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Religion, Theology

The Bible and Slavery: It’s Not That Complicated

My father recently referred to basic ethics as “biblical morals.” I rehashed the tired arguments that suggest our morals come from elsewhere and encountered, in response, a religious meme I’d like to address.

“The bible is a great source of moral wisdom. Yes, admittedly, some parts are…complicated.”

Appeals to mystery and complexity are ever the theist’s ally, and they can be slippery arguments to handle, but in this case I think it’s important to nip it right in the bud. I replied, roughly:

The bible endorses human ownership. You can own a person as a slave. This person is transferable to your children upon your death. If they happen to be Jewish, great, on the year of Jubilee you have to set them free if they’d like (but not their family). If they are not Jewish, you own them forever. You can beat them as punishment as long as they don’t die immediately afterward. If it takes them a few days to die, the slavemaster goes unpunished. This is from the most perfectly moral book ever written by the most loving, perfect being conceivable – a being whose compassion is so fierce as to defy our understanding.

He responded, “Yes, I’ll have to go back and take a look at some of those scriptures again. There are some passages that require a deeper reading, and the slave issue is really complicated.”

This is one hazard attached to appeals to absolute moral authority, especially a lousy one. These scriptures are straightforward, clear instructions, yet because weknow with our modern moral sensibilities that owning a person is morally impermissible, we assume some unknown bit of data must justify them. The knowledge that there must be such an unknown, hidden moral feature is what makes these simple passages “complicated.”

The subsequent dialogue went as follows:

Me: What is complicated about slavery? Yahweh himself granted divine permission to own people, force them to do labor, and beat them as punishment. Should I be impressed that it also suggests the slavemaster shouldn’t gouge out their eye or kill them quickly?

Father: I’m not sure what to do with that yet. It’s difficult stuff.

Me: You are failing to consider an important possibility. You are failing to consider that you do understand these passages. They are perfectly clear, and if you read them in any other document, you would readily declare them immoral. If they were in a different holy book, you would use them to discredit the rest of the book. Consider that you may be an intelligent person capable of reading and understanding clear instruction, that perhaps there is no divine, compassionate subtext beneath the slavery and genocide commanded in scripture.

Father: Well, I suppose I don’t believe the bible is infallible in that sense. It was given to us by God, but he expects us to use our brains and moral sense to sort it out.

Me: But what do you use to sort it out? When you encounter something morally abhorrent, how do you know not to cite the verse as a moral authority?

Father: I just told you: God gave us brains and moral sense to figure it out.

Me: That means that when you disagree with scripture, you might be correct and scripture in error, which means it is no moral authority at all.

My father is a reasonable man, and he knows when not to be defensive. He closed the conversation for the time being, assuring me that he would think more about this. I wish more people had his courage. Bookstores are littered with books whose authors bend over backwards in dazzling displays of mental (and moral) gymnastics in clever attempts to justify the most horrific moral tenets of scripture. These efforts are grotesque and disturbing to anyone who has not been indoctrinated to accept the bible as a moral authority, but to those who have they are just enough to keep their grip on their faith.

What’s the harm in this, one might wonder. If they know enough to disregard the despicable passages, why not let them enjoy the Golden Rule and the better half of the ten commandments?

Because there is a middle ground in which moral tenets which are less obviously erroneous are granted absolute credence. My father believes, for example, that it is immoral to commit homosexual acts. And he believes this on an authority he rejects on moral grounds when it comes to slavery and genocide. I wish my father were stupid or stubborn or hateful because that would at least explain this staggering blunder. In fact, he’s a thoughtful, gentle, compassionate, and reasonable man. It has been said that good people do good things and bad people do bad things, but if you want a good person to believe or do bad things, you need religion. My father is a good man and a prime illustration of this principle.

If you find yourself in his shoes, pause for a moment and consider whether those “complicated” features of your religion or holy book might just be as comprehensible as they appear to everyone outside of your faith.

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12 thoughts on “The Bible and Slavery: It’s Not That Complicated

    • miketheinfidel says:

      “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.” (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

      More on this subject

    • Cole says:

      MIKETHEINFIDEL is correct on that reference, and if you’re interested in the New Testament and slavery, I’d point you to Titus 2:9. “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back…” NRSV

  1. Morality and the bible are such difficult topics to discuss with religious people. You often get that line about the Bible being a perfect moral framework and its still very relevant despite being thousands of years old, (well, Hundreds of years old at the very least). They start off with the claims that it is perfect and infallible, but once you bring up the sections on slavery, rape and genocide, they will almost without a doubt tell you that those sections “were from a different time”, somehow admitting your original argument for evolving morality while at the same time sidestepping the argument and retaining their belief that the bible is still perfect. Strong religious belief relies on the rejection of logic. When you look at the Genesis story or characters like Lotts wife and of course “Doubting” Thomas, you see the subtle tricks used to make people think that Faith is more important than Doubt, and that Doubt is probably going to send you to hell

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