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Slavery and the Bible Condensed

I’d like to condense the major arguments with regard to the Bible and slavery, as it appears that at least a couple of people have missed the point at which I’m hooking into this debate. (Please resist the idea that because I use lists when summarizing that I’m actually trying to reduce this to formal logic.)

First, the starting point argument could be summarized as follows:

  1. Slavery is immoral
  2. The Bible condones slavery
  3. God or God’s word cannot condone something immoral
  4. The Bible therefore cannot be God’s word.

I originally entered this debate after reading posts and comments on Ed Brayton’s site. His Slavery and the Bible – Take 2, was particularly clear. I want to reference Mark Olson as well, whose Slavery and the Word of God illustrates some of the approaches I’m discussing here.

Now one can attack the position expressed in my little list at several points. For example, one might believe that slavery is not immoral. One might believe that God’s word does not condone slavery. We have seen the following:

  1. A response using both points #1 and #2, i.e. that the Bible does condone some sorts of slavery, but what it condones is not the sort of thing we condemn.
  2. A response based simply on God’s authority–God gets to do whatever he wants, which really deals with point three. In this response God indeed cannot condone something immoral, because apparently what he commands is transformed into something moral. (Theologically this is possible, but in practice there is the simple question of how one tells when God is commanding something if God can command anything. Why not child sacrifice, for example?)
  3. My own response which deals with the relationship of the Bible to the concept of God’s word. There’s an unstated assumption almost everywhere in this discussion that the Bible and God’s word are either equal or unrelated. My argument comes in here and is simply this: The Bible is a human-divine cooperation, and therefore shares imperfections of the human element. There will be things in the Bible that we do not want to implement today.

My approach allows me to take several options with some of the nasty points in the Bible. I used the example of the commanded genocide of the Midianites in Numbers 31, and I’m going to continue to use that.

  1. It’s quite possible that the incident never happened. We’re still left with the fact that the slaughter is forcefully commanded. I would note that at a minimum, I would say that the numbers killed and enslaved are almost certainly exaggerated. Again, I don’t view this as a real solution to the moral dilemna for a Bible student. “Slaughtered” is bad. “Slaughtered a few less people” remains bad.
  2. The people wanted revenge, and conveniently became convinced that God had commanded it. This would be an all too human situation. I could use the story as a moral story with precisely that moral. In fact, I see this very human side throughout the stories of the conquest.
  3. God gave a command adapted to circumstances. This one disturbs me to some extent. I do believe that God gives commands adapted to circumstances, and this is in fact the type of approach that Alden Thompson uses in chapter 6 (The worst story in the Old Testament — Judges 19-21) of his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m uncomfortable with that option here simply because I cannot see the moral justification for the additional slaughter. I do think that was common to the culture, and it seems more likely to me that people simply exercised their desires and justified it by appeal to God’s command.

Since I said “condensed” let me just say one thing in response to Mark Olson (post linked above). I do believe that one can find good in the Bible, and that one can even find the ideal to pursue. I believe, however, that in order to find that ideal one does have to recognize the human-divine combination in scripture which means that not everything can be fitted into the divine ideal. Paul certainly embraces the equality of slave and free (Galatians 3:28) but he doesn’t do anything public about it. Rather, he gives instructions for slaves to be subject to their masters. I think he’s walking a very difficult line here with the Roman Empire, and Romans 13 is part of that. I cannot, however, see where Romans 13 is simply a softening of the rest of the letter, but then I often find that N. T. Wright presents arguments that are thoroughly researched and brilliantly argued, but that I think are wrong. In this case, I will certainly make the effort to acquire Wright’s comments on this text and see if he can change my mind.

[Note: In the interests of full disclosure, let me note that I am the publisher of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?.]

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  1. You continue to be skirt an important issue. You sprinkle irrelevancies around the possibility that God commanded the atrocities, and therefore they cannot be evil.

    The point “how do we know whether it is really God talking” is simply a red herring. There will always be disturbed people who justify murder by claiming or even actually believe that God is talking to them. It’s irrelevant. The question is not “how can we be sure God is actually commanding us.” The question is, “if God issued those commands, what do we make of them?”

    Arguing to absurdity such as “What about child sacrifice?” is also an evasion. Give me a break.

    I guess I wish you would at least answer this question:

    If God actually came to you and said: “I commanded the annihilation the Midianites. It was not Moses’ schizophrenia.” What would your response be? Would you say “Forgive me God; I never believed you could command such a thing, but I was wrong, and if you commanded it, it must be good.” Or, would you say, “Then you are an evil being.

  2. First off, thanks for the link. But more to the point, another two threads of posts on innerrancy can be found here. “Sven” also frequently quotes Wright. Here is his post (and links to another author’s four post series on innerrancy).

  3. I hope you will give a straightforward answer.

    I have given you a straight answer. I repeat it. Your question is too flawed to be worth answering simply because I could never be convinced that God was ordering genocide. No matter how convincing the evidence, I would say that this could not be God.

    It might be that an extremely powerful being could issue such a command and could also do everything I could conceive of to demonstrate his power. I would regard that being as an extremely intelligent evil being.

  4. Henry

    I see this thread is a few days old – I hope it is still being monitored.

    I am fascinated and impressed by what you write, but I now struggle to see how your account of the role of the Bible differs from say the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

    * Both include some of the world’s greatest writing, at least in some translations of the Bible.

    * They both include stories which inspire and educate.

    * Neither are literally true.

    * Neither provide a set of instructions on how to live your life morally.

    If you are a Christian then I guess you believe that Shakespeare’s gift was given to him by God and his works are something we should thank God for.

    So I am left wondering what makes the Bible more sacred than the Complete Works?


  5. Thanks for your comment–you bring up a very important issue.

    Mark Frank said:

    I now struggle to see how your account of the role of the Bible differs from say the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

    In most objective ways they don’t differ. I agree 100% on three of your four points. When you say “Neither are literally true,” however, there are portions of the Bible, albeit much smaller ones, that are actual historical accounts that would be literally true. Portions of Kings, along with Ezra and Nehemiah contain reasonably accurate historical reports. But that is just a technicality, since I would not regard the inspiration as consisting in being literally true. For example I would consider the story of Jonah to be more inspiring than the story of King Ahaz’s dealings with Assyria, but Ahaz’s dealings are much more likely to be literally true.

    Also, I do believe that all gifts come from God, though I would add that we should give credit to the human. IOW, I don’t devalue Shakespeare because I believe his gifts come from God.

    It’s interesting that you should bring this up, however, because I start my long essay Inspiration, Biblical Authority, and Inerrancy precisely with the issue that we generally regard Shakespeare as inspiring, though not inerrant, while people often wonder why I would bother to teach the Bible, even though I don’t regard it as inerrant.

    Further, I’m not sure how one determines more and less sacred, so I need to adjust your final question before I answer it. There are things in the Bible itself that are less inspiring than others. I personally find reading genealogies to be pretty uninspiring, though they were of much more interest (obviously) to the folks who compiled the material.

    The key issue for me is simply authority within a community. I don’t believe that the Bible records the only examples of people’s experience with God. I don’t believe that it can be objectively and consistently singled out simply as a piece of literature (though I do have a few individual portions to single out). It is simply what the Christian community has gathered from its literature as most authoritative and most widely accepted. I’m trying to resist making this comment as long as an ordinary post (and I do not find it easy to be brief), so let me just reference two other things I’ve written, first a post Inspiration and Canon and the pamphlet What is the Word of God?. The latter discusses what I see as the process of canonization.

  6. Henry thanks.

    I am still struggling – but perhaps a bit less hard 🙂

    You are surely right to ignore the matter of literal truth. Some of Shakespeare’s plays have a fair amount of literal truth.

    I like your approach to religion. I remember reading an article recently saying that what matters is not what religious people believe but what they do. You seem to be saying something closely related to that.

  7. >>I am still struggling – but perhaps a bit less hard<<

    That's good. 🙂 IMV struggling is a good place to be.

    The dominant Christian position in public discourse is that the Bible is primarily a source of propositional truth, and thus the debate is usually binary between "inspired and inerrant" vs "not inspired and errant." I believe in inspired and errant, and that seems strange. There are actually quite a number of Christians who hold such a position, but they are not as vocal as the rest. Or at least so it seems to me . . .

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