Biblical Slavery Part 3: Female Slaves

human_trafficking_by_me19leela1-650x346Today’s installment of my series on Biblical Slavery will focus exclusively on the plight of female slaves. My goal here is to get readers to resist the temptation to fall back on Christian counterarguments  and allow themselves to stop and think about the horrors female slaves were subjected to. A more detailed analysis of the apologetic arguments regarding Biblical Slavery will be forthcoming in Part 4 of this series.

In my view,  the ghastly nature of Biblical Slavery truly reveals itself when we consider how women were treated. Let’s look again at Deuteronomy 20:15:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When theLord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 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.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.”

This scripture reaffirms the patriarchal structure of Old Testament society: women were subhuman plunder, sexual prizes to be won in victory. Even Hebrew women were viewed as little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. And if there’s any doubt, Numbers 31 tells us exactly how female slaves were to be used:

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 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.Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man,  but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

I know that there’s a huge temptation here to delve into the murderous side of this passage, but let’s set that part aside and focus instead on the last part. Why was it important for Israelites to select girls who hadn’t slept with man, and how exactly does one go about screening them?

I’m quoting this verse in its full context to address one of the most common apologetic defenses of it: namely that the Midianite women were at fault for the mess that started the battle that Numbers describes. In case you’re wondering, the enticement the passage refers to was tempting Israelite men into worshipping Baal by intermarrying across cultures.

Now to be fair, marrying across cultures during Biblical times wasn’t the same as doing so nowadays. Scholars estimate that the population of Palestine (which includes Judea and neighboring nations) never exceeded 1 million during the 7th Century BCE, when Deuteronomy was likely written. So any culture that lost large numbers of its men to rival religions risked extinction. And make no mistake: intercultural marriages weren’t any more romantic or respectful towards women than Israelite marriages were.

Of course, that doesn’t justify the severity of Moses’ command. We know from Numbers 31 that 32,000 girls were captured that day. It goes without saying that that these captives were not willing participants in their fate. We know that the primary value of female slaves in Biblical times was their reproductive ability (and, let’s face it, sexual gratification for the victors).

Biblical Law forbade men from committing adultery even if it was cross-cultural, and it also condemned unmarried women who were not virgins to death by stoning. I recommend Joe Pranevich blog if you’re curious about Old Testament marital customs. He has an excellent overview of virginity tests and the consequences newly married wives faced for failing them. (Long story short: a bloody sheet from a broken hymen was the key piece of evidence.)

Given that Israelite soldiers wanted to avoid the sin of having sex with nonvirginal slaves in the first place, pubescent female slaves were most valued since they could bear children, but they were not old enough to be married or savvy enough to rebel. Young girls also eliminated adultery concerns, and the nature of their enslavement meant that they were forced to marry and have sex with the men who slaughtered their families. If you have any doubts about the idea that female slaves were coveted for sexual gratification, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 emphasizes that girls were in face selected  for that reason:

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 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. 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.”

Stop and think about what this must have been like for these young women. How many of them were willing participants in their marriage? How many chose not to leave simply because life cast out of society was worse than being marriage to your conqueror?

Many Christians will insist that allowing female captives a month of mourning was exceedingly compassionate. But we’re talking about institutionalized rape, molestation, subjugation, and physical abuse. A month of mourning hardly qualifies as compassion, and I doubt anyone could cope with a traumatic experience in such a brief window of time, especially since there was no escape from it. If you were a female prisoner of war, you wouldn’t get freed after seven years like male Hebrew slaves, since you were your rapist’s wife and the mother of his children. The verse that permits sexually unfulfilling slaves to be freed doesn’t indicate compassion either, since these women were now sexually tainted and therefore unwanted pariahs in a strange land that would have treated them worse than slaves.

I want to emphasize this point again: by any moral understanding of a woman’s dignity and her rights as a human being, the Old Testament instituted a system of socially condoned rape. Under the Law slaves did not own their bodies; their masters did. Their best case scenario would have been a variation of Stockholm Syndrome, where the woman would have fallen in love with her captor and rationalized her fate as a blessing so she could cope with it.

Like I said in my last post, when we think of Biblical slavery, we should pay respect to those who suffered under it and keep in mind that these were real people, not characters who exist only to teach moral lessons to future Christians. By acknowledging the full scope of what female slaves endured, we reflect the kind of compassion and empathy Jesus called us to embrace. Anything short of that condones the dehumanization and subjugation of women.

(The artwork at top was made by Daniella at Deviantart.)

Sex In The Movies Part 1: Reframing The Debate

puritans25So I’m having a little fun engaging in a discussion at Trevin Wax’s blog about the  merits of sexual content in movies. I think Trevin takes a perfectly reasonable middle ground on the issue: while he rejects the reactionary stance against pop culture that his fundamentalist upbringing bestowed upon him, he also worries that Christians have become too lax about discernment on such matters. The crux of his post comes down to this question:

My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?

I think that’s a fair question, and I appreciated the fact that he didn’t attempt to offer a definitive answer, because I don’t think there is one. I don’t really have a problem with people who are overly cautious about exposing themselves to sexuality in the arts if they genuinely struggle with temptation. If you can’t get beyond “that’s hot!” when viewing a sex scene, you’re not likely to appreciate the larger message a director might be trying to convey with that scene.

But what struck me during the course of the discussion that followed his post was how reticent people were to even admit that entertainment itself was an acceptable activity. There was a lot of “I’m more discerning than the other guy” one-upmanship, and some played the “we should be reading our Bibles instead” card. But the reactionary position ran supreme, so much so that many of the most flexible people argued for viewing such movies as a means of cultural engagement (as if they don’t really like American Idol or Iron Man – they’re just viewing it to figure out how to evangelize to their next door neighbor who does.)

I could spend a lot of time pointing out that even the reactionaries spend a hell of a lot more time enjoying pop culture than they’d care to admit – and that’s not a scandalous admission. After all, let’s not forget that Jesus’ first miracle was to liven up a party.

It’s easy for us to mistakenly assume that the parameters of these debates have always remained basically the same, with more discerning Christians staying on the straight and narrow while weaker souls allowed worldly culture to seep into their lives at ever-increasing rates. This line of argument generally assumes that depicting sexuality has always been bad, and it got exponentially worse since the 1960’s. With rare exception, these people are much more flexible about depicting violence.

But that’s not how it really happened. The reality is that while the Puritans were indeed humorless sorts who occasionally burned witches, sex was something they saw a lot of. Some of this was for logistical reasons; if you and your family were  huddled together in one-room or two-room dwellings, then you don’t have the  luxury of privacy. So you get it on in front of your kids, and if you’ve got more than one couple living under one roof, then there will be a lot of rocking and rolling going on. Puritan kids saw more sex than modern kids do, and they didn’t get the “birds and bees” speech to prepare them for it.

The study I linked to also cites public sex as a frequent occurrence. Puritans weren’t concerned with weak souls tempted by the sight of their neighbors getting it on; they were concerned with maintaining social mores, and for them that meant married sex was great no matter where it happened or who it happened in front of, while unmarried sex was a grave offense. if you were the sort of person who might be filled with lusty thoughts at the sight of people having sex, you likely had a rough time avoiding it.

Of course, the Puritans weren’t very good about maintaining sexual mores. The pregnancy rate among unmarried women could be as high as 25-30%. Men in those days did have a relatively easy out on premarital sex, though. It was assumed that premarital sex was just that – sex you had with the person you intended to marry before you got married. Naive women consented because they assumed the act was as much a sealing of the agreement to get married as the engagement is today. in addition, Puritans were just as weak-willed about sex as modern souls were, so they also had their own porn.

(Before I get back to my main topic, i would like to point out that the current evangelical stance against premarital sex is more rigid than the Puritan stance. Think about it: Puritans realized that a committed couple would likely succumb to their passions, so they were okay with premarital sex. In fact, the age of marriage for women in colonial times was surprisingly similar to our modern average: 23-26 years old. But Puritan brides were rarely virgins, and unlike modern Christians, they weren’t taught to be ashamed of that.)

So what does all of this have to do with salacious content in movies? Well, as I’ll explain in Part 2,  it’s true that Americans have always been neurotic about what entertainment they consume. But the distrust of worldly temptations we inherited form the Puritans wasn’t overt sexual content. It was about honesty.

6 Good Questions About Singles And The Church

SINGLES++Original+Motion+Picture+SoundtrackKate Hurley at The Sexy Celibate has a good post about singles in the church. This is a topic that I’ve danced around on my blog.  I’ve catalogued my misadventures as a single Christian, and my identification with the Millennials’ grievances against the church is partially rooted in my shared singleness.

While I can certainly identify with a number of Hurley’s frustrations with being a single person in church culture, I’d like to focus on the six questions at the end of her post:

1. Do you think that there is a bias towards married people in the church or am I overstating the problem?

One thing I’ve come to terms with in recent years is the profound degree that for most churches, if you’re single, then you do not matter. That might sound overly pessimistic, but trust me when I say that I am understating my fatalism.  Fair warning, though: in spite of my outlook, I do see a lot of legitimate reasons why singles find themselves ostracized.

By and large churches are geared towards married couples, and philosophically that won’t change. The exception would be youth-oriented congregations and parachurch organizations geared towards singles.

2. Why do you think singles are often unintentionally overlooked in the church?

First of all, I don’t think it’s unintentional. I think some churches just plain don’t know what to do with singles.  There are either too few of them to make an impact on the congregational culture, or they are only superficially involved with the church. This is a chicken-and-egg quandary, of course: are singles less involved because they’re less invested in church, or are they less involved because churches are less invested in them?

I know that there are many singles who are deeply committed to the church. But the truth is that the risk-reward balance for any church committed to singles ministries isn’t good. If you build a VBS ministry, the children will come. If you build a ministry geared towards married women,  the wives will come. But if you build a Singles’ ministry, there’s a lot of uncertainty whether any will come.

I’ve said before that part of the problem is that Singles Ministries are dysfunctional by design. Underlying them is a tension between the desire for singles to meet that Special Someone, and the squeamishness the church has towards facilitating a meat market. And singles share that tension. Some people genuinely want fellowship with people in their life stage, but many want more, and generally these factions don’t trust each other.

Another problem can be the age of singles. If you attend a church full of college students but you’re a thirty-something single, you’re just plain not going to fit in with them. Not only can you not relate to them, but people will try to squash any budding romance between singles of such a wide age disparity.

Finally, another big issue is money. Like it or not, the fact is that even if you’re a dedicated tither, odds are your monthly check to the church pales in comparison to the 4-figure donation the fiftysomething married  couple gives. Married couple earn more, donate more, and they are much more reliable tithers. And the fact is that the more impact you have on your church’s budget, the more likely your church will have ministries catered to your needs.

I’ll address questions 3 to 6 in Part 2.

Authorial Intent Matters Pt 1

Eternal BondsThe painting above is called “Eternal Bonds,” and I finished it back in 1990. Not long after the paint dried, it became part of an exhibit of my work. At the gallery’s suggestion, I kept a notebook on a stand where people could write comments. The comments became a fascinating window into the minds of the viewers, and this painting elicited particularly strong reactions. The responses included “The wedding painting is a powerful feminist statement,” “The painting with the bride is sexist crap,” and “Your wedding painting inspired me to propose to my girlfriend.”

Art in general tends to intimidate people. They look at a piece, and they’re not sure what’s going on or what it means, so they’re hesitant to share their thoughts in case they get the wrong answer. I wanted to encourage people to move beyond that insecurity and just allow themselves to interpret the work without worrying about my intent.  I figured that: A) As an artist I couldn’t be standing over their shoulder explaining it to them, and B) They might gain more meaning out of it if they’re allowed to interpret it based on their own experiences.

(The answer, by the way, is that this painting was inspired by a friend of mine who was engaged to a quiverfull-style fundamentalist. From left to right, the first bride represents her turning her back to her friends who pleaded with her not to marry the guy. The second bride with moss growing on her represents the slow decomposition of her future. The triceratops skull represents her fiance’s prehistoric values, and the unexploded bomb the inevitable disaster their marriage would be.

In the right panel, the boy with his spine getting pulled out of his back represents my inability to get up the nerve and share my concerns about the guy. The dead dog the boy is hugging represents the fact that the painting was composed near the anniversary of my dog’s death. The fallen knight splayed atop the rubble means that no one was going to swoop in at the last minute and change her mind. And the framed photo of the woman represents the fact that she had asked me to do a painting for her wedding. The brightly colored x-rays of bones with verbs referring to breakage represents my diagnosis of the girl’s relationship with her fiance: it was brittle and bound to quickly break apart.)

I’m happy that this gloomy painting led to a marriage proposal, but obviously it was not intended to be an optimistic view of one person’s impending nuptials. But my thoughts about audience interpretation didn’t start to shift until I did a series of paintings about God. The painting on the right is entitled “God Pt 4: The Inevitable Moment When Love Becomes Lust.” God Part 4 The Inevitable Moment When Love Becomes LustThe title pretty much explains the painting. The canvas itself represents the brain, with its gears and contraptions showing our thought processes. One the far left is a woman as the eye sees her, and on the far right the brain is breaking down her image into a series of increasingly abstract pixels.

I had hoped its didactic title would reveal my message. The painting is about Total Depravity. Even when viewing someone you genuinely care about, there is a moment when sin enters your thoughts and you objectify him or her. It may be fleeting or it may linger, but in that moment you are focused on your desires and gratification. But even with that explanation, I still had trouble conveying my thoughts. Eventually it would lead me to turn to fiction as a more effective medium to convey my ideas about God, and when that happened my thoughts about artistic expression and the audience changed dramatically.

Campus Crusaders Pt 3: Everyone Hates The Meat Market


In Part 1 and Part 2  of my Campus Crusade series, I described my misadventures with the female members of my Bible Study. As you can imagine, when you have a room full of single Christian men and women, sex becomes the topic that dare not speak its name. Everyone is thinking about it, no one wants to admit it, and if you violate the code of silence, the aftershocks can last for months. Given the numerous ways in which I violated that code, I got off easy. But raising the issue helped give me a crash course on the sexual idiosyncrasies of young evangelicals.

To start with, you have to understand that all Singles Bible Studies are designed to fail. In most churches a successful Singles group is one where God calls each man to choose a bride among the women, and one by one the new couples marry off and the Singles Group dissolves.

Almost everyone who joins a Singles Group does so with the hope that they will meet their soul mate, and given that most of them know that college is their best chance at finding The One, the pressure can be intense.  Since I was a little bit older than the rest of the group, I didn’t feel the same pressure. From my viewpoint the women in my Bible Study were already halfway out the door to their lives beyond college.  I was going to be living in town for a long time, while they were moving on to bigger and better things.

A ministry like Campus Crusade complicates this formula further. From the time they are teenagers, it is made explicitly clear to evangelicals that lust was the greatest challenge facing them, so any hint of honesty about their motives for joining a Singles Bible Study had to be squashed. Bible Study was for fellowship and studying the Word, not for hooking up. It didn’t matter if their aspirations were for chaste romances leading to marriage; that’s still taking a meat market approach to your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

So the first thing that happens when new people show up at a Singles Study is that everyone checks them out and sizes them up for marriage material. The second thing that happens is that everyone curses themselves for doing that. In spite of the safeguards put in place (like no two people of the opposite sex could ever be in a room alone), hormones still kick in and people still find covert ways to gossip about crushes or take things further. But these secret activities couldn’t be acknowledged within the group for fear of someone stepping in and threatening them with an ultimatum of dropping the romance or leaving the Bible Study.

I’ll share an anecdote that helps illustrate the contrast between my blase attitude about sexual matters and their anxieties. One day the bunch of us were hanging out together in an apartment. I was sitting on a couch reading World magazine, a right-wing publication. At that time every evangelical magazine I read fascinated me. Each issue teemed with self-righteous indignation that always seemed to get the facts wrong. I couldn’t understand how anyone could sustain that level of contempt for their fellow man, but since this was the era before Fox News, encountering these opinions was both a novelty and a way to get an insight into the people around me without asking probing questions.

Suddenly I hear the Baywatch theme on TV. I didn’t think anything of it. I never liked the show, but since I wasn’t watching TV, I didn’t care what was on. Suddenly Dwight and the other men came rushing into the living room in a panic. “Where’s the remote? Where’s the remote?” they asked. Then the women joined the search. All of them were scrambling to find the remote. You’d think the house was on fire. I set the magazine down and just watched them, and for the first time in my life, I paid attention to Baywatch. I wanted to see why it was a five alarm emergency. There weren’t even any cleavage shots while this was going on.

Finally I shifted in my couch and felt something press against my back. I was sitting on the remote. I was tempted to just sit there and wait to see how long the search would go on before someone took a sledgehammer to the TV. But my conscious got the best of me, so I announced that I found the remote and handed it to Dwight. He changed the channel, and disaster was averted.

Now, you’re probably wondering why, after all of this craziness,  I still stuck it out with them. To be honest, the biggest reason was that living near Penn State means cycling through friends. Every four or five years your network of friends moves away, forcing you to rebuild your social life from scratch. After cycling through “secular” friends my first few years in State College, Kaitlyn’s invitation made me wonder if the Christian social scene might be different.

So I started attending the Bible Study with zero friends in town. Jason and I quickly clicked, and it really helped that Jason was ruthlessly blunt about the dysfunction around us. Politically and religiously Jason was definitely “one of them,” but he was unpopular because of his propensity to call people on their bullshit (and his willingness to use the word “bullshit”.) Beyond that, I stuck with it out of a combination of enjoying their fellowship (at least some of it) and my own anthropological curiosity. And one of the puzzles that loomed large in my mind was how the Bible Study could retain its members while these people clearly disliked each other.

Femdom Marriage

(Warning: the article this post refers to gets pretty graphic in its description of a BDSM marriage. I promise that I will leave the lurid details out.)

Dan Savage (known best for his It Gets Better Project, a series of  anti-bullying videos intended to help LGBT youth) has been writing an ongoing series about sexually unconventional marriages. One of his more recent columns describes a femdom (= female dominant) marriage. The wife completely controls her husband’s behavior from sex to household chores, and the husband doesn’t complain about getting bossed around because he loves the thrill of her controlling his behavior.

It’s a revealing illustration of one of the arguments I’ve long had against courting, which became a huge fad in the 90’s and has pretty much latched onto many conservative churches as the Godly way to go about finding a soulmate. The gist of my argument was that the nature of courting (and chaperoned dating) prevented couples from really getting to know each other.

The counter-argument I’ve always heard was that good Christian couples would never hide anything from each other before they walked down the aisle. If there was anything they couldn’t talk about in front of Mom and Dad or their trusted Christian friends, then they shouldn’t get married in the first place.

Even though the couple in Savage’s article didn’t start out with BDSM, they provide a real-life example of my argument. Sometimes couples have  issues they need to discuss if they’re going to be compatible, and there’s no way in hell they can discuss them in front of their parents or their youth group buddies. Because sometimes people do know what they’re looking for sexually, and it’s not just a question of how many kids you want to have.

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for pointing this article out.