Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Slavery, misogyny, and other adventures in the world of the Old Testament

Fun Stuff

A commentor on my post on Biblical literalism brought up ten of the passages in the Old Testament that give him the most trouble. I'll lay them all out for you (I'm surprised he didn't mention anything from Joshua; there's some seriously juicy material in there!):

Exodus 21:7-11:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
Exodus 21:20-21:
When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
Exodus 21:32:
If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
Leviticus 21:18-20:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles."
Leviticus 25:45-46:
You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.
Numbers 31:17-18:
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14:
When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.
Deuteronomy 22:13-21, 28-29:
If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.
Deuteronomy 25:11-12:
When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.
Judges 21:20-23:
And they commanded the people of Benjamin, saying, “Go and lie in ambush in the vineyards and watch. If the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and snatch each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. And when their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Grant them graciously to us, because we did not take for each man of them his wife in battle, neither did you give them to them, else you would now be guilty.’” And the people of Benjamin did so and took their wives, according to their number, from the dancers whom they carried off. Then they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and lived in them.

Wait, what?

If you're a Christian, verses like these might make you feel very uncomfortable and may even become a significant source of doubt. If you're not a Christian, you might point to verses like these (probably in in the more archaic language of the KJV) to show why! Lots of Christians, though they would never say as much, maintain a kind of separation from the "angry, vengeful" God of the Old Testament with His crazy laws and genocide and the "loving, forgiving" God we see in the New Testament through Jesus, picking the parts of the Bible that best fit with their cultural and moral norms to learn from while treading very carefully in Old Testament territory, sticking with "safe" stories like Genesis 1-3, the Ten Commandments, the (non-imprecatory) Psalms, or Messianic prophecies or presenting cleaned-up, Sunday school-ready accounts of such gems as the flood, the life of Abraham, or the exodus. The Old Testament is a potential source of embarrassment for them, so they do their best to sweep it under the rug. When confronted (probably by a skeptic with no sympathy for their faith), they get evasive or may say something to the effect that God was different "back then".

Christians who accept that both Testaments depict the same God and try to work both into their faith instead of minimizing one face an uphill battle. The simple answer, which is heavily informed for me by Peter Enns' incarnational model of Scripture, is that the Bible depicts a transcendent, timeless God speaking into specific, temporal human contexts and moral vocabularies that are far removed from our own. Obviously, cultural norms and morality in the Ancient Near East (ANE) are very different from our own, so it's important to draw comparisons between the Israelites and their contemporary neighbors, not between "backward ancient people" and twenty-first century western civilization in such a way that God seems similarly dull and backward for interacting with them. In this light, the treatment of women, slaves, and the poor dictated in the Mosaic covenant was progressive when understood in its context. There is apparently not one "right" way that society is always supposed to be that the Bible espouses from cover to cover, so let's not fault the OT for not depicting a "perfect" society.

I can understand how this can seem unconvincing. This doesn't really seem to answer the obvious questions: how can God not only tolerate but make provisions for slavery, draconian punishments, or misogynistic practices in the law He gives? It seems like a cruel joke to us to say that the Mosaic law was "progressive" because it mandated good treatment of slaves while still upholding the institution of slavery, or that it gave women some rights while still treating them largely like property. As soon as Christians start arguing that slavery is not always inherently evil, you can almost hear people stop listening. (Bear in mind that the ancient practice of slavery was drastically different than the racially-motivated colonial-era slavery we now associate with the term)

But again, these doubts largely arise from the tension between the culture and morality depicted in the Old Testament and our modern culture. Let me quote myself on this kind of imperialism:
When we clearly spell out the kind of moral expectations for the Bible this kind of trans-cultural comparing implies, the absurdity becomes more evident--how dare God command Abram to go to Canaan without first having him free all his slaves, rehire them as paid laborers with benefits, anti-discrimination policies, and minimum wage, accept total gender equality with his wife and the other women in his household, renounce the barbaric culture of clan rivalry and warfare he was steeped in, see all the gods of the surrounding pagan tribes as primitive superstition, etc...
How would you expect God to relate to an ancient people, if not something like this or what we actually see in the Old Testament? When a preschooler in my Sunday School class draws a talking mountain, I don't tell her that mountains can't talk and aren't alive; I just tell her that it's cool and that she's a good artist. She'll learn about mountains later. This in no way invalidates the fact that I know perfectly well that mountains can't talk. I think something analogous happens between us and God, must happen because the difference between us and Him is much deeper than the one between me and a four-year-old.

Let me try to approach the problem from another angle. Imagine, if the Bible were written today rather than thousands of years ago, what kinds of things in it might raise some eyebrows in a few thousand years? A future reader of a Bible written today might ask, "How could a good God still let His people keep using money? Or use such an impersonal, dehumanizing form of communication as the internet? How could He let them treat dolphins and chimpanzees as sub-persons?" (Let me stress that futurism is not a talent of mine)

Just as the existence of slavery or the primacy of men was uncontroversial in ancient Palestine, so things that even diehard social activists take for granted today might seem unthinkable to future audiences. We always expect God to act in the Bible according to our current moral standards, never questioning whether they are really perfect enough to expect God to conform to them. We can't imagine how He, being so perfect, can tolerate the evils that are considered "normal" in the cultural context the Hebrews are situated in while in covenant with them, never wondering if He might be doing the same thing with us. Remove the plank in your own eye first.

Dehistoricized Abstract Ethical Judgments

Let me propose an even more radical thesis. What if God's righteousness can't be encompassed or summarized by ethical propositions or simple value judgments like "all men and women should have equal rights" or "one human owning the rights of another is unethical"? A common conception among Protestants that I once held is that the commands God gives us, whether in the laws of the Mosaic covenant or the teachings of Jesus, are "good" not arbitrarily but necessarily because they are based on God's eternal, unchanging character or nature. In other words, God's character readily supports the deduction of moral precepts, and His righteousness easily distills down to a series of do's and don'ts that, as we become more like Him, we will live by. A bit more extremely, God's character consists of a series of moral precepts.

Aside from the fact that this view completely fails to account for all the times God's commands change (the Jewish dietary restrictions and sacrificial laws are two simple examples), this view also conflates an effect of righteousness (moral precepts and right judgments) for righteousness itself, which I don't think is biblical. God gives ethical commands to various people at various points in the Bible, but we must not think that these commands are somehow essential to His true, unchanging nature. God's righteousness runs deeper than the laws and teachings by which it manifests itself. N.T. Wright writes on a recent Q&A on Rachel Held Evans' blog: "Part of the problem the way the question is posed is by assuming that we can abstract an ethical ideal from one part of scripture and use it to judge the actions of God in another part of scripture, as though scripture were given us so we could form such dehistoricized abstract ethical judgments! Life just isn’t like that." (See also a longer article by him on the tension between the testaments)

I love his phrasing, "dehistoricized abstract ethical judgments". We Christians are strangely eager to reduce our faith to a list of do's and don'ts, even if we don't think doing the do's and don'ting the don'ts will save us. Donald Miller in his book Searching for God Knows What strongly emphasizes how Christianity comes down to a relationship, not a formula. But cases like doubts about these OT passages makes me wonder if moral formulas, even applied with the best of intentions (e.g. trying to "discern God's will" by deriving ethical precepts from scripture to apply to a situation) might be distracting. If God made us to be primarily relational beings, not moral ones. If we're more concerning with knowing what's right and what's wrong than with knowing God Himself. And then Genesis 2:16-17 finally made sense to me:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
I set down Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics in frustration as he went on about how knowledge of good and evil and knowledge of God were mutually exclusive, but now I understand. The higher and more sophisticated an idol is, the harder it is to identify as such, and Biblical morality--seeking God's will for our lives rather than God Himself--is one of the highest idols there is.


  1. According to the major denominations of Judaism, God's commands have not changed - our practice of them has. Orthodox Jews especially will be the first to tell you this, possibly with different reasoning from mine. Much of our practice today is shaped from the Talmud and Mishnah. The Talmud is commentary on the Torah, and the Mishnah is a series of laws instituted by rabbis - not by God, and not speaking with the authority of God (only the rebbetzin of the Haredim have the audacity to do that) - to construct a metaphoric fence around the Torah, the core law. Were they divinely inspired? Maybe, sure. But this is not a change in God's commandments.

    To take one of your examples, the laws of Kashrut, the most evident example among those who keep kosher today is the strict separation of milk and meat. This is a principle found in the Mishnah, not the Torah. It is based on the commandment in the Torah to "not cook a calf in its mother's milk." When society changed and we could no longer tell which cows were giving which calves, the Rabbis of the Mishnah said "don't eat milk and meat together." There is no breed of chicken that could ever be cooked in its mother's milk. However, chicken is considered "meat" from a halachic (Jewish law is called halacha) perspective, and therefore is not eaten with milk in today's practice of kashrut.

    The other example you quote has a simpler answer: we don't make temple sacrifices because we don't have a temple. That was destroyed nearly 2000 years ago by some Romans who were pissed at us. Heck, the Muslims even built their own sanctuary on top of where our temple is supposed to be and don't let us in. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the rabbis declared that it would be improper to make temple sacrifices without a temple. So, until the Temple is restored, we don't make sacrifices.

    There is a lesser-known commandment that follows the same principle. The tzitzit, the fringes on our tallitot (prayer shawls), are supposed to be blue. However, you will only see undyed tzitzit in modern times. That's because we lost the recipe for the dye, and since they are sacred artifacts, we'd rather be wrong in a less offensive way.

  2. I was referring more to ethics (not necessarily commands) that change between the Old and New Testaments, not within Judaism itself. And not for practical reasons like you talk about, but for theological ones. Christians view parts of the new covenant Christ inaugurated as fuller, more vivid versions of corresponding things in the old covenant. So Jesus teaches that uncleanness is truly from what comes from your mouth, not what goes in (Matthew 15:11-12), Paul writes of the inward circumcision that is the inner meaning of the outward version (Romans 2:25-29), and Jesus is said throughout Hebrews to represent and "fulfill" various parts of the temple and sacrificial system. In doing this, they recognize the difference between an outward sign or practice and the spiritual reality that it represents, whereas the Old Testament has much less of an understanding of this distinction. So theological/moral themes like cleanness/holiness continue to be valued, but the way they are manifested in God's people can change.

    Not that outward representations of parts of the covenant are automatically evil. If I recall correctly, the early Jewish Christians continued worshiping faithfully at the temple until it was destroyed. But after that, they knew that the unity with each other in worshiping God that the temple represented lived on among themselves, so Paul could say to the church in Corinth that they themselves were the temple (1 Corinthians 3:17). I think that while Christians readily grasp this distinction for things from the Old Testament, we can often fail to apply it to our own practices like the sacraments. I was just listening to a rather frustrating sermon talking about how they wash peoples' feet and drink from a single communion cup, as if imitating the outward practice of Jesus in these things were more important than recognizing and affirming what they mean. (For example, a modern analog of washing someone's feet might be cleaning their bathroom, and at the very least there isn't one "right" way to practice communion in terms of drink-dispensing)