Questions on Slavery, Incest, Polygamy & Genocide in the OT
Hi John, Are there any good books/articles online that you'd recommend to read on the following topics:
Slavery, Incest, Polygamy...
To handle questions about slavery in the Bible and slave owners being permitted to beat their slaves and retain ownership of the wife and children of a male slave that is freed at a certain point ; questions about incest (Abraham and his half sister, etc); polygamy (God telling David that He gave him his wives); God commanding the children of Israel to put to death those who stray from Judaism; women being forced to marry a man who raped them; the Israelites being commanded to wipe out entire communities, including women and children (some would say that the Jews were responsible for multiple holocausts); etc., etc. Looking forward to hearing from you.
Thanks for your questions. They are important and ones many postmoderns like to ask these days.
Regarding slavery, Exodus 21:16 says
"He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death."
Deuteronomy 24:7 likewise says,
"If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you."
In other words, slavery was not the same thing as the kind we saw in 19th century America where people went to Africa, kidnapped people and brought them home to sell them to the highest bidder. Such would be a capital crime in the OT, according to these passages. Instead, persons who were slaves were either paying off a debt, or persons who attacked Israel and captured in battle. Someone may have some problems with this but it is not the type of slavery we usually think of today. The â€˜slaveryâ€™ mentioned in the Old Testament was really indentured servant hood and was a very different kind of institution than the New World slavery that developed in modern times. For example, Exodus 21:27 says that if you knock a slaveâ€™s tooth out, the slave has to go free. That doesnâ€™t sound like the same institution you are thinking of, does it? Slavery in the Greco-Roman world was harsher than the indentured servant hood of Israel, but it was almost never for life (average 10-15 years in length) and slaves were paid and lived about the same as other working people. So be careful when you equate the African slave trade to the forms of slavery and servant hood you hear about in the Bible. We still have slavery today and it takes place in the prisons. People pay a debt they owe society there.
Also it is good to remember that the Israelites themselves were slaves of the Egyptians for 400 years and God delivered them, bringing judgment on all of Egypt for this oppression. God hates it, and so God delivering His people from the bonds of slavery is one of the key themes of Scripture, and the Exodus points us to Christ who sets us free from bondage.
Next lets take the next criticism of the idea of stoning someone to death for a transgression of the law. To be frank, God;s standard actually not changed in the New Testament. If you recall, Jesus Christ bore the full wrath of God on the cross. God ordained that Jesus be brutally murdered in our place. He lived the life we should have lived (sinlessly, law-keeping) and died the death we justly deserved. We all, just like the Israelites of the OT, justly deserve to die and, the fact we do not, is purely God's mercy in Christ. He took the punishment - so while we deserve to be stoned to death for worshiping a false god, instead, He took that very punishment on himself for this sin, for we have worshiped false gods. So God's character is no different in the two Testaments. The only difference is that revelation has been progressively unfolding in an organic fashion, and we now relate to the law in a new way through a perfect mediator, the person and work of Jesus Christ. Remember we all die which is the punishment God prescribed for humanity after the fall.
Also, regarding polygamy, you may want to differentiate between what someone does and what God's law is. God nowhere gives us a law saying that polygamy is His will. But we do find some persons, even some godly, who engage in this practice. David was said to be a man after God's own heart (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22), but he did a variety of things that were not according to God's heart, i.e. he murdered Uriah the Hittite after committing adultery with his wife Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:27).
That he practiced polygamy does not make it God's perfect will. Jesus points out that from the beginning (Genesis) that one man and one woman would become one flesh and so adultery was always wrong (Matthew 19:1-9). Therefore even the OT itself does not hold up polygamy as the ideal. While polygamy may have been permitted in their weakness, but Genesis reveals this was not the ideal toward which the people were to set their faces toward. The ideal was the model of creation: one man and one woman in a monogamous relationship.
After explaining the above I believe it is very important to point something out out to our postmodern skeptical friends. Most of them think it is a given that Slavery IS bad. Torture IS wrong. Racism IS repugnant. Christians know this to be true because God reveals this to us, but you should see such a question as an opportunity to ask skeptics some questions about their own presuppositions.
Ask them how they know this to be true and they may say something like "there are no absolutes. My view of values is that they emerge from lessons widely drawn from human experience and around which consensus has emerged. Human rights as a language and as a normative construct came out of the horror of WWII. Such ideas emerge through consensus-building and eventually take on axiomatic existence for most people."
Tim Keller gave a great answer to this once. He said,
"First, you seem to be saying that slavery wasnâ€™t wrong until there was a consensus that it was wrong. Or that torture wasnâ€™t wrong until we came to a consensus that it was wrong. Do you really want to say that--that slavery and torture wasnâ€™t wrong in 1750, because then the consensus was that both were OK? If you fall back on saying that slavery was wrong in 1750 even though most people didnâ€™t feel that wayâ€”then you do believe in absolutes, I think."
Second, what if you saw the consensus about slavery and torture eroding? What if you saw that half the world was moving toward a new consensus that slavery and torture were OK in many circumstances? (There are a surprising number of people who do think torture is OK if it might stop a nuclear attack, etc. It could easily happen.) On what basis, then, could you argue that the emerging new consensus is wrong, since, in your view, something is only wrong if there is a consensus that it is wrong? It seems that the only way you could say â€œreverse the new consensusâ€ would be if you grant that torture is wrong even if the consensus changes.
Third, this is an elitist argument, because the fact is that there are plenty of cultures and places in the world that donâ€™t agree with your â€˜consensus.â€™ You are saying, then, that the part of the world that believes in human rights is the enlightened, correct part. When you say these beliefs take on axiomatic existence for â€˜most peopleâ€™ you mean â€˜most people I know, the ones who are thinking properly.â€™
Fourth, if you donâ€™t believe in absolutes, you can only offer at best a pragmatic argument against these evils. If you were living in 1750 and you came to believe slavery was wrong when few others did, you could not argue from consensus. You would have to argue that slavery is impractical for us, that it makes for a society in which we are all unhappy. You could only appeal to peopleâ€™s self-interest. Only if you agree that there are moral absolutes could you say that â€œSlavery is wrong regardless of whether you feel it benefits you and society or not. It is simply wrong to treat people that way. Period.â€
As per your question on women being raped and "forced" to marry, as I understand it, at that time, the issue was not so much forcing a woman marry a man who had raped her. Believe it or not, in those conditions, this may have benefitted the woman in question. Consider that women were completely dependent upon their husbands for financial, material support, and probably no one would want to marry a woman who had been raped. Therefore, legally enforcing the law that the rapist must marry and provide for the woman whom he raped was actually a way of making sure that her physical needs would be met. So as strange as it may seem as looked at through the lens of our modern mentality, the law was there to actually to protect such woman, not force them to do something they did not want to do. Otherwise, quite probably she would have lived as an outcast, with no way to survive with little or no assistance from others. When considering these things it is always good to remember the specific historical context - before rushing to judgment.
I know I have not fully answered all of your questions but hopefully it is a good start in pointing you in the right direction. I recommend Tim Keller's Reason for God which is really very good on these type of questions. You may wish to see some of his lectures on YouTube to the campuses of Google, Stanford and Berkeley. These are also good.
Hope this helps