People today tend to judge those of prior times in the light of today’s values. It's not a wise thing to do.
The most brilliant and learned people who have ever lived.....namely...us, of course.....come to feel a certain way about this or that practice, so anyone in the past who did not feel that way is barbaric, uncouth, uncivilized, etc. Or, to take the flipside, if we feel a certain way, then the truly learned and wise of prior generations also must have felt that way. But in reality, humankind (yes, even the wise and learned) run with a herd mentality....just like we all wear fat ties one year and narrow ties a few years later.
Slavery is universally condemned today. Yet the most elevated of the ancient world accepted it as a matter of course, and had no qualms about it. Aristotle, for example, supported slavery as being in accord with natural law. Historians estimate that one of every three persons was a slave in the ancient world.
Sometimes we hear American forefathers like Washington and Jefferson condemned because they kept slaves, without regard for the fact that everyone of their class (wise, refined, prosperous) at the time kept slaves. The fact that they were the most progressive and just of slaveholders means nothing. They kept slaves....damn them..... and so deserve the loathing of today's learned critics, who remain supremely (and absurdly) confident that they themselves would have been immune to the practice had they lived back then.
They kept slaves in Bible times too....in Israelite times....it's codified right there in the Mosaic law....and on that basis today's critics claim moral superiority....again, as if they themselves would have been above it all.
But I'm uncomfortable with making rabid accusations of an ancient society, and much more so judging ancient peoples by today's standards. It seems too much a fulfillment of Proverbs 30:12….
There is a generation that is pure in its own eyes but that has not been washed from its own excrement.
It is OUR world, not theirs, which is on the brink of annihilation from any number of causes: environmental ruin, nuclear annihilation, terrorism, class warfare, economic chaos, and so forth. It is OUR world, not theirs, that lets 20% of its people go hungry, or without clean water, or without any prospects as children other than to become some nutjob’s "freedom fighter." If they were barbaric back there in the OT, our world is 10 times more so. You don't think we should have a better track record ourselves before we go pointing out how rotten they were?
But with regard to slavery, we may divide human history into two periods: when "God's people" were autonomous and when they weren't. For the most part, they were autonomous in the Old Testament (Israel of old was a sovereign nation), however there has never been a Christian nation, neither now nor in New Testament times. Rome was the power of Jesus day and Christianity developed in lands subject to the Roman Empire. Scripture might therefore be expected to be law of the land in OT times, but only a personal code of conduct in NT times. And when scripture was law of the land, we read of a "seven year temporary slavery" arrangement in Israel. How did that work?
Israelites back then, like everyone else, had an economy. And like today, through an interplay of hard work and dumb luck, some would prosper and some would become impoverished. What do you do with those who become impoverished? What do we do with them today? Has today's society found a workable and ideal solution? In ancient Israel, individuals, if they became desperate enough, could sell themselves into slavery to their more prosperous neighbors. (they were never taken by force) That's not so good, some might object, yet is today's solution to poverty really any better?
Though Bible critics rarely mention it, preferring to take shot after shot at anything religious: after seven years, such slaves were set free! Sooner, if they became slaves before the designated seventh year. And not set free back into poverty. Each Jew was restored to his original hereditary possession, which he may have sold off during periods of poverty. Thus, there would never be generation after generation of permanent poverty, as there is today. Nor would the rich become so entrenchedly rich that ones born into it would come to look at wealth as their right and imagine themselves superior to the less well-off. The obscene lopsided distribution of wealth, characteristic of most societies today, never got a footing in Israel. Of even middle class Americans, one commenter explained: we were born on third base and so we think we have hit a triple.
Not many who rail against the Bible know of this arrangement, but it compares favorably to anything humans have devised since. We believe it was divine law…..not from humans.
Furthermore, I suspect that many of the outraged who think freeing the slaves after seven years is seven years overdue would immediately rethink their position if they realized it would cost them, as it did those prosperous Jews. They would, instead, raise a clamor about how THEIR freedom was being infringed upon! Free the slaves, as long as its on someone else's dime! Here is a society, unheard of in human history, which regularly, as a matter of course, freed slaves! And all the gripers can do is carry on about how barbarous they were back then! Their system beat anything we have today, mainly because generational, perpetual poverty, the kind that engenders hopelessness and bitterness, never could take root.
Now, this is slavery only in the Mosaic period, the Old Testament. We’ll do the New Testament another time. Moreover, the above does not apply to non-Isrealite slaves, perhaps prisoners of war. Their prospects were less agreeable. True, there is some OT regulation to prevent unchecked cruelty (which is more than existed anywhere else), but even so, slavery is slavery) Now, we may fume over this, but what does the modern world do with enemy combatants? Can you think of any modern nation which has detained enemy combatants for years without trial or even habeas corpus? True, modern nations have (many of them) adopted the Geneva convention, which strictly regulates treatment for prisoners of war. This treaty is scrupulously observed by all signatories during peacetime. Wartime, of course, is a different matter.
There is even a provision in that Mosaic law that allowed for the possibility that the freed slave might renounce his freedom. [!]
But if the slave should insistently say, ‘I really love my master, my wife and my sons; I do not want to go out as one set free,’ then his master must bring him near to the [true] God and must bring him up against the door or the doorpost; and his master must pierce his ear through with an awl [ouch], and he must be his slave to time indefinite. Exodus 21:5-6
All would see this voluntary slave about town, and would doubtless observe that he must really have a kind, just, fair, agreeable, etc deal, so as to choose servitude. It appears that this arrangement is a foregleam of what would appear in the Christian era. Peter, Paul, James, the early NT writers, all refer to themselves as "slaves" of Christ. Some modern translations soften the term to "servants," but "slave" is the original-language word.