Friday, March 24, 2006

The Bible's Moral Errancy:

Ed Brayton's got some great posts on slavery and the Bible.

Money quote from the first post:

This is one of the primary reasons why I can no longer accept the Bible as the word of God, as I once did. It makes no sense that God could have found the time or interest to inspire men to pass on his commandments regarding the most mundane of things - whether to cut one's hair, whether to wear mixed fabrics, how to dress, and so forth - yet never does he bother to say "don't own slaves". And this even when he had the perfect opportunity to do so when the events regarding Philemon present themselves to Paul. If God was indeed inspiring Paul to write, why on earth would he not have Paul condemn slavery as contrary to the teachings of Christ? It simply makes no sense, nor do any of the apologetic rationalizations for it.

The second post deals with some attempted obfuscations on the part of apologists for the Bible. But as Brayton demonstrates, the Bible clearly endorses slavery -- the owing of people by other people -- at times. For instance: Leviticus 25: 44-46:

"Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly."

I, like Brayton, view this as proof of the Bible's moral errancy. Indeed, in this past post I noted "[o]n some of the most elementary issues of morality, the Bible, read [as a literal inerrant whole], falters." The post showed that certain parts of the Bible endorse both slavery and genocide, two of the most basic moral wrongs.

Finally, just let me state that I am not "judging" the Old Testament Jews, or even the longstanding practice of slavery in the Christian West. That tribe was just emerging out of a sub-barbaric evolutionary "state of nature" where might made right, and viewed in this context, the Ancient Jews were civilized for their time. Similarly, slavery is one of the oldest cross-cultural traditions, right next to the family. What is unique about Western Civilization was not that it started slavery, but that it ended slavery. And through the mechanism of "colonialization" and forcing "Western" values on non-Western lands, the West abolished slavery globally (at least in legal theory, if not in actual practice where slavery persists to this day).

However, the Christian practice of slavery and the moral content of the Bible is defensible only when viewed through an historical lens, where we don't "judge" the past by the moral standards of the present. However, that poses a problem for fundamentalists who claim that the Bible is inerrant and as True, Right and Just today as it was when written. Because judged by modern moral standards that view slavery and genocide as always wrong no matter what, when, where, or how practiced, the Bible clearly is morally errant.


Mark said...

A relevant quote (from Jacob Milgrom's Leviticus (2004) pg 2):

I [Milgrom writes] turn to a rabbinic story

Moses (in heaven) requested of God to visit R. Akiba's academy. Permission was granted. He sat down in the back and listened to R. Akiba exposit a low purportedly based on the Torah. Moses didn't understand a word; "his energy flagged." At the end of R. Akiba's discourse, the students challenged him: "What is your source?" R. Akiba replied, "halakah lemoseh missinay" '(It is) an oral law from Moses at Sinai.' The sotry concludes that Moses was reinvigorated, "his mind was put to rest."

[Milgrom continues] The obvious deduction from the story is that between the time of Moses and Akiba, the laws of the Torah had undergone vast changes, so much so that Moses was incapable of even following their exposition. But the story conveys a deeper meaning. Why was Moses relieved when Akiba announced that the law originated with Moses at Sinai? It could not be true. Moses knows that he never said the words Akiba ascribes to him --- he cannot even follow the argument! The answer, however, lies on a different plane. After Akiba announced that it was an oral law from Moses on Sinai, Moses recognized that it was based on Mosaic foundations. Akiba was not creating a new Torah, but was applying Moses' Torah to problems faced by Aiba's generation. Moses transmitted principles and rules successive generations transmuted them into laws.

[Now me] Likewise with Scripture and Slavery. To understand it's application you need to first to do the hard work to learn the worldview of the people for whom it was written, abstract the principles and rules and bring them forward. When R. Hillel said, "Love thy neighbor is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation." Where might slavery fit in that principle? Inerrancy of the Bible does not mean one must set aside ones reason when practicing exegesis. Likewise, today you would have to search far and wide I think to find a theologian who would interpret Scripture as supporting slavery ... why do you think that is the case when as you (and for the Old Testament Milgrom concurs) says that "Scant few passages in Scripture attest to an antislavery idealism ..."

Milgrom points out that as today's democracies and enlightened ideals have failed to stomp out slavery (in 2001 there were an estimated 27 million slaves in the world ... only Antarctica is free of slavery (some 50,000 in the US alone)) why do you think it would be wise for anti-slavery laws if admitted into Torah to have taken root? The principles are certainly there, if applied, is that not enough?

Perry Willis said...

I have been reading the Biblical-slavery thread that has been running on several blogs for several days now. I have nothing to add to the point-counterpoint exchanges I have read. Rather, I want to state a general impression I have of the Biblical apologists who have made comments. I am struck by the quick-sand nature of all of their arguments. I feel confident in asserting that they would not for a moment accept the kind of reasoning, nuancing, and rationalization they engage in when trying to make the Bible appear better than it really is, were they to hear such arguments made on behalf of Islam or some other religion or belief-system they oppose. I feel constantly that I am being confronted with a deep and pervasive moral relativism which asserts weak standards of reason for itself, and strong standards for everyone else.

What would happen if religious minds judged their own beliefs by the same standards they employ to judge the beliefs of others? I, for one, suspect that we would have no religion anymore. But how do you get a rootless relativist to apply consistent standards? It seems impossible, and so I just watch with a mingled reaction of awe, amusement, fear, disgust, and fatigue, as the religious relativists of all stripes tie themselves in knots. In short, it is to laugh, it is to cry.

Jonathan said...

Mark. It sounds to me like you are arguing against a literal interpretation of the Bible, which is fine.

But it seems to me that when confronted with issues like this, "fundamentalists" or "literalists" all of a sudden become liberal theologians.

Mark said...


I'm a little fresh behind my ears with respect to my Christian faith to have hard and fast ideas of inerrancy, liberal vs literal. I'm working on another post on this however, we'll see if that helps clear things up.

One consideration though that occurred to me last night. Leviticus and much of the OT canon was laid down in text during the excillic period in Babylon, when in fact the Hebrews were themselves enslaved. Might it be more difficult if not suicidal for a people to write open direct confrontational against their current lot. Polytheists are often more tolerant of those who worship other gods, but worship one who teaches that their current state and the institution in which they dwell is against that religion might be a prescription for genocide.