The Complaint Department Is Closed #13

Understandably the images and ideas slavery conjures in our minds given our reference point of 17th century through mid-19th century America, shape and serves as a filter for our approach to the topic whenever it arises.  The manner in which American slavery was carried out was broadly speaking, abhorrent.  The drawback this perception creates is, whenever the topic of slavery is discussed in regards to the Bible, American slavery is the filter through which we force the biblical concept of slavery.  What needs to occur in order to gain a proper understanding of the nature of biblical portrayals of slavery is the proper historical context of the Israelites–what slavery meant for an Old Testament Jew, namely a form of indentured servitude.  There were no bankruptcy laws.  One was permitted to work off their debt.  In cases of slaves obtained through military conquest, it was the way to provide food and shelter for survivors in exchange for work done.  It is either a misunderstanding of, or an intentional act of propaganda the way GII explains slavery from the biblical perspective, and the conclusions it draws from that false view.

Proof number 13: Take a Look at Slavery

What troubles me about GII and critics of the Bible in general is what appears to be a mammoth lack of understanding of both Jewish and Christian theology.  This may seem trivial, but if one does not understand fully what it is you are criticizing, major flaws in your reasoning and conclusions will naturally follow.  One thing that stood out when I read through the list of Bible verses GII provides was their commentary and conclusions of the text cited.  Their misguided understanding of Jewish theology has caused GII to overlook major revelations within the texts offered.  GII offers about a dozen passages for consideration for their position.  We need only examine a few to understand GII’s reasoning (or lack thereof) and strained conclusions.

The Israelites considered themselves God’s chosen people.  Everyone outside the covenant were lost and without means of atonement for sin and thus without salvation.  In so misunderstanding the Jewish theology when GII concludes from Genesis 17:12 that:

In this passage God understands that people buy other people and, quite obviously, is comfortable with the concept. God wants slaves circumcised in the same way as non-slaves.

GII completely omits either intentionally or by oversight* the entire passage which should be taken from verse 12 through verse 14.  God was allowing to be included in the covenant slaves through circumcision.  The passage reiterates that those who are circumcised are included in “an everlasting covenant” while those not circumcised “shall be cut off from his people”.  GII also makes this same oversight when examining Exodus 12:43-45.  Here GII admits God “singles out slaves for special treatment” by allowing them but not foreigners, sojourners, and hired servants to partake in the Passover.  Leviticus 22:10 is likewise stripped of its significance, where the slave, but not others mentioned above, is permitted to eat with a priest.  GII truly overlooks the significance of what the slaves are being allowed to be involved in.

In quoting from Exodus 21:1-6, GII chides the Bible for recording that “God describes how to become a slave for life, and shows that it is completely acceptable to separate slaves from their families. God also shows that he completely endorses the branding of slaves through mutilation.”  It certainly fits the pattern of shedding the worst possible interpretation possible upon the text.  What we see in this portion of Scripture are the regulations for the duration of service of the slave, and once released, who may leave; and also if the slave wishes to remain indentured to the master for life, how that is done.  Comparing ancient methods of piercing ears with “branding slaves through mutilation” is an obvious attempt to play to the emotions of the reader, rather than an appeal to criticism of the custom.

What GII fails to do in their assessment of slavery as described in the Bible, is make a distinction between tolerating slavery through means of regulation, and a condoning endorsement of the practice.  There is a difference between allowing something to occur and granting an endorsement of the thing.  For instance, I am the father of two young girls.  Someday they will catch the attention of young boys, then teens.  I do  not endorse the idea of my daughters dating, but as a parent I realize that is a part of growing and maturing into adulthood.  Dating will be allowed, but with regulation.  There will be curfews, the boys will be scrutinized for character.  The places they go and who they are with will be restrained to what my wife and I consider safe and acceptable.  Without granting endorsement for dating, we regulate and create parameters for it since it is a part of life and must be dealt with.  Ignoring the reality that my girls will someday be attracted to boys romantically will not change the reality.

Let me provide an example of this from Jesus.  In Matthew 19:3-8 we see the Pharisees engage Jesus on the topic of divorce:

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”  And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning  MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’?  “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. 

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.

Here Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees with the same objection to divorce as GII has with slavery.  Their point is basically, ‘if God does not endorse divorce, then why are their rules for it in the Law?”  Jesus responds by explaining the perils of the human condition, the depravity of man’s heart, and so since man would inevitably defame the family and the dignity of marriage, there were ground rules. 

GII misses the big picture.  They are refuse see the difference between the way the world is, and what an ideal world looks like.  That because slavery is regulated within the Bible that it represents the conditions in an ideal world.  This makes sense given the protection the Law gave to the slaves.  Slaves:

  • Could not be killed (Exodus 21:20).  The same laws for murder applied to slaves as well as other citizens.
  • Could not be abused, or they would be released (Exodus 21:26-27).  If the master caused permanent bodily injury, the slave was free to go.  A protection not afforded to black slaves during American slavery.
  • Could not be obtained through kidnapping (Exodus 21:16).  Kidnapping was a crime punishable by death.  A practice utilized for American slavery.
  • Could not be forced to return to the master if he escaped (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).  The slave was not to be returned, but rather was to be free to choose where he should live, and was not to be mistreated.  This protection was not granted to black American slaves.
  • Could not be forced to serve more than six years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12), unless they voluntarily remained (v 5; Deuteronomy 15:16).
  • Once released the slave was to be provided with gifts which would enable the slave to survive, he was not to go empty-handed (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).

When dealing with the institution of slavery from a biblical perspective, we must approach it on the terms spelled out.  Relying upon scant and targeted citation fails to give the full account of the issue.  It is important to understand the notion of slavery in the times of the Old Testament and where it diverges from 17th through 19th century American slavery.  The distinctions are not trivial.  GII has either not done their homework on the issue, or has intentionally attempted to use smoke and mirrors to garner support for their mission.

______________________________________

* It is my experience when Atheists use the Bible in an attempt to impugn God’s character, verse citations are often incomplete and removed from their larger context.  While I grant for the sake of this series, the possibility GII is making a genuine effort in most cases to make their point, I cannot help but to think they have merely mimicked other Atheist attempts at the same objective.  Often times Atheists quote from each others slogans without checking citations to see if they are accurate representations of theistic beliefs, or Christianity proper.  Given the citations omitted which I cited, a fair treatment on the part of GII on this subject does not seem to be their goal.

There really is no middle ground and the Bible has to be an all-or-nothing book. Either the entire Bible came from God, or none of it did….The Bible is right, and God loves slavery. The entire Bible is God’s word, so these slavery passages must be God’s word too. The laws in the United States and other modern nations that make slavery illegal defy God’s word. Justice Scalia should be promoting slavery in exactly the same way that he promotes the Ten Commandments.

The above quote from the “Understanding the Rationalizations” portion of Proof #13 is a common misconception of the relationship between the New Testament and the Old.  This is why it is important to understand the theology you are criticizing.  You cannot simply reject explanations of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments in an effort to discredit the views of Christians.  I have addressed this relationship in the article : Laying Down The Law

Comments

  1. At the point at which you believe that this God is all-powerful and in control of the nature of humanity and the events that shape human events, it’s hard to buy your argument. After all, the Jews were willing to mutilate their genitalia based on their beliefs about God’s instructions, and that was certainly a change from their current social norms. (In fact, that was the point.) So why couldn’t God command them to not have any slaves, or to never get divorced? Why couldn’t God have made people so that they wouldn’t “defame the family and the dignity of marriage”? Isn’t all of this under God’s control? Wasn’t it God’s choice that the world is the way it is (and the way it was, too)?

    Also, especially since you accuse atheists of usually quoting the Bible out of context and misrepresenting its message, I feel like I should say I disagree with some of your Bible verse interpretations. (I agree that context and fair representation are important, and that’s why I try to link and quote as much as possible when I cite chapter and verse. I definitely read the entire passage I’m pulling lines from when I do so.) The six-year rule in Deuteronomy 15:12 and Exodus 21:2 specifically refers only to Hebrew slaves — as Deut. 15 says, “your kinsman.” Other peoples were fine to enslave for longer. Exodus 21:21 says that if a beaten slave “continue[s to live] a day or two, [the slaveowner] shall not be punished: for he is his money.” It’s nice to say that you can’t beat a slave directly to the point of death, but it’s immediately followed up with the hedge that you’re allowed to beat a slave almost to death, and as long as the slave lives a day or two longer (slowly bleeding from internal injuries, or what have you) it’s okay. Then there’s a clause where God adds that slaves are just property after all! I also don’t think that Exodus 21:26-27 says that if “the master caused permanent bodily injury, the slave was free to go” — it specifies that if the master harms a slave’s eyes or teeth in particular, the slave must be freed. It’s a real stretch especially given verse 21 to say that this rule applies to any “permanent bodily injury.”

    • Your first point is reliant on the fact that God should have created a deterministic world, where everyone is controlled. We can ask why He didn’t, but I can reasonably assume He has reason to not have it that way. Also, I think you fail to take into account the possibility of man’s free will. Many things could have been commanded but we are not in a possition to know the whys, just the ares.

      You’re right, the 6 year rule was for indentured servitude of fellow Hebrews. However I think you are not taking into account the entirity of Scriptures on the matter. Remember if the slave dies the owner would be punished, and punished for murder. If a slave was beaten and was injured, he was to be let free. If a slave escaped, he could not to be forced to be returned. These implimentations should serve to ensure decent treatment of slaves. I suppose you could beat the hell out of your slave, but he would not be your slave after that, so whats the point?

      • I don’t mean to imply that the rules for slavery in the Torah weren’t better than common practice at the time, and better than many examples in history. But if God thought that slavery was utterly wrong, that possessing another person as property was inherently unjust and immoral behavior, he had ample opportunity to forbid it and chose not to. He certainly made other serious, difficult to follow, life-changing rules. “It would be too hard for people to follow” doesn’t seem like a good excuse. If God was laying down his ultimate law for all time (as these books do say he was), it just doesn’t make sense to me that he would tailor them to the perceptions and the culture of that time and place.

        I suppose I should ask: do you think that God is omnipotent, that is, do you believe that God is ultimately in control — that everything that happens is God’s will? Or do you believe that there are events that God is unable to influence or alter? I was under the impression that Christianity generally teaches the former, but individual theology varies and you might believe the latter.

        I’ve argued before that being able to stop evil from happening and choosing not to has a similar moral quality to doing that evil yourself. In our normal lives, they’re not quite equivalent because the evil might not be happening right in front of you, you might not have the means to stop it, etc. But from the point of view of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God, it’s very hard to draw any distinction. That’s why I don’t buy the “but God gave us free will” answer. I wrote more about this topic in this blog post.

        • Let me ask, what do you believe to be the way slavery was as a reality. For example, slavery in America in the 17th – mid 19th century was brutal physical abuse, torturous, and entirely degrading to black slaves. What do you think was the atmosphere in the OT and NT times for slavery, what were the conditions?

          No, I am not an open theist. I am compatablist in my theological bent towards the free will/sovereign determinism debate. Im not offering “free will” as a cop out, but it certainly needs to be taken into account. The fact that human freedom may have such a great value in ultimate terms could be a factor in why certain events are permitted to occur. Evil perpetrated upon a person would tend to bring to light one’s true faith in God, wouldn’t you say? As well as condemn the one foisting the evil.

          Likewise, God being omnicient he has the entire view, both moral and temporal. We are not in a position to know what purpose any bit of suffering or pleasure for that matter has. Again, not to punt to “i dunno”, those really are factors which need to be considered.

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