But there were massive parts of the Bible that we never covered. Generally, I assumed that they consisted of more of the same, just not as memorable, or that they included genealogies of the patriarchs or details of the history of the Israelite people that weren’t important to our understanding. I will admit, too, that when I was learning the sections that we did study, I never asked about those portions that we didn’t. I just assumed that those parts that we studied were all that we needed to know. And, importantly, I assumed that the interpretations that my teachers and the church placed on those parts were unquestionable in the same way that the rules of arithmetic or spelling or English grammar were unquestionable. They were just part of what I had to learn.
But, though I never read the Bible through, a lot of my Christian friends have told me that they have. Several times. As adults. And this is where I have questions. If they have in fact read the Bible through, they must have come across a number of troublesome passages, passages we were never exposed to as children but that should have caused them to ask, How is this consistent with the Christian message?
There are dozens of such passages, but let me illustrate my point with just one, Leviticus 25:44-46. Yup, the one that concerns slavery. Here is how it reads in the King James Version:
Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.We could quibble over the terms “bondmen” and “bondmaids,” except that the context makes it clear that we are talking about slaves, since the passage uses such terms as “buy” and “possession” and “inheritance” and “for ever.”
Here is the same passage in the New English translation:
As for your male and female slaves who may belong to you—you may buy male and female slaves from the nations all around you. Also you may buy slaves from the children of the foreigners who reside with you, and from their families that are with you, whom they have fathered in your land, they may become your property. You may give them as inheritance to your children after you to possess as property. You may enslave them perpetually. However, as for your brothers the Israelites, no man may rule over his brother harshly.It is abundantly clear that we are talking about slavery here. It is also clear that these are God’s direct words of instruction to Moses as to what the rules should be. This is Moses quoting God. Directly.
Slavery still exists, but it is universally condemned by virtually every society in the developed world as morally repugnant. So how do Christian apologists justify this passage? I did a little browsing and came up with the following “explanations”:
“God wasn’t approving of slavery in general; he was just laying down rules where slavery already existed.” But would it not have been better for God to have condemned the practice? Why not make it one of the Commandments? It would have been a better choice than the make-weight coveting commandment. Instead, God is stating specifically that the slavery of those other than fellow tribesmen was OK.
“It was a different time.” Does that mean that moral rules are relative rather than universal? There may be some rules of conduct that are contextual, but I think most moral philosophers would agree that slavery is not one of them.
“The Israelites’ rules for treating slaves were more humane than those of their neighbors’.” It’s OK to enslave others so long as you aren’t as cruel as the neighboring tribes?
“God led the Hebrews out of bondage to the Egyptians, so of course he didn’t approve of slavery.” But that doesn’t say anything about whether slavery is immoral. It’s just an account of the Hebrews’ god supporting his chosen people. In fact, it arguably points to the cruelty that slavery represents—all the more reason to condemn it as morally repugnant. What better time, really, to make that point?
My question is, What is the reaction of those Christians who read this Bible passage as adults? I know that many of my friends spend much time studying certain scriptural passages. They look to those passages as representing God’s truth and as guides to how to live their lives and to how to understand the world. When they read this passage, did they ponder its meaning in the same way? Did they question whether the point of view expressed in the passage was justifiable? Or did they just assume there must be an explanation and move on? Or, worse, did they just read the words, not for understanding but simply because they needed to get through a certain number of verses for that day if they were going to finish reading the Bible by yearend?
© 2014 John M. Phillips