Biblical Slavery, Part 2

Slavery and the Bible--doesn't make God look very good(See Part 1 of this discussion.)

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

“Slavery” in the Bible is simply not the same thing as slavery in the United States.  For example, consider Ex. 21:16:

Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.

See?  A rejection of slavery, right there in the Bible.

Nope.  This refers just to Jews kidnapping Jews—see the NET Bible comment on this verse.  The Bible makes a clear distinction between (1) Jews as slaves and (2) members of other tribes as slaves.

(Why is the atheist educating the Christians about their own book?  Don’t they know about these two aspects of biblical slavery?)

“We have a very different view here of what slavery was [comparing American slavery with biblical slavery] and you can see that it’s heavily regulated.”

Yes, slavery was regulated, just like commerce.  And, like commerce, slavery was kosher from God’s standpoint.

And yes, Africans enslaved in America was different than Jews enslaved by Jews (but we’ll get to that).

On the podcast, Brooks read the rules for treating Jewish slaves from Exodus 21:2–8.  A Jewish slave must be freed after six years; any wife or children that came with him would be free to go, but if the master buys him a wife, she remains behind; if the slave can’t bear to part with his wife, he can remain if he promises to be a slave for life; there are special rules for how to sell your daughter into slavery; and so on.

This is rather like indentured servitude used in the American colonies, the contract by which someone would be transported to the New World in return for five or so years of work.  These were European servants working for European masters.

But, incredibly, the discussion didn’t address the elephant in the room: the biblical rules for non-Jewish slavery.  This conversation went on for an hour, so it’s not like they didn’t have time.  Are they really unaware of this?  Or was this a deliberate deception on their part, a wager on the ignorance of their audience?

Well, if they won’t discuss it, I’ll be happy to.  Let’s wallow in the Bible’s radically pro-slavery message.

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites [harshly].  (Lev. 25:44–46)

This doesn’t look like indentured servitude, Toto.  Indeed, this looks very much like the slavery for life (chattel slavery) in America that the speakers were so frantic to distance themselves from.  The Jews treated the folks from their own tribe better than “those people” from other tribes.  Sound familiar?

Much is made in the Old Testament of how God rescued the Jews from slavery in Egypt, but slavery was a terrible burden only when applied to us.  When it’s applied to them, that’s a very different story.  In fact, the Jews enslaved the tribe of the Gibeonites as soon as they returned to Canaan after the exodus from Egypt (Joshua 9:23).

More biblical advice on slavery:

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.  (Deut. 20:10–11)

You could argue that slavery is better than being killed, which the following verses make clear is the alternative.  Indeed, the hosts make points like this—slavery is better than dying, slavery is the merciful alternative, Old Testament rules were kinder than those in some neighboring countries, and so on.

But I gotta wonder—is this is the best that can be said about the greatest moral document in history, that it wasn’t as bad as the morality in surrounding countries?  This is the best an omniscient, omni-benevolent God can do?

Speaking of forced labor, this is how King Solomon worked his famous mines (1 Kings 9:20–22).

Then there’s the category of sex slaves (or sex workers or concubines or whatever):

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; see also Deut. 21:11)

And no slave manual would be complete without a rule for how to beat slaves correctly:

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.  (Ex. 21:20–21) 

Again, this sounds very much like slavery in America.  These biblical laws sound similar to the laws governing the practice of slavery in America.  Some of these also protected slaves.  For example, the 1739 South Carolina code fined someone who killed a slave £700 and limited the number of hours that slaves could be made to work.  The 1833 Alabama law code dictated, “Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person.”

Despite the hosts’ protestations to the contrary, American slavery and biblical slavery were quite similar institutions.

Continue reading: Part 3

He that will not reason is a bigot;
he that cannot reason is a fool;
he that dares not reason is a slave.
— William Drummond

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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 (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

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On 11/11/11, Let’s Crank it to 11!

An amplifier dial has volume numbers from 0 to 10 but it goes beyond to 11 (Spinal Tap)You only get one 11/11/11 each century, and today is it.  And if today is all about 11, it must be Spin̈al Tap Day!

The 1984 film This is Spinal Tap, a mocumentary of Britain’s loudest heavy metal band, has a scene where the lead guitarist explains why they’re so loud—the dials on their amplifiers don’t stop at 10 but go up to 11.  When the interviewer asks why they don’t just recalibrate the numbers so that 10 is the loudest, there’s a confused pause, after which Nigel repeats, “These go to 11.”

And isn’t every day Spin̈al Tap Day within Christianity?  Let’s look at a few areas where Christianity stares blankly into space and then repeats, “These go to 11.”

The Catholic Church is a great source of 11-isms.  To see immutable religion changing, look at the position of Jesus’s mother Mary within the Catholic Church.  By 1854 it concluded, without scriptural evidence, that she must have been born of a virgin herself and in 1950 that she couldn’t have died but must have risen to heaven.

Or consider Limbo, the place that’s neither heaven nor hell, where unbaptized babies go when they die.  The idea was discarded by the church in 2007.

The Trinity is always a fun topic.  The Jews in the Old Testament saw the move from polytheism to monotheism as foundational, but then Christianity (Judaism 2.0) invented the Trinity.  They had a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too problem in that they wanted to keep monotheism except that their “single” deity would be formed of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  First off, we have a problem with language—can’t Christianity think of a better name for its god than “God”?

And if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the persons, what do you call the union of these into one god?  That is, Father + Son + Holy Spirit = who?  You need a fourth name.  Do you call it “God”?  But “God” is the one who created everything, and that’s supposed to be the Father.  The Father can’t both be the first person of the Trinity and the overall god at the same time.  You can use “the Trinity” as the umbrella name, but that’s an odd name for a monotheistic god.

There’s another way to see the problem.  Consider this passage:

I will gird you, though you have not known Me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me.  I am the LORD [that is, Jehovah], and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:5-6)

There’s nothing confusing here from a Jewish viewpoint, which was the intended audience.  Let’s ignore for now that the Old Testament uses several names, possibly for different gods (Jehovah, Yahweh, Elohim), that are conflated when convenient.

The verse says that there is no other besides Jehovah.  If Jehovah is a synonym for “the Father,” this means that he reigns alone and the Trinity is no more.  But if Jehovah is a synonym for the Trinity, then it makes nonsense of the singular pronouns (Me and I) in these verses and confuses passages such as “Then [Jehovah] spoke to Moses” (Ex. 40:1) or “After [Jehovah] had spoken these things to Job” (Job 42:7).  The problem, of course, is demanding a Christian interpretation of a Jewish text.

Here are a few more 11-isms.

  • Why blame Adam and Eve for disobeying God when they didn’t know that that was wrong?  Remember that they hadn’t yet eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
  • Why does the Bible contain nutty superstitions like the one about how you can change the appearance of animals’ young by changing what they see when mating (Gen. 30:37–9)?
  • Why does God give no new science, even information as simple and life saving as germ theory or the recipe for soap?
  • Why was slavery in Egypt that big a deal when the Israelites promptly enslaved a tribe once they returned to Canaan (Josh. 9)?
  • How can those in heaven enjoy the experience when they know of the suffering of billions in hell?
  • If God deeply wants us to make it into heaven and belief in Jesus is mandatory, why is he so hidden?
  • And why would he get furious because we’re imperfect when that’s precisely how he made us?

I’ve read more sensible things in Alice in Wonderland.  As Thomas Jefferson said, “Sweep away [the priests’] gossamer fabrics of fictitious religion, and they would catch no more flies.”

Let’s end with an 11-ism video.  This one weighs the profound love Jesus has for us against that whole hell thing.

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