Old Testament Slavery—Not so Bad?

Does God exist?You’ve probably been there—you’ve read one too many articles claiming that slavery in the Bible is not a big deal, and that biblical slavery wasn’t at all like slavery in America.

That’s where I am, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to deal with my venting.

I listened to “Sex, Lies & Leviticus” (5/13/12), a podcast from apologetics.com (the second hour is the interesting part, with Lindsay Brooks and guest Arthur Daniels Jr.).  It’s a diatribe against Dan Savage’s recent presentation to a group of high school students interested in journalism.  Savage’s point, roughly stated, is that we discard lots of nutty stuff from the Old Testament (no shellfish, slavery, animal sacrifice, etc.), so let’s discard hatred of homosexuality as well.

The interview begins with the guest mocking Savage’s claim that the Bible is “radically pro-slavery.”

The Bible is pro-slavery in the same way that it’s pro-commerce.  For example, the book of Proverbs says that God demands honest weights and measures—four times, in fact.  Commerce is regulated, so it’s pretty clear that God has no problem with commerce.  God is happy to set down prohibitions against wicked things, and there are none against honest commerce.  By similar thinking (the regulation and the lack of prohibition), the Bible is pro-slavery.

But more on that later—let’s follow the arguments in the interview.  Some of the arguments are truly ridiculous, but I include them for completeness and to give atheists a chance to become aware of them and Christians to realize what arguments need discarding.

The Bible prohibits lots of things, not just homosexuality.  Dan Savage is happy with prohibitions against murder, rape, stealing, and so on.  Why accept most of the Law but reject just the bits you don’t like?

Because no atheist goes to the Bible for moral guidance!  No one, including Christians, know that murder, rape, and stealing are wrong because they read it in the Bible.  They knew they were wrong first and saw that, coincidentally, the Bible rejects the same things.  Our moral compass is internal, and from that we can critique the Bible to know what to keep (don’t murder) and what to reject (acceptance of slavery).

Dan Savage ridicules the kosher food laws (rejections of shellfish, for example), but Paul’s epistle of First Timothy (4:4–5) overturns these food restrictions. 

In the first place, Pauline authorship for 1 Timothy is largely rejected by biblical scholars.  Apparently, these guys want Christians to follow some random dude rather than Jesus himself, who never questioned the kosher laws and indeed demanded that they be upheld:

Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:17–20)

And secondly, laws aren’t considered and rejected one by one.  Do they have a counter-verse to reject death for adultery (Lev. 20:10), for sassing your parents (Lev. 20:9), and every other nutty Old Testament prohibition that no Christian follows?  Christians more typically reject the Old Testament laws with a blanket claim that the sacrifice of Jesus made those laws unnecessary (for example, see Hebrews chapters 7, 8, and 10).

The problem there, of course, is that prohibitions against homosexual acts are discarded along with the rest.  You don’t get to keep just the ones you’re fond of.  I discuss this more here.

Dan Savage is speaking out of turn.  Like other atheists, he simply doesn’t know his Bible well.

Or not.  American atheists are famously better informed than any religious group.  And we’ll see that Savage is on target about slavery.

Continue reading: Part 2

Americans treat the Bible
like a website Terms of Use agreement.
They don’t bother reading it; they just click “I agree.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia

See the other posts in this series:

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15 thoughts on “Old Testament Slavery—Not so Bad?

  1. Paul, for example, sent Onesimus the slave back to his master. “Slaves obey your masters”; masters should treat their slaves decently, but not free them.

    I have a different view of the Bible. I reject what I don’t like, and value what I like. Jonah is a good story, for example.

        • But they might ALSO be interpreted naturally, right? And is that what you prefer to do, or do you get kind of a thrill out of thinking you’ve somehow plugged into the great unknown spiritual realm? Or is it just possible that you’re willing to shrug and say “Who knows? Hard to tell.”.

        • I can impute worse motives to myself than that, if I really want to. I suppose I do not particularly fit here, but I flit about from blog to blog. To get where I am coming from spiritually, read my blog.

        • Interesting. I understand that Seattle (where I live) is a locus for transgender people, FYI.

          I’d love to have you hang out and comment as necessary. I hope you feel welcome.

  2. “As a source of objective morality, the Bible is one of the worst books we have. It might have been the very worst, in fact — if we didn’t also happen to have the Koran.”
    —Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

  3. Pingback: Biblical Slavery, Part 2 | Galileo Unchained

  4. Pingback: Biblical Slavery, Part 3 | Galileo Unchained

  5. Pingback: Untestable hypothesis | Clare Flourish

  6. I think that slavery, like no other moral issue, breaks the back of Christian apologetics. As you mentioned, Christians often dismiss the Old Testament because of the new covenant brought by Jesus. Of all the ills in the Old Testament, slavery is conspicuously still upheld in the New Testament . . . demonstrating that Jesus (God in the flesh) and the entire Bible are not perfectly good and moral. All this is fleshed out, in detail, at my website (see the blog entry, “The Death of Christian Apologetics at http://www.atheistexile.com/2012/07/12/the-death-of-christian-apologetics/ ).

  7. Pingback: Untestable hypothesis | Clare Flourish

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