Non-Christians (and increasingly, those who self-identify as “Christians”) frequently dismiss biblical ethical norms with a quick “Oh, but the Bible condones slavery and polygamy!”
With, of course, the obvious implication that the Bible’s morals are awfully unreliable. Because it “condoned” things that we find offensive, and that even Christians seem embarrassed about. (We Christians, after all, seem agreed by now that both polygamy and slavery are bad.)
And then, having cast aside the Bible as a reliable guide, we enlightened moderns can take on that role of deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong.
Now, there are several answers to that line of argument, one of which is that the Bible does not simply condone either slavery or polygamy; it regulates them, which is not the same thing.
Moreover, the slavery the Bible countenanced was never based on kidnapping, an offense which in fact carried with it the death penalty under the Mosaic law (Exodus 21:16). “Slavery” among fellow Israelites was a form of indentured servitude, and “perpetual slavery” was only countenanced in connection with prisoners of war. Even in their case, the Mosaic law did regulate things to avoid their mistreatment. If a slave ran away, other Israelites were forbidden from assisting in his return (Deuteronomy 23:15); and if a slave’s master seriously harmed him, the slave was automatically authorized to go free (Exodus 21:26). Even a slave wife (concubine) was to be granted freedom if her husband ever diminished her marital rights (Exodus 21:10-11).
But there is much more involved in understanding the Bible’s position regarding both slavery and polygamy than scouring the Mosaic law and ensuring a balanced and proper interpretation of these situations through its case laws—as important an exercise as that indeed is.
One must also read the New Testament and ask how it addresses these things directly. For example, it has been observed by many able interpreters that the principles which Paul lays down in the so-called household codes, but especially in his letter to Philemon, would of necessity undermine the very institution of slavery. While he never started a revolution and told slaves to disobey or flee their masters (quite the contrary), his instructions to masters effectively undercut the whole framework of slavery, as did the equal footing that slaves and freemen had in his theology.
Something similar could be observed regarding polygamy. By forbidding polygamists from holding church office (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6), Paul underscored the normativity of monogamy, and the church ultimately followed suit.
A Theology of Changing Relationships
But even this is not sufficient to understand the full weight of the biblical picture. The development in biblical norms in connection with these two matters is not the reflection of shifting cultural sands (God’s commandments were heavily counter-cultural both in the time of Moses and in the first century), but a metaphor for His own developing relationship with His people. It is thus grounded in theology.
Prior to the coming of Christ, God had a particularly chosen people, Israel, with whom He had entered into covenant. This covenant is described in Ezekiel 16 in terms of marriage, and many interpreters have also observed various wedding features of the encounter between Yahweh and Israel at Sinai in the book of Exodus.
But the unique place of Israel within God’s unfolding purpose did not mean that He had completely set aside everyone else. He still maintained what we would call saving relationships with goyim—Gentiles, people from the other nations. We find this repeatedly, such as in the case of the encounter between Abram and the Philistine king who feared God, to the repentance of Naaman the Syrian and of the Ninevites.
Jesus refers to this situation of God having the sheep of Israel, as well as sheep who were “not of this fold” (John 10:16). In other words, there were multiple peoples of God for a time, and when we take into account the marital imagery of the Old Testament, we begin to understand why God did not outright forbid polygamy. His relationship with believers was itself polygamous, after a sort.
And yet, He Himself does not present this as normal. It is not merely that He did not create two brides for Adam, but only one. It is also the fact that throughout salvation history, God gives strong indications of a coming day of the union of the whole people of God.
Even at the very introduction of the division between Israel and the nations, when God sets Abram apart, in that very context He intimates the coming union of peoples which He envisions. Even at that time, God makes the promise that in Abram all the nations will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). The later prophets spoke in line with that, foretelling days of alliance and widespread integration between Israel and surrounding nations, who would flow to Zion.
And of course Jesus Himself, in His reference to the “other sheep” which are “not of this sheepfold,” is indicating that He is about to gather all the sheep together, so that there will be one sheepfold and one Shepherd (John 10:16).
Moreover, in Galatians 3, Paul likewise takes up the Genesis 12 promise to affirm the full unity in Christ between Jews and Gentiles, apart from the Mosaic law which had served as a wall of separation (cf Ephesians 2:14).
In other words, the salvation-historical goal was always aimed at a culmination which would entail one Bride for Yahweh, and of course that is precisely what comes so far to the forefront in Paul’s letters. The dividing wall has been broken down, and God has made both Jews and Gentiles one in the blood of Christ’s cross (see e.g. Ephesians 2:11-22).
In view of this, the biblical ambiguity toward polygamy should not be surprising. God’s aim was always one Bride, one people of God, but the pathway toward that was a preliminary one which kept Jews and Gentiles distinct and separate. Therefore, His regulations of polygamy were very restrained. But throughout the course of biblical history, He kept pointing forward to what was truly normative: one people for Himself.
And since, as Paul argues in one of the letters we have found ourselves referencing repeatedly, marriage is the revelation of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32), of necessity when that union between Jew and Gentile was established, the entire theological ground undergirding polygamy was cut away.
Just as there is a salvation-historical movement from polygamy to monogamy in the Scripture, there is an analogical salvation-historical movement from slavery to freedom.
This is particularly clearly summed up by Paul in Galatians 3-4, where he identifies the old creation as a period of slavery administered (in the case of Israel) by a paidagogos, namely Torah, the Mosaic law (Gal 3:24-25).
A paidagogos was not (as some Bible versions mislead us) a “tutor,” an educator, at least not primarily. A paidagogos was a slave who acted as a custodian to children during the age of their minority. He enforced the sorts of rules which small children live under.
Paul summarizes this situation by saying that even an heir, when he is a child (minor), differs nothing from a slave (Gal 4:1). After all, he is under guardians and managers who are themselves slaves (4:2), and it follows that one is scarcely free if he is governed by a slave.
Prior to the advent of Christ, Paul says in Galatians 4:3, “we” (Israelites under Torah, but also Gentiles under the various constitutive aspects of paganism) were enslaved by the “elements of the world.” In other words, just as earth, wind, water were elements of the visible creation, Paul is saying that there were things, such as Torah, which were basic elements of “the world,” the “old creation” that plays such a large role in the structure of his theology.
But in the fullness of time, rather than the heir simply growing up and reaching the age of majority, God sent His own Son (who is so mature He is eternal), born of a woman, born under Torah in order to liberate those who were under Torah, “so that we might receive the adoption as [mature] sons” (Gal 4:4-5).
In other words, Christ identified with His people, placed them in Himself, so that they might become mature heirs. The effect, then, is that they no longer “differ nothing from a slave,” but are brought into freedom, a theme that heavily predominates Galatians 4-5, in particular.
Now it is true that Paul describes himself repeatedly as “the servant of Christ,” and there is definitely a sense in which the creature will always be servant to the Creator. Yet nonetheless, it is equally clear that Paul does not mean what we would normally mean when we use slavery terminology. Christ is Master as one’s King, but this King is brother and friend.
Jesus Himself speaks of this shift to His disciples. In John 15:12-17, He commands them to love one another as He has loved them—a love greater than any other, because He lays down His life for them, His friends. Yes, “You are My friends if you do what I command you; no longer do I call you slaves, for the slaves does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends. . . .”
In this passage, it becomes clear that Christ’s authority is not diminished: He gives commands. And yet, the relationship has altered. It is so intimate that He no longer calls them douloi (servants, slaves), but philoi (loved ones, friends). He is “in charge,” but His disciples are His intimates.
It thus becomes clear that just as there is a movement from polygamy under the Old Testament with the advent of Christ, so there is also a movement from slavery under the Old Testament to freedom and intimacy with the advent of Christ.
Borrowing from Paul, perhaps we may summarize all of this in this way: Christ was born under slavery in order to redeem those under slavery; and Christ was born of a woman, in order to marry a [singular] woman.
The point of this exercise is to help us see that God’s ways are not arbitrary. Even where we may discern something that changes over time, that does not mean that the Bible is a confused muddle. To the contrary, the Bible’s storyline is a tightly-woven narrative that interrelates God’s increasing closeness to His people to the norms by which He commands the everyday lives of those people.
Slavery and polygamy under the Old Testament are not a mistake. They are regulated conditions which provide threads for God’s good (and true) story.