“Hi. Can you guess who this is?” asked the voice on the phone.
“Is it Sean?” My grandpa asked.
Pretending to me, the scammer said, “Yes it’s Sean.”
Fake Sean continued the phone call pretending to be me. He told my Grandpa I was driving drunk in part of the country I’d never been to, and that I had driven into a telephone pole to avoid running into a lady with a dog. Then, a “lawyer” of some sort took the phone from “me” and explained to him that “I” was supposedly in jail, and needed money to pay the city for the telephone pole.
At this point, my grandpa said, “I’m very concerned and will help you. I just have one question. Who is your father?”
The scammer hung up.
When my grandpa heard things in a story about me that didn’t fit what he knew about me, it made sense for him to doubt and test the caller. I realized that, if it really was me, I’d be insulted if he believed it right away!
A similar doubt entered my mind regarding the Bible and moral issues.
“Look, God. Based on what I know about you… it’s hard to read some of the things in here that are attributed to you.”
God and Human Life
I had believed that many of the convictions and moral commitments I had came from the Holy Spirit. While it wasn’t always clear what was directly from God, I believed that God had allowed me to have a glimpse of His heart regarding issues such as human dignity, abortion, and slavery. I believed that God did not arbitrarily change His mind on things or declare things to be right or wrong, but rather, that God’s character determined that slavery was genuinely wrong, for example, and that it actually broke His heart.
More than one of my fellow believers pointed out to me that my understanding of individual dignity had more in common with America’s founding fathers and enlightenment era philosophy than what is found in the Bible.
As pastor Tim Keller says in the book The Reason for God, we should be skeptical of a “God” that sounds too much like us morally. To a degree, I took comfort in that when I came across passages like these three, until I couldn’t:
Their infants will be dashed in pieces
before their eyes;
their houses will be plundered
and their wives ravished.
Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them,
who have no regard for silver
and do not delight in gold.
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword;
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open.
“Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the house. Then he said to them, “Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain. Go out.” So they went out and struck in the city.
It was hard for me to understand God threatening to use soldiers to kill babies and fetuses to punish a nation.
It’s worth noting that context sometimes helps. For instance, although Ezekiel’s passage sounds like history, in context it’s actually a warning within a vision that spans chapters 8 through 11 and ends with a description of God that resonated much more with my evangelical understanding. Getting a new, soft heart. Redemption.
There is also the challenge that even if I went through the entire book five times and tried to get as much context as I could, it may still be hard to figure out exactly what these prophets are reacting to, which makes it harder to judge. (In pondering this, I remembered how one does not simply… walk into Mordor, as Boromir says in Lord of the Rings. One cannot simply walk into the Bible and have enough information to use it as a moral guide.)
Even still, these passages were clashing with what I thought was my Christian, non-relativistic understanding of morality, which made me think some things would be off-limits, no matter the context. Threatening to kill babies in a violent war as a punishment, for example.
So, I was noticing a contrast between the God I thought sometimes influenced my conscience, and the God described in the Bible. It didn’t reach its breaking point on this issue, but on another.
I used to defend slavery in the Bible. Around 2010 I raised some eyebrows at a writer’s group when I said, “slavery in the Bible lasts six years and ends with some extra money to start a new life. It takes something horrible and changes it into a program to help the poor.” I had recently bought a copy of Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan and skimmed it, on the basis of its endorsement from Christian apologists I admired (and still respect) such as Greg Koukl and William Lane Craig. For the record, I still think Paul Copan’s book is worthwhile in showing that the Canaanite genocide was intended from the beginning to be hyperbole.
Part of my understanding on Slavery came from passages like Deuteronomy 15:
12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed.
In 2012, I read Copan’s chapters on slavery again. I came across this key passage that takes a turn about halfway through. While Copan and other apologists are well-aware of it, I experienced it differently than they did. It took my rationalizations on biblical slavery and blew them into a million little bits.
39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers.42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.
44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 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. 46 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.”
I added a paragraph break at verse 44 where the turn happens. For the first time, I noticed four different categories:
- Foreign slaves.
- Hired Worker.
- Sojourning Strangers.
Brothers were not to be treated as slaves, but as sojourners and hired workers.
The reason why this was hard to come to terms with is that I had believed that all the verses about being kind to Sojourners and strangers would apply to slaves (such as Leviticus 19:33-37). I thought that the limits regarding beating ones’ Hebrew slaves, while disturbing to read, would obviously apply limits on beating foreign slaves too (Exodus 21). I regarded Biblical slavery as temporary, voluntary, and ended with some additional money or resources (Deuteronomy 15:12-13). Those who wanted to extend their six-year term to a full life term had to get their ear pierced (Exodus 21).
All of that was challenged by Leviticus 25, because now there is clearly a type of slavery that is extremely inappropriate for Israelites to do to each other. The text strongly implies that ruling ruthlessly might have something to do with the contrast between them! After my experience with Judas’ death in the New Testament I was ready to let the text say what it really seems to say.
Fixing the Issue
I recognize that an apologist could argue that foreign slaves were worse off than Hebrew slaves, and enough worse off that there is enough difference to make a contrast, but still not treated totally like chattel. But that’s a stretch.
Hebrew Slaves, who could be beaten (Exodus 21:20-21) were already treated bad enough, so it’s hard to downgrade from Hebrew Slavery in a way that incorporates the “lifelong property bequeathment” clause AND is both:
A – enough of a contrast that it makes sense for the law to strongly forbid Hebrews from doing it to each other
B – humane
Second, even if one CAN, doesn’t mean one SHOULD.
Morally, I support such apologists for providing a pathway for Bible-believing Christians to separate God from slavery. However, I think if we imagined someone doing this with another religion’s book we’d say they are trying too hard.
I can end the post here, but I want to share bit of my reaction to how this text is dealt with in Is God a Moral Monster. There’s more to it than what I go over here.
On the page after Leviticus 25 appears in Is God a Moral Monster (page 147) Copan says:
“In Leviticus 19:33-34, the Israelites were commanded to love the stranger in the land: ‘When a stranger [ger] resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.’ This is reinforced in Deuteronomy 10:19: ‘So show your love for the alien [ger], for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’ So before we jump to conclusions about ‘harsh and oppressive’ Old Testament laws regarding outsiders, we should take such texts seriously.”
His invitation falls flat for what he’s trying to do though. In Leviticus 25 there are four categories.
Taken together, if Israelites are to never make slaves out of Hebrew brothers, (Leviticus 25) and they are to treat Sojourners as themselves (Leviticus 19), then they should not make foreign slaves out of Sojourners. Also, applying the rest of Leviticus 19 to Leviticus 25: When they purchase foreign slaves from Sojourners (Leviticus 25), they should trade using honest scales (Leviticus 19). It doesn’t help.
Furthermore, if there are passages in the Bible that forbid purchasing foreign slaves, it would mean either it is talking about a different category, or there is a difference of opinion in the Bible.
So, at this point I doubted that I could hear God’s voice, and I wasn’t sure if I had a relationship with God in subtler ways either. That opened the door for Biblical issues to be a much bigger deal than they were otherwise, such as the contradiction surrounding Judas’ death and the moral issues in scripture.
But part of me still wondered, and still feared the possibility of going to hell. I felt like, I know enough of what is mistaken in Christianity, that God could be justified in sending me to hell for ignoring those issues, or at least, God could be rightfully disappointed that I was ignoring evidence and continually “moving the goalpost” in order to continue believing something. But, there were also things that pointed to Christianity. So, what should I believe? What finally settled fear of hell for me was a scientific issue in the Bible. That will be the next post.
For further reading, I recommend Paul Copan’s book: Is God a Moral Monster?
And Thom Stark’s Critical Review. His treatment of Leviticus 25 starts on page 191 (PDF here)