Biblical Slavery Pt 1: Facing The Problem

TribesofIsraelMapOver at The Gospel Coalition, I recently got into a friendly debate over Biblical slavery. (Side note: our debate has almost nothing to do with Jarvis Williams’ original post.)  Obviously this is an intimidating topic for anyone to tackle, but I’m going to try to whip my thoughts into a coherent analysis.

Part of the problem with Biblical slavery is that websites that delve into it fall into one of two partisan camps: the theodicy argument (slavery is evidence that God is evil and/or the Bible isn’t morally trustworthy) and the apologetic argument (Biblical slavery wasn’t really that bad).

The theodicy view is admittedly the stronger argument. It’s difficult to deny that slavery is a repulsive institution, and it’s a matter God Himself establishes via Old Testament Law. And personally I find most apologetic defenses weaselly and intellectually dishonest (although I’ll give credit to my debate partner for conceding the uglier aspects of slavery). In general evangelical Christians tend to downplay the most ruthless verses and – most importantly – the unspoken implications of said verses -and paint a Disneyfied picture of well-behaved slaves obeying their kindly (and temporary) masters.

As I see it, the first thing we need to do when we approach the topic is to set preconceived assumptions about the Bible aside. Christians tend to begin with the premise that because the Bible is Holy, slavery must be contorted in such a way so that it keeps God’s reputation untainted, while nonchristians use slavery as a wedge to topple the Christian position.

So let’s look at Biblical slavery as a practical problem. We’re dealing with a group of nations who were constantly at war with each other. Something needed to be done with the collateral damage (i.e. prisoners of war and civilians). In Joshua’s case, the answer was genocide. In most other cases, slavery was the answer. The third option – letting survivors practice their faith and culture under Hebrew rule – wouldn’t have been realistic. The odds of facing organized revolt or a collaboration with a third invading nation were too great. So slavery was the least awful option.

The problem is that once we concede that something horrible was going to happen to the losing side, we’re left with the choice between secular justifications and divine justifications. The Bible supplies divine justifications, and just as importantly, God’s rules for Biblical slavery are more reprehensible than they had to be.

Now I’m sure at this point I’ve lost a lot of evangelicals. To even entertain the notion that God may have instituted a morally bankrupt system violates what my debate partner called “the righteousness of the Law…and the Lawgiver.” As I’ll get to later, I do believe that there are ways to condemn Biblical slavery and maintain faith in the righteousness of the Lawgiver.

Given the breadth of this topic, I’m going to break my argument down into a multi-part series.

I’ll call Part 2 Starting Into The Abyss. By that I mean that if we’re going to talk about Biblical slavery, we need to get beyond the tendency to focus on the letter of the law and focus on the implications it had for the men, women, and children who suffered as slaves, and remember that these were living, breathing people as real as you and I.

Part 3 will focus on the plight of Female Slaves.

Part 4 will be Weighing the Christian Arguments. Even though much of the Christian defense Biblical slavery tends to compare it favorably to American slavery, I’m going to avoid discussing American slavery as much as possible. In my view we don’t need to cite American slavery to critique Biblical slavery any more than we need to cite The Trail of Tears to criticize Joshua.

And speaking of Joshua, I’m going to resist exploring the genocide issue as much as possible. The two topics are often paired together, but I think Biblical slavery warrants examination on its own.

In Part 5, I’ll attempt to Reconcile What We Know, which I think speaks for itself.

The Philippians 4:8 Test

rafael_constru_o_arcaTrevin Wax’s Wolf of Wall Street post is the gift that keeps on giving. During the course of the second wave of debate threads in comments section, I stumbled onto an interesting formula.

Christians who lean on the reactionary side of the Culture Wars often cite Philippians 4:8-9 as one of their proof texts for avoiding movies with lots of swearing or naughty bits:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Christians who cite this verse assume that it clarifies the debate: if you don’t obey Philippians 4:8, then you’re a backsliding believer (at best). As I pointed out in Part 1 and Part 2 of my series about R-rated content in movies, the boundaries of this debate have shifted so dramatically over time that it’s impossible to set up objective standards.

Then I had my eureka moment.

It started with a little back and forth about the Philippians passage (you can find it in the bottom half of the comments section). Initially my point was that Christians used Philippians to discourage movies and stories that tackle complex stories in a mature fashion. But I also wanted to prove that Wolf of Wall Street scored better on the “Philippians Test” than conservatives assumed. Here was my breakdown of the movie:

Is WoWS true? Yes, it is.

Is it honorable? That’s debatable. It attempts to uphold honor by scrutinizing dishonorable people, but there’s some disagreement beyond the Christian bubble about how effective it is.

Is it just? Not sure about that, although sometimes you can say a lot more about justice by focusing on injustice. The documentary Blackfish focuses on injustice towards whales, but showing a tragic problem did more to motivate people towards justice than a happy ending would have.

Is it pure or lovely? No, but most of the stories of the Bible aren’t pure or lovely, either. By definition all stories must contain sin, otherwise there is no conflict and therefore no story.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? Absolutely. It’s getting rave reviews and being discussed as a candidate for Best Picture.

My conclusion was that, if you score it conservatively, WoWS passed 2 out of 5 categories. If you allow for more nuance in storytelling and are willing to accept movies that don’t spell out moral lessons with speeches or the villain’s comeuppance, then it scores a 4 out of 5.

But the point I had hoped to emphasize was that no story can pass the “pure and lovely” part, and therefore no story can pass the Philippians Test. To make my point, I put one of the most popular evqngelical movies- Fireproof – through the test:

Is Fireproof true? Yes, it is, for the same reason WoWS is: the movie depicts the human condition.

Is it honorable? That’s debatable. It tries to be, but the behavior of the characters is loathsome even after the “happy” ending. Unlike WoWS, Fireproof want us to praise very disturbing behavior.

(For more about how reprehensible the movie is, check out Sarah Moon’s analysis and Waneta Dawn’s multi-part breakdown of the movie.)

Is it just? Absolutely not. The movie depicts a woman who is married to an abusive husband and implies that her only justifiable choice is to remain in an unhealthy relationship. The abusive husband never stops being abusive; he just finds new ways to control her. The movie wants us to believe that she needs to change even though she wasn’t at fault for his behavior in the first place.

Is it pure or lovely? No, for the same reason WoWS isn’t pure: it depicts sin. Almost every story will fail this category.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? Absolutely not. It fails on every artistic level as a movie: it’s poorly acted, poorly directed, etc.

So Fireproof scores 1 out of 5 – even worse than WoWS.

Then I realize that I was aiming to low with Fireproof. What if we apply the Test to the Bible itself?

Let’s put Noah through the Test:

Is the Noah’s Ark story true? This is trickier to answer than Fireproof or WoWS. If you’re a fundamentalist, then of course it is. If you believe in Divine Inspiration,  then it’s true, but not necessarily a historical event. If you’re a liberal Christian or a nonchrisitan, then it’s probably not true.

Is it honorable? Again, this is debatable. It honors God, but the story itself is about global genocide and ends with Noah getting drunk and cursing his son for seeing him naked. No one acts honorably. 

Is it just? This is also debatable. If you believe that God was justified to cause the flood and everything that happened follows God’s Will, then sure, it’s just. But anyone willing to look at it more critically will find no justice in the story.

Is it pure or lovely? No. Even if you believe that the story passes the above categories, you can’t get beyond the fact that it’s an ugly story.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? It’s one of them most well-known stories in the history of western culture, so I’ll have to say it’s excellent. Although nowadays it’s mainly remembered because of its awesome visuals and the role it plays in creationism and theodicy debates.

So depending how you score it, Noah’s story scores anywhere between 4 out of 5 or 0 out of 5. So even one of the most famous Biblical tales doesn’t pass the Philippians Test.

A Divinely Inspired Mess

the_holy_bibleI believe that the Bible was divinely inspired. I also believe that it is full of errors and contradictions.

Normally questions of the Bible’s reliability as the Word of God rest on two assumptions: all scripture is God-breathed, and therefore because God is Truth, scripture contains no errors. Odds are you either give an emphatic “Yes!” to that statement, or you roll your eyes at it and chalk it up as a misguided assumption that a little bit of education can cure. But I believe that both positions can be true.

Andrew Wilson has a post over at The Gospel Coalition about inerrancy. I posted a few of my thoughts over there and decided to expand upon them here. To briefly summarize, Wilson takes the classic inerrancy position: the Bible is inerrant, and arguments against inerrancy make incorrect assumptions or interpretations about the text.

I began my response by pointing out that the Bible itself cannot be a proof of the Bible’s trustworthiness. That’s a circular argument. But I also took pains to say that, in spite of the holes one can poke into the inerrancy argument,  when the chips are down, in spirit I still side with it.  I recognize that inerrancy is an inherently illogical position. But I believe that the extra baggage that comes with inerrancy – especially the assumption that sinful humans managed to compose documents completely free of errors or incorrect beliefs- are inconsistent with our understanding of man’s nature.

The foundation of Christianity assumes that mankind is sinful, hence the need for Christ’s sacrifice. I embrace that assumption. But the traditional position has been that God guided sinners like Moses or the Apostles to create inerrant scripture. To me this violates the doctrine of sin.

For example, I have no problem believing that some missionary friends of mine are doing God’s work. They say that God called them to Montreal or Tanzania, and I trust them at their word. But that doesn’t mean that everything they do as missionaries is part of the divine message God wants them to deliver. They, like all of us, are full of  the same sins you and I have, and those sins can gum up the message, so that message can be tainted by ego or just plain incorrect teachings.

I see scripture in the same light.  I don’t think that Paul was any less prone to error than my missionary friends are. He even called himself the worst of sinners. So I think it’s quite possible that some of Paul’s teachings are flawed, and yet I also believe that God called on him to write his epistles, and for us to treasure them. Therefore, while at their core most of Paul’s epistles are inerrant Truth, I have no doubt that he let some of his shortcomings as a human being slip in, and therein lies the errors. So in spite of their imperfect condition, I believe that Paul’s teachings exist as God intended, and therefore we should treat them in much the same way as Wilson does, with the one important caveat: we can acknowledge that Paul may have gotten some things wrong.

For now, I’m not going to speculate on what those errors might be. I have  my own suspicions of course, but I don’t wish to detract from my larger point. I believe in what I would call “limited inerrancy:” while the Bible exists as God intended it, its writers probably made a few doctrinal and factual errors along the way, mostly because it was composed by an ancient culture with a limited understanding of the world. In addition, throughout scripture its writers repeatedly confess God’s incomprehensible perfection. If you appoint imperfect sinners to make a valiant attempt at describing an incomprehensibly perfect Creator, then you’re going to fall short of perfection.

Let’s use the documentary hypothesis as an example. The documentary hypothesis claims that the first five books of the Bible were compiled from the writings of four radically different authors, some of whom possessed a polytheistic worldview. I believe that the documentary hypothesis is the most persuasive explanation as to how these books came to be. The traditional teaching that Moses was the sole author of the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books) doesn’t hold up to modern scholarship.

For Christians who subscribe to inerrancy, this would be a deal breaker. If the documentary hypothesis were true, they say, then the reliability of the whole Bible collapses, making it little more than the ravings of an ancient people. But if God could inspire Moses to write divine scripture, then surely he could have inspired four anonymous authors to do the same, each without knowing how the end result would look.

In other words, each author captured important truths about God’s relationship to mankind, so God deemed each worthy of inclusion. The fact that some authors may have written under a mistaken belief in polytheism does not matter – what they wrote was divinely inspired and spoke truth about God.

Take the creation story as an example. The documentary hypothesis teaches us that there are actually two creation stories, the second one beginning at Genesis 2:4. Both were included because they spoke truth about God. The specific details – which are irreconcilable  if one insists that they depict literal events – are less important than what they teach us about God’s nature and our relationship to God. These allegories do not need to be literally true to convey the spiritual lessons contained within them.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all ancient Hebrews understood them to be allegories, and it’s only the foolish fundamentalists who boxed them in and claimed them to be science lessons. I have no doubt that a majority of ancient Hebrews took them literally. They were, after all, a nomadic culture composed of illiterate craftsmen and sheep herders. But what mattered was that the common sheep herders arrived at the same place of understanding as the Rabbi who interpreted them allegorically. So the messy parts aren’t a bug; they’re a feature.