Monthly Archives: October 2011

I’m in Love with the Woman in My GPS

Photo by Julio Martinez / Flickr

On Saturday night, I was driving home from visiting my daughter at college. The freak snowstorm of October, 2011 was just getting underway, with rain turning to snow. Traffic was slow, visibility poor. I was starting to get irritated at the reflections of people’s headlights and taillights on the wet road ahead of me. They made it even harder to see.

Suddenly it dawned on me: How amazing is it that we humans have figured out how to throw photons around so we can drive at night? We even know how to apply filters so we only get the photons we want: white in front, red in back. Those irritating reflections became a source of wonder.

Once my mood shifted, I considered another marvel.

Only a few hundred years ago, one of mankind’s big, unsolved problems was how to get a ship across an ocean without getting lost. Knowing one’s latitude was easy, but knowing longitude was such a problem that in 1714 the British parliament established a prize worth a small fortune, to be awarded to anyone who could invent a system for determining longitude within 30 to 60 nautical miles.

Today, any middle-class resident of Britain’s former colonial outpost can afford a device to stick on the windshield of his automobile (his automobile!) that will display his position accurate to within a few feet. I was using such a device at that very moment.

It is truly astonishing, what we have accomplished in only 300 years.

Those were the musings in my head when an even more fantastic thing happened. In the midst of my traffic jam, the woman in my GPS spoke to me.

I had earlier selected her as the most pleasing speaker of French, Spanish or English among the dozens available. She was my ideal. (OK, from time to time I have an interlude with one of the French speakers, but those are just meaningless flings.) Usually, her role is to gently remind me of an upcoming turn or to tell me that I have reached my destination. This time was different.

She spoke to reassure me:

“You are still on the fastest route.”

What man could ask for anything more? Here’s a beautiful woman (I can tell by her voice that she’s beautiful) whose only desire is to tell me that I’m doing everything right.

She anticipates that I might be getting irritated at the traffic delays, but does not ask me to get into girly talk about my feelings. Like a female Jeeves, she considerately attends to my needs and then lets me return to my thoughts.

Here’s another thing I love about her. If I make a mistake and miss a turn, there are no recriminations. She is not startled. She does not change her tone of voice. She just continues to be my help-meet as if nothing had happened.

True, her capabilities and her perceptions of my emotions are very limited. I can’t tell her about my day, for example. On the other hand, usually there’s not much to tell, so a woman with a soothing voice who thinks I’m still doing the right thing is just perfect.

My dashboard girlfriend and I have a very limited relationship, but within its parameters I am very happy.

As I drive, I wonder: What is really the difference between an electronic circuit meeting one need so well and neural circuitry doing the same thing — sometimes not as well? Once electronic circuits can meet vastly more needs, and receive vastly more care, how will we feel about them? Will we develop compassion for them, and they for us, as in the movie, I, Robot? Is Apple’s Siri the next step in this direction?

Neural chemistry itself is driven by electronics, namely the positive and negative charges on molecules. What is the difference between that and a digital computer? Many scientists believe that mind is an emergent property of matter being organized into a human brain. If other material were organized much like a brain, would something we’d recognize as mind emerge from that, too? I tend to think it would.

In the meantime, it’s good to have a beautiful woman assure me that I’m still on the fastest route.

Biblical Slavery: Are God’s Ways Higher than Our Ways?

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark.]

We have now arrived at the final excuse for biblical slavery in our series. Let me emphasize up-front that not all Christians use this reasoning. The excuse and this whole post apply only to that variety of Christianity that believes the Bible is the infallible Word of God.

God’s ways are higher than our ways.

Yes, God’s commands to enslave are puzzling. If we were to run the world we’d do it differently. However, his mind is infinite and ours are finite; he knows all and we know only what he deigns to tell us; he is pure and we are fallen; he is good and we are evil.

If he commanded slavery, or taking 32,000 virgins as spoils of war, or genocide, or anything else that troubles us, the trouble is with us, not him.

The strength of this position is that any argument mounted against it only bounces back as more evidence in favor of it. “You disagree with God? That only shows I’m right: the ways of men are not the ways of God.”

However, by taking refuge in that position, the believer should be aware that he has already admitted that the evidence is so thoroughly against him that he must believe that black is white. He must believe that what he thinks is unspeakable evil is actually good.

What can I say to someone who has deliberately placed himself beyond the reach of evidence and reason, and calls that a virtue? There is no argument I can offer.

So, I will make no arguments

Instead I will relate a story reported on a Christian Website. The young woman involved uses the pseudonym Gwyneth Nelson and calls her husband Tom. I have no reason to doubt her story. I have read enough others like it to believe that this is tragically common. I have also seen Christian men of good reputation in my own circle of acquaintances abuse their wives or girlfriends.

Gwyneth had met Tom at a Christian college where they were both students. He came from a fine, Christian family; his father was a pastor. They fell in love and married. Knowing their culture as well as I do, I have no doubt that they prayed over this decision and believed it to be God’s will.

As soon as they returned from their honeymoon, Tom started to be abusive. The abuse ranged from jaw-dropping selfishness to physical violence.

For me, the most heart-breaking part came on page 3 of her account.

Though I rarely received bruises, the ever-present threat of physical harm was devastating and, at times, immobilizing. By far, the most harm I received was emotional. He’d call me a self-righteous b**** or a f***ing “good-girl” and end a tirade with a Scripture reference: “I’m just speaking the truth in love.” He repeatedly told me what was “true” about me: I was controlling, disrespectful, unsubmissive, and self-important. I lost confidence in my ability to identify reality. “Truth” had been verbally twisted and used against me. The fear and constant threat of attack rendered me an emotional weakling.

My natural response was to work harder on myself. As a college-educated woman with a corporate career and a deep desire to serve God, I thought I must be capable of turning things around. “Surely,”I reasoned, “Tom loves me. I just have to respect him more. Sometimes I am self-righteous and controlling. If I could be more humble, then things would be better.” But nothing made a difference.

I see devastating parallels between this young bride and the Christian who uses the excuse that God’s apparently evil ways are good — but in some way that we mortals cannot understand.

The similarities are not just in the excuse itself, but in the very nature of the relationship in which this excuse takes root and flourishes. 

  • Tom informed his wife what was “true” about her, apparently in contrast to her own good judgment. God tells us that his ways are higher than ours. He says our moral faculties are so defective that we must rely completely on his pronouncements, even on as basic an issue as slavery.
  • Because of her husband’s domineering abuse, Gwyneth lost confidence in her ability to identify reality. In capitulating to the “God’s ways are higher” excuse for slavery, the Christian admits that he has lost confidence in his ability to identify moral reality.
  • Tom twisted “truth” to mean its opposite. God in the Bible does the same with the morality of slavery, and the Christian accepts this.
  • Gwyneth’s fear rendered her an emotional weakling. The Christian who uses the excuse we are considering has likewise been rendered emotionally and morally impotent.
  • Tom threatened physical harm. God threatens hell. Both threats create an atmosphere where there is heavy disincentive to doubt the other party’s virtue.
  • Tom called Gwyneth a “self-righteous b****.” God says even our righteousness is as filthy rags.
  • Gwyneth’s response to Tom’s abuse was to “work harder on herself.” The Christian’s response to being out of sync with what the Bible says about God is typically to double-down on her devotion. When things don’t work out as promised, she blames herself, not God.
  • Gwyneth continued to believe that Tom loved her and their problems were her fault. The Christian continues to believe that “God is Love” in spite of Bible passages that demonstrate he’s a monster.
  • The more Tom abused her, the more Gwyneth believed she had to be more respectful and humble. The more “mysterious” God’s ways are, the more the Christian believes he must humble himself and defer to God’s judgments.

Bible-believing Christian, if you find yourself suppressing your own moral faculties on issues as basic as slavery, rape and genocide then I tenderly urge you to consider whether your “relationship with God” might be one of codependency and abuse.

If you think not, I recommend this article as further reading: The God of Abuse. It’s pretty hard-hitting, but I have seen the truth in it first-hand.

Like most codependent people, I did not know how toxic my relationship to God was when I was in the middle of it. It was only once I was out from under it that I realized what a burden it had been. Now that I no longer have to defend the indefensible (as with biblical slavery), or blame myself when my prayers are not answered, or convince myself that a loving God is in control when horrible things happen, or struggle to find a reconciliation of science and the Bible — now that all those things are behind me I am amazed that I did not see the “relationship” for what it was.

As always, please leave comments. I will carefully consider each one. I reply to most.

Next in this series: a personal note on why this issue matters to me.

What did Jesus Say About Slavery?

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark. It is part of a series on biblical slavery.]

Jesus was a great reformer. In an age of extreme class division and status-consciousness, he identified with the poor and urged us to do the same. During a time when the Holy Land was occupied by a foreign power, he taught his countrymen how to maintain their dignity. When the religious leaders were corrupt, he called them to account.

So I find it puzzling that he never spoke a word against slavery, as far as we know.

If he was divine, he knew it would be nearly 2,000 years until most of the world would realize how immoral slavery is. He also knew that slave-owners would use the Old Testament to justify the practice. One clear word from him could have prevented the misery of millions. Why did he not speak it? (And it’s hard to believe that if the Bible is inspired, God would not have inspired at least one of the four gospel-writers to record Jesus’ words on so important a topic.)

It’s not as if there was no slavery around to speak against. Jesus often illustrated his points with stories about slaves and masters. Everybody was all too familiar with the concept, and it was as brutal as ever.

Slavery Was Brutal, and Jesus Knew It

Since Jesus never condemned slavery, we might hope that he thought of slavery in the relatively benign forms that are sometimes found in the Old Testament. Not so. When he spoke about the relationship between slaves and masters, he assumed that violence and abuse were the order of the day. Typical is Luke 12:47-48, where even a servant who doesn’t know what he ought to do gets beaten.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

That passage is part of a larger parable that is supposed to scare us into submission to God. Like a slave or servant, we will be physically harmed if we’re not good enough.

There are several parables like this in the gospels. Matthew 18:23-35 says we will be jailed and tortured. Matthew 25:14-30 says we will be cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 24:45-51 says we will be cut in pieces. All of these indicate how Jesus pictured masters treating their slaves.

Jesus held no illusions about slavery, yet did not decry the practice. In fact, in his parables, he cast God as a slave-owner!

[20-Nov-2016: Prompted by commenter Ray, I wish to add that even though Jesus did use the harsh master-slave language above, and even though the passages certainly refer to the relationship between God and humans, Jesus also described his relationship with his disciples in more tender terms. In John 15:15, he said, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” The friendship seems to be a complicated one, however: Jesus is still in charge and there are dire-sounding consequences for disobedience (verse 6 of the same passage). Paul said that believers are adopted children, not slaves, and do not need to live in fear (Romans 8:15). I leave it to the reader to piece all this together. In the meantime, the passages I cited in this section do tell us that Jesus’ conception of slavery was one of brutality.]

The Golden Rule Evidently Did Not Apply to Slaves

[This section was revised on 14-Nov-2015 after an exchange with commenter “anonymous”. I encourage you to read anonymous’s comments starting here and here. Although he and I disagree, he is intelligent and well-versed (excuse the pun) in the scriptures, and the seeker of truth should consider all sides.]

One might say that when Jesus gave the Golden Rule (“love your neighbor as yourself,” or “do to others what you would have them do to you“) he implied that slavery was wrong. If we should treat others as we want them to treat us, that means we shouldn’t enslave them, right?

This is obvious to us in the 21st century, and had even become obvious to abolitionists by the 19th century, but let us remember that it wasn’t obvious to large swaths of “Founded as a Christian Nation” America for over 200 years. And it certainly wasn’t obvious in Bible times — the context of Jesus’ address.

To see why, remember that Jesus did not invent the Golden Rule. He was quoting it from verse 18 of the passage Leviticus 19:11-18, where the same principle, “love your neighbor as yourself” sums up the other commands in the passage, just as Jesus said that the Golden Rule sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12 and Matthew 22:36-40).

Jesus’ audience, well-versed in their scriptures, would have known that he was quoting from Leviticus, one of the “Five Books of Moses.” They would also have known that these books include Deuteronomy, which commands Israel to invade and enslave distant cities, and Exodus, which says that slaves are just “property” and may be beaten so severely that they can’t even get up for just shy of two days. Unless we are prepared to say that one book of the Pentateuch contradicts another, it’s hard to see how the Golden Rule in Leviticus overrides the slavery passages Deuteronomy and Exodus — at least not for Jesus’ audience.

For that matter, Leviticus itself grants Israel permission to buy foreign slaves. Would Jesus’ audience have thought Leviticus could contradict itself? Would Jesus? Would today’s Bible-believing Christians? I think not.

So, in the minds of Jesus’ audience, and possibly for Jesus himself, it would have been far from obvious that the Golden Rule outlawed slavery. In their minds, the two concepts had coexisted in the scriptures, presumably without contradiction, for centuries.

If Jesus had intended his statement of Leviticus 19:18 to override the slavery commands and regulations also found in the Five Books of Moses, surely he would have made that more obvious to an audience for whom those books were a central feature of spiritual life.

But in fact, Jesus’ explicit statements about the Hebrew scriptures were overwhelmingly supportive, as when he said, “…anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands [of the Law] and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).

At a minimum, we can say that if Jesus meant the Golden Rule as a command to abolish slavery, then millions of slaves in the next 1800 years would wish he had made his intent far more obvious.

Jesus Was a Reformer, But Not with Slavery

Might Jesus have thought it was not yet the time to speak against slavery? Was he afraid of upsetting the social order and bringing persecution on his followers?

On the contrary, Jesus did not hesitate to turn society upside-down. Sometimes he did so literally, as when he upset the tables of the money-changers in the temple (John 2:13-17). At other times, he made radical demands such as giving away all one’s money (Matthew 19:16-24). He did not hesitate to speak boldly to those in power (Matthew 23:13-36). Nor was he afraid of persecution, calling it a blessing (Matthew 5:10-12).

Jesus did not hesitate to speak his mind, yet he never condemned slavery. Clearly he either thought it was just fine or he didn’t care much about it one way or the other. Maybe he just took it for granted.

I am tempted to leave it at that. Even Jesus might have been a man of his times to a certain extent. He was a moral revolutionary, but abolishing slavery didn’t quite make it into his manifesto. If you are a Bible-believing Christian, however, I think you are forced into a much darker position.

An Even Darker Take

According to John 10:30, Jesus and God the Father are one. John 1:1-3, with verse 14 says that Jesus was with God from the beginning. In John 5:19, Jesus says that he does whatever God the Father does. Someone who takes these verses as Gospel Truth must believe some disturbing things:

  • Jesus was present and nodding in approval when God gave the command to take 32,000 virgins as plunder in Numbers 31 (discussed in the last part of this post).
  • Jesus was present and gave a hearty “Amen” when God commanded Moses to enslave distant cities.
  • Jesus was present and gave his blessing for Moses’ soldiers to force their most beautiful captives into rape-marriages (discussed here).

No wonder he never spoke against slavery or its brutality in the New Testament. He had already encouraged it in the Old!

Eternally present and of one mind with his Father, he approved every genocide; every stoning of man, woman, child and animal; every burning-alive; every death sentence for a trivial offense; and, yes, every enslavement that God himself commanded. That may seem far-fetched. I don’t believe it myself. But I don’t see how a Bible-believer can deny it.

Next in this series: Are God’s ways higher than our ways?

[Postscript on December 9, 2012] In the year+ since I published this post, it has proven to be one of the most-read on my blog. I suspect many readers are interested in the topic of slavery and the Bible generally, and land here through a search engine because what’s uppermost in their minds is what Jesus said about it. Although he didn’t say much, the Bible says quite a lot — most of it disturbing. Evangelical apologists, in turn, offer many rationales. To get the lay of the land, I invite you to begin with the Introduction to this series. There, I summarize all the arguments I’ve heard and provide links to my responses.

Unaware of Beauty

Magenta Cosmos

Magenta Cosmos (Flickr - click for more)

This morning, I walked through the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, where Our Stimulus Dollars have been At Work lining a new driveway with wildflowers. How beautiful! A few weeks ago, the black-eyed Susans had been in bloom, but this time there were lavender and magenta cosmos.

Black-Eyed Susans

Black-Eyed Susans (

What always strikes me when I see a beautiful plant is how amazing it is that the plant can be alive, yet utterly unaware of itself. It might as well be a crystal.

Even if a magenta cosmos could see, it might not think itself beautiful. After all, its beauty is not meant to appeal to its own species, but to its pollinators, who are not even of the same biological kingdom. What would we look like if we had to attract plants instead of each other? What if our reproduction hinged on attracting fungi? Would we look and smell like rotten logs?

How lucky we are to be attracted to each other! How fortunate is the young man who can see his beloved! How blessed is the young woman whose beauty is admired!

Even to be able to love is to have won the cosmic lottery.

Young lovers, the universe has given you the rarest of gifts. May you savor every moment.

The Feeling of Knowing

Harold Camping Predicts the End of the World - Again

Harold Camping Predicts the End of the World - Again

I just finished a book called On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert A. Burton, MD.

To put it in a nutshell, certainty is not a thought in itself, but a brain-state.

Using drugs, electrical stimulation of the brain or other techniques, it is possible to elicit a feeling of knowing independent of any rational thought process. Conversely, it is possible to reason correctly to a conclusion yet not feel that you know the answer. Thus we see that a feeling of knowing is at least somewhat independent of rational thought.

If it’s only a feeling, what good it it? Our rational thought process, left to its own, could dither forever. We need something that says, “You have the answer now. Time to act.” That something is the feeling of knowing.

It feels good to believe you’re right — so good that some of us can become addicted to it. And if you’re waaaay right and everyone else is waaaaay wrong, that feels even better. It’s no surprise that our nation is so polarized right now. Too many of us are addicted, and media personalities make a lot of money by keeping us that way.

You don’t have to be particularly opinionated to fall prey to occasional spasms of the feeling of knowing. I recall one night in college when I was chatting outside with some of my friends about nothing at all. Suddenly, I just knew someone was in trouble and I had to go help them. I hurriedly told this to my friends and dashed off into the dark. I found…nothing. Evidently my feeling of knowing had short-circuited.

Dr. Burton concludes his book by imploring us to couch our convictions in more humble language. Instead of saying, “I know…” say, “I believe….” even if you’re 99.999% sure. This would acknowledge that even our strongest feeling of knowing is only a mental sensation.

I’m not sure what I think of that advice. The feeling of knowing is so hard to deny!

Did God Intend to End Slavery by Changing People’s Hearts?

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark.]

Bible-believers are sometimes troubled by the fact that the Bible never outlaws slavery. In fact, it seems to condone or even command the practice.

Continuing with our series on slavery in the Bible, we will now evaluate one more justification that is sometimes offered for this puzzling state of affairs. It is exemplified in this excerpt from the AIIA Institute’s Socratic dialog on biblical slavery: rather than outlawing slavery directly, God chose to work slowly over time to change people’s hearts.

BIBLE ADVOCATE: “…as a rule, the best way to change moral behavior is to transform moral views. And guess what. Beginning in the second century, many masters, upon converting to Christ, began to release their slaves. Slavery was abolished in Great Britain after people began being converted to Christ under the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield.”


BIBLE CRITIC: “But what about in New Testament times? Why didn’t Jesus, as a moral authority, speak out boldly against slavery?”

BIBLE ADVOCATE: “Well, numerous New Testament texts, such as Colossians 4:1, Galatians 3:28, and the Book of Philemon, make the case for the inherent spiritual worth of slaves, which effectively laid a base for deep down authentic change in social practice, over time. God’s way is often to work from within, dealing primarily with the spiritual component. Jesus was typically apolitical. Otherwise, encouraging direct confrontation over such a hot button social issue may have fomented revolution, providing Rome with a political excuse for persecuting Christians.”

To me, this does not ring true for at least four reasons.

Before we get to them, let’s review what we mean by biblical slavery. As I explained in prior posts, it ranged from unobjectionable indentured servitude to the capture and lifetime enslavement of whole cities full of women and children, topped off by the forced “marriage” of the best-looking women to the very men who had just killed their husbands, fathers and sons. In one episode, God commanded Moses to distribute 32,000 virgins as plunder and spoils of war, with half to go to his soldiers and one out of 50 to go to the priests. The Bible allowed Hebrew masters to beat or whip their foreign slaves to the point where it would take up to two full days for them to get up. So…not a pretty picture.

OK. Deep breath.

Now for the reasons why I am not persuaded that God was working in people’s hearts, over a long period of time, to effect true change from within.

1) In the Bible, God did not just tolerate slavery; he commanded it.

God actually commanded the worst kinds of slavery, as we saw in a prior post. If he was just waiting for people to change from within, why did he command the practice?

To me, this fact alone is enough to deep-six the “God was working slowly over time” hypothesis. If his deep, long-range wish was to end slavery, why did he work against his own purposes by commanding it?

2) If God was just waiting for mankind’s morals to develop, his priorities were askew.

Are we to believe that God was content to let people enslave each other for thousands of years while he slowly forms their character with such important commands as these?

Deuteronomy 22:11 – Don’t wear clothes made of a wool-and-linen blend.

Deuteronomy 22:12 – Put a tassel on each corner of your cloak.

Leviticus 19:27 – Don’t cut the hair on the sides of your head. Don’t trim your beard.

Are we to believe that a God who micro-managed people’s haircuts and clothes was reluctant to instruct them not to capture, enslave and rape each other?

3) The biblical God was an economic radical in other ways; why not with slavery?

As in the AIIA quote above, some Christians suggest that God didn’t want to rock the boat. Maybe ending slavery would have been too much of a social change.

On the contrary, the God of the Bible did not hesitate to enact truly radical social reforms.

In the Old Testament, the most remarkable economic command was the Year of Jubilee. As explained in Leviticus 25:8-31, the Jubilee occurred every fiftieth year. All property that had been bought during the previous 50 years was to be returned to its original owner. For this reason, when property was sold it was to be priced based on the number of years until the Jubilee. Also, during the Jubilee year, no harvesting was to take place; whatever was eaten had to be taken directly from the fields without being stored.

If that remarkable decree were not radical enough, there was the practice of the Sabbath years.We read in Exodus 23:10-11 that the Hebrews had to leave the land completely “unplowed and unused” every seventh year.

So we see that, according to the Bible, God did not hesitate to structure the economy in ways that were disruptive in the extreme. Are we to believe that paying foreign workers instead of enslaving them would have been just too much?

As for the AIIA’s excuse that God did not want to mandate radical social change, lest the Romans persecute Christians, it’s simply misplaced. All of the laws on slavery were given when Israel was the top dog in Palestine. There was no fear of Roman persecution because the Roman state wasn’t even founded yet. In fact, Israel was persecuting the other guys.

4) In the Bible, God took a very serious line on sins that were trivial by comparison.

The Old Testament mandated the death penalty for trivial offenses. Why did God show no concern for the much more serious offense of slavery? How do you think slavery compares to the following capital crimes?

Numbers 15:32-36 – Don’t gather firewood on the Sabbath. If you do, you must be stoned to death.

Numbers 11:1 – Don’t complain about hardship when God can hear you or he may burn you alive.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 – A “stubborn and rebellious” son must be stoned to death. And in Exodus 21:15 anyone who strikes his parent shall be put to death.

Are we to believe that a God who was such a control freak that he’d kill you for gathering wood on the wrong day was reluctant to speak his mind on slavery? Are we to believe that a God who would burn us alive for the sin of complaining is a God who wishes to gently nurture us so that we learn on our own not to pillage and enslave?


The claim that God was working in mankind’s hearts to end slavery falls flat for several reasons. According to the Bible…

  1. God actively commanded slavery. In fact, the worse the form of slavery, the more actively he encouraged it.
  2. God showed himself more than willing to micromanage our lives, down to how we dress and how we cut our hair. Why was slavery less important than that?
  3. God was perfectly willing to enforce radical economics in other ways.
  4. God’s character was to punish even minor offenses severely. Why was slavery not important enough to make the list?

To me, this adds up to a refutation of the hypothesis that God was just working slowly and silently from within. Christians, what do you think?

Next time, we’ll turn to the New Testament and ask, What did Jesus say about slavery?

Was Slavery God’s Righteous Judgment?

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark.]

In my experience, Bible-believing Christians are generally good, humane people. When confronted with slavery in the Bible, the first rationales they prefer to give are the humane ones: it wasn’t all that bad, but was more like employment; God only tolerated it but did not condone it; some slaves were just prisoners of war; and biblical slavery was regulated to be relatively humane.

I hope the articles so far in this series have demonstrated that those excuses don’t withstand scrutiny, much as we would like them to.

Thus backed into a corner, the Bible-believer may resort to an excuse that he would rather not use: “The victims deserved it. Slavery was God’s righteous judgment on pagan nations.” I have even been told (no exaggeration) that we all deserve hell, so whatever misfortunes God visited on Israel’s neighbors could not have been worse than they deserved.

If that’s true, then we’d all better shut up and get with the program. If every action of God as recorded in the Bible is righteous ipso facto, then there’s not much I can say. However, I do have one hope: Christians  claim to have an Inner Witness to right and wrong, namely the Holy Spirit who indwells them.

It is to that Inner Witness that I now appeal.

I suggest that the person who jumps immediately to “they deserved it” may not have stopped to consider (a) the likely nature of the human beings they condemn to slavery, nor (b) the alternatives that were available to God.

The Pagans’ Human Nature

We’ve already spent some time in Deuteronomy 20 and 21, where God commanded Israel to enslave distant cities and gave specific and chilling instructions on how the most beautiful women were to be treated.

These commands applied to cities that were a “distance away” from Israel. They had never heard the “good news of God’s love.” There was no invitation to them to forsake their evil ways and follow God. (Even the Inquisition and the Conquistadors offered that!) They were to be summarily enslaved — or possibly killed, in the case of the men.

God’s judgment on these people was very harsh indeed. Surely they must have deserved it. They were truly evil, some going as far as child-sacrifice. God’s judgment was an open-and-shut case, right?

That’s how I felt for many years, but a conversation I had with a missionary friend from my church made me wonder.

His mission field had been the Venezuelan jungle (until a remark by Pat Robertson prompted Hugo Chavez to expel all our missionaries). He spent years learning the language of a particular tribe. He poured out his life giving them medical care. And of course, he preached the gospel.

All this Christian love was for people who had some very evil practices. For example, if twins were born, the witch doctor would tell the parents which twin was good and which was evil. The parents then had to let the evil one die of exposure in the jungle. I asked my friend whether he thought these people were evil, or just lost. He said they were just lost. “They love their kids,” he said, “but they are in bondage to their superstitions.” How heartbreaking!

I asked my missionary friend whether he thought the evil Baal-worshippers in the Old Testament were also just lost. He thought they were probably like his tribe in Venezuela. All people are pretty much alike, he said. We all have the same hopes, fears and needs.

I can’t prove that he was right. Maybe the peoples around Israel were truly beyond redemption. But have you ever stopped to consider the possibility that they were much like primitive peoples all around the world today? Could they have been more lost than evil? Perhaps, as God said of Nineveh, they did not know their right hand from their left.

Do you really think that the parents in those pagan cities wanted to make sacrifice to their gods by burning their children alive? Do you think they rejoiced to hear their babies scream in agony? Is it not more likely that the shamans of those tribes maintained their hold on the relatively powerless regular folk by instilling superstition and fear, just as happens in the primitive regions of the world today?

Perhaps the parents should have had the courage to stand up to their religion and say, “This is wrong!” Or, perhaps they were so trapped in their superstition that they had lost all human decency. We will return to those themes later.

In any case, should my friend have followed the example of the Bible and marched into the Venezuelan jungle to kill the men and enslave the women and children, as judgment for their evil practices? Did he come up short of God’s ideal by trying to love them into God’s kingdom? No? Then have you considered that God in the Old Testament had the option of directing his people to love their neighbors instead of killing and enslaving them — but he didn’t?

God’s Options

Let’s turn now to another passage that you’ve probably never heard preached from the pulpit: Numbers 31. Please follow that link if you want to read the whole chapter, but here’s the background and summary.

Back in Numbers 25:1-9, some Moabite women had invited some Israelite men to their religious services. One thing led to another, I suppose, and the Israelite men start getting down with the Moabite women. Naturally, God commanded that the men be killed for their unfaithfulness. (Not their unfaithfulness to their wives, which is not mentioned, but their unfaithfulness in worshipping other gods.)

God also sent a plague to punish Israel generally. It killed 24,000 before it was finally stopped by the noble Phinehas, who “turned away God’s anger” by driving a spear through an Israelite man and into the stomach of his Moabite hook-up who was probably cowering behind him.

But God was not done. Fast-forward to Numbers 31. It reports Gods saying to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. [Moab was part of Midian.] After that, you will be gathered to your people.”

Of what did this vengeance consist — this final, glorious act of Moses?

At God’s command, they killed all the men (verse 7), including the five kings of Midian (v. 8), burned all their towns and camps (v. 10), and took the women, children, herds, flocks and goods as “plunder” (v. 9).

But even that was not enough. Moses got very angry:

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” [Moses] asked them. 16“They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

So the soldiers killed all the “women who had slept with a man”. They also killed all the boys, presumably to cut off Midian’s line of descent.

This series of posts is on slavery, not genocide, so I won’t comment on the justice of killing boys for the sins of their mothers.

Moving on, then.

Who’s left? Verses 32-36 give us the tally: “The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man.”

I want to emphasize that in all this, the Bible says “Moses did as the Lord commanded.” Verses 7, 31, 41 and 47 make this very clear. This horrific chapter does not merely record what happened. It records what God commanded.

So we have 32,000 virgins. All their mothers have been killed because at least some of them had hooked up with Israelite men. Their fathers and brothers have also been slaughtered.

The virgins themselves are entirely innocent, in all senses of the word. That is precisely why they were spared.

What would be the just thing to do?

Here are some alternatives. Which one would be best? Christian, let your Inner Witness guide you.

Don’t worry; there are no wrong answers.

  1. Establish orphanages where the girls can be cared for and instructed in the ways of God.
  2. Distribute them to families. Command the families to lovingly raise them “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Make it clear that they are to be treated with tenderness and respect.
  3. Give half as spoils ofwar to the same testosterone-crazed soldiers who had just killed their parents and brothers. Apportion the other half to everyone else, including one out of 50 to the priests. Put no restrictions whatsoever on how the virgins will be treated. Call them “plunder” and distribute them exactly like the captured animals. A lifetime of servitude will be the least of their worries. Knowing what slavery has always meant for women, they will also suffer the degradation of being forced into sexual acts with their Hebrew masters. (I have posted before on the harsh treatment of foreign slaves in the Bible, including the sexual permissions that are everywhere assumed.)

If you picked #1 or #2, congratulations. You have at least a shred of moral sense.

If you picked #3, you also deserve congratulations, for you think as the God of the Bible does. It’s what he commanded Moses to do in verses 25 to 31.

If you said, “None of the above, because the girls should not have been orphaned in the first place” most hearty congratulations to you. Your moral faculties are not only keen, but you’re willing to step back and look at the big picture.

Your Options

OK, Bible-believing Christian. It’s time to tell the truth. Are you still confident saying that God’s commands to enslave are always just? Unless your Inner Witness told you to pick #3, you can’t be confident.

Do you have the courage to stand up to your religion and say, “This is wrong”? Or are you like those pagan parents: so trapped and intimidated by your religion that you have lost all human decency?

Personally, I came to the point where the only path of integrity was to admit that the Bible is a human book that reflects the prejudices and tribal mentality of its bronze-age authors. I could no longer defend the indefensible.

Next in this series: Did God intend to end slavery by changing people’s hearts, over time?