is an example of the misinterpretation of the Old Testament.


There is a similar possible misinterpretation of Lev 25:44-46 which has been used to justify slave traders and is an example of one verse being taken out of context and used to defend a moral position by a group of people who are more concerned with supporting their own point of view, (in this case the slave traders transporting slaves from Africa to the southern states of America,) than understanding the actual meaning of the verse. There are many points which show the difference between the treatment of New World Slaves and the slavery of foreigners in the Old Testament. In New World slavery was motivated by the economic advantage of the elite, there was no means of obtaining freedom, the slave trade was based on racial exploitation, slaves were treated badly and with extreme punishments and they could own no property but were owned by their masters. [5]The situation in the Old Testament is quite different.  Although the Old Testament allowed for economic-based slavery, it was carefully regulated (Deut: 15: 1-18). However most of the references about the treatment of slaves in the Old Testament refer to Hebrews who have sold themselves into slavery and thus are not relevant to the explanation of the verse in Leviticus referring to the slave trade.


Although all slaves were viewed as the property of heads of households, the latter were not free to abuse even non-Israelite members of the household. On the contrary, explicitprohibitions of the oppression/exploitation of slaves appear repeatedly in the Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In two most remarkable texts, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Yahweh charges all Israelites to love   foreigners who reside in their midst, that is, the foreign members of their households (including foreign slaves) and to treat these outsiders with the same respect they show their fellow countrymen. In both texts Israel's memory of her own experience as slaves in Egypt should have provided motivation for compassionate treatment of her slaves. The key issue is that the slavery the Bible allowed for, in no way resembled the slave trade of the past few centuries. This practice is totally against God’s will. In fact, the penalty for such a crime in the Mosaic Law was death: “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).


The selective use of verse from the Old Testament can also be seen in the controversy about homosexuality in the church today. The Old Testament is no longer used to justify a man having two wives, a bride who is found not to be a virgin being stoned to death, likewise a man and a woman committing adultery, not charging interest on loans and so forth. However, four passages, (Genesis 19, Judges 19, Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13) are used to justify condemnation of homosexuality. The first two passages seem to communal sexual abuse of innocent victims. The Leviticus texts occur in much longer passages that prohibit sexual relations within the immediate family. “As such, they no doubt express the universal fear in societies if the consequences of incest … and state the minimum requirement for a group to survive: that its members marry from outside the immediate family. From this perspective intercourse between males does nothing to perpetuate the group and is condemned”[6]. But we do not live in small agricultural villages typical of ancient Israel, where the maintenance of the population is essential in the face of war and disease. Therefore it would be wrong to use isolated, selected verses in the same way that the Old Testament has been used to justify slavery, the death penalty for stealing, apartheid and violence. What we should learn from the Old Testament is the graciousness and love of God for all humankind.


[1] Etienne Charpentier: How to Read the Old Testament, page 5

[2] John Drane: Introducing the Old Testament, page 335

[3] Ibid, page 342

[4] Kelly Robert Hammerton in Biblical Justification in Afrikaner Civil Religion, 1993

[5] (accessed February 25th 2015)

[6] John Rogerson, Using the Old Testament in Beginning Old Testament Study 1998