What about slavery in the Old Testament?

Udo,

There are large sections in the Bible that demonstrate intolerant ideologies. Specifically, how do you defend large sections on slavery?

Regards

Smithy

 

Dear Smithy

I don’t think the Bible “demonstrate intolerant ideologies”. Rather what people often do is to seek support for a particular ideology of their own making by citing certain passages from the Bible. But listing and lifting passages and verses from the Bible is not the same thing as showing a concern for the context and purposes for which those particular texts, especially an ancient text like the Bible, were written.

Feel free to discuss this further when you’ve had a look at the following on slavery: http://www.apologetics315.com/2011/09/slavery-in-bible-articles-audio.html

You can also watch this talk by Paul Copan: Is God a Moral Monster? (Q&A)

Kind regards

Udo

 

Hi Udo

Thanks a lot for the mail.

I’ve read some of the contextual explanations of certain texts, as well as heard “indentured servitude” used as a replacement term for what we read as slavery in the Bible. In my opinion, it does seem like a scapegoat, but that is not the reason for this mail.

My real question is: why all the context? Why all the ambiguity and the leeway for incorrect (sometimes horribly devious) interpretations of the Bible for followers? Why couldn’t the only written message supposedly from a divine being (such as the Bible) contain something similar to “No slavery, ever, under any circumstances.

For me this would be a sufficiently tolerant and moral way of handling the topic. The same could apply for murder, homosexuality, war and sexism.

Thanks again for the mail.

Kind regards,

Smithy

 

Hello Smithy

Thanks for your response. I think a discussion on an issue such as this is really important, since moral integrity is an important feature of the Christian faith. And yes, there are plenty of examples of moral failures on the part of those who claim to follow Christ, but, of course, you don’t judge a standard by someone’s failure to keep to it.

You ask the following questions: “Why all the context? Why all the ambiguity and the leeway for incorrect (sometimes horribly devious) interpretations of the Bible for followers?”

Ambiguity and leeway are often problems precisely because of a lack of contextual concern. The more we understand of the variety of factors that are involved in why or how someone said or wrote something, the less we are susceptible to the problems associated with ambiguity. It is therefore often due to ignorance and a superficial reading of a text that those “devious” interpretations you refer to, occur.

But, you ask, “why couldn’t the only written message supposedly from a divine being (such as the Bible) contain something similar to “No slavery, ever, under any circumstances.”

Firstly, I would claim that, in fact, this is precisely what we would conclude if we made an effort to understand the message of the Bible: No slavery, ever, under any circumstances! For to understand the message of the Bible is to understand that every person is made in the image of God, it’s in virtue of this fact that every person has inherent dignity and value. The message of the Bible is further that God has sent his Son to redeem mankind from the marring and debilitating effects of their own doing, that is, he offers redemption and renewal in spite of people’s dishonouring disposition towards him and hateful ways towards each other. Therefore people have value in virtue of having been made by God and also because of the forgiveness he extends even when no one deserves it and even if some do not acknowledge their need for it.

Secondly, the Bible is often accused of promoting or silently condoning slavery, when this is not the case. The reason that people find ambiguity and leeway in the text is because they think that the idea of ‘indentured servitude’ is an euphemism, a “replacement term” or “scapegoat”, as you put it, for justifying what we in our society consider to be slavery. But this is simply begging the question of whether indentured servitude really is comparable with slavery. Therefore I think Copan is right when he says the following in his article:

“Westerners should not impose modern solutions on difficult ancient problems; rather, we need to better grasp the nature of Israelite servitude and the social and economic circumstances surrounding it. We are talking about voluntary servitude in unfortunate circumstances during bleak economic times. Israel’s laws provided safety nets for protection, not oppression.”

One might disagree with Copan’s explanation, but then one needs to show why he is mistaken – not by arguing from a 21st century perspective, but from the context in which this practice occurred and was written about.

You mention other instances, such as murder, homosexuality, war and sexism where you seem to think the Bible is less than clear. But again, I don’t think this is really the case. I see nowhere in the Bible where issues such as these are promoted or condoned, in fact, the Bible is forthright on many issues (from examples like the ten commandments or Jesus’ sermon on the mount). Of course, when one ponder these issues carefully, then it is clear that not all instances of killing another person can be called ‘murder’; that there is such a thing as justified war; that homosexual orientation and behavior are distinctive; and that the patriarchal societies of the Biblical authors do not equal sexist ideologies. To understand the message of the Bible is to understand how various elements combine to form an evaluative framework from where to be guided in instances of complexity where a multiple of factors play a role in moral decision-making. As already mentioned, one of these elements would be to understand the basis for the dignity and value of every other person.

To therefore demand that a divine being supply us with a list of rules, of do’s and don’ts for every moral scenario that we as human beings might possibly encounter, is not only unrealistic, but also unnecessary. Such an idea would also misrepresent the primary way in which God interacts with people. The God of the Bible is a relational being and it was in the context of a relationship with God that the writings of the Bible were penned down (this is much more than merely obeying a list of rules like the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament). This means the Bible wasn’t written or intended as a kind of instruction manual, whether on ethics, science or even theology. It is intended to be God’s Word with which a person needs to interact, as we would do when we are in relationship with another person. It is when we are willing to wrestle with God’s Word to understand God’s timeless message, but at the same time with an eye on its time-framed and human context, that we gain knowledge and experience of God.

I hope this helps, but feel free to respond.

Regards

Udo

 

Hi Udo

Thank you for the enlightening mail. I really appreciate the feedback.

I understand what you are saying. However, it still seems like what it boils down to is contextual interpretation.

My only issue with this is that it means you could find anything you want in the Bible (which is something most apologists point out anyway). The Sermon on the Mount might be a positive note in the Bible (and sure, there are a few), but they are riddled with other strange, contradictory or just plain bad advice (even the Sermon on the Mount itself). If I wanted to find the motivations for owning people as slaves in the Bible, I wouldn’t have to look very hard. The same goes for killing homosexuals or committing other questionable deeds.

On the other hand, if I wanted to find motivations for leading a positive life, they are also in the Bible. And this is where my problem lies – many apologists seem determined to practice their religion alongside a close study of the Bible, but this is not the case for most followers. A very small percentage of Christians actually do this. Thus, they are left with their own devices and interpretations (leading to the variety of denominations and individual lifestyles within the Christian belief).

It seems then that most Christians have to read the Bible and determine BY THEMSELVES what is right and wrong in the Bible. A moral and rational man may read the Bible and come across advice that he deems moral and positive, as well as advice that he deems irrational, bad or even evil. The key point here is that the man has determined this himself, without guidance from the Bible. He has, in effect, relied on a morality and tolerance outside of the text. That moral direction has not come from the Bible at all, and people have had to judge the advice from the Bible in order to reach their own conclusion. I feel there are many problems inherent in this act – one being that people often reach a very bad conclusion. For the most part, however, people have managed to wilfully ignore most of the bad, irrational and evil advice. Surely this must point to a morality outside of the text? And if that is the case, the Bible doesn’t seem necessary, nor does it seem to be an authority on morality and/or tolerance. 

Consider, for a moment, a morally neutral human, who has no judgment as to what is right or wrong, but he can read, and he wants to find out. This person then finds a Bible and reads it. Without any moral judgments prior to reading the text, it would seem that this human would hold a very mixed assortment of moral standards after reading it. While some of these standards might be good, many of them would also be bad. Here lies my main problem with the Bible. It seems muddled, and while it has been used to change unethical ideologies or societies, it was often the culprit that enforced those ideologies in the first place. It is fortunate that we seem to have developed morality independently from any ‘holy’ text.

Now, I’ve mentioned this to some apologists before and a common counter-argument is that this very fact points to the creation of man via a god, since only a divinely created being could have a moral code as we do. But, many of us don’t, and it surely doesn’t account for psychopaths or other unconventional debilitations.

Furthermore, contextually, the followers who lived during the time the Bible was written, DID NOT distinguish between good and bad as much as we do now. They lived out most of the advice as stated in the Bible – even the obviously devious ones. It has taken time – centuries, in fact – for humans to develop an ethical and moral understanding that we have today. What a modern human deems wrong, might be deemed neutral or even good by a human living so long ago – even with the Bible at hand. In essence, we have morally outgrown large segments of the Bible, which doesn’t lend credence to its status as a holy document.

I would go as far as to say that if morality had developed differently, we could easily read the Bible and discard good advice and keep the bad. Fortunately, followers are more likely to discard bad ones, and keep good ones, due to the nature of our inherent morality.

Even so, your responses have been helpful! And, as mentioned, I do appreciate it. I apologise if I seem to speak vaguely at times. I am not sure if it would be good for this to turn into a verse-by-verse moral critique of the Bible. As such, I would rather talk of the Bible as a whole, along with its influence on people.

I would also like to know what Antwoord’s opinion of other holy texts is, such as the Quran?

Regards

Smithy

 

Hi Smithy

I respond to some of the comments you made.

You say: “I understand what you are saying. However, it still seems like what it boils down to is contextual interpretation.”

The point to realise is that all interpretation is contextual, in other words, there is necessarily always a context to consider, no matter what you read or what or who you listen to. But it is the degree to which you heed the context, that will determine whether your interpretation is good or bad.

You say: “My only issue with this is that it means you could find anything you want in the Bible (which is something most apologists point out anyway). The Sermon on the Mount might be a positive note in the Bible (and sure, there are a few), but they are riddled with other strange, contradictory or just plain bad advice (even the Sermon on the Mount itself). If I wanted to find the motivations for owning people as slaves in the Bible, I wouldn’t have to look very hard. The same goes for killing homosexuals or committing other questionable deeds.”

When you read anything that is far removed from your own cultural framework and/or expertise, then, at face value, things often do seem strange, contradictory and as bad advice. Hence the need for context which might lead to proper understanding. Can you find things in the Bible that would seem to support very different ideas/motivations? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that the authorial intent supports such an idea. Again, that is why context is so important. I am repeating myself, but the modern idea of owning slaves is not supported in the Bible if you read those passages in the context they were written. It doesn’t help to say that some people do, in fact, find support in some passages, because a superficial reading of the text isn’t the same things as getting at its contextual meaning. Yes, people read and understand texts differently, but that doesn’t show that its meaning is therefore whatever you want it to be. It shows that context is important.

By the way, what in the Sermon of the Mount do you find objectionable?

You say: “On the other hand, if I wanted to find motivations for leading a positive life, they are also in the Bible. And this is where my problem lies – many apologists seem determined to practice their religion alongside a close study of the Bible, but this is not the case for most followers. A very small percentage of Christians actually do this. Thus, they are left with their own devices and interpretations (leading to the variety of denominations and individual lifestyles within the Christian belief).”

The fact that a majority of people have no concern for a close study of the Bible shows that when they criticise the Bible, they often do so out of ignorance. The fact that a majority of believers don’t study the Bible close enough shows that when differences in interpretation occur, the text should get the attention it deserves. If someone is truly concerned about the meaning of the text, then they will make an effort to understand it properly. Therefore, the fact that some people abuse the text for their own ideological purposes or do a poor job of interpreting it, isn’t an argument against finding true meaning – it would merely show that the proper effort wasn’t made.

Of course, many Christians who do approach the Bible with exegetical/hermeneutical concern often still come to different conclusions about many things. But I would argue that the existence of the variety of denominations within Christianity is due to different views on peripheral matters as well as due to cultural tendencies, but which do not affect the core of beliefs (such as formulated in the early Christian creeds) shared among all Christian denominations.

You say: “It seems then that most Christians have to read the Bible and determine BY THEMSELVES what is right and wrong in the Bible. A moral and rational man may read the Bible and come across advice that he deems moral and positive, as well as advice that he deems irrational, bad or even evil. The key point here is that the man has determined this himself, without guidance from the Bible. He has, in effect, relied on a morality and tolerance outside of the text. That moral direction has not come from the Bible at all, and people have had to judge the advice from the Bible in order to reach their own conclusion. I feel there are many problems inherent in this act – one being that people often reach a very bad conclusion. For the most part, however, people have managed to wilfully ignore most of the bad, irrational and evil advice. Surely this must point to a morality outside of the text? And if that is the case, the Bible doesn’t seem necessary, nor does it seem to be an authority on morality and/or tolerance. 

Consider, for a moment, a morally neutral human, who has no judgment as to what is right or wrong, but he can read, and he wants to find out. This person then finds a Bible and reads it. Without any moral judgments prior to reading the text, it would seem that this human would hold a very mixed assortment of moral standards after reading it. While some of these standards might be good, many of them would also be bad. Here lies my main problem with the Bible. It seems muddled, and while it has been used to change unethical ideologies or societies, it was often the culprit that enforced those ideologies in the first place. It is fortunate that we seem to have developed morality independently from any ‘holy’ text.

Now, I’ve mentioned this to some apologists before and a common counter-argument is that this very fact points to the creation of man via a god, since only a divinely created being could have a moral code as we do. But, many of us don’t, and it surely doesn’t account for psychopaths or other unconventional debilitations.”

It would be a mistake to view the Bible as a book on ethics/morality (or as a treatise on any other systematised field of investigation). Again, it is only with an awareness of when, how, why and by whom different passage were written or who the primary audience was for whom it was written, that we are able to interpret it correctly – even on the subject of morality. This means that you cannot just open any page of the Bible and then morally absolutise at any hint of behavioral prescription or prohibition that you read at face value.

There are a few broad interpretive frameworks to consider when trying to derive moral principles from the Bible. These would be examples of the context which is important for anyone concerned with Christian ethics. (Note that I prefer to refer to ‘Christian ethics’ instead of ‘Biblical ethics’ for the simple fact that the Bible, as a compilation of different texts spanning 1400 years, is contextually diverse.) Consider the following simple outline by Christian ethics professor, David Cook:

  1. Creation: What particular principles are to be derived from these sources?
  • Natural law
  • Man in the image of God
  • Conscience
  • Creation ordinances
  • The Fall
  1. The Old Testament: What particular principles may be derived from these sources?
  • Covenant and law
  • Wisdom literature
  • The prophets
  1. The New Testament: What particular principles may be derived from these sources?
  • Redemption
  • Kingdom ethics
  • Paul’s ethics
  • The pastoral epistles

The point of this outline is to show that when it comes to developing a Christian moral framework it is not as simple as merely reading the Bible. The fact is that Christian morality/values has also been shaped over many years of Christian reflection on what is written in the Bible at various places and why it was written. To ask what conclusion any morally neutral person (of course, there is no such person) would come to when reading the Bible is to ask what effort such a person has made with context, as well as what he understands of how, over many centuries, the Christian church has reflected on moral principles derived from the Bible in forming its values. If no attempt was made to look into these things, then would one be surprised if someone thinks that the Bible seems muddled?

The question of how the Bible should be understood contextually to arrive at a Christian framework of ethics, is, of course, different from the question of whether people have moral awareness independent of ever having read the Bible. The answer to the latter question is that people are moral beings in virtue of being human. From a Christian perspective, moral intuition is part of what it means to be created in the image of God. This would mean that humanity has the inherent, God-given capacity to discern right from wrong, irrespective of whether someone believes in God or in the Bible, or not. An additional and separate question would be about what the foundation is for objectively morality, if God, whose character represents the absolute moral standard, does not exist. What else would serve as such a standard? But again, this doesn’t mean you have to believe in God in order to know that some things are objectively right or wrong (in moral philosophy this is the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology).

So why would we need a Christian ethic (derived from Biblical principles) at all if we have inherent moral intuition? We need it for the same reason that there are numerous secularist ethical systems: for although moral intuition might be a basic element in moral decision-making, it is also vulnerable to corruption and suppression, as the actions of psychopaths and “other unconventional debilitations” would show. Note that the fact that a psychopath might have no moral qualms about raping someone, is a perversion of the moral intuition that rape is objectively and really wrong – it doesn’t bring the general efficacy of such intuition under suspicion (just as some people being colour-blind, doesn’t bring normal sense-perception into question).

But here the question of moral ontology becomes important: what makes it truly wrong to rape someone? Is it socio-biological conditioning? Is it societal norms? Individual preference? From a Christian/theistic perspective none of these things give an adequate explanation for why raping someone is objectively wrong since they are either subjective (person-relative) or relative to certain conditions (under certain conditions it might be morally neutral/acceptable to rape someone; in the animal world forceful copulation isn’t considered immoral, at best it might be momentarily inconvenient). It seems there need to be something that transcends mere human subjectivity/relativism that would make sense of our moral intuition that rape is objectively wrong. Does it make sense that such objectivity be found in the nature of God, so that measured against God’s goodness and because of the fact the he made us in his image, it is always and under all circumstances, wrong to devalue someone by raping them for whatever reason? I, at least, think it does.

You say: “Furthermore, contextually, the followers who lived during the time the Bible was written, DID NOT distinguish between good and bad as much as we do now. They lived out most of the advice as stated in the Bible – even the obviously devious ones. It has taken time – centuries, in fact – for humans to develop an ethical and moral understanding that we have today. What a modern human deems wrong, might be deemed neutral or even good by a human living so long ago – even with the Bible at hand. In essence, we have morally outgrown large segments of the Bible, which doesn’t lend credence to its status as a holy document.

I would go as far as to say that if morality had developed differently, we could easily read the Bible and discard good advice and keep the bad. Fortunately, followers are more likely to discard bad ones, and keep good ones, due to the nature of our inherent morality.”

I don’t think it is correct to say that people in Biblical times didn’t distinguish between good and bad as much as we do now. When considering abovementioned outline of different sections of the Bible it is not at all clear why we should think that God intends for every and all moral prescriptions that were valid for a particular group of people for a particular time in a particular setting, also be meant as a universal normative force. Much of people’s aversion to the Mosaic Law simply does not consider its very specific, and temporary, context. Of course there might still be some ultimate moral principles to be found in the history of Israel under theocracy (divine government). But the point is, as biblical scholar N.T. Wright explains, that the Law of Moses for example “is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside – not because it was a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose had now been accomplished”.

I therefore have no problem with the fact of moral progression, for not all Biblical prescription is universally normative – it wasn’t divinely intended to be. Moral progression even happens in the Bible itself. One obvious example would be the ethical implications of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:17). If the Bible as a whole is considered as God’s revelation to humankind, then one will develop a Christian ethic by considering the whole, not merely certain parts in isolation, and also how the parts relate to each other.

At the same time we shouldn’t commit chronological snobbery, the idea that because something is ancient it is necessarily/probably outdated/mistaken. Therefore I do not agree with the notion that some things that are objectively wrong now, might have been morally acceptable to people of ancient times (if some things are objectively wrong, then per definition it is wrong for all people of all times under any circumstances).

You say: “Even so, your responses have been helpful! And, as mentioned, I do appreciate it. I apologise if I seem to speak vaguely at times. I am not sure if it would be good for this to turn into a verse-by-verse moral critique of the Bible. As such, I would rather talk of the Bible as a whole, along with its influence on people.”

Well, a verse-by-verse investigation of the Bible is worth doing only if one is willing to consider its context, otherwise you can probably make any verse mean whatever you want. And that is probably the biggest reason for the accusation that the Bible has been used to justify all kinds of immoral practices. The mistake in this reasoning is to think that is has been ‘used’ when in actual fact it has been ‘abused’.

You ask: “I would also like to know what AntWoord’s opinion of other holy texts is, such as the Quran?”

The idea of a ‘holy text’ might mean different things to different religions. To refer to the Bible as a ‘holy text’ means to me as a Christian that 1) its content was inspired by God and its transmission guided by God even if it was written by different people at various settings and with different backgrounds; 2) it constitutes God communication to humans about who he is and what his will is for humanity, and 3) what it intends to teach as God’s Word, is true and universal.

If this view of the nature of the Bible is true, then any competing claims about who God is and what his purposes are, cannot be true. Since the Quran contradicts the Bible on several key points, for example on who Jesus was and whether he was crucified (whether he died on a cross by Roman crucifixion is actually a historical question and not even theological), I do not consider it divinely inspired. It doesn’t mean I would reject everything in it as worthless, but I don’t consider any of it as words intended by God.

By the way, this concept of the nature of the Bible and how it originated, stands in stark contrast to the Islamic conception of divine dictation. This also explains why context is much more important in the reading of the Bible than of the Quran.

You are welcome to continue sharing your thoughts.

Regards

Udo

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