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.”
Unknown

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Does the Old Testament Condemn Homosexuality? (2 of 2)

Did Jesus exist?Last time we looked at the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  Let’s move on to the book of Leviticus.

You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22).

Sounds pretty damning, but the word “abomination” also describes eating forbidden food (Deut. 14:3), sacrificing blemished animals (Deut. 17:1), performing divination and similar magic (Deut. 18:12), and women wearing men’s clothing (Deut. 22:5).  Clearly, these are ritual abominations.

Mary Douglas makes sense out of the confusing purity laws in Leviticus, where things are clean or unclean seemingly arbitrarily.  She argues that clean things are proper members of their category.  A proper fish has fins and scales, so that makes it an abomination to eat improper sea animals like clams and shrimp.  A proper land animal—one that is part of civilized society—is cloven hoofed and cud chewing like a cow or goat.  To be clean, any animal or wild game must share these characteristics—hence no rabbits (not cloven hoofed) or pigs (not cud chewers).  “Unclean” means “imperfect members of its class.”

A sacrifice must be a perfect animal, hence no blemishes.  A priest must be a perfect man, hence he can’t be blind or lame.  Don’t mix seeds in a field; don’t mix textiles in a garment.

Homosexuality fits easily into this taxonomy—proper sex is man with woman, so man/man or man/animal sex is explicitly forbidden.  But it’s ritually forbidden, not forbidden because of any innate harm.

Here’s another popular bludgeon:

If a man has sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman, the two of them have committed an abomination.  They must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves (Lev. 20:13).

First, note that this again is nothing more than ritual abomination.

Second, note the punishment.  Don’t point to the Bible to identify the crime but then ignore its penalty.  Do modern Christians truly think that the appropriate response to male homosexuality is death?

Third, note what else this chapter demands: unclean animals can’t be eaten (20:25), exile for a couple that has sex during the woman’s period (:18), death to spiritual mediums (:27), death for adultery (:10), and death for anyone who curses his father or mother (:9).  It comes as a package of out-of-date tribal customs—with what justification can one select the anti-homosexual verse and ignore the rest?

If Jesus was the once-and-for-all sacrifice that did away with the need for the Old Testament ritual laws (Heb. 7:11–12 and 8:6–13), then get rid of them all.

God said, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7).  Verses like this would saddle Christians with all the Old Testament customs, from the sacrifices to the crazy stuff like genocide that they’d like to distance themselves from, and they’ll say that they apply to Jews only.  Fair enough—then stop cherry picking Old Testament passages if the Old Testament doesn’t apply to you.

This selective reading reminds me of Rev. O’Neal Dozier, in the news because he’s a Rick Santorum backer, saying that homosexuality is the “paramount of sins” and that it is “something so nasty and disgusting that it makes God want to vomit.”  My first impulse to this energetic condemnation is to wonder if Haggard’s Law applies, but more to the point, why is homosexuality at the top of the list?  Why should it be any worse than any other “abomination” such as eating shrimp, telling a fortune, or a woman wearing pants?  (Unless, of course, Rev. Dozier is simply using the Bible as a sock puppet to have it speak his opinions.)

Apologists like Dozier who say that the Bible is clear in its rejection of homosexuality won’t say the same thing about the Bible’s support for genocide, slavery, and polygamy.  They’ll say, “Okay, slow down and let me tell you why the surface reading isn’t correct.”  The predicament for today’s Christian is the clash between modern morality and the warlike culture of the early Jews.

A common response to God’s embarrassing actions in the Old Testament is to say that he is mysterious and inscrutable to our simple human minds.  But then these same Christians will contradict themselves and say with certainty that God is against homosexuality, abortion, and taxes.

We at least are largely in agreement on where the problems lie, but apologists who pick and choose which commandments must be taken literally are beating the copper of the Bible against the anvil of their faith.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Shouldn’t the Bible speak for itself?  Why is the atheist the one interpreting the Bible literally?

Or if the Bible is simply the sock puppet used to give an argument credibility, I’d appreciate Christians dropping the middleman, admitting that their beliefs come from their innate moral sense, and defending them.

Morality is doing what is right regardless of what we are told. 
Religious dogma is doing what we are told regardless of what is right.
— Unknown

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