Biblical Slavery, Part 3

(See Parts 1 and 2 of this discussion.)

Let’s conclude this critique of a podcast titled “Sex, Lies & Leviticus” from apologetics.com that responded to Dan Savage’s criticism of the Bible.  Italicized arguments are my paraphrases from the podcast.

Slavery doesn't make the Bible look too goodDan Savage and other atheists distort the Bible by imagining it supporting slavery.  If Southerners used the Bible to support slavery during the Civil War, that was only because they distorted it.  Consider the anti-slavery books of that time: The Bible Against Slavery (1837) or God Against Slavery (1857), for example.

Let’s consider the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination.  It split with northern Baptists in 1845 because it insisted on maintaining its support for slavery.  In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the split, it published a resolution that repudiated racism and slavery.  (Good for them for admitting their error, though the delay puts this correction in the same bin as the Catholic Church’s tardy embrace of Galileo in 1992.)

Looks like support for slavery is a plausible message to take from the Bible even if not everyone accepts it.

Were there anti-slavery books at that time?  Were there Christians against slavery?  Sure!  How that gets the Old Testament off the hook, I can’t imagine.  The verses quoted in the previous post show that the Bible is very plainly pro-slavery.

Consider Philemon, a short book in the New Testament.  Here Paul sends a slave back to his master Philemon with the request that he be “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16).  This was radical stuff—it was designed to bring about change within the Roman slave system.

Wow—that’s wishful thinking.  If Paul shouted in public, “Don’t you get it?  Owning another person is wrong!  Free all slaves immediately!” that wouldn’t have changed the Roman system.  Paul instead asking in a private letter that one slave be freed wouldn’t change the system, and it’s not clear he’s even asking for this.

Abraham Lincoln convulsed America in a Civil War, in part, to free the slaves.  Jesus didn’t lift a finger to overturn slavery.  In fact, the New Testament is full of pro-slavery statements.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. (Col. 3:22)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18)

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect. (1 Tim. 6:1–2)

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything. (Titus 2:9–10)

Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. … Each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to. (1 Cor. 7:20–24)

The Christian can respond with nice verses in the Old Testament—“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), for example—but here again the Bible makes a clear distinction between Jewish neighbors and those other guys.  So back to Dan Savage and his claim that the Bible is radically pro-slavery: looks to me like Savage wins.  Whenever Christians make a careful distinction between Jewish slaves in the Old Testament and African slaves in America, they’re playing games.

Let’s take a step back to see where we’ve been.  On this podcast, two well-educated Christians spent an hour trying to shoehorn actual biblical slavery (that is: slavery for life; slavery not too bad considering that slaughter was the alternative; beatings okay unless the slave is incapacitated; etc.) into a package labeled “indentured servitude.”  They pretended that biblical slavery was far, far different from the slavery in America.

It makes you wonder if they’d be happy to see this godly biblical institution in effect here in America.  (Maybe when the theocracy comes?)

I don’t know whether to be offended that they think I’m so uninformed that I don’t see the deception or to be amazed that they honestly don’t understand.

But that’s not the crazy part.  Halfway through the second hour, the host and guest acknowledged the irony that they are both African-Americans.

So we have two African-American men defending slavery.  One of them likened biblical slavery to an “employment contract” (again, he seemed blind to the fact that the six-year Jewish slavery is not the interesting topic).  “We’re in a form of slavery when we’re working on a job for somebody else,” he said.  Uh, no—being a waiter is not even close to being a slave.  When people complain that it’s the same, they’re exaggerating.  Yes, we’re constrained when we’re employees, but who seriously equates present-day employment in America to the abhorrent kind of slavery we’re talking about?

So a white guy has to remind modern-day African-Americans on the problems of slavery.  Wow.  This is what Christianity can do to people.  It makes them check their brains at the door—not all Christians, of course, but some.  They defend the morality of biblical slavery, if such a thing can be imagined.  They reject science for creationism.  They support torture in proportion to their religiosity.  They reject stem cell research and the best methods for preventing unwanted pregnancy.  They dismiss the injustice of eternal torment in hell by saying, “Uh … the gates of hell must be locked from the inside!”  They dismiss evidence that televangelists are charlatans.  They rationalize away biblical genocide.

Slavery is a bad thing, and the Bible condones slavery.  Dan Savage was right.  Just admit it.

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.
Andy Thomson at American Atheists 2009 conference

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

And God isn’t Good, Either

This post is an homage to Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011), the powerful speaker and eloquent author of God is not Great and much more.  Hitchens fought nonsense till the end, and he has been an inspiration to me and countless other atheists.  In my own small way, I hope I’m continuing the fight against nonsense. 

Thanks, Christopher.

The child’s blessing goes, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.”  Hitchens’ God is not Great is an eloquent rebuttal to the first claim of this prayer.  Let’s consider here the second claim: God is good.  Indeed, the Bible makes this clear: “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good” (Ps. 135:3).

But does the dictionary agree?  We must use words according to their meaning.

Here is what God commands about cities that refuse to submit to the Israelites: “Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 20:17).

You and I know what “good” means.  If you were a king or general and you ordered the genocide of those tribes—over ten million people, according to the Bible1—would you be considered good?

But you might say that this was wartime, and the rules were different.  Yes it was wartime, but the Israelites were the invaders, displacing Canaanites from land they had occupied for centuries.  God tells the Israelites to destroy the Amalekites: “Attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them.  Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants” (1 Sam. 15:3).

What could the infants have possibly done to deserve to die?

Moses tells the Israelites that they must kill all of the Midianites, with one exception: “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).

Who’s ever heard any of these verses made the subject of a sermon?

The immoral commands don’t stop with genocide.  Slavery wasn’t prohibited in the Bible; in fact, it was so much a part of everyday life that it was regulated.  In the same way that God told the merchants to sell using fair weights and measures (Deut. 25:15), he told the Israelites how to handle slaves—how to treat a fellow Israelite as a slave (Ex. 21:4–6 and Lev. 25:39), how to sell your daughter into slavery (Ex. 21:7), how to decide when a beating was too harsh (Ex. 21:20–21), and so on.

And this doesn’t even consider the Flood.  God may exist and he may be powerful, but can the word “good” be applied to a being who acts like this?

Let’s turn from God’s unsavory side to his attempts at encouraging good behavior.  It’s odd that the Ten Commandments has room for “don’t covet” but no prohibitions against slavery, rape, genocide, or infanticide.  Christopher Hitchens cuts through the problem:

It’s interesting to note that the tenth Commandment, do not covet, is given at a time when the Israelites wandering in the desert are kept alive with covetous dreams—of taking the land, livestock, and women from the people living in Palestine.  In fact, the reason why injunctions against rape, genocide, and slavery aren’t in the Ten Commandments is because they’ll be mandatory pretty soon when the conquest of Palestine takes place.2

So they’re not crimes—they’re tools!

Christians respond in several ways.

1. But things were different back then.  We can’t judge Jews in Palestine 2500 years ago with today’s standards.

Can we assent to these crimes at any time in history?  I agree that standards of morality have changed, but I thought Christians were supposed to reject moral relativism.  They’re the ones who imagine an unchanging, objective morality.  If slavery is wrong now, they must insist that it was wrong then.

2. But God’s actions are good—they just are.  His actions are the very definition of good.  That’s as fundamental a truth as we have.

Shouldn’t God follow his own rules?  If God is the standard for goodness (Matt. 5:48), what else can this mean but that we should look to God’s actions as examples for us to follow?

Abraham made clear that God was held to the same moral standards as Man.  He said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” as he argued against God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  And God agreed (see Gen. 18:20–33).

If Christians modify the dictionary so that no action of God’s could ever be bad, assigning the word “good” to God’s actions says nothing.  They hope to make an important statement with “God is good,” but debasing the dictionary has made the word meaningless.

Playing games with the dictionary causes other problems.  If there are two supernatural agents, God and Satan, how do you tell which is which?  If the one that controls our realm is “good” by definition, maybe we’re stuck with Satan and have simply convinced ourselves to call him good.  That’s not a crazy idea, given the world’s natural disasters, disease, war, and other horrors.  Imagine Satan ruling this world and convincing us that the death of an innocent child is part of a greater plan, if you can believe such a thing.  And yet that’s the world we live in!  People look at all the bad in the world and dismiss it, giving Satan a pass.  (… or are we giving God a pass?  I can’t tell which.)

If this thinking is getting a bit bizarre, that’s the point.  That’s what happens if you declare God’s actions good by definition.

3. But the Canaanites were terrible, immoral people!  They sacrificed babies! 

How reliable are these summaries of the Canaanites’ morals?  If these tales come from their enemies, how objective are these accounts?  And even if the Canaanites did sacrifice babies, isn’t solving this with genocide like using a sledgehammer to swat a fly?  Couldn’t an omniscient guy like God figure out a better way than genocide to encourage a tribe to improve their behavior?

4. C’mon—can’t you recognize hyperbole when you see it?  This is just soldiers bragging around the campfire that grew until it was incorporated into Israelite lore.  You don’t really believe the genocide stories, do you?  Indeed, archeologists show no evidence of this mass slaughter.

Take your pick—is the Bible reliable history or not?  I disagree with the Bible literalists, but at least they wouldn’t be so hypocritical as to abandon the Bible when it embarrasses them.

Christians who label some Bible passages exaggerations and others as history are using their own judgment to figure this out.  I’m not complaining—that’s what I do myself—but they can’t then turn around and say that they get their guidance from the Bible.  No, my friend—the interpretation comes from you, not the Bible!

5. A bad thing today sets us up for a greater good in the future.

This is no more plausible than the reverse: “a good thing today sets us up for a greater bad in the future.”  Why imagine one over the other?  Only because we presuppose God’s existence, the thing we’re trying to prove.  And it’s ridiculous to imagine an omniscient God deliberately causing the Haiti earthquake (in which 300,000 people died) because he can act no more precisely than this.

6. But God is unjudgeable.  God said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9).  It’s presumptuous of us to judge God.  If God says that the Amalekites deserved to die, that’s good enough for me.

Okay, let’s not judge God then.  Let’s avoid labeling him.  But then not only can we not label his shocking actions “bad,” we can’t label his pleasing actions “good.”  The good God is no more.

And there’s more fallout from the “we imperfect humans can’t judge God” argument.  Consider this from Bob Price:

[The ultimate certainty in your mind, the believer’s mind, is] the guarantee that [God] will honor that ticket to heaven he supposedly issued you.  Here’s a troublesome thought.  Suppose you get to the Day of Judgment and God cancels the ticket.  No explanation.  No appeal.  You’re just screwed.  Won’t you have to allow that God must have reasons for it that you, a mere mortal, are not privy to?  Who are you, like Job, to call God to account?

Of course many Christians want it both ways.  They want to judge God’s noble actions as “good” but withhold judgment for actions that any thoughtful person would find hideous.  But if you can’t understand God’s actions when they look bad, why flatter yourself that you understand them when they look good?

I think of this as the Word Hygiene argument.  You can either call a spade a spade and acknowledge God’s cruelty or say that he’s unjudgeable.  Take your pick—either way, you can’t call him “good.”

Photo credit: Church Sign Maker

Here’s the math behind that figure: Israel had 600,000 men before entering Canaan (Ex. 12:37), or about two million people total.  These six tribes are all larger than Israel (Deut. 7:1).  That makes well over ten million people in the tribes God orders exterminated.

Hitchens makes this point in videos here and here.

Related links:

  • About the Ten Commandments, Hitchens concludes: “Don’t swallow your moral code in tablet form” (video).