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?

12 responses to “Was Slavery God’s Righteous Judgment?

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  3. please explain why the Isrealites were taken into slavery by other nations as part of God’s judgement for their worshipping/witchcraft of false gods?
    I am asking because it appears to me that nations that practiced witchcraft were taken captive by other nations. Africans consider witchcraft as their religion and hold on to it still. A woman (black christian) stated that God revealed to her that hurricane Katrina followed slave route from Africa to New Orleans and those suffered most were black people, she said it was because black people were still practicing voodoo and other forms of devil worship.

    • Daisy, I can’t explain why the Israelites were enslaved as punishment for witchcraft because I don’t know whether that was, in fact, the reason. For that matter, to me it’s an open question whether they were enslaved at all (the Bible’s stories notwithstanding).

      When I was an evangelical, Bible-believing Christian, questions like those were often on my mind. “Why did God do such-and-such?” “Why did he let this or that happen?” As you might read on this blog, I searched long and hard for answers, but never found them. In fact, the harder I searched, the more evident the weaknesses of the evangelical positions became. Finally, I had no choice but to conclude that my faith was false, and I walked away.

      It was an extremely difficult process, very painful and with consequences that I still feel today, but one thing I’m glad of is that I no longer have to rack my brain to find justification for things like God enslaving people.

      As for the woman who had the alleged revelation about hurricane Katrina, all I can say is that revelations have proven to be a very unreliable method of discovering the truth of things. You might like my post called Sound Method at https://pathofthebeagle.com/2012/06/08/sound-method/ . I’m not saying a real revelation couldn’t happen, but enough of them have proven bogus that I’m skeptical — especially skeptical of those that cannot be disproven like the one about Katrina. When I was in college, a woman had a revelation that I’d grow up to be a pastor. Now I’m an atheist and I’m pretty sure I’m going to stay that way.

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  10. Please remember that there was no good news to share in the old testament. Everyone but the Jews were doomed for original sin.

  11. I enjoy your articles heartily.

    There is a righteous explanation. God, the father and farmer. God created all life, it’s his to do with as he pleases, and he sculpted his chosen people through the natural forces of evolution that apply in general, which is by turns violent and sexual, roughly speaking. We don’t call God evil when one plant smothers another, or when an eagle eats a lobster, which must have happened at least once when the lobster was making a run for it.

    Getting squeamish when God plays farmer with his creation for human beings is hypocritical if you think that the natural world is full of God’s beautiful creatures, which happen to eat and run away from each other constantly in a lively dance of evolutionary wonder in the gyre of seasons. Which we obviously do so gotcha, lol.

    When the Messiah is born, he is of that gritty human nature, heir to all that sacrifice, redeemer of those extinct people.
    Understandably, today there are several claimants to that Master Race title, both within Judaism itself and from other races, mostly European and African.

    The peoples that had their men killed and women forcefully absorbed were not even necessarily Homo sapiens; these stories are as old as Neanderthals walking the Earth.

    To a bible believing Christian, all that you have is your soul, and this realm is a shadowy place of Earthly terrors, hard toil, and uncertain delights that fade by the minute, where pleasure can easily become pain. When the Messiah comes, he doesn’t fix any of that in general, although he heals and feeds the people in front of him.

    Christ comes to the world and dies as a man on the cross to free your soul with the heartbreak of God’s love, not free your fleeting, entrusted-unto-you-but-not-really-yours body from pain and struggle.
    However, that pain and struggle is made somewhat bearable through charity and good deeds of loving your neighbour, who started the argument and they are still a bore but there you go.

    P.S. If Adam was the first real human, “et-yadam” with a divine soul, then previous humans were “chay nephesh”, the same as the beasts. Hmm.

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