Monthly Archives: September 2011

Haiku #3 – Robin’s Egg

Alone, now useless,
An empty robin’s egg cracks
A June smile, sky-blue.

Did God Command Slavery, or Merely Tolerate It?

[Warning: This post is a Beagle’s Bark. Follow the link to learn what that means!]

In the previous post of this series, I outlined several forms of slavery that are at least tolerated in the Bible:

  • Indentured servitude for a set period of time (Exodus 21:2-6).
  • Selling one’s daughter as a “servant” to a man who could “select her” for himself or one of his sons (Exodus 21:7-11). We might call this arrangement servant-with-benefits.
  • Buying foreign slaves for life (Leviticus 25:44-46) and regarding them as property and therefore subject to extremely harsh punishment (Exodus 21:20-21).
  • Capturing and enslaving foreign women and children, after killing their menfolk. The luckiest women would be forced into sham “marriages” that the Hebrew men could terminate anytime they wished. The unlucky ones remained “plunder” (Deuteronomy 20:10-15Deuteronomy 21:10-14). Numbers 31 is another passage that features taking women as “spoils” — but without any mention of marriage.

Some of those practices are worse than others. The question for this post is very simple: which practices, if any, did the God of the Bible explicitly command?

The first two practices, indentured servitude and servant-with-benefits, are the most benign. In the passages cited, God does not command them but merely says, “If you do such-and-such this is how you are to do it.” He tolerates, but does not command.

The third practice, buying foreign slaves for life and treating them as property, is worse. In this case, surprisingly, God gives specific permission: “You may purchase male and female slaves from the nations around you.”

The last practice, enslaving an entire city and taking the women and children as “plunder” is surely the worst. And this is the practice that the God of the Bible specifically commands. Deuteronomy 20:15 says,”This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you”. In Numbers 31:25-35, we learn that “Moses…did as the Lord commanded” when he distributed 32,000 virgins as “spoils” of war, including half to his soldiers and a certain percentage to the priests.

Did you notice the trend? The more evil the practice, the more actively God encouraged it! Christian, does that bother you just a little?

I realize that our discussion is not over. You may be holding onto some rationalizations; I shall discuss the many I’ve heard in future posts.

In the meantime, I hope I’ve convinced you that the God of the Bible does command slavery; he does not merely tolerate it. Christian writers who tell you otherwise are lying to you.

Next time: Were some biblical slaves merely prisoners of war?

Haiku #2 – Willow Bud

As the willow buds,
Your world breaks open and tears
Fall from pool to pool.

Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?

[This post qualifies as a Beagle’s Bark. Follow the link to learn what that means!]

So far, we have introduced the topic of biblical slavery by reviewing the typical justifications for it. Now let’s get underway with a response to the first justification, namely that biblical slavery wasn’t all that bad.

The respected AIIA Institute assures us,

…slavery in Bible times significantly differed from slavery in modern times. It was not based on race. It was often less imperialistic. Some believe that in many cases it was actually more of an indentured servant type arrangement.”

That is true to an extent. Exodus 21:2-6 describes an arrangement by which a Hebrew could sell himself to one of his countrymen for six years, after which time he was to be set free.

However, this is not the form of slavery to which skeptics object. There are other forms of slavery in the Bible.

Infamously, the next four verses permit a man to sell his daughter as a “servant.” Let us pretend that wording about “pleasing her master” who has “selected her for himself” does not carry any overtones of sexual slavery and move on. What else is there?

Leviticus 25:44-46 states that the Israelites may buy foreign slaves. Unlike Hebrew slaves, foreign slaves were in bondage for life. Do you think it is moral to buy someone and all his descendants and treat them as property? That’s exactly what God gave his people permission to do.

Aside from the fact that these slaves had the Sabbath off and their masters were only allowed to beat and whip them severely, but not kill them, this is very close to the type of slavery we practiced in the American South. No wonder Southern slave-holders used the Bible to justify the practice! Already, we can see that it’s dishonest to claim that slavery in the Bible “significantly differed from slavery in modern times.”

But it gets worse.

Deuteronomy 20:10-15:

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

<Warning: Snarkage ahead.>

“Tum dee dum… Here I am, an Israelite. I’ve heard of a city, some distance away and minding its own business. What should I do about it? Hmm…. Let me consult my Holy Scrolls.

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I go and share the Good News about God’s love?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I invite a few of them to my house so they can learn from the example of a loving, Hebrew family?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

Should I start a Vacation Bible School and tell their kids that God will always take care of them?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I run wholesome TV ads in their city that close with ‘My name is Jacob, and I’m a Hebrew’?

“What to do… What to do…

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Ah! Here it is! God commands me (verse 15) to enslave their whole city. If the men put up a fight, I’m to kill all of them and take their wives and virgins as ‘plunder’ to be ‘used.’ I like the sound of that! And I wonder how long it will take the little girls to grow up! Yeah, baby! Where’s my sword?”


It will be my lifelong shame that I did not see the horror of this for 40 years. But it gets even worse, as we follow into the next chapter for further instruction on how to treat these cities (Deuteronomy 21:10-14):

10 When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

It’s amazing how Christian apologists will spin this passage as providing care for the poor, captive women. Why — they can become full members of Israeli society as wives! Maybe they’ll learn about God’s love after all!

It’s equally astonishing how people like me can read this passage for decades and not really stop to picture the scenario.

First, to address the apologists: If care of women had been uppermost in God’s mind, don’t you think there would be some mention of the women who were not beautiful enough to attract the eye of one of the soldiers (v.11)?  But there isn’t. “Not beautiful? Sorry, you’re still just plunder. I hope you enjoy it.” And wouldn’t it have been more humane if they had not been plundered in the first place?

Now to address people like my former self who don’t see this scenario for what it is: Put yourself in the shoes of even one of the beautiful women. Your home city has just been thoroughly plundered. Your father, husband and teenage sons have all just been slaughtered mercilessly in an unprovoked war. Now one of the very soldiers who destroyed everything and everyone you love is leering at you.

Lucky for you, his Holy Scrolls tell him to take it slow. Having taken away your husband, his next romantic step is to take away your beauty: your head must be shaved and your nails cut. With that humiliation out of the way, you get a whole month to get over all your darn womanly emotions about him and his buddies killing your father and husband. Pretty nice of him, right? OK, time’s up. Your family is gone, your beauty is gone and your dignity is gone, Now he will take all you have left: your body.

For the rest of your life, you will have two choices. First, if you “please him” (v.14) sufficiently, he may keep you as a wife.

Stop for a moment and think about what this means, O young captive bride. What could it mean to “please” a man who has married you under these circumstances? Certainly giving sexual pleasure is a major ingredient in the mix. Either your husband is the decent sort who doesn’t enjoy sex if his wife is crying during the act, in which case you’d better pretend to enjoy having sex with a member of the army that just killed all your male relatives, or he is the villainous sort who doesn’t care what you feel, in which case “pleasing him” could be quite horrible indeed. Either way, you’re literally screwed. Could anything be more humiliating?

The other choice is not to “please him.” In that case, he has permission from his God to toss you out on the street where you will have no choice but to survive as homeless, penniless women have always survived. After all, there’s no going back to your home city. It was plundered before you were. (“Let her go where she wishes” — what a joke!)

Even the Bible calls this treatment “dishonoring” (v. 14). I would call it dehumanizing. A tribunal at The Hague would call it a war-crime.

Bible-believing Christian, what would you say about these passages? Would you still say that biblical slavery was not all that bad?

Next time: Did God Command Slavery or Merely Tolerate It?

Haiku #1 – River Ice

Bare oaks cage the sun;
Thick’ning ice uproots the dock.
A skate carves a curve.

>> Haiku #2 – Willow Bud

Invitation to a Dialog on Biblical Slavery

In my wrestling with the Christian faith, one of the most difficult things for me to face — literally the last thing I was willing to face — was what the Bible actually taught on some subjects. Among those subjects was slavery.

In a nutshell, it appears that the Old Testament not only allows but commands slavery, while verses against it in the New Testament are conspicuous by their absence.

This issue troubles me so much that I am still unable to let it go, two years later.

In this series of blog posts, I’d like to have a dialog with my readers about biblical slavery. I especially invite Christians to comment. Please tell me where I have gone wrong in my analysis. Please tell me how you have come to terms with these passages. To be honest, I do not expect my faith to be restored (many additional questions would have to be answered), but I do promise to listen carefully to everything you say. Any comment that shows integrity and thoughtfulness is welcome.

As a framework for discussion, I’d like to use the arguments from a Christian ministry called the AIIA Institute, Their article on slavery makes the points I see on many Christian sites, while being more fun to read than most. The full text is here, and I would summarize it thus:

  • It’s true that the Bible never explicitly condemns slavery.
  • However, in a fallen world, God can only fight so many evils at a time. Slavery was not high on his list in the days of the Old Testament. In New Testament times, God may have kept silent about the issue so as not to provoke the Romans to persecute Christians.
  • God chose to combat slavery by growing mankind’s moral maturity over time. A change from within is the best and deepest way to produce changed behavior toward others. This is why many Christians were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.
  • Slavery in the Old Testament was not what we might think. It was not racial or imperialistic. Sometimes, it was more like indentured servitude. Other slaves were prisoners of war. [Some apologists justify the latter as God’s judgment on wicked, pagan nations.]
  • In addition, the Old Testament regulated the treatment of slaves, proscribing excess cruelty.
  • The Bible may not speak directly against slavery, but neither does it condone the practice. In fact, it gives even the slave a reason for dignity and hope.

Sounds reasonable, right?

In this series of posts, I will engage each of those arguments. I plan to publish a topic each Saturday, turning the schedule below into links as I progress. I hope this schedule will allow time for you to comment on each post. [5-Nov-11: The series is now complete, but please continue to comment!]

As an aspiring beagle, my interest is to sniff out the truth. Nobody can do that on his own, least of all me, so I will invite several Christian apologists to respond to my posts. [Update on this here.] I also invite you, dear reader!

This week’s discussion-starter: Does the AIIA’s article, summarized above, represent your own views? Is there anything else I should consider?

Next week we’ll consider the question, Was biblical slavery all that bad?