MandM header image 2

Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament

April 3rd, 2010 by Matt

“Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?” This was John Loftus’ question in his book, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. He posed it after sharing the following chilling account of slavery as practiced in the antebellum American south,

He took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist. He made her get upon the stool, and he tied her hands to a hook in the joist. After rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cow skin, and soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor … No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood clotted cowskin.

Loftus is not alone, it is often affirmed as an incontestable and obvious truth that the Bible supports slavery. Atheist philosopher Walter Armstrong substantiated this accusation with a citation from the book of Leviticus, “as for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations around you” (Lev 25:44 ESV).

The ESV here uses the English word ‘slave’ to translate the Hebrew word ebed. The problem is that it is not at all clear that these two terms are analogous. In 1690 philosopher John Locke argued that an examination of the Old Testament’s references to an ebed shows that it is not the equivalent what we think of when we hear the term ‘slave.’ Locke is only one of many scholars who have come to the same conclusion.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a slave as a “person who is the legal property of another or others and is bound to absolute obedience, human chattel.” Rodney Stark utilises a similar definition, “A slave is a human being who, in the eyes of the law and custom, is the possession, or chattel, of another human being or of a small group of human beings. Ownership of slaves entails absolute control, including the right to punish (often including the right to kill), to direct behavior, and to transfer ownership.” Timothy Keller astutely observes that the English term ‘slave’ carries connotations of new-world slavery as it was practiced in the British Empire and made infamous in the antebellum southern states of the US.

In the British Empire and in many US states, slavery was governed under the Code of Barbados. This code was explicitly racist and described Africans as “heathenish, brutish, and an uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people.” It allowed owners to use, “unlimited force to compel labor without penalty even if this resulted in maiming or death.” It denied slaves due process rights and permitted owners to, in effect, kill their slave for any cause. It forbade slaves from marrying. It effectively prevented owners from setting their slaves free. Keller writes that, “The African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapping.” Stark notes that “20 to 40 percent of slaves died while being transported to the coast, another 3-10 percent died while waiting on the coast, and about 12 to 16 percent boarded on ships died during the voyage.”

However, what the Old Testament refers to differs from slavery, so understood, in several important respects.

First, an ebed was not acquired by kidnapping. Kidnapping a human being and selling that person as a slave was a capital offence in the Old Testament (Ex 21:16). Moreover, slave trading is implicitly condemned in the book of Revelation (Rev 18:13) and explicitly condemned by Paul as contrary to the law and sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:9-10).

In the Old Testament an ebed was usually person who offered to work for another, free of charge, in exchange for a debt being cancelled. It resembled a form of indentured servitude.

Second, the institution was not based on notions that ebed were of an inferior race. In fact, the opposite is affirmed. In the book of Job we read,

If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves [Hebrew: ebed amah] when they brought a complaint against me; what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? And did not one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:13-15)

Here Job refers to an ebed as having a right to go to court and sue his or her “owner” in pursuit of his or her rights. Job bases this on the idea that both he and his ebed are equal, both are created by God.

Third, as Locke noted, an ebed was not the property of another and could not be disposed of. To deliberately kill an ebed was a capital offence (Ex 21:20-21). Similarly, it was illegal to strike an ebed (Ex 21:26-27).

However, some dispute this latter point on the basis of Exodus 21:20-21,

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.

Some interpret this passage to mean that because a “slave” is the property of another they can severely beat the slave and providing the beating is not fatal, there is no legal punishment. However, this fails to deal adequately with the context and the Hebrew text, the word translated as ‘property’ here is actually ‘silver’ (a reference to money) and the word translated ‘punishment’ here is not the usual word for punishment.

Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright notes that the word implies “the shedding of the blood of the master of the slave” and so refers to capital punishment. It is used in direct contrast with the same word in the previous verse where it is stated that deliberately killing an ebed is to be avenged. Therefore, it does not say the person will not be punished for beating a slave, it says he will not be executed for it unless he kills the slave. For further evidence that the passage is not a license to beat, a couple of verses later even causing a minor injury on an ebed, such as a bruise, is explicitly condemned. The same contrast occurs in the passage immediately preceding where a free man who struck and killed another was to be “held responsible” but not if the person survived. It is clear, however, that the person was in fact to be legally punished as v 19 states he had to compensate his victim for the injury. Hence, in context the ‘held responsible’ is referring only to being held responsible for murder and is not speaking to the lesser charges of assault. What Ex 21:20-21 says then, is that if a person deliberately kills his or her ebed then that person is to be held responsible for murder and executed. If the slave “gets up after a day or two,” then the person is not to be held responsible for murder because the ebed is his or her “silver.”

This makes sense as a few verses later, in Ex 21:26-27, striking a slave is explicitly prohibited and the legal punishment is for the ebed to go free. In The Old Testament, the penalty for assault was for the assailant to provide monetary compensation to the victim. This would create a quandary in this case as an ebed is in a position of servitude because he or she is in debt to the person he or she works for. In such a case the assailant would owe money to a person who owes him or her money. The Old Testament resolves the issue by declaring that even a trivial strike, such as causing a bruise (v21:25) should result in an immediate cancelation of the ebed’s entire debt, which would often result in a financial loss to the assailant. The New Testament similarly concurs, prohibiting “masters’ from even threatening their “slaves” (Eph 6:9) and to treat their “slaves” the way the “slave” is required to treat them.

Further, unlike new-world slavery which was life long and where, under the Barbados Code, emancipation was effectively prohibited, an ebed could not be held in service for more than six years (Ex 21:2). Upon release, their employer was morally required to give them sufficient resources for them to be set up on their own feet (Deut 15:12-18) and the community left resources for them to live on for a year (Ex 23:10-11, Lev 25:2-7).

These passages are often thought to refer only to Hebrew and hence Jewish slaves. Wright, however, argues that that in its original context the key word ibri designated a social class, not an ethnic group. This was the class of people who did not own land and in an agrarian economy survived by hiring themselves out to land owners.

In fact, in the passage immediately before the verse Armstrong cites the Old Testament forbids any Israelite taking another Israelite as a ebed on the grounds that they are a “ebed of God” whom God has redeemed. Paul applies the same teaching to Christians prohibiting Christians from being sold as ‘slaves’ (1 Cor 7:23). Similarly, the Old Testament commanded people to prevent family members from becoming an ebed by paying their debts for them (Lev 25:48). Further, Paul, after writing to the Corinthians and encouraging them to “retain the place in life that the Lord assigned,” encourages slaves to purchase their freedom and to not remain in this position if it was possible to do so (1 Cor 7:21-22).

Finally, if an ebed fled from an oppressive employer it was illegal to return him or her to “his master.” Instead, he or she was to live “wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses” (Deut 23:15-16). It was forbidden to send an ebed back to his or her owner; contrast this with the practice in the antebellum south, the Fugitive Slave Act 1850 required the return of run-away slaves at penalty of law.

Contrary to what some contend, the Old Testament does not permit slavery. It is more accurate to say it tolerates indentured servitude under certain situations; the paradigm being where the servitude is voluntary, temporary, is done in exchange for payment of a debt where the alternative is starvation and destitution and only in situations where the servant is given the same basic legal rights as everyone else and is protected from abusive treatment. To suggest this picture fits with the opening quote above is a stretch to say the least.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the April 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to: editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com

RELATED POSTS:
Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro

Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus

Tags:   · · · · · 32 Comments

Leave a Comment


− two = 2


32 responses so far ↓

  • I find this sort of apologetics kind of disturbing.There is no doubt whatsoever that slavery, and harsh slavery at that, existed in the ANE. Even the OT has accounts of slaves being butchered, oppressed, and raped. Some of the accounts in Deuteronomy are particularly barbaric where after slaughtering a woman’s husband in a battle you could take the woman to be your sex slave and forcibly rape her. All of this is not changed by translating ebed as “servant” rather than “slave” – the brutality is still there.

    I have no problem accepting that our collective ancestors were a brutal lot. Why should it be otherwise? We are a brutal lot today as well. Slavery continues throughout our world in many forms.

    What is the motivation to sanitize our brutal history? Why not accept it, and learn from it instead?

    There is no way to reconcile a loving God to a society which butchered other men and took their wives as slaves to be raped. No clever words will get you there. You have it seems two choices… either accept a very very dark God, or accept that humanity has a very very dark history. From my experience of the present I know the latter is the case. So I can take this as a little comfort that perhaps the former is not!

  • Great article Matt. We don’t always agree on the specifics of Mosaic Law exegesis, but this is pretty convincing.

  • Actually the ruling was that women who had known men were killed. Women who hadn’t could be taken to wife. That’s right, wives, not sex slaves. Stop projecting.

    They were given a month to grieve for their parents, then taken to wife with the provision that they couldn’t be divorced. That is the man would have to provide for her all the days of her life.

    If only rapists were that considerate.

    Ignorant emotional manipulation really doesn’t work. Try another tactic.

  • My bad.

    When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.

    Deuteronomy 21:10-14

    Also the command about killing married women didn’t apply to wars fought outside Israel’s borders. Just the menfolk, and then only if the city didn’t surrender at the first.

    However the main point stands. If she was grieving for her parents then she wasn’t a previously married woman. She couldn’t be sold so she wasn’t a slave. She was a wife. Even if the man subsequently had no delight in her he couldn’t just kick her out, she could go where she chose.

  • OK – so you merely murdered her parents before forcing her to marry you. Does that make it morally OK in your eyes?

  • Of course. Why are you trying emotional manipulation again?

    Don’t you have a rational argument?

    PS Killing in time of war is generally not regarded as murder. Perhaps you could find some vets who can explain the difference to you.

    PPS If God commands something, it’s moral. Having a personal distaste for something does not make it immoral.

    PPPS You claimed that the women were taken from their husbands and forced to be sex slaves. I showed that was false. You then moved the goalposts.

  • Thanks for your post. Part of the problem here is that in English there are two words – slave and servant, which have two different meanings in English. Servants are common, but slaves are not, and slavery is illegal and has been banned. But in Hebrew, there is just a single word, eved. Eved serves for both a domestic servant and, I guess, a slave. Note that in Hebrew, eved is also a worshipper (of God), i.e. you work for God.

  • We are God’s slaves.

  • You can’t just reject my very valid concern by calling it “emotional manipulation.” I am not trying to manipulate anyone or anything – I am expressing a serious concern which should not be white-washed. Most modern people would admit that the society presented in the OT was barbaric and at times savage. I am not saying this makes them worse than us – just that they were at a different stage of history, and in a very different and hostile environment. However I am happy to acknowledge that they got a lot wrong.

    “Don’t you have a rational argument?”

    I have presented my viewpoint. Make of it what you will.

    “Killing in time of war is generally not regarded as murder. Perhaps you could find some vets who can explain the difference to you.”

    No – but the sort of religious genocide described in the OT is pretty brutal. I think the word murder is apt for some of the events described.

    “If God commands something, it’s moral. Having a personal distaste for something does not make it immoral.”

    My God does not command things which I find repulsive and vile like genocide and rape. If I started thinking my God *did* command these things my whole would would be turned upside down.

    “You claimed that the women were taken from their husbands and forced to be sex slaves. I showed that was false. You then moved the goalposts.”

    I still claim this. I was pointing out that even your version of events hardly presents a very nice society. Imagine if a bunch of religious militants came and attacked a New Zealand town, killed all the men and children and kidnapped the young women, then after a period of abuse where they cut off their hair and forced them to wear bizarre alien clothing “went into them” – ie. forced them to have sex. Would you think these men were doing God’s work? Would you have any moral problem with this?

    You need to imagine these scenes from the viewpoint of the victim sometimes to see the impact of what was going on.

  • My God does not command things which I find repulsive and vile like genocide and rape. If I started thinking my God *did* command these things my whole would would be turned upside down.

    So you’ll reject the accounts of what God did command in favour of what you want God to be like. That’s called idolatry. See commandment one.

    Most modern people would admit that the society presented in the OT was barbaric and at times savage.

    In America 50 million unborn have been murdered in the womb since 1973. That’s many times more killed in a supposedly enlightened society than would have been killed in all the “religious” wars conducted by the Israelites while dispossessing Canaan from the Canaanites. The Israelites would condemn us as barbaric, and rightly so. Likewise the wars fought for secular reasons in the twentieth century saw far more people killed than the Israelites ever managed or would have considered. Most modern people are easily swayed by emotion laden rhetoric without considering that by any objective standard we’re far worse.

    Imagine if a bunch of religious militants came and attacked a New Zealand town, killed all the men and children and kidnapped the young women, then after a period of abuse where they cut off their hair and forced them to wear bizarre alien clothing “went into them” – ie. forced them to have sex. Would you think these men were doing God’s work? Would you have any moral problem with this?

    Cutting their hair to remove religious fetishes (as was done by mission doctors in Africa in the early 1900s) was part of bringing them into the community of faith. Removing the clothing of their captivity, ie the clothing that distinguished them from Israelite women was also part of that. Imagine (if you can) a patriarchal society where women don’t have a lot of social status, except in the household as a wife. Whilst the women probably weren’t crazy about the idea, they were pragmatic enough to see that it was the best option they had available to them. Also you keep throwing out the word “rape”. That is an attempt at emotional manipulation. Consider the cases of Jewish girls who tried to buy their lives with their bodies, only to be murdered by the “civilized” Germans after the act. That was real rape, not a marriage.

    Rape of female captives has existed as long as there has been war. In Mohammed’s day he told a group of his followers that if they wanted to make use of female captives they could do so. Don’t you think those women would rather have been brought into the religious community with the honourable station of wives? Remember that as captives (because their people had fought against Israel and lost) their alternative was a life of slavery. Whilst slavery in Jewish hands wasn’t as onerous as the Jewish slavery in Egypt, being a wife was far better.

    The obvious answer is that no, I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t see why you do.

    You need to stop applying the (somewhat hypocritical) standards of the twentieth century West to people living several thousands years distant from us.

  • >So you’ll reject the accounts of what God did command in favour >of what you want God to be like. That’s called idolatry. See >commandment one.

    No! My interpretation of the Bible results in a loving God – not a monster! But you seem to imply that your version of God is one who would order rape and genocide? Does this bother you?

    >In America 50 million unborn have been murdered in the womb >since 1973.

    Irrelevant to this discussion… and talk about emotional manipulation! ;)

    > The Israelites would condemn us as barbaric, and rightly so.

    Quite possibly.. but then I am the one who admits that we (and they) are a dark dark species. But you rather oddly seem to see the Israelites as an exception to this pattern. Despite the obvious evidence!

    >Most modern people are easily swayed by emotion laden >rhetoric…

    And you put it to good use!

    >Also you keep throwing out the word “rape”. That is an attempt >at emotional manipulation.

    No my friend – this is just an attempt to look at the reality of the situation.

    >Consider the cases of Jewish girls who tried to buy their lives >with their bodies, only to be murdered by the “civilized” Germans >after the act. That was real rape, not a marriage.

    Yes – another example of how dark our species is. But giving this example does not counteract mine but helps to reinforce it.

    >Rape of female captives has existed as long as there has been >war.

    So we agree!

    >In Mohammed’s day he told a group of his followers that if they >wanted to make use of female captives they could do so.

    As did Moses.

    >Don’t you think those women would rather have been brought >into the religious community with the honourable station of >wives?

    Read the rest of the passage you are thinking of!

    >Remember that as captives (because their people had fought >against Israel and lost) their alternative was a life of slavery.

    Wait… so they *did* have slavery… I thought the whole point of this post was that the did not have slaves?

    >Whilst slavery in Jewish hands wasn’t as onerous as the Jewish >slavery in Egypt.

    An odd conjecture. Evidence?

    >The obvious answer is that no, I don’t have a problem with it. I >don’t see why you do.

    You don’t see why I have a problem with genocide and rape… um. I don’t even know how to answer that.

    >You need to stop applying the (somewhat hypocritical) >standards of the twentieth century West to people living several >thousands years distant from us.

    If you read what I have actually said I said that WE also are a barbaric people, but that does not mean that we can ignore or whitewash the barbarism of our ancestors.

  • No! My interpretation of the Bible results in a loving God – not a monster! But you seem to imply that your version of God is one who would order rape and genocide? Does this bother you?

    Of course it doesn’t trouble me because we’re not talking about rape. Likewise God ordered judgement on a people whose sin had built for 400 years is not genocide. Remember Sodom and the Flood. God is Justice. Making a woman ones wife is not rape.

    Quite possibly.. but then I am the one who admits that we (and they) are a dark dark species. But you rather oddly seem to see the Israelites as an exception to this pattern. Despite the obvious evidence!

    Since the Israelites were regularly driven out from their promised land because they failed to obey God’s commands it’s pretty obvious that they weren’t an exception. It’s you charging God with ordering rape and genocide.

    And you put it to good use!

    Pot, meet kettle. Also, stating matters of fact is not emotional manipulation. Using emotionally loaded language like rape and genocide (especially accusing Moses (God’s numero uno prophet)) is emotionally manipulative.

    As did Moses.

    No, he didn’t. Your constant insistence that he did is reading into the text what you want to be there.

    An odd conjecture. Evidence?

    Forced labour under the lash, murder of newborn males as obvious examples.

    Yes – another example of how dark our species is. But giving this example does not counteract mine but helps to reinforce it.

    Actually it shows what real rape is, and the gap between that and the rules for treating female prisoners that Moses established.

    Mohammed claimed that female slaves could be used for sex, then left as slaves. Moses made sure that if a man desired a woman he had to make a commitment of marriage and if he subsequently rejected her she was a free woman.

    You don’t see why I have a problem with genocide and rape… um. I don’t even know how to answer that.

    Study the actual historical context instead of emoting and you’d see why I don’t have a problem. We’re not talking genocide or rape and you refuse to accept that. We’re talking on the one hand God driving out and destroying a people whose actions were utterly evil, and on the other a system that prevented men simply taking a woman without a serious commitment.

    Wait… so they *did* have slavery… I thought the whole point of this post was that the did not have slaves?

    Reading comprehension? They had slaves/indentured servants, they did not have slaves in the sense that Loftus claims, loading the emotional baggage of the American South onto the word. Nonetheless the difference in status between wife and servant is a clear one particularly in a society where women had little status to start with.

  • “Making a woman ones wife is not rape.”

    – you have a DANGEROUS view of what makes a healthy relationship. These are people captured after their families have been slaughtered. And if you read the REST of this passage it gets worse…

    “Pot, meet kettle.”

    Yes… that was exactly my point. Well done! I am glad you saw the irony.

    “Also, stating matters of fact is not emotional manipulation.”

    Also my point. Well done again.

    “Using emotionally loaded language like rape and genocide (especially accusing Moses (God’s numero uno prophet)) is emotionally manipulative.”

    No it isn’t. It is (as you said above) stating a matter of fact. Moses commanded some pretty nasty things! Yes he was a prophet – but a pretty gritty one.

    “As did Moses. No, he didn’t.”

    – Yes. I am afraid he did. I don’t like it anymore than you did… but the Moses of our Bible is no saint.

    “Forced labour under the lash, murder of newborn males as obvious examples.”

    Both good examples. And – ironically you don’t seem to see this – practiced by both groups. But in the Israelite case the murder was not restricted male babies but to whole cities… men, women, babies, and livestock.. but then as you pointed out they were babies “whose actions were totally evil”…. so fair enough.

    “Actually it shows what real rape is”

    – All rape is real rape. And rape can and does happen within marriage. And you have already admitted up above that all conquering armies raped the women of the enemy. The ancient tribes of the Near East were no exception.

    “Mohammed claimed….”

    Not really interested in Mohammed. Kind of irrelevant what someone else may or may not have said centuries later don’t you think?

    “driving out and destroying a people ” (isn’t this a pretty good definition of, I don’t know, Genocide?)

    It is possible to clean up and sanitize any text if you try hard enough and rationalize hard enough… but what is the motivation? I am not tied down to such a literalistic – God spoke exactly these words – sort of reading so the fact that our ancestors were not saints does not bother me overly. The fact that they had some pretty primitive and oppressive laws does not bother me overly either. But if I thought that this was the word-for-word commands of God… not that would be horrifying!

  • Both of you are suffering from a ‘sadistic personality disorder’. And because the Bible is seen as the most conservative piece of literature or the Word of God both of you selfishly justify using the Bible (and finding loopholes within) to fit in with your own warped desires/agendas. Both of you ‘use’ the bible selfishly as you can easily mould your ideal out of it- to fit in with your personality type (fascinated with rape and dominating woman).

    The whole Bible (as a whole) isn’t the Word of God, but you freaks like to think it is.

    Wake up.

  • - you have a DANGEROUS view of what makes a healthy relationship. These are people captured after their families have been slaughtered. And if you read the REST of this passage it gets worse

    Since you seem to have difficulty with reading comprehension, these are not people captured after their families were slaughtered, they were people taken after their towns were captured after refusing to submit to Jewish authority. The menfolk were killed (because they’re the fighters) the children were not, the women were not. Deu 21:10 In a collective culture where you rise or fall with your city that’s all you can hope for.

    Look up these concepts, collectivist, agonistic, limited good, then you might begin to understand the world we’re talking about.

    You seem to have a dangerous approach to Biblical eisigesis, which far more germane to this discussion than whatever I might think about relationships.

    No it isn’t. It is (as you said above) stating a matter of fact. Moses commanded some pretty nasty things! Yes he was a prophet – but a pretty gritty one.

    Stating that he commanded rape and genocide is emotionally manipulative if he did not do so. He didn’t.

    He set rules for the treatment of female prisoners that allowed the ardour of the males to cool preventing the rapes that did and do occur immediately after battle. In a society where marriage for love didn’t exist, marrying a captor and being brought into the Jewish people was a better option than being a slave. Reading the text with a modernist eye might be horrifying, but since we aren’t talking a modern text such a judgement is out of place. Trying to understand their position is generally more productive.

    The Canaanites were dedicated for destruction, although “driven out” occurs more often. If they vacated the land then Israel wouldn’t pursue them and they had 40 years to get out. Since Rahab told the Jewish spies that the people were already terrified of them it’s highly likely that anyone who would leave had already left. Of course this is irrelevant to the topic of whether marriage is rape, because the Israelites wouldn’t take Canaanites to wife because they were dead or gone.

    Both good examples. And – ironically you don’t seem to see this – practiced by both groups. But in the Israelite case the murder was not restricted male babies but to whole cities… men, women, babies, and livestock.. but then as you pointed out they were babies “whose actions were totally evil”…. so fair enough.

    Another attempt at emotional manipulation… oh no, think of the babies… In a collective society you prospered or fell with your people and your king. If he was a rotter you suffered the penalty. That’s a far cry from enslaving people who lived in your neighbourhood and then killing their male children because they were breeding too fast.

    Slaves of Israelites also worked in the household, landowners and waged workers worked the fields, which meant that the workload was lighter.

    All rape is real rape. And rape can and does happen within marriage. And you have already admitted up above that all conquering armies raped the women of the enemy. The ancient tribes of the Near East were no exception.

    Except, in this case, Israel. You keep asserting that this is rape, but the text doesn’t support your position. Going in unto the woman is the same language used of Abraham and Hagar and does not imply coercion in sex. We have the situation of Amnon and Tamar where we see that they had language to describe forcing a woman, it’s not used in Deuteronomy.

    Not really interested in Mohammed. Kind of irrelevant what someone else may or may not have said centuries later don’t you think?

    Since the Arabia of Mohammed has more in common with the world of the Hebrews than the ours does it’s a very apt comparison. The story goes that a group of slave traders were taking some slaves to market, and (having needs) they asked Mohammed if they should engage in withdrawal to ensure the slaves don’t get pregnant. His reply was along the lines of, “do what you want, those who are destined to be born will be born.” It’s an example of how little a female slave meant to similar cultures. By his ruling Moses forced his followers to consider women slightly more significant than a simple source of relief.

    It is possible to clean up and sanitize any text if you try hard enough and rationalize hard enough… but what is the motivation? I am not tied down to such a literalistic – God spoke exactly these words – sort of reading so the fact that our ancestors were not saints does not bother me overly. The fact that they had some pretty primitive and oppressive laws does not bother me overly either. But if I thought that this was the word-for-word commands of God… now that would be horrifying!

    So you have a problem with God (the giver of life) determining that certain people should forfeit their lives under certain circumstances but not with accusing Moses of commanding “genocide” and “rape” without divine mandate. We know that when Moses went beyond his mandate, striking the rock instead of speaking to it, God barred him from entering Canaan, yet no word of censure for commanding something so “horrible”? Either what Moses was commanding was not the evil you claim (as I argue) or God really is a monster (which I think both of us would agree he isn’t). Your “God only commanded some of the things that Moses said, and then only those things that fit the procrustean bed I’ve already constructed” is a rationalizing, not a rational, position.

    Also, on the subject of their laws you really have to compare like with like. When contemporary legal codes allowed mutilation for theft, the Israelites had a system of restitution. Crimes against property were not considered as important as crimes against people. Why? Because their laws harked back to Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 9:6. When human beings bear the imago Dei no item of property could have the same value as a human life. It’s in light of that background that I examine their rules about the treatment of prisoners of war and slaves.

  • Both of you are suffering from a ‘sadistic personality disorder’. And because the Bible is seen as the most conservative piece of literature or the Word of God both of you selfishly justify using the Bible (and finding loopholes within) to fit in with your own warped desires/agendas. Both of you ‘use’ the bible selfishly as you can easily mould your ideal out of it- to fit in with your personality type (fascinated with rape and dominating woman).

    The whole Bible (as a whole) isn’t the Word of God, but you freaks like to think it is.

    Wake up.

    Thank you Emily, for contributing nothing to the discussion.

    If you actually did some study you’d realise that what we call “woman’s rights” didn’t exist in the ancient world. The closest we get to according equal status to women is found in the writings of Paul. If what he wrote can’t be regarded as the Word of God, why should we adopt such a belief?

    As for the attempted psycho-analysis? You demonstrate admirably why the great thinkers of history weren’t women.

  • Emily I think you have mistaken MandM for the Psych 101 blog. Perhaps instead of issuing online diagnoses you might want to try to respond to the points you take issue with with rational and empirical critique?

  • Max,

    Thanks for your comments, I find myself agreeing with much of what you say and disagreeing on other points. You write that “our collective ancestors were a brutal lot” I agree entirely similarly I agree that “we are a brutal lot today as well”

    I also agree that the ANE contained brutal slavery and the Hebrew scriptures describe and record some horrendous events. I also agree with you that God is loving and we need to take this fact seriously when we interpret what God commands and hence all else being equal an interpretation of Gods commands that coheres with well entrenched moral intuitions about the morality of rape and genocide etc is to be preferred.

    Where I think we disagree is on our interpretation of the Torah, if I read you correctly you seem to think the book of Deuteronomy teaches that “you could take the woman to be your sex slave and forcibly rape her” I demur. The passage I think you refer to is Deut 20:13-14 which states “You shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take for yourself; and you shall eat the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you.” I interpret this passage to teach its permissible to kill combatants in war ( men in ANE being combatants) but not non combatants. [Aquinas had an interpretation like this] The text does permit or allow people to take non combatants captive. But nothing in the text says anything about treating women as sex slaves or raping them. The word “take for yourself” can’t be construed as referring to rape because it is predicated not just of the women but also the children and the animals, and I don’t know anyone who thinks this teaches that bestiality or pedophilia is being commanded.

    Similarly, the text in Deut 21 which Jason raises, lays down the procedure to be followed if a person chooses to marry a captive women and it explicitly forbids her being treated as a slave or being abused. ( the reference to hair being cut is probably a reference to a mourning practice and the issue of the clothes is a symbolic way of saying she is no longer a captive ) So it’s not clear or obvious to me that either passage refers to forced rape. Obviously this is very quick but in a short com box I can’t go into all the details.

    In the context of ANE most commentators I have read suggest the purpose of this law was to protect captive women from the kinds of abuse which were common in ANE warfare. Men had to marry the captive women and treat them with respect, they would be free from being captives and if they were abused they could leave at their discretion. This was not a law designed to give men the power to rape and dominate woman in sex slavery. Quite the contrary.

    Moreover, the point you make that God being loving would not command rape and the fact that rape is prohibited elsewhere in the scriptures suggest prima facie an interpretation of the text which does not refer to rape is to be preferred to one that does. So unless there is good reason for interpreting this text in a way that commands rape I think its sensible not to.

  • “The whole Bible (as a whole) isn’t the Word of God, but you freaks like to think it is.”

    Just to defend myself from a charge of sadism…. didn’t I agree with you?

  • A very informative piece on a very difficult and emotive subject Matt. Thanks for having the guts to put it out there.
    We ‘enlightened Moderns’ tend to view history as if those living in the past had the same civilized ‘options’ available to them as we do. They forget how much ‘anarchy’ there was, and how much ‘unpleasant business’ individuals had to do themselves…’like Utu’.
    Utu was a primitive justice system…practiced almost universally in ancient times. If someone wronged you…it was up to you or your family to execute justice, because ‘the state’ back then did not do jack for the little people.
    Murder was a crime against Natural justice and God, but to go out and kill the murderer was expected. Thus in these days if a servant/slave did something bad…You were permitted to judge and punish them. You have shown how The God of the Bible put down rules to mitigate this situation, which no doubt made being a slave of Israel much more preferable to any of the Heathen Nations. Atheists also fail to see that The Bible clearly teaches that Gods will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven…Ie there is very little of what goes on down here, even today in ‘Gods own’ that actually meets with Gods approval.
    The silence of God exists because he has had to separate himself from us lest he consume us all with righteous fire. He sees and weeps. He is waiting for that Day in which he will judge The Mighty and Low.
    When Paul told servants to serve well, it was for the sake of the Gospel, not to keep them under oppression and by their example it was possible to convert their masters to Christianity this being the best way to make them Humane Masters…thus again showing that the Gospel leads to the elevation of suffering and civilization working from the inside out without recourse to Godless violence and chaos.
    If the Scriptures had commanded that the Woman and Children be left to themselves after all their Man had been killed, then the atheist would accuse the Jews of Mass murder via starvation, and leaving them to the mercy of other bands of lawless gangs to torture Rape and murder at their pleasure…so then these rules were designed to take some responsibility for the aftermath of war…to lessen the evils not expand them…which is a problem these Modern Atheists have had the ‘luxury’ to avoid.
    A Luxury they Owe to Christianity!

  • MATT:

    I am sure this is true. A lot of the harshest laws are actually designed to mitigate an even harsher world that existed around them. The danger comes when people don’t realise this and think that these laws are just as applicable in OUR world where we are lucky enough not to have the harsh world about us… so we also don’t need the harsh laws that came with them. In OUR context if we treated women/foreigh soldiers etc. the way the law-codes of an ancient tribe dictated we would be seem as a vile backwards dictatorship. This in not an attack on the writers of the Torah. The did the best they could in the environment they lived in, and I think they lived a live in accord with God’s will… for the environment they lived in. BUT – the danger comes when people start to see these contextual rules as being timeless and try to defend the ancient laws and say that they are acceptable even by modern standards. They are not. But this should not bother us.

    JASON: You scare the hell out of me ;)

  • As for the attempted psycho-analysis? You demonstrate admirably why the great thinkers of history weren’t women.

    So you’re a sexist as well, well of course you are- its all part of the package isn’t it? Do I need to study to figure that one out –umm I don’t think so you’re too easy.
    The words ‘admirably’ and ‘weren’t’ in your sentence summed it up quite sufficiently.

    Like you say woman had no rights back then, and if they did, they were probably burnt at the stake or suppressed and that would be why we haven’t heard of them. If there had been ‘equal’ rights back then I’m quite sure the world would be a better place than it is now, I’m sure.

  • Emily, your aware the whole picture of women being burnt at the stake in the millions simply for seeking equality lacks is lacks historical credibility.

    The point some people made in here stands, your comments consist largely of attacking peoples motives and character. Not actually engaging with the arguments raised. That’s irrational, and when certain types of feminists engage in this kind of critique ad naesum they tend to reinforce stereotypes about women being emotional and irrational

  • Sure Max, I don’t think there is huge disagreement then between us, the book of Exodus recounts a God who liberates people from slavery. The torah, in a society where slavery was pervasive, lays down a series of laws which tolerates a certain form of indentured servitude and puts in place various laws ensuring those in such servitude are treated humanely, and are not enslaved perpetually without consent, or are not beaten and abused etc. To use these texts to argue that God endorsed new world slavery is to ignore the whole context. Similarly the laws in Deuteronomy actually are designed to protect non combatants such as women and children from attack and abuse at the hand of invaders.

  • JASON: You scare the hell out of me ;)

    Good.

    Sometimes I scare me too.

    Just to defend myself from a charge of sadism…. didn’t I agree with you?

    You think she cares?

    If there had been ‘equal’ rights back then I’m quite sure the world would be a better place than it is now, I’m sure.

    I think it was Germaine Greer who said that if women ran the world we’d still be living in grass huts.

  • Question to Matt: in the bible you find God commanding the Israelites to make an offer of peace to neighboring cities that they’re supposed to take over, and if the offer is accepted, the people inside will be subjected to forced labour

    Are forced labourers subject to the same privileges as an indentured slave whether a fellow Israelite or a subjugated alien, or an indebted alien?

    I know by implication the Gibeonites fit this category, they had rights of protection afforded to them under the Mosaic Law (Joshua’s aid force vs the Amalekites)

    Also, it seems all the explanations and clarifications about slavery in the OT is all well and good properly understood as a product of the scarcity of resources and low tech environs of the Ancient Near East, however I don’t see how the Bible can be universally understood by the different cultures of humanity, Since it has a hebraic flavour to it. I mean, you can conclude that God is a Jew, rather than the claim that in God ‘no slave/free/scythian/ boundaries exist’

  • Hi Alvin welcome to the MandM

    Question to Matt: in the bible you find God commanding the Israelite s to make an offer of peace to neighboring cities that they’re supposed to take over, and if the offer is accepted, the people inside will be subjected to forced labour
    Are forced labourers subject to the same privileges as an indentured slave whether a fellow Israelite or a subjugated alien, or an indebted alien?

    I would have to examine this passage in more detail, off the cuff however I suspect that in this context the relationship refered is not one of indentured servitude or slavery, but rather to a kind of Vassal treaty arrangement, whereby the city becomes a vassal to Israel, and has to pay tribute, and in turn receives military protection ( I understand that the word translated “forced labor” actually means tribute or levy). Its not the situation where the whole population become “slaves”

  • [...] Matt Flannagan tackles the issue of slavery and the Bible here. [...]

  • [...] POSTS: Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with [...]

  • [...] Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with [...]

  • On Jerry Coyne and godless morality…

    The “abhorrent commands” objections take me beyond the scope of my point of this post, but I do recommend you to these helpful posts on Old Testament Ethics by Matthew Flannagan…

  • Thank you for a well-reasoned analysis of the historical difference between indentured servanthood and slavery.

    People have a tendency to impress their own culture on others. The “slavery” mentioned is Scriptures is actually a form of indentured servanthood with very clear rules and laws. The other option was to slowly starve to death without a patron.

    Let me reiterate: Indentured servanthood in the ancient Near East shares no similarity with the slavery of the U.S.’s antebellum South. To deny that is to deny a historical reality.