Friday, January 9, 2015

The Bible and slavery

I was looking through some of my books recently, and came across a famous apologetic book that I bought back in my more theologically na├»ve days, namely the book Is God a Moral Monster? by apologist Paul Copan. When I read this book—I still accepted the doctrine of inerrancy at this point—I felt a relief that at least there were Christians attempting to grapple with the disturbing and seemingly immoral parts of the Bible. At the time I accepted the things that Copan wrote, but it didn’t take long for me to see the problems with his apologetic reasoning.
One of the difficulties that I immediately felt was not properly addressed or defended—and now I see that it cannot be adequately defended—was the issue of slavery in the Old Testament. Now, it’s not as if the Bible only makes short and vague allusions to the institution of slavery, but, rather, it gives explicit and unambiguous commands and laws about how slavery was supposed to be implemented by the Israelites. And this is where Copan’s apologetic comes in.

For Copan, the slavery alluded to in the Old Testament was not slavery as commonly understood in the antebellum South. Rather, Copan claims, slavery was more like indentured servitude: Israelite servitude was induced by poverty, was entered into voluntarily, and was far from optimal. (p. 127) Now this is half true. As critical Old Testament scholar John J. Collins states, “The most common cause of enslavement in the ancient world was debt: people who could not pay their debts were forced to sell their children, or themselves, into slavery.” The problem is that this was not the case with regards to foreign slaves. These slaves were pretty much captured against their will, and were treated much differently than Hebrew slaves, as we’ll see below.
Copan continues his apologetic by arguing that this “servitude” wasn’t all that bad.  Slave owners were not allowed to mistreat their slaves and were required to release these slaves after seven years. Not too bad, right? Wrong. This, again, only applied to male Israelite slaves, and not women, or foreign slaves. Women and foreign slaves were passed down through the slave owner’s family like property. Moreover, there was a loophole that allowed slave owners to keep male Israelite slaves for life. All they had to do was give their slave a wife, and hope that the slave, when freed, wanted to stay with his wife—since his wife was the slave owner’s property.

Then there’s this kicker:
And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NKJV)

These verses speak for themselves. You could beat a slave nearly to death, and as long as he didn’t die immediately you were free and clear. Not only that but this law applied, once again, only to Hebrew slaves. Who knows what was permitted of foreign slaves? The point is that there simply is no way to spin this apologetically. It is simply not right for one human to possess another, and it is not right for one person to beat another almost to death only to be acquitted of responsibility because he owns him.
Furthermore, even if one could provide a proper apologetic response, I don’t see that it would salvage much. The fact is that it’s quite obvious that these Old Testament laws are simply the product of their primitive and barbaric environment. We find these very same laws in surrounding ancient Near East cultures of the time. Sometimes the Old Testament laws are a bit more sophisticated, and sometimes they are not. But what is completely absent is any trace, or reason to think, that God Almighty actually commanded or ordered such laws to be followed in the first place.

Now, maybe it’s the case that God did command such things and simply accommodated himself to the traditions of the Israelites and met them where they were. Perhaps. However, for me it seems more likely that these were simply the tribal laws promulgated by a primitive culture. This culture was simply so steeped in the traditions of its surrounding nations that it couldn’t help but think just like they did. Hence these slavery laws were simply the norm, unfortunately. Now the interesting thing is that this culture, namely the Israelites, would eventually shed much of this aNE thinking and give us the first-fruits of a novel monotheistic theology that eventually culminated in the theology of the New Testament. But this gives us no warrant for ignoring, and not coming to terms with, these parts of scripture that we can, and should, so vehemently disagree with.

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