First of all, the Bible is not racist, as addressed at Dawkins' Criticisms. Song of Solomon 1:6 actually says one should not discriminate because of dark skin and that it's caused by the sun - "Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me." As seen in Numbers 12, when Moses' siblings Miriam and Aaron criticized him for having an Ethiopian wife, God punished their racist behavior by ironically turning Miriam's skin pure white through leprosy and forcing her to leave the camp for a week until healed.
The Bible actually contains some of the strongest laws AGAINST slavery to be found anywhere in ancient government. I would challenge those who claim the Bible supports slavery to find any other source as ancient as the Old Testament Law which provided equivalent laws against slavery - not only is it very difficult to find such laws (which are preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well over 2,000 years old) but it is difficult to find them earlier than the last five centuries. These laws were remarkably progressive for their time and very similar to the reforms Republican Abraham Lincoln would enforce millennia later.
Shelter Escaped Slaves
The Bible ordered that escaped slaves not be returned to their masters and allowed to live where they choose without oppression.
|“||Deuteronomy 23:15 Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee:
16 He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.
The Bible ordered that those who sought to enslave others and sell them were to be put to death.
|“||Exodus 21:16 And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.||”|
Freed for Any Injury
The Bible commanded that anyone injured over so much as loss of a tooth or loss of an eye was to be completely freed.
|“||Exodus 21:26 And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake.
27 And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake.
Indentured Servants vs. Bondservants
The Israelite actually had two concepts, one of slaves and one of indentured servants.
Indentured servants were Israelites who worked to pay off their debt for land similar to how homeowners today spend decades paying off their homes. Again, Israelite law forbade the enslavement of other Israelites or immigrants (called "sojourners" - Leviticus 25:40). Indentured servants, Israelites who'd been enslaved by other nations, were to be bought by fellow Israelites, serve 6 years to repay it, and then be released the 7th year or "Year of Jubilee" with all their possessions from their debts and servitude. (Exodus 21:2; Jeremiah 34:14) God commanded that their employers were to remember they themselves had once been slaves in the land of Egypt and give their former employees extra possessions; both livestock and goods. (Deuteronomy 15:13-15)
|“||Exodus 21:2 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
Leviticus 25:39 And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant:
Deuteronomy 15:12 And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.
Jeremiah 34:14 At the end of seven years let ye go every man his brother an Hebrew, which hath been sold unto thee; and when he hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee: but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear.
Thus the Jubile for Hebrews was 7 years (Exodus 21) but there was a separate 50-year Jubile in Leviticus 25:8 that applied to everyone and freed all slaves regularly.
As seen from Leviticus 25:39-40, the Israelites differentiated between a slave, or what the KJV calls a "bondservant," and a "hired servant" which is what Israelites were to be considered. Though Israel could buy slaves from neighboring nations (Leviticus 25:44-46) the Israelites again forbade the actual enslavement of others with the death penalty, mandated freedom for any slaves harmed even with minor injuries like loss of a tooth, and required escaped slaves be given safe refuge.
|“||Leviticus 25:44 Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.
45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.
46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.
System to Destroy Slavery
The Bible used an interesting system to destroy slavery, what was called the "Year of Jubilee." Whereas Israelites were to go free every 6th year as previously mentioned, non-Israelites or Gentiles it seems who were slaves bought from other countries (and again, enslaving others was illegal) were to be freed twice each century in what was called a "Jubilee." Since Israelites/indentured servants as previously mentioned were to be freed every 7th year from all debts, it appears this 50-year Jubilee applied to everyone, specifically slaves bought from other nations.
|“||Leviticus 25:8 And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.
9 Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.
10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.
If so, then the nation of Israel was unique in the world by designing a system which would actually perpetually free slaves from that entire area of the world, making it profitable to buy slaves from other countries, let them serve to pay their debts off, and then free them. In such a way it would have allowed God to continually free slaves from the entire Middle East region.
Letter to Philemon
An entire book of the Bible, Philemon, is lettered by Paul to a slaveowner (Philemon) urging him to release his slave, Onesimus, and treat him as a brother in Christ. Paul offers to pay anything that is owed and even reminds Philemon that he owes his salvation to Paul, stating that he is confident enough in Philemon to know that Philemon will go above and beyond in the request.
|“||Philemon 1:15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?
17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
All Are Equal
In Galatians Paul made one of the most revolutionary claims of his day, that Christians are all the same before God without status of slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, but that all are equal heirs to God's promises.
|“||Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Paul repeats this principle elsewhere also, almost two millennia before the abolition of slavery.
|“||Colossians 3:11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
1 Corinthians 12:13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
Ephesians 6:8 Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
Were Slaves Allowed to Be Murdered?
On the basis of Exodus 21:20-21, some claim that the Bible allowed slaves to be murdered by their masters without punishment. However, the word in Exodus 21:21 does not mean "survives" it means "recovers" or "continues" as translated by the KJV and NIV. The Hebrew word being translated is 'amad.'
Exodus 21:23-27, just a few verses later, makes clear that the penalty for killing others was the same harm done, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, so a master who killed his servant would be punished with death. It also makes clear that even minor harm resulting in deformity was to result in complete freedom from service. Thus Exodus 21:21 can only be referring to bruising that resulted in temporary damage not permanent injury.
While perhaps not up to 21st century standards, one must remember that we did not truly do away with slavery until the 1850s and with racial discrimination until the 1960s. Ancient Israel for thousands of years had the harshest laws against slavery to be found anywhere, mandating that slavers were to be executed, escaped slaves to be harbored, slaves harmed with even minor injuries be freed, and all slaves freed regardless every 50 year period. The system appears to be designed for optimal freeing of slaves from surrounding nations, so that Israelites could continually afford to free slaves while outlawing enslavement themselves. I would argue that for thousands of years this was, until the last few centuries, the best system the world had.