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

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Ten Commandments have no Role in Public

Apologetics and freethoughtSome Christians have no patience with a separation between church and state and want to display the Ten Commandments in the public square—the state-supported public square.

Judge Roy Moore is an example. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore installed a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Supreme Court building showing two tablets holding the Ten Commandments in 2001. He said, “Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded. … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.” A lawsuit was filed, Moore lost, he was ordered to remove the monument, he refused, and he was removed from office.

And now he is the leading candidate for getting his old job back. We live in interesting times.

A 2007 poll compared Americans’ knowledge of the Ten Commandments with the seven ingredients in a McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger. More people remembered “two all-beef patties” from the TV commercial than remembered “thou shalt not kill” from Sunday school. Even among churchgoers, 30% didn’t remember “thou shalt not kill,” and 31% didn’t remember “thou shalt not steal.”

One atheist wit observed that the Big Mac had an unfair advantage—it had a jingle. Solution: set the Ten Commandments to music. “Only God, no idols, watch your mouth, special day, call your mom … on a sesame seed bun.”

How big a deal is this? Does poor recall of the Ten Commandments correlate to poor morals? I say no, and I think Americans’ poor memory in this case isn’t a shocking oversight; instead, it reflects the irrelevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life. We don’t need the Commandments to remind us that killing is wrong, and they’re not an especially complete or relevant list for secular America. “Don’t enslave,” “don’t rape,” and “no genocide” are glaringly absent, and “have no other gods before me” has no place in the state-supported public square.

(Sorry, pro-lifers—abortion was obviously not top of mind for God when he dictated the Commandments, since he included “don’t covet” but omitted “no abortion.”)

To wiggle out of uncomfortable baggage, some Christians try to play the “Get out of the Old Testament free” card. They do this when they want to talk about slavery and genocide being a product of that foreign culture. Okay, but then haven’t you shed the Ten Commandments as well, since that’s also in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is relevant today or it isn’t—it can’t be both ways.

As ancient legal codes go, the Mosaic law isn’t all that groundbreaking. It is predated by not only the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi but Mesopotamian law and Egyptian law. In fact, the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building, which many history revisionists claim holds the Ten Commandments, is actually a frieze of Moses along with two other ancient lawmakers, Solon (Athens) and Confucius (China). This artwork is shown in the photo above. And no, Moses isn’t holding the Ten Commandments but rather blank tablets. Moses is also depicted on a frieze inside the courtroom, but he is simply in a procession of 18 great lawmakers.

What if all people followed the basic conventions that society agrees are its moral foundation? That would be great, but if this happened, why give the credit to Christianity? That is, why point to morality and say, “Aha! That’s the good ol’ Ten Commandments they’re following!” No, morality comes from society. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of some of the best traits from society, not the other way around.

What if we discarded the religious baggage—important within Christianity but irrelevant to the secular, all-inclusive society—and distilled down social wisdom into a secular Ten Commandments? Here’s a version from A.C. Grayling’s Secular Bible.

1. Love well
2. Seek the good in all things
3. Harm no others
4. Think for yourself
5. Take responsibility
6. Respect nature
7. Do your utmost
8. Be informed
9. Be kind
10. Be courageous

At least, sincerely try.

NYC Atheists has an excellent version here (search for “Atheist Freedoms” on page 4). And here is Christopher Hitchens’ version (skip in the video to 6:30)

The Ten Commandments is nothing more than a fragment of an interesting historical document. An example from Georgia shows the problems with treating it as if it’s more than this. Poverty in that state has recently increased so that it is now the third-poorest state. What is its legislature spending time on? Getting the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, including schools.

I guess it’s easier than actually solving problems.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully
as when they do it from religious conviction.
— Pascal

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  • “National Capitol,” Snopes.

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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Biblical Marriage: Not a Pretty Picture

Christian apologetics and atheismWhat does the Bible say about marriage?  Jesus said, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Mark 10:8).  Sounds like today’s conservative position, with no restrictions against interracial marriage and no allowance for same-sex marriage.

But the Bible says much about marriage, and things get muddier when we look at the big picture.

Interracial Marriage.  Deut. 7:3 says, “Do not intermarry with [those in the Canaanite tribes].  Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.”  King Solomon got into trouble for violating this rule and marrying foreign wives (1 Kings 11).

So the Bible says that marriage is with someone of your own tribe.

Concubine Sex.  King Solomon famously had 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).  Four of Jacobs 12 sons were from servants of his two wives, and Abraham’s first child was from his wife’s slave.  Frankly, I’m unclear on the difference between wives and concubines, though one source emphasizes the similarity—concubines had similar privileges and their children had similar rights.

So the Bible legitimates sex with and children from concubines.

Rape.  Courtship rituals vary by society, but here’s an unusual approach: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver.  He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her” (Deut. 22:28–9).

So the Bible says that if you see a woman and don’t want to go through that whole getting-permission thing, you can rape and then marry her.

Captured Women.  “Now kill all the boys.  And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Num. 31:17–18 and see also Deut. 21:11)  I don’t know what we’re talking about here—whether it’s wife, concubine, or sex slave.

So the Bible says that capturing women (virgins only, please) is a reasonable way to get a bedmate.  It doesn’t much matter whether the woman is on board with the project or not.

Slave Marriage.  Exodus 21:4 says that a male Jewish slave can be released, but any wife given to him by his master (and her children) remain the master’s property.

So the Bible says that ownership trumps marriage.

Levirate Marriage.  Say a man is married but dies before he has any children.  Who inherits his stuff?  To solve this problem, the Bible demands that another brother must marry this sister-in-law, with the firstborn child considered the dead brother’s heir.  The Bible does more than simply document a curious Jewish custom; God enforces it with the death penalty (Gen. 38:8–10).

So the Bible says that getting children as heirs for a deceased brother is more important than having your own children.

Polygamy.  Abraham had two wives.  Jacob had two (or four, depending on how you count them).  Solomon had 700.

God said to David, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms.  I gave you the house of Israel and Judah.  And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.” (2 Sam. 12:8).  God has his complaints about David, but polygamy isn’t one of them.

So the Bible says that marriage is between a man and one or more women.

Apologists like to excuse the Bible’s craziness with its many variations on marriage by saying that it simply reflects the culture of the time.  It applied then, but it doesn’t apply now.  I can accept that—just do the same when the Bible says, “A man shall not lie down with a man.”  Put that into the same bin as levirate marriage, polygamy, or killing everyone in a tribe except the hot women that are kept for your pleasure.

Today’s Christian enthusiasm for marriage certainly wasn’t mirrored by the early church.  Here’s what Paul says: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1).  So much for the celebrated role of procreation.

Paul said, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.  But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry” (1 Cor. 7:8–9).  In other words, marriage is the second best option.

Paul also rejects divorce (7:10–11).  Those Christians concerned about the purity of marriage might want to look at their own house to see if they’re following the rules.  (You could say that Paul rejected marriage only because he thought the end was near.  This might help reinterpret his curious views on marriage, but of course his being dramatically wrong raises a whole new set of problems.)

Marriage wasn’t even a Christian sacrament until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.  This wasn’t a popular move among civil authorities of the time, because it granted the church the power to decide which marriages were legal and which not—and therefore decide which contracts (often based on marriages) were valid and which not.  When the Pope didn’t like an alliance, he could just annul the appropriate marriage.

The argument that the Bible and the Church make a clear and unambiguous declaration that marriage is between a man and a woman is in tatters.  Sure, let’s celebrate marriage, but let’s not delude ourselves about how recent our view of marriage is.

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What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? Not Much.

Novel about Christianity and atheism (and Christian apologetis)The Old Testament patriarchs would scratch their heads at the problem conservative Christians have invented and seized upon.  “That’s not what ‘Thou shalt not murder’ means!” they’d say.  “It means that you shouldn’t take a stick and beat someone over the head until he’s dead!  We kill people around here at the drop of a hat—both our own people when they transgress the Law and people of other tribes when we get into border squabbles.  And God has no hesitation in killing people.  To simply make someone not pregnant is vastly different.  People try lots of folk remedies to bring about that very thing, and our only complaint is that they’re not effective.”

All this hand-wringing about the safety of a single cell, less than one trillionth the size of an infant, would baffle them.  God is happy to slaughter (or order slaughtered) lots ’n lots of humans—men, women, and children.

If the Big Man doesn’t care, why should we?  That’s a rhetorical question—of course we should care.  It’s just that we shouldn’t imagine an argument against abortion based on what the Bible says.

About Babylon, it says, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9).  And: “Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished” (Is. 13:15–16).  Whether God uses genocide against the other guys, poisonous snakes against his own people, or an old-fashioned global flood against everyone, God has a broad palette of options when it comes to death, and he makes no special provision for children, infants, or fetuses.

The Bible even describes a potion to deliberately induce a miscarriage, used by the priest when a woman is suspected of adultery.

God himself has a hand in abortions.  Roughly half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, a far greater rate than that of clinical abortions.  If God exists, he’s the biggest abortionist of all.

Why imagine that the Bible is against abortion?  Maybe it’s that whole “thou shalt not murder” thing.

But you do know that “thou shalt not murder” isn’t in the Ten Commandments, right?  Let’s review the story.  Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and then smashes them when he sees the golden calf.  He goes back up for another set (Ex. 34), but God must’ve been stoned when he dictated them the second time because it’s quite a different set of rules.  But these rules aren’t just an addendum of some sort; these are the replacement Ten Commandments.  Exodus 34:28 makes this clear: “[Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”  In other words, if you’d been able to peek inside the Ark of the Covenant to see this Ten Commandments 2.0, nowhere would it have said, “Thou shalt not murder.”

But let’s ignore that and assume that the scripture say not to murder.  What is “murder”?  Is capital punishment murder?  It’s illegal in Europe, and many people think it’s murder in the U.S., and yet it’s legal in 34 U.S. states.  What about killing in wartime?  Or killing in self-defense?  Or killing accidentally?  Or killing animals?  Or euthanasia?  Murder is undefined, so “Thou shalt not murder” is meaningless.

You’d think that this vaguely supported legal opinion that God is against abortion would give Christians pause, but I guess the hearts of pro-life Christian soldiers are resolute.  They’re quick to argue that God’s actions are beyond our understanding when it suits them—when confronted with the Problem of Evil or the justice of hell, for example—but at other times they acknowledge no vagueness and know for certain what God wants.  In particular, they know that God is against abortion!

Why is abortion that big a deal from the Christian standpoint when abortions send souls to heaven without the risk of doing the wrong thing in adulthood?  That murdered babies go straight to heaven was one way William Lane Craig tried to wriggle out of the moral consequences of God ordering the Canaanite genocide (“Christianity Can Rot Your Brain”).

Using Craig’s logic, abortion clinics may save more souls than churches!

Next time: 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals.

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Christianity is Self-Defeating

The book of Exodus gives God’s demand that the Jews avoid foreign religions when they returned to Canaan (“You shall have no other gods before me,” etc.).  God had to make sure that they weren’t corrupted.

[SFX: Record scratch]

Wait a minute! How could they have been corrupted?

The Jews enter a land full of foreign gods—invented gods—but God had made plain the correct religion.  How would those made-up gods look next to the real deal?  Judaism would be a stunning and brilliant jewel compared to the other religions’ tawdry plastic beads.

Imagine the Hollywood set of a Western town, built with plywood facades, compared to a real building—Neuschwanstein castle, say.  Who’d be tempted to stray to the cutout imposter if you could have the real thing?

Another example: imagine that God provided Disney World for the Jews but warned against moving into the filthy trailer park across the street.  Why bother with the warning?  How could anyone possibly be tempted?

Similarly, with the Jews given the correct religion, how could God have ever been worried that another religion would be the least bit compelling?

… or maybe Judaism didn’t look special.  Perhaps the prohibitions—remember that these were imposed by priests—made a lot of sense because in fact early Judaism looked similar to all the other Canaanite religions.

The very existence of these prohibitions argues that Judaism was made up, just like the rest.

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