@GunnarZ At long last–longer than “a day or so”–I have what I think may be a helpful answer for you. @Jennifer_Judson and @Mohembo have already added wise perspectives to the matter; I will focus on what the Bible speaks on it.
First, some background: I have had my eye on this subject for many years. I am deeply concerned about Christian perspectives on civil rights and racism. I have felt for a long time that God ordained the American Civil War as punishment for grievous sins against humanity in the form of the persecution and enslavement of an entire race of people. Many Christians jumped off the moral cliff in defense of antebellum slavery. R. L. Dabney’s A Defence of Virginia is a case in point. Your friend’s reaction to these noxious fumes does not surprise me, and God told me through your post that it is time for me to listen intently to what he says about this matter unfiltered by third-party commentary. I hope that my discoveries help you and your friend in your spiritual journeys.
I will address three main questions that are relevant to your post:
- What is God’s perspective on slavery in general?
- What is God’s perspective on taking captured peoples as spoils of war (Deut. 20:10-18)?
- What is God’s perspective on indentured servitude and perpetual slavery (Lev. 25:39-46)?
- How does this relate to us as Christians?
(Notice that I will not try to answer why God allows slavery. This question is too speculative for me because I am not God. I believe that your friend needs to wrestle with God to find the answer to this question.)
So, what is God’s perspective about slavery in general? He certainly allows some forms of it, as you have already noted, but what forms? I did an original language word study using the English Standard Version (ESV) Original Language Tools at https://www.esv.org, but there are a number of online tools available for this purpose where you can investigate this yourself. I found in my word studies that the Biblical languages generally do not differentiate between different types of servitude like we do in English. The Hebrew generally uses the term 'ebed for someone who serves under a master. The Greek doulos means the same. Both terms are usually translated as servant in the ESV, and relatively less frequently as slave. (Your cited passage from Leviticus uses 'ebed.) Servants and chattel slaves are not linguistically differentiated; rather, they are descriptively differentiated, e.g. whether the master is kind or abusive; whether the servant can be sold or inherited or not; etc. The much abused passage of Gen. 9:25 says of Canaan, “a servant ['ebed] of servants ['ebed] shall he be to his brothers” (ESV). This illustrates the descriptive differentiation that I mean.
Biblical servitude can be an honor or a curse. Hosts and subjects frequently call themselves, “your servant ['ebed/doulos],” when addressing their guests or ruling authorities. The Patriarch, Abram, called himself this when he had guests (Gen. 18:3, 5). The angel twice calls himself John’s “fellow servant [syndoulos] with you and your brothers” (Rev. 19:10, 22:9, ESV). On the other hand, Egypt is the “house of slavery ['ebed]” (Deut. 6:12, ESV), and Jesus said that “everyone who practices sin is a slave [doulos] to sin” (John 8:34, ESV).
In fact, choosing servitude to a cruel master (Egypt/sin) or a beneficent Redeemer (God) is central to God’s message. Pay close attention to these words from the first four Commandments:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery ['ebed]. You shall have no other gods before me…You shall remember that you were a slave ['ebed] in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut. 5:6-7, 15, ESV)
Now observe what Paul writes in Romans 6:15-19:
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (ESV)
So we choose our master. If our Redeemer, then “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves [doulos] or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13, ESV). Paul applies this in Philemon, which I leave to you to study. That our Heavenly status does not erase our Earthly status also warrants further study (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22, Titus 2:9ff). These are hard things; how we respond shows who is our master. Matters of conscience (Rom. 14) apply.
On spoils of war: observe the context. Deuteronomy 20 provides rules of engagement. God commanded through Moses that Israel always offer peace to cities. Citizens of cities that surrender peaceably may be taken for forced labor. If they fight, then when God gives Israel victory then Israel is to kill all of the men and take women, children, and everything else as plunder for cities outside of the Promised Land. Cities within the borders are devoted to “complete destruction” (Deut. 20:17, ESV) if they fight because their presence will cause internal rot–which happened, as Israel’s later history shows. Remember, however, that in all cases, peaceful terms are to be offered before besieging any city.
If a city accepts peace, God expects Israel to keep its bargain. The Gibeonites provide an example of this. Joshua 9 describes how Gibeon tricked Israel into making a peaceful covenant. Israel took them into forced labor which also entailed protecting the Gibeonites. We know this because God cursed Israel with famine after Saul sought to exterminate the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1-2). This is a far cry from other countries’ treatment of captives. (Look Assyria up!) (There is also an interesting law about how to treat a woman captive who an Israelite marries in Deut. 21:14.)
On indentured servitude and perpetual slavery: remember that God cares more about how one person treats another than about a person’s social status. I think that you have already touched on the essential part here, which is that God allows things because of the hardness of men’s hearts, not because he necessarily approves of the institution. God works wonders in all cultures at all times. Morality is not a cookie-cutter.
I am now bleary-eyed and energy-sapped. I hope that I have contributed something useful to you and your friend. Please feel free to ask whatever follow-up questions you may have.