Old Testament Slavery—Not so Bad?

Old Testament SlaveryYou’ve probably been there. You’ve read one too many articles claiming that biblical slavery was not a big deal, that it was actually a good thing for the enslaved, or that biblical slavery wasn’t at all like slavery in America.

Let’s go there.

Seattle columnist Dan Savage delivered a lecture in 2012 to high school students interested in journalism. His point, roughly stated, was 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.

Christian podcast apologetics.com responded on 5/13/12 with “Sex, Lies & Leviticus” (the second hour is the interesting part, with host Lindsay Brooks and guest Arthur Daniels Jr.). 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. 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 critique 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.

1. Selection. 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).

2. Food Laws. 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. Jesus said:

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.

3. Ignorance. 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.

Continued in Part 2.

Americans treat the Bible 
like a website Terms of Use agreement. 
They don’t bother reading it; they just click “I agree.”
— Unknown

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/7/12.)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker