Giving the moon the finger

It seems whenever the question of slavery and the Bible comes up, everybody starts to get their fundie on. Even people usually far-removed from the fundamentalist and evangelical subcultures start using some of its more dubious tools — like the vivisection-by-concordance approach to Bible study. Yes, concordances are helpful, and this can be a fruitful approach, but only if studying the index is not seen as the equivalent of, or a substitute for, reading the book.

In this case, actually, you'd be better served by reading the Table of Contents than by reading the index: "Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Num …"

Wait, what was that second one?

Right, Exodus. The title of that book is the first and last biblical word on the subject of slavery.

Exodus definitively establishes the motif and the trajectory. Liberation starts here. But it does not end here.

The Exodus story provides refrains that echo all through scripture: "You were once slaves in Egypt," "the Lord brought you out of slavery in Egypt." This refrain is the basis for much that follows in the law and the prophets. You were once slaves in Egypt, so we're going to practice liberation every Sabbath year and every Jubilee. You were once slaves in Egypt, so breaking every yoke is what religion is all about. And further along this trajectory, You were once slaves in Egypt but I brought you out, so you're going to love your neighbor and even love your enemies.

The Exodus is, to borrow an image from Buddhism, a finger pointing at the moon. Measuring the length and the limits of that finger misses the, well, point. Woolman and Wilberforce understood this. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. Bob Marley understood this.

So if you've an interest in this subject — what the Bible says about slavery — you need to do more than study the finger. You need to look where it's pointing.

  • ako

    At the moment, I’m mostly just reading Revelation, to develop my ideas for upcoming chapters of “Children of the Goats”. Which is great, because I got the free e-text from Project Gutenburg.
    Pity there aren’t free e-texts of “Kingdom Come”. I’ll probably have to go read it at Borders (which I don’t think will give any money to the Worst Professional Authors Ever.)

  • rob

    “It would be nice if things didn’t have to be absolute, if one side would stop trying to convince everyone that the Bible is God’s Word and if the other side would stop trashing it completely as worthless and outdated and should be thrown away.”
    I am on the record as an atheist who believes the bible is important, and definitely not worthless. I just don’t automatically give it any more weight than any other book I’ve read. Whatever your feelings on the subject, there are an awful lot of people that believe whatever the bible has to say about a particular moral conundrum automatically trumps whatever anybody else has to say, an attitude that strikes me as silly – probably because I was raised atheist and find the revealed religions to be the most perplexing of all. What I find most curious about the issue of slavery in the bible is that a very many people will claim that they believe the bible to be the last word on morality, yet on examining their beliefs one finds that they actually take the good parts of the bible, the love thy neighbor stuff, and get many other facets of the morality from other places. I just think a person should be able to say, “Sure, the bible doesn’t say slavery is wrong, but I believe it’s wrong because of XXX,” rather than trying to read into it a commandment that does not exist. It seems perfectly understandable to believe some things because of what the bible says and some things because of what other people have said, or better yet through your own reasoning. After all, the bible never says (to my knowledge) you must own slaves.
    “My point is that the laws governing the treatment of slaves in ancient Israel were more humane than those of other nations. That is demonstrably true. Whether they were enforced is another question beyond our scope here.”
    Yes, on rereading it I see that you are correct. I was distracted by your example, which was both a non sequitur and false.

  • Jonathan Edelstein

    Nieciedo beat me to the point, but it strikes me that many commenters are viewing the “Mosaic covenant” in a distinctly Christian way.
    Judaism, like Islam but unlike Christianity, is a common-law religion. The Torah isn’t the whole of the law, but merely the foundational text. It has been modified, as a legal document, by the accretion of oral law during the Commonwealth period, the subsequent tannaitic and rabbinic jurisprudence of the -3rd to +4th centuries, and the post-Talmudic responsa and commentaries. These periods saw a fairly steady evolution in the law, with slavery-related jurisprudence moving in the direction of requiring better treatment and encouraging manumission.
    I’d argue that this is germane both to Fred’s “finger pointing at the moon” analogy and to the question of why a God might not abolish slavery outright. I’ve heard it contended that the law was left incomplete precisely to give the Israelites (and subsequently the Jews) time to grow into and develop its principles, and to distill universal principles out of what was originally a set of tribal rules and regulations. If one believes in a personal God (which I don’t), it’s possible for such a God to recognize that societies can only stand a certain amount of change at a given time, start things off with a bump in the right direction, and inspire further reform at a later time. With a text that has influenced as many civilizations and religions as the Bible, such reform can come from many different directions, and both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism can be regarded as part of the process.

  • Rosina

    It has been modified, as a legal document, by the accretion of oral law during the Commonwealth period, the subsequent tannaitic and rabbinic jurisprudence of the -3rd to +4th centuries, and the post-Talmudic responsa and commentaries. These periods saw a fairly steady evolution in the law, with slavery-related jurisprudence moving in the direction of requiring better treatment and encouraging manumission.
    So has the law of Judaism (as opposed to secular law in Israel) yet reached the point of outlawing slavery? Or is it still ‘moving in that direction’? If the argument is that God wanted to allow the Israelites time to adjust to feeling as aggrieved about owning slaves as they did about being made slaves, does He now think that they have had enough time?

  • Brian J.

    Of course, we’ll all beating around the bush here.
    This argument shows, as little as you want to admit it, that LaHaye and Jenkins are actually *gulp* right to only take bits and pieces of the Bible literally. Most of it is now “like the Code of Hammurabi or the Iliad,” but less instructive than the former and less coherent than the latter.
    You can argue that the Bible should be taken entirely literally- but you’ve no doubt already heard the jokes about where that leads, such as putting people to death for eating shellfish. Or you can agree that the Bible is just another piece of ancient literature superseded by modernity.
    Or you can have some of it taken literally and some not, but who decides that? American Christianity has made its choice by popular acclaim- Falwell, LaHaye, Jenkins, Robertson, and Bush. If you don’t agree with them, you’re a pagan or, worse, a heretic.
    You should have done something about that when you had a chance, but it’s too late now.

  • Jeff

    it would be like buying a brand new powerbook and throwing it out the window, for sport. nobody sane would ever do that.
    Is that a comment on David Letterman (the jury on his sanity has not yet reached a consensus)?
    re salvery in America: it was generally acknowledged that the further South down the Mississippi you went, the worse the lot of the slaves. The term “being sold down the river” comes from this knowledge.

  • nieciedo

    Rosina
    So has the law of Judaism (as opposed to secular law in Israel) yet reached the point of outlawing slavery? Or is it still ‘moving in that direction’? If the argument is that God wanted to allow the Israelites time to adjust to feeling as aggrieved about owning slaves as they did about being made slaves, does He now think that they have had enough time?
    Since neither Jonathan nor I believe in a personal God, it makes no sense to us to deal in terms of what “God” thinks. The issue is whether Israelites have had enough time to adapt to certain level of change before accepting further change, and the answer is yes. Every major branch of Judaism agrees that slavery is not permissible.
    There are no doubt some in the extreme ultra-Orthodox world who think that Biblically mandates slavery would be OK if done right, but even they accept the legal principal of dina d’malkhuta dina — the law of the land is the law. If the nation you live in outlaws slavery and polygyny, then even if you find a halakhic argument supporting those practices you can’t do them.
    This is because slavery, like polygyny, was never commanded or encouraged even though it was permitted. These social aspects were so much a part of life at the time the Torah was written that it was deemed impossible to ban them outright. Thus, the decision was made to reform and humanize them by granting slaves and women rights they did not enjoy in other societies.
    Then, they did a very Jewish thing by constantly reminding people, indirectly and perhaps passive-agressively about how awful it was for our own ancestors to be slaves and how having multiple wives only led to heartache and disaster. Even if this did not prevent Jews from owning slaves and having multiple wives, it at least made them feel very guilty about it. By the 1st century CE, slave-holding and polygyny among the vast majority of the Jewish nation did not exist.
    In the intervening centuries, principles such as the belief that every person is created in the image of God and “remember that you were slaves” and the prophetic visions of a better world in the Messianic Age — and not to mention Jew’s abject disenfranchisement in pretty much every society they lived in with few exceptions — meant that the laws of slave-holding remained on the books (you can’t just erase parts of the Torah!) but the custom and the legal tradition built upon the Torah has made slavery a thing of the past.
    It’s kind of similar to how Betty Windsor theoretically has the power to raise and command armies, summon and dissolve Parliament, veto legislation, and appoint ministers of her own free will — but custom and common law have made it so that all she can really do wear nice hats and wave.

  • Jonathan Edelstein

    If the argument is that God wanted to allow the Israelites time to adjust to feeling as aggrieved about owning slaves as they did about being made slaves, does He now think that they have had enough time?
    In practice, and shorn of your high dudgeon, we reached that point about the same time as everyone else.
    To what Nieciedo said, I’ll add two things. First, there are anti-slavery halachot. They’re tricky to write, because Jewish or Islamic jurists can’t directly contradict their holy books, but rabbis have evolved two well-established methods of effectively doing just that. The first is to hedge a certain practice with so many procedural restrictions as to make it impossible, as was done with the death penalty during Talmudic times. The second is to invoke a pointed legal fiction that, while leaving the letter of the law intact, makes it impossible to enforce and leaves no doubt what the rabbi thinks of it.
    The procedural approach to outlawing slavery began at least in the 15th century, when Joseph Caro instructed rabbinical courts to resolve any doubt in favor of freedom and to rule in favor of the slave if he “is able to justify his freedom even for a moment.” By that time, there were so many acts that resulted in the freeing of a slave that almost any slave could justify his freedom “for a moment,” meaning that the courts (or at least the ones that followed Caro) were as likely to return a slave to his master as to issue a death sentence.
    More modern anti-slavery jurisprudence has followed the “pointed legal fiction” approach. Some rabbis, for instance, have argued that the master-slave relationship is so inherently corrupting that it isn’t humanly possible to treat slaves with the kindness mandated by law, and that it is thus forbidden for people to own slaves. Others, like Rabbi Chaim Tabasky, have ruled that modern slavery “is a function of greed and power” that contradicts the Torah principle of “rule by concern for human dignity and lovingkindness.” Both approaches rest on a legal fiction (either that a being of supernatural kindness might be trusted with slaves, or that slavery in the context of premodern social relationships wasn’t as bad as the slavery of today) but both result in slavery being morally condemned as well as banned.
    The second thing I’ll add is that, because of the dina d’malchuta dina doctrine, slavery has largely passed from the realm of law to that of philosophy. Jewish jurists of today don’t have to waste much time on whether slavery is allowed – the civil law forbids it, so it is forbidden to us – and can instead consider slavery purely in terms of morality and ethics. There’s no shortage of Jewish philosophical writings, from the 18th-century Haskalah period onwards, that use slavery as a symbol of evil. Nor is there a shortage of opposition to slavery in practice: for instance, the Reform Jewish movement of today, and its European Liberal Jewish counterpart, is an active part of the movement against slavery in the Sahel, and regards this as a religious imperative for much the reasons that Fred cited in the original post.

  • Bugmaster

    Wow, I go away for a weekend, and miss another chance of getting accused of being a slave-master, somehow. Aw.
    Anyway, I’d just like to point out that there’s a vast difference between being a slave, and being a salaried employee. As a slave, you are, quite literally, property. You can be bought and sold. You have minimal rights, on par with a beast of burden.
    As an employee, at least here in the US, you are recognized as an independent individual. You are free, at least de jure, to work for anyone, including yourself if you so choose (and if you are able). You can vote, thus affecting your government. You can sue people, including your employers. You have a guaranteed minimum wage (unless you’re one of those “guest workers”, I suppose), among other benefits. Woe be to an employer who tries to sell you as property, because he’ll be gone faster than you can say “class-action suit”.
    Now, you can always say that some slaves were treated better than salaried employees are today, or that modern employees have very few career choices de facto, as compared to slaves, etc. Personally, I don’t think either of these arguments are true, but I won’t attack them until someone actually makes them (duh). However, I don’t think you can equate modern employees to slaves — even to modern slaves, such as the ones who gained their freedom in the American Civil War — and still remain intellectually honest.

  • the opoponax

    @ Jeff — haha! I forgot all about that stunt…
    Let me rephrase my analogy in a special case for the David Letterman Show – killing slaves of the antebellum south for sport would be as insane as The David Letterman Show buying a new 35mm camera package with all the bells and whistles*, and throwing it out the window for sport. the producers and/or Letterman himself would have to be insane to do that.
    * ignore for the moment that 35mm camera packages are actually not available for purchase and must be rented long-term from somewhere like Panavision or CSC.

  • Rosina

    Me: If the argument is that God wanted to allow the Israelites time to adjust to feeling as aggrieved about owning slaves as they did about being made slaves, does He now think that they have had enough time?
    Jonathan: In practice, and shorn of your high dudgeon, we reached that point about the same time as everyone else.
    In fact I wasn’t suffering from any sort of dudgeon, high or low. And I did start by saying (probably not very clearly) that I wanted to exclude secular or man-made law. I had absolutely no doubt that that would be against slavery. My problem was that if you combine the idea that the “Jewish law” is written in the Holy Books, which are holy because they are directly or indirectly God’s word, with the suggestion that in the bits quoted from the Old Testament God was still working on a gradual approach to an over-arching condemnation of slavery, then God has still not declared himself an abolitionist. And I wasn’t sure if there were Jewish Holy Books that are not part of the Old Testament which might have changed the position. It seems pretty certain that the New Testament does not definitively condemn slavery, either.
    You are effectively saying that God has not spoken out against slavery, that this has been left to men (and probably earlier than many other ‘civilizations’: First, there are anti-slavery halachot. They’re tricky to write, because Jewish or Islamic jurists can’t directly contradict their holy books, but rabbis have evolved two well-established methods of effectively doing just that. The first is to hedge a certain practice with so many procedural restrictions as to make it impossible, as was done with the death penalty during Talmudic times. The second is to invoke a pointed legal fiction that, while leaving the letter of the law intact, makes it impossible to enforce and leaves no doubt what the rabbi thinks of it.
    This actually contradicts what Fred says at the start, that the message of God, through the Bible from the time of Exodus, is about liberating slaves – in both Judaism and Christianity it has been necessary for the texts to be ‘re-interpreted’ to become abolitionist. Man, it turns out, can be better than his Holy Books.

  • Bugmaster

    Out of curiosity, what does Buddhism have to say about slavery ? I honestly don’t know, but now I’m curious.

  • Rosina

    This is one of the most wonderful things about this group – that it is a place where the most ‘satiable curtiosity can be indulged. Now I too am curious about Buddhism, and Hinduism.

  • Jesurgislac

    Jonathan: Jewish jurists of today don’t have to waste much time on whether slavery is allowed – the civil law forbids it, so it is forbidden to us
    What about Jewish jurists who live in countries where slavery is legal?

  • Felix

    Rosina, the problem with your analysis is that when the rabbis do that work of re-interpretation, they’re not seen as/supposed to be contradicting the Biblical tradition of Jewish law, but extending it, bringing it closer to completion – following its finger moonward, in Fred’s terms. It’s not people vs. the holy books – Judaism is (supposed to be) a constant interplay between the two.

  • nieciedo

    Jesu:
    What about Jewish jurists who live in countries where slavery is legal?
    I do not know of any countries where slavery is openly legal per se — but slavery exists in one form or another in every country in world illegally. I consider capitalism itself to be a form of slavery.
    However, I would bet you dollars to donuts that any country that has so little regard for human rights as to allow slavery would likewise not be a very hospitable place for Jews, and so this is a moot point.

  • Rosina

    Rosina, the problem with your analysis is that when the rabbis do that work of re-interpretation, they’re not seen as/supposed to be contradicting the Biblical tradition of Jewish law, but extending it, bringing it closer to completion
    That is the ‘interpretation’ argument. But I was following on from Jonathan’s comment They’re tricky to write, because Jewish or Islamic jurists can’t directly contradict their holy books, but rabbis have evolved two well-established methods of effectively doing just that.
    I don’t know about Judaism, which was why I asked the question in the first place, but in Christianity, ‘interpretations’ of the Bible don’t become part of Holy Scripture, and are open to be declared inaccurate, or edited to keep up with modern interpretation. That is a difference between the ‘original’ Bible -Old Testament, gospels, epistles etc – and any commentary on them. You can’t just discard a Book of the Bible because it no longer speaks to us. I thought that the rabbis’ works of interpretation (halachots?) were only authoritative until a better interpretation was reached, while the Holy Books remain forever.

  • Rosina

    However, I would bet you dollars to donuts that any country that has so little regard for human rights as to allow slavery would likewise not be a very hospitable place for Jews, and so this is a moot point.
    If we’re talking about now, that is a good point. But you can go back in history and it will depend on how you define ‘hospitable’. The US had legal slavery and at the same time welcomed Jews. I don’t know if the Jewish interpretations of the Laws on slavery at that time were any more advanced than the Christian views (and I would be quite easily persuaded that no Jews owned slaves). Wikipedia says that the clear majority supported the North and emancipation, but this may be because the majority lived in the North.

  • Jonathan Edelstein

    Rosina:
    In fact I wasn’t suffering from any sort of dudgeon, high or low.
    Ah, sorry for the misunderstanding. Chalk it up to Internet mistranslation, I guess.
    This actually contradicts what Fred says at the start, that the message of God, through the Bible from the time of Exodus, is about liberating slaves – in both Judaism and Christianity it has been necessary for the texts to be ‘re-interpreted’ to become abolitionist. Man, it turns out, can be better than his Holy Books.
    For my part, I’d tend to agree with your last sentence, because I believe that the holy books were authored by humans and take a meliorist view of human moral development. If one approaches the question from Fred’s standpoint, however – i.e., that there is a personal God that authored or inspired the holy books – then I’m not sure your conclusion necessarily follows. If such a God exists in the first place, then it can be posited that he might give humanity a “starter set” of holy books together with the intelligence and/or inspiration to expand their principles. Felix explained the rationale pretty well – the books are living documents that aren’t meant to be interpreted the same way now as when they were written.
    Jesurgislac:
    What about Jewish jurists who live in countries where slavery is legal?
    I don’t think there are any countries where slavery is actually legal today (as opposed to being tolerated in practice), and the ones where I might check the law code just to make sure don’t have Jews in them.
    If a country with a Jewish community legalized slavery, then those of is with a religious bent would have to decide whether it is permissible. In the 19th-century United States, there were rabbis on both sides of the question, with those of German origin tending to be prominent among the abolitionists. Were the issue to arise now, I have no doubt that the rulings would be against slavery – however backward the Orthodox rabbinate may be on other matters, they can at least be trusted that far – although the justifications would be all over the map and some might rest on technicalities.

  • Felix

    Rosina, one of the big differences between Jewish and Christian ideas of scripture is the notion of the “oral Torah” – that commentaries on the Torah, particulalry those in the Talmud but theoretically even ones written today, are actually part of the canon of scripture, not just interpretations of it. There is an oral Torah and a written Torah, and while the written Torah takes top place, it shares its claim to scriptural authority with the oral Torah. The Jewish canon is not ‘closed’ in the sense that the Christian one is – it can still be added to, even if its centre is well established.
    This is my understanding, in any case. If anyone knows of a Christian view that pushes for a (more) open Scripture, I’d be very interested to know about it.

  • Rob

    Darbyism

  • Jonathan Edelstein

    I would be quite easily persuaded that no Jews owned slaves.
    Unfortunately, there were some Jewish slaveowners in those states where slavery was allowed. There weren’t many, but this may have been because few Jews were involved in slave-intensive industries such as plantation agriculture. Even where there were religious pronouncements to the contrary, Jews were quite as capable as Christians of ignoring them.
    In the 19th-century United States, Jewish opinion toward slavery was actually split very much along ethnic lines. As I mentioned above, abolitionist sentiment was strongest among the wave of German Jewish immigrants that began arriving in the 1830s, while members of the older Sephardic communities tended to conform their opinions to their neighbors’. The reason for this is threefold: (1) Germany was the birthplace of liberal Judaism and thus a breeding ground for firebrand rabbis; (2) German Jews participated in the general revolutionary ferment of the 1830s-40s; and (3) slavery had long been abolished in the German states and was regarded as a moral evil. Also, the German Jews were immigrants and hence less assimilated to local practices of slaveholding.

  • Jesurgislac

    Jonathan: I don’t think there are any countries where slavery is actually legal today (as opposed to being tolerated in practice),
    Fair point. I was thinking of countries where people (usually children) are bought and sold, and everyone knows it happens and the government/law enforcement agencies tolerate it, but I’m not sure at all if this is within the law or ignored by the law or clearly banned by the law.
    Niecedo: However, I would bet you dollars to donuts that any country that has so little regard for human rights as to allow slavery would likewise not be a very hospitable place for Jews, and so this is a moot point.
    Well, if Israel ever makes it legal to buy and sell Palestinians, as opposed to just rounding them up in camps and stealing their land and expecting them to be cheap labor, we’ll find out. A country with little regard for human rights can be a very hospitable place for Jews.
    Jonathan: If a country with a Jewish community legalized slavery, then those of is with a religious bent would have to decide whether it is permissible.
    I was going to ask you about any Jewish slaveowners in the American South, but you answered it in a later comment. I don’t suppose the Deep South was very hospitable towards Jews, but with religious tolerance mandated and a legal right to be considered white, there would have been Jewish slaveowners unless by the 19th century there was a clear prohibition in Judaism against owning slaves.
    FWIW, though Quakers are the earliest religious group to declare against slavery, George Fox wasn’t an abolitionist (I checked: he just wrote a pamphlet reminding Quaker slave owners in 1657 and in 1671 that “everyone is equal in the sight of God” – the key principle of Quakerism.
    But (and this I didn’t know – bless Google) apparently the first native-born, white American to condemn slavery was a Quaker – William Southeby, 1696. But slavery didn’t become a disownable offense until
    1761. So even a relatively small religion, with principles starkly opposed to slavery from the very beginning, took over a century to move an injunction to treat your slaves well (but take for granted that there would be slaves) to a formal requirement that anyone who was a member of the religion must free their slaves or be expelled from the religion.
    Whereas Judaism could not have that as a principle, and when Jews were living in countries where slavery was legal, didn’t. Which is relevant only because of the original topic of this post, suggesting that Judaism is intrinsically opposed to slavery: rather, it’s only intrinsically opposed to keeping Jews as slaves. (Islam is the same, I think: at least, similiar rules about not holding on to a fellow Muslim as a slave forever, and treating him decently: and I think this applied to converts to Islam as much as to Islamic slaves. Though I imagine that, as we’ve discussed already, would have been more honored in the principle than in the observance.)

  • hapax

    Darn that mean old God, not explicitly forbidding slavery in ten foot letters carved on the stone of Mt. Sinai. Because that worked out so well with that whole “Thou shalt not kill” thing.
    I think that there is a fundamental misunderstanding here of Fred’s point — or at least, the interpretation that I’ve always held, that seems to jive nicely with his.
    Exodus isn’t about the Egyptians liberating the slaves. Exodus is about GOD liberating slaves. Unless you are a Biblical literalist, God doesn’t seem particularly interested in setting up the rules for particular political or economic systems. When I (as a Christian) read the Bible, I see it as a dropped-jaw effort of humans trying to make sense of what God does: God creates. God cleanses. God confounds. God reconciles. God liberates. God descends. God confuses. God sustains. God comforts. God defies everything that separates people from God. God says: “See? Now you all go and try that!” Everything else is just the sometimes inspiring, sometimes painful, sometimes unintentionally hilarious record of humans trying to do just that.
    To use Biblical proof texts to say that, on the whole, God prefers the system of slavery practices in classical Rome over that practiced in the antebellum American South, or in the corporate cubicles of modern Melbourne (to pull a random location out of my hat) for that matter, is sort of not-getting-it on a literally cosmic scale.

  • nieciedo

    Jesu
    Well, if Israel ever makes it legal to buy and sell Palestinians, as opposed to just rounding them up in camps and stealing their land and expecting them to be cheap labor, we’ll find out. A country with little regard for human rights can be a very hospitable place for Jews.
    Nice try, but I’m not taking the bait. :-)

  • Rob

    The questions of slavery seems to hinge on the question, again, of literalism. Atheists tend to argue against the so-called “literal” interpretation of the bible (although as Fred points out, they don’t use that word the way the rest of us do), and not without good reason. Rightly, I think, we perceive it as the most threatening to the secular humanism we hold dear, and also because it is, frankly, an incredibly easy target. It also has the disadvantage that it does not move, or, at least, claims it does not. Throw out the literalist requirement and religion become a lot more slippery, and, I personally believe, a lot more laudable.
    So the question of whether god supports slavery seems to be really a question of who has the right to alter and modify the text of the revealed word. Catholics establish changes to the text through a kind of diplomacy, by appointing a pope to negotiate the terms of salvation with God (at least, this is how my grandmother explained it to me), and Jews seem (based on previous posts here – I really have no idea how it works) to use a kind of meritocracy. But protestants really have no way of arbitering these kinds of modifications, which I guess is sort of the point, every man having the right to read and interpret the text being one of the original tenets of many protestant factions.
    Ultimately, the question is moot. After all, a number of things quite clearly and expressly forbidden in the bible have been interpreted into meaninglessness, even by “literalists,” so one can hardly blame them for doing the same with something so ambiguous as the slavery laws.
    So I guess Fred is right, for Fred. For Fred, the bible is anti-slavery. You can hardly blame somebody else for coming away with a different impression, though.

  • cjmr’s husband

    Catholics establish changes to the text through a kind of diplomacy, by appointing a pope to negotiate the terms of salvation with God (at least, this is how my grandmother explained it to me)
    Was your grandmother Catholic? Mine is, and this idea is completely new to me…

  • ako

    Isn’t it fascinating what comes up when we don’t all just gaze cooperatively where someone tries to direct our eyes? (Yes, I understand the point of the Buddhist story, I just don’t entirely agree with it.)
    Fair point. I was thinking of countries where people (usually children) are bought and sold, and everyone knows it happens and the government/law enforcement agencies tolerate it, but I’m not sure at all if this is within the law or ignored by the law or clearly banned by the law.
    Having had some firsthand aquaintance with children who were bought and sold, I can tell you how it works in at least some cases. Generally, it’s explicitly illegal, but some law enforcement agencies ignore it (sometimes because, due to tradition, they don’t regard it as a serious crime; nearly always because they get some benefit for not interfering.) There are a number of fictions that get used to hide child slavery and human trafficking; frequently younger kids have it passed off as a kind of fostering, while older kids and teenagers are promised employment (but they never see the money,and they’re not allowed to leave). I’m not sure how representative this is (most law enforcement in the Philippines does take active measures to halt slavery, human trafficking, and severely exploitive employers if they become aware of it.)
    Darn that mean old God, not explicitly forbidding slavery in ten foot letters carved on the stone of Mt. Sinai. Because that worked out so well with that whole “Thou shalt not kill” thing.
    It certainly influenced the law on killing (otherwise there wouldn’t be so much argument as to whether it actually meant “thou shalt not murder” or really was “thou shalt not kill”).
    And, while people did tend to find workarounds, Biblical law certainly influenced what legal institutions were set up and allowed for big chunks of history. Look at the effect Biblical rules about divorce and usury had on medieval Europe, for instance. While there were certainly efforts to skirt those rules (such as rather liberal interpretations of annulments), and there would doubtless have been similar efforts to cheat anti-slavery rules (I can imagine, for instance, kidnapping Africans and declaring them life-long “indentured servants” as repayment for the passage and for the “benefit” of being able to seek salvation in a Christian land), Biblical rules and divine pronouncements on what’s right and wrong do have some influence on predominately Christian societies.

  • Jonathan Edelstein

    Fair point. I was thinking of countries where people (usually children) are bought and sold, and everyone knows it happens and the government/law enforcement agencies tolerate it, but I’m not sure at all if this is within the law or ignored by the law or clearly banned by the law.
    Most if not all of the countries in the “slave belt” running roughly from Sudan to Mauritania fall into the latter two categories. In theory, and under the civil law, slaves are citizens just like everyone else; it is the customary law that regards them as property. This leads to anomalies such as the fact that both candidates in the recent Mauritanian presidential election courted the slave vote and made the eradication of customary slavery part of their platforms.
    Well, if Israel ever makes it legal to buy and sell Palestinians, as opposed to just rounding them up in camps and stealing their land and expecting them to be cheap labor, we’ll find out.
    Y’know, I could treat this as a gratituitous cheap shot, and I could also raise the question of who maintains those refugee camps and which countries’ laws require Palestinians to live in them. In the interest of not turning a friendly and stimulating discussion into an Israel-Palestine flamewar, though, I won’t take it any farther than that.
    What I’ll do instead is point to a year-old Israeli Supreme Court decision which struck down a system of guest worker visas that were tied to a single employer. One of the judges on the panel, Edmond Levy, is a religious Jew, and part of the basis for his opinion was that the freedom of workers is central to Jewish ethics. One of the other judges analogized the system of single-employer visas (which are common to many countries, most recently New Zealand) to slavery and argued that as such it was morally unacceptable. Make of that what you will.
    I don’t suppose the Deep South was very hospitable towards Jews
    You’d be surprised. One of the biggest pre-revolutionary Jewish communities (although “biggest” was a distinctly relative term at the time) was in Charleston. Later waves of Jewish immigration tended to settle in the north as the commercial center of the country shifted in that direction, and the 19th-century German Jews went to the same Midwestern states that the gentile Germans did, but the original, 17th and 18th-century Sephardic immigrants settled all over the seaboard.
    In any event, there have been Jewish slaveowners wherever Jews were allowed to own slaves by the civil law, often irrespective of rabbinic opposition. Jews took part in the general moral development that resulted in slavery becoming seen as a social evil, but certainly were not the whole of it, and didn’t partake of it all at once.

  • nieciedo

    Much of this discussion has been bogged down with the bottom line. If the question is “Does the Torah permit slavery,” then the answer is, obviously, yes. But if the question is “Does the Torah/God/the Jewish ethical tradition consider slavery a good thing?” The answer is no.
    The legislation in the Torah displays a rather mature look at human nature. Humans are not perfect, but perfectible. We have base instincts, but they can be amended. If a bottom line is secured, then there is no limit to how high we can rise — but to expect perfection instantly without a definite starting point is foolhardy.
    There are many aspects of late Bronze Age Middle Eastern society that the Torah accepts as given and does not prohibit. For example, if Shimon accidentally killed Levi, the “blood redeemer” of Levi’s clan was still permitted to avenge Levi by killing Shimon. For that purpose, the Torah instituted the cities of refuge and commanded people not to bear grudges or take vengeance on each other, because vengeance belongs to God. The Torah does not think this vigilante justice is a good thing, but it does not consider the “blood redeemer” guilty of murder. Rather than outlawing this practice, the Torah modified it and limited it until such time as the people progressed. By rabbinic times, the cities of refuge had come to be reinterpreted not as a safe haven but rather as a kind of prison or house-arrest, a punishment — this is because the notion of clan vengeance and “blood redemption” had been socially outgrown.
    Likewise, the Torah does not prohibit polygyny, but stories like that of Jacob and Solomon certainly do not promote it as a good thing. While a man is permitted to have more than one wife, he is also then saddled with significant financial and domestic responsibities that make having more than one wife rather impractical. A man with more than one wife is by far the exception and not the rule both in the Bible and the rabbinic records in the Talmud. The Christian scriptures are set in the same historical millieu as some of the early Tannaitic literature, and I don’t recal any polygamous relationships mentioned there, either.
    And so it is with slavery. Slavery is permitted, but not encouraged. Nowhere is slavery commanded except in Deuteronomy 19:13-15. In this case, it is not that slavery itself is recommended as a moral choice in an of itself, but as a limitation on the commonly accepted rules of warfare: slavery for the women and children of defeated cities, under the reformed terms already commanded in the Torah, was preferable to the total massacre of the entire population (Sadly, this did not apply to the Canaanite cities, but since the Canaanite conquest didn’t actually occur the way the Torah envisions and since Judah when Deuteronomy was written was in no position to be waging war on anybody, this is anachronistic propoganda that has been discussed before on another thread).
    Fred’s point remains that once you state that slavery is bad for one group of people, then it becomes gradually more and more difficult to justify the idea that slavery is OK for anyone. Liberation theology is also based on just such a reading of Exodus.
    So, regardless whatever may have been ruled permissible at any given time, the Torah does not consider slavery a good thing and opens the door for its eventual abolition.

  • Rob

    cjmr’s husband –
    My grandmother is a Catholic who probably would have been burned at the stake two hundred years ago. She basically sees it as the pope’s job to go to god and say, “Things have changed down here, so we’re going to have to make some adjustments.” She points to the previous pope’s statements that, for example, followers of traditional Navajo religions can get in to heaven, as an example of how her support (but not use) of reproductive rights probably won’t keep her out of heaven (After all, those guys don’t even care about Jesus). She, and the priest who we had this conversation with, both felt it was perfectly acceptable to disagree with, and to lobby, the pope, as long as you follow his laws until they are changed. This may or may not have anything to do with actual church doctrine (I wouldn’t know. Almost everything I know about modern Catholicism is through my grandmother), and may or may not explain why said priest was assigned to a tiny backwoods town in Northern Maine.

  • cjmr

    This may or may not have anything to do with actual church doctrine
    The Pope can clarify dogma, re-interpret doctrine, and change practice and discipline. But he doesn’t ‘negotiate’ with God. I have a feeling that your grandmother’s (and the priest’s) understanding may have been shaped by having lived through the upheaval that followed Vatican II, when lots of practices and disciplines were changed and some doctrines were newly interpreted.

  • Bugmaster

    I’ve always read Exodus as a story of God liberating the Jews, specifically (and using the liberation as a pretext to get some really good smiting done). There were other slaves in Egypt — including their own Egyptian slaves — and God doesn’t seem to care about them one way or another. I’m not saying that this is the One True Literal Interpretation of Exodus ™; I’m just saying that’s the message I got from reading it.
    Regarding Protestants and Biblical interpretation on a personal level… At some point, you run into a problem with this approach. If Fred’s interpretation of the Bible is true for Fred, and mine is true for me, and yours is true for you, then how can any of us claim that the Bible is in any way divine (even indirectly so), or that the Bible lays out a good moral framework to follow ? The best you can do is say, “I think this moral framework I was inspired to create, based loosely on my personal interpretation of the Bible, is a good thing” — but you can say that about any book. The more you value your own interpretation, the less special the Bible becomes, IMO.

  • Bugmaster

    Much of this discussion has been bogged down with the bottom line. If the question is “Does the Torah permit slavery,” then the answer is, obviously, yes. But if the question is “Does the Torah/God/the Jewish ethical tradition consider slavery a good thing?” The answer is no.I think this is a false dilemma, because there’s a third option: “The holy book (Torah, OT, NT, etc.) considers slavery a basic fact of life, like sunlight or aging or any other phenomenon”.

  • Rob

    “The best you can do is say, ‘I think this moral framework I was inspired to create, based loosely on my personal interpretation of the Bible, is a good thing’ — but you can say that about any book.”
    Well, of course, I agree with you entirely.

  • Rosina

    Darn that mean old God, not explicitly forbidding slavery in ten foot letters carved on the stone of Mt. Sinai. Because that worked out so well with that whole “Thou shalt not kill” thing.
    ako has already dealt with the effectiveness, albeit limited, of that commandment.
    I do feel that Mount Sinai was a great opportunity missed, if God had really wanted to condemn slavery. There would have been no need for a gradual approach to it, presumably, because as the Israelites had just been released from slavery and fled Egypt, they would not have owned slaves, so need not have changed their economy and way of life. And you’d think they would have accepted it easily, given their recent experiences.

  • nieciedo

    Bugmaster:
    If Fred’s interpretation of the Bible is true for Fred, and mine is true for me, and yours is true for you, then how can any of us claim that the Bible is in any way divine (even indirectly so), or that the Bible lays out a good moral framework to follow?
    You can’t. And I think the reason lies in the fact the Bible was not written with you or Fred as an intended audience.
    I think this is a false dilemma, because there’s a third option: “The holy book (Torah, OT, NT, etc.) considers slavery a basic fact of life, like sunlight or aging or any other phenomenon”.
    There you go again! ;-) Actually, I wasn’t positing a dichotomy at all. I was anticipating only two questions, but did not limit the possibility that other questions could be asked. If the question is “Does the Torah consider slavery to be an amoral fact of life like sunlight and aging,” the answer would be “No.” A person is free not to enslave anyone at all, and as I have tried to show, is encouraged not to. While sunlight can theoretically be changed, aging so far has not been; the Torah itself, by it commands, argues that slavery can and should be changed.

  • Bugmaster

    You can’t. And I think the reason lies in the fact the Bible was not written with you or Fred as an intended audience.Personally, I agree with you, but there are a lot of people out there, today, who claim that the Bible was written with everyone as an intended audience — which is but one of the things that makes the Bible different from all other books.
    I don’t know about the Torah (I got a C in it, and never got that far anyway), but, as I’ve mentioned before, the NT reads as though it considers slavery an undeniable and unchangeable fact of life. At least, from my perspective, which is obviously flawed, as per above.

  • hapax

    “If Fred’s interpretation of the Bible is true for Fred, and mine is true for me, and yours is true for you, then how can any of us claim that the Bible is in any way divine (even indirectly so), or that the Bible lays out a good moral framework to follow ?”
    Well, I can only speak for myself — I’m hardly into dominionist legislative agendas. But, as a believer as a personal deity who acts in human history, I’d say that the Bible is divine precisely insofar as human beings have accorded it divine status, and God then says, “Okay, I can work with that.” The human-Divine relationship is just that — a relationship, and God can only talk to us through the vehicles we are willing to listen through. Sacred writings are ones that have been used by a lot of people in a lot of cultures, practically since writing was invented, so I think it would be a pretty stupid God who didn’t try to massage the texts to get a few basic points across.
    If you don’t accord the the Torah, the NT, or any other traditional scripture any sort of respect or reverence, I don’t imagine that God is particularly bothered by that. If you find your inspiration and morality in Harry Potter or a walk in the woods or through the lens of a microscope or in the bottom of a pint mug, well, they’re all equally part of Creation, and surely God has worked with less promising media.
    But that’s just me. I doubt anyone would count me as a RTC.

  • 85% Duane

    But that’s just me. I doubt anyone would count me as a RTC.
    Don’t sell yerself short. You appear to me to have the basic framework in place.

  • 85% Duane

    .. and I’m talking about your obsession with little purdy fetuses and that remark about how folks are too immoral to make correct choices..

  • Bugmaster

    Speaking as a godless atheist monstrosity, I’d say that hapax’s moral stance is that of a decent human being, but I’d hardly call it Christian. Sadly.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Hello. So, awhiles-back in this thread the question was raised “Why do Christians hang onto the Old Testament anyway?”
    My understanding was, the use of the Tanakh to Christianity is in establishing Jesus as of David’s line and thereby propping up support for the claim that he is the prophesied Messiah. Without the prophecies in the older texts, you lose the sense that Jesus came to fulfill those prophecies (which in Judaism are held to still be waiting on fulfillment, right?). My understanding is also that in order to strengthen that support, some of the material was reordered to cause the story to point more clearly in that direction, which reordering became one of the main differences between the Tanakh of Judaism and the Old Testament of Christianity.
    It’s been more than ten years since I took a college course on “The Hebrew Bible” so I don’t have specific details at the ready. Perhaps those better versed in the subject can comment?

  • 85% Duane

    “Why do Christians hang onto the Old Testament anyway?”
    Speaking for myself, because of the sex, murder, war and genocide. It keeps me grounded when I start feeling guilty about beating off.

  • Bugmaster

    …not to mention all that shellfish…

  • hapax

    85% Duane: I’ve got to confess, I’m curious. What’s the other 15%? (Forgive me if that’s too personal a question.)
    Oh, and I’m not entirely obsessed with purdy fetuses. Or even cutey-pie toesies. Right now I’m obsessed with yaoi werewolves. Which demonstrates that I, for one, am definitely to immoral to make correct choices.

  • hapax

    Christians hang onto the Hebrew Bible because, in a very real and probably incredibly insulting sense, most Christians consider themselves to be the true heirs of God’s chosen people. Jesus, his immediate followers, and many other early Christians were certainly Jews, and their words and deeds make very little sense outside of that context.

  • cjmr

    On at least one occasion, he claimed to be 15% me. Funny, because I wasn’t missing any of myself at the time.

  • Bugmaster

    Discussions of percentage are irrelevant. It’s common knowledge that everyone on this blog is, in fact, my sock puppet. Unless we’re all Raka’s sock puppets, including myself. It’s not easy to tell.

  • cjmr

    Ah, sock puppets. That’d be a 15% polyester/spandex blend, then?