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Seven Reasons To Give Old Testament Ethics the Benefit of the Doubt

Posted on Dec 27, 2013 by Tom Gilson

Why do Christians give Old Testament ethics the benefit of the doubt?

That question came up before Christmas, as a result of discussions here on slavery in the Old Testament. There is no denying that the slavery codes in the Pentateuch seem wrong, even barbaric, to 21st century readers (most readers, that is: slavery is still a thriving enterprise of death in our world today).

As I will repeat in point 4, “the benefit of the doubt” is hardly required for most OT ethical matters. Still it is for some things, slavery being one of them. To many non-Christian readers, OT slavery codes look like reason to wonder whether God knew what he was doing, if there even is a God. Christian readers tend to interpret them differently than that. We’re all looking at the same text. How can these differences be justified?

I have seven main reasons to offer. The first three are important for perspective, the next two are are transitional, the sixth is the clincher, and the seventh is icing on the cake.

There is Room For Doubt

1. Cultural distance

The law of Moses was written a very long time ago, in a very foreign culture. Ancient Near East (ANE) studies show that it was a very violent period in human history. Comparative studies show that the Hebrew slavery codes were considerably more humane than those of surrounding peoples.

2. Literary expectations

ANE literature studies show conclusively that hyperbole was frequently employed, and used in a manner completely unfamiliar to modern readers. Whether that applies directly or not to descriptions of slave treatment, it ought to give us pause before concluding that every text’s meaning is what it appears to be.

3. Progress of cultures over time

History seems to show that cultures grow up over time, and that what we consider normal today might have seemed not just strange but impossible thousands of years ago. Consider, for example, modern liberal democracy based on the attitudes of the Declaration of Independence. It took generations upon generations for the idea that “all are created equal” to take root in human thinking. It took generations after the Declaration before “all men are created equal” began to seem overly restrictive. To impose our standards upon earlier cultures may be as unfair as expecting a four-year-old to practice the high ethics of personal sacrifice.

Culture and Context During the OT Period and Beyond

4. Advanced ethics in the Old Testament

There is more to the OT story. As time goes on, the prophets exhort Israel over and over again to free the oppressed. Examples are many, Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 22:1-4 among them. Meanwhile in Greek and Roman culture, such compassion was unknown. Slaves were regarded as deserving their status. Widows had few rights. To help the poor and the sick was to preserve weakness and thus to weaken all of society. In other words, OT ethics proved in the long run to be very advanced. It is only a few early matters that even call for “the benefit of the doubt.”

5. Advanced ethics in the New Testament

OT prophetic themes like these continue into the New Testament, where (although there is still no command to free the slaves) the framework for emancipation is laid, especially in 1 Cor. 12:13 and Gal. 3:28—but above all through Jesus Christ.

The Clincher: The Deepest Good

6. God’s goodness proved in Jesus Christ

While OT moral codes may be confusing, the goodness of God visible like mountains on a clear day in Jesus Christ. His ethics still stand at the pinnacle of human teaching. Towering above all is his own willingness to accept the limitations of humanity, and eventually the excruciating pain of death on a cross, to free all persons from our severest bondage, to sin and to death.

The death he died, he died for all persons equally, for “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23), and no person is better in God’s eyes than any other. This was the most radical proof of all that we are of equal worth.

Proving the Effect

7. The goodness of God expressed in his people over time

Finally, it is because of the Old and New Testaments that we understand today that slavery is wrong. Though controversial, this is historical fact. Slavery was gradually and peacefully eliminated in Europe, mostly through the work of Christian leaders like the freed slave Bathilda, wife of Clovis II. Granted, some persons have used the Bible to justify slaveholding, but historically they are the exception, not the rule, and their misuse of the Bible can easily be explained under the principle, some people will use whatever means they can to justify their self-servingness—even if they have to twist things to work for them that way.

Summary: Viewing What’s Unclear in Light of What’s Clear

The OT slavery codes remain a puzzle to all of us. This is hardly surprising. I have been to several foreign countries, and I have found that other cultures and customs can be confusing, even in the same century. We would be foolish to think that we could understand the ANE cultural context just by reading the Bible.

So we follow the sensible principle of interpreting what’s unclear in light of what’s clear. The goodness of God in Christ is very clear and plain. The prophets’ exhortations before him are plain to read, and while it requires some historical study, the effect of the Bible on the world since Christ is almost as clear.

Thus we feel justified giving God the benefit of the doubt over the OT slavery codes.

Making Decisions Accordingly

A final word: because there is so much that is unknown about the ANE context, it seems unwise to judge God and the Bible on that. It makes a lot more sense to look at the New Testament, especially the work of Jesus Christ, and to make one’s decisions on that basis, where things are so much more clear.

58 Responses to “ Seven Reasons To Give Old Testament Ethics the Benefit of the Doubt ”

  1. Bill L says:

    Tom,

    RE: 1.
    I understand you can compare slavery codes in the ANE. But what evidence is there that the Hebrews were more humane than surrounding cultures?

  2. Victoria says:

    You might want to consider this article before going down that road

    http://www.academia.edu/4296510/The_Impact_of_Household_Slaves_On_the_Jewish_Family_in_Roman_Palestine. (it’s by Catherine Heszer, the same author you referred me to in the other thread). Please note, though, that the scope of her studies are limited to essentially post-exilic Jewish society, and only marginally so for the 2nd millenium BCE.

    Also, as I have explained, but you didn’t seem to acknowledge that you understood (perhaps you did, and I just missed it), the question you are asking here is about the failures of the Hebrews, historically speaking, to keep the requirements and the spirit of the Law. In the OT, this is actually laid out very clearly (well, to any Biblically literate person, anyway) – we have the Law specified, there is historical narrative documenting Israel’s history in the context of that Law, along with their failures and the consequences of those failures, and the Prophets, who warn Judah and Israel about their failures, the consequences and exhort them to return to God’s moral and ethical standards.

    The OT narrative gives us some glimpses of Israeli society, post-Joshua – so we have someone like Boaz (see Ruth), who is held up as a shining example of someone who understood the Law and its spirit, and we have Nabal, (see 1 Samuel 25 ) who was the worst example.

  3. Bill L says:

    Thanks Tom and Victoria

  4. Dirkvg says:

    It makes a lot more sense to look at the New Testament, especially the work of Jesus Christ, and to make one’s decisions on that basis, where things are so much more clear.

    If Jesus would have once clearly condemned slavery, how much suffering under the Christian Spaniards and the Portugese in South America, could have been avoided, and how much suffering under Christian plantation owners in the US?

  5. Victoria says:

    @Dirk,
    Perhaps, but I doubt it. Do you think that those people who brought slavery to the New World stopped to ask “What would Jesus do?”. He, and the other New Testament writers (see James, for example) already told people that they should “love their neighbours as themselves” – you should instead ask “why didn’t these people apply that command to their colonization of the New World?”

    The New Testament commands and exhorts people to not do all manner of evil things, yet people still do them, and we can even find rationalizations to justify our evil deeds. One more explicit command would not make a whit of difference to someone whose heart is evil; a ‘convenient’ rationalization would be to ask “and who is my neighbour, anyway?” and convince yourself and others that this command does not apply to some particular group, thereby “justifying” your brutal exploitation of them – consider them as sub-human, and you can say that “love your neighbour as yourself” only applies to other humans like us.

    To quote a corollary of Murphy’s Law: you can make a system fool-proof, but you can’t make it damn-fool-proof, or as my father-in-law used to say “Locks only keep honest people out”.

  6. Dirkvg says:

    Victoria,

    One could apply your line of reasoning to all rules in the Bible.

    Then why did God give any rules at all?

    Applying your reasoning to all rules from the Bible demonstrates that it can’t be right.

    And yet there once was a need to make a commandment on coveting one’s neighbours ass.

    Don’t you see the absurdity of it all?

    If there would have been a clear condemnation, certainly a number of people would have followed it, who in the present situation didn’t. Otherwise it would have been foolish for God to state any rules at all.

    And as far as I know, the Christians justified their behaviour by claiming that these rules only counted for Christians, and so they could enslave the black heathen people. And I suspect that on the side of the slave owners there were quite a few vicars, priests and ministers.
    Just as there were priests on the side of apartheid in South Africa.

    Wich brings me back to the difficult question of interpretation, and how a believer can be so sure of his ‘objective rules’.

    A question which Tom tried to ignore on another thread.

  7. Dirkvg says:

    I just read Tom’s last post adressed to me and while of course I don’t agree with him at all, I won’t answer any questions anymore. Enough time wasted.

    It’s his house and while it’s not a rational house, it’s his.

    So it’s clear to all concerned, not all people, and all arguments, are welcome here.
    The fact that I stayed so long shows that I was convinced it would be otherwise.
    I think the phrase ‘thinking Christians’ led me astray.

    Just a pointer Tom, between Clovis II and the southern slaveholders in the US, it’s still quite some time.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    RE #7, No, Dirkvg, this doesn’t demonstrate that it can’t be right.

    Some commandments and “rules” are clearly timeless, like the one not to covet. By the way, it’s not “covet your neighbor’s ass,” as you have so often said here. It’s,

    “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

    (Exodus 20:17)

    I wonder whether you knew that.

    Anyway, just by way of example, every one of the Ten Commandments was reaffirmed in the New Testament except for the one on keeping the Sabbath. That’s strong evidence that the Ten Commandments are timeless, not bound to a particular culture.

    The OT law consisted of civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. The ceremonial laws were fulfilled by Jesus Christ, so there is no longer any need to practice them (see the NT book of Hebrews for a full explication on that). The moral laws are timeless, as morality is. The civil laws were tied to their local culture as well as to moral principles; as such, they were subject to change.

    These things are susceptible to rational and sane analysis. For that reason they do not lead to total skepticism regarding the entire Bible.

  9. SteveK says:

    Then why did God give any rules at all?

    So God can move people in the direction he wanted, one step at a time, from where they are as humans in a particular culture to where God wants them to be. If a culture is figuratively 100 steps from where God wants them to be, that culture can’t be expected to start at step 48 without suffering problems and setbacks. Some *individuals* can start at step 48 because they are ready and they more clearly see the goal. Those people don’t need to be told what is obvious to them. Do you think God knows this? I do.

  10. Victoria says:

    @Dirk

    How does a failure to keep a commandment or statute invalidate the commandment itself? Using your argument, then all civilized societies should just stop making rules for their citizens to follow, because they can’t be right.

    The actual statement of the commandment about coveting is in Exodus 20:17:

    “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

    New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. 1995 (Ex 20:17). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

    Since English is not your native language, perhaps you don’t understand ‘covet’ means

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/covet

    an ‘inordinate (or wrong) desire for that which others have’.
    This is a matter of the heart, a person’s inner self – covet means an inner, evil desire for what your neighbour has, an internal state that, if not checked, can lead to evil external actions. It also means an inordinate desire for material possessions – even if it doesn’t lead you to steal from your neighbor, it can turn into an obsession to accumulate wealth and possessions in an endless game of one-upmanship, thereby taking your focus, time and energy away from the things that have lasting value. The New Testament equivalent of this command is what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount series: Matthew 6:19-24 and Matthew 6:25-34 come to mind.

    The ‘ass’ that you refer to is old English for ‘donkey’, BTW

    The only absurdities I see here are your arguments :) Why Tom is allowing this farce to continue is beyond me.

  11. philwynk says:

    I don’t see why this question even gets complicated.

    God makes allowances for the cultural expectations of everybody He approaches. What do we expect, God would immediately require Bronze Age men and women to become 21st century, Jeffersonian Libertarians, or neo-Marxian Progressives?

    In the first place, I don’t think the 21st century is so very righteous that God would even consider this, but more to the point, it would be so foreign to them that they would simply give up without trying.

    So, He gives them something that looks like Bronze Age law. Only, it’s not really Bronze Age law. It’s Bronze Age law bent in the direction of genuine righteousness.

    So, for example, a Hebrew who acquires a female slave on a raid of foreign peoples may take advantage of her, just like Hittite law permitted the Hittites to do. Only, if the Hebrew does that, he takes on himself an obligation to protect the female as though she were his wife — for the rest of her life. He’s not even permitted to divorce her. She’s his forever.

    This brings new notions to the culture that weren’t there before. Maybe the goyim (nations) were people, too. Maybe there’s a cost to taking advantage of captured females. Maybe it’s better to leave them alone. And so on.

    It makes no sense to treat the Law of Moses as though it were the final word on human conduct. It’s not; it’s a Bronze Age law for a Bronze Age people. But it’s seeded with the seeds of something far better. In every place where slavery was abolished in the world, it has been abolished by Christians applying things they learned from Old Testament law. So if anybody wonders why God did not abolish slavery way back in the Old Testament, the correct answer is “He did. It just took another 1,500 years or so to take effect.”

  12. Bill L says:

    I think what may seem a bit odd here is that in the 18th Century, you could take half a dozen Pacific Islanders and plop them down in downtown London with a few days of instructions and expect them get along just fine adjusting to the new rules. If that could be done, why not a higher moral code delivered by a visible active God?

    I have read the above answers, so no need to reiterate. I’m just saying that it doesn’t make sense to me (and presumably others).

  13. Oisin says:

    “To impose our [moral] standards upon earlier cultures may be as unfair as expecting a four-year-old to practice the high ethics of personal sacrifice.”

    Since we know that these people were not as morally advanced as we are nowadays, shouldn’t we also consider the fact that their knowledge and understanding of the nature of reality was not advanced either? Since we cannot trust them to impart morals well, should we not also doubt their ability to pass on stories accurately by word of mouth? This would leave many of the miracle claims extremely open to question.

    “ANE literature studies show conclusively that hyperbole was frequently employed, and used in a manner completely unfamiliar to modern readers.”

    This could be said to be somewhat damning for the miracle claims of the Bible.

    “It makes a lot more sense to look at the New Testament, especially the work of Jesus Christ, and to make one’s decisions on that basis, where things are so much more clear.”

    This seems like a cop-out to me, essentially telling one to avoid the parts of the Bible that are obviously immoral despite the fact that Jesus said that these books are all perfectly true: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

    Since moral understanding is more developed now and we should use this new understanding when interpreting the Bible, why do we not use modern understandings of the nature of the universe over the strangely unrealistic sections of the Bible stories?

  14. JWDS says:

    Bill, are you thinking of some specific event, or is that just a hypothetical? I would actually imagine it taking much more than a few days for the islanders to adjust. So, what seems like a clear analogy to you doesn’t seem clear to me.

    Oisin, you’re making some odd connections that don’t seem to follow.

    1) Why does a different moral code imply a lack of trustworthiness in their actual accounts of things? Your reasoning seems to be:
    They had a less developed moral code, therefore they couldn’t pass on narrative accounts reliably.
    How on earth does that follow?
    2) While their understanding of nature was different from ours in some ways, it was not altogether different. A common mistake is that ancient people believed in miracles because they didn’t understand natural laws. This, however, is transparently not the case. If they didn’t have a conceptof the standard order of nature, miracles wouldn’t actually mean or demonstrate anything at all. If they thought that, say, water could just separate and reveal the dry ground any old time, the crossing of the sea of reeds and the Jordan would not have shown anything special at all. Everyone The very fact that they think it says something indicates that they realize it is not the way things ordinarily work.
    3) Could you please exegete Matt. 5? Specifically, what Jesus means by abolishing and fufilling? You haven’t given much of an explanation, so I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that you really don’t understand the verse you’ve quoted.

  15. Oisin says:

    JWDS,

    You summarised me as saying “They had a less developed moral code, therefore they couldn’t pass on narrative accounts reliably.”, whereas I had actually summarised myself: “Since we cannot trust them to impart morals well, should we not also doubt their ability to pass on stories accurately by word of mouth?”

    Tom says that their tendency towards hyperbole “ought to give us pause before concluding that every text’s meaning is what it appears to be”.

    “If they didn’t have a conceptof the standard order of nature, miracles wouldn’t actually mean or demonstrate anything at all.”
    I used the word nature in the context of the phrase ‘nature of the universe’, as in true characteristics of the universe. Miracles were part of life back then because people regularly passed on stories of magic and miracles and gods, there were schools of thought throughout human history that said that slaughtering an animal just might be a good way to control the weather. These people knew nothing about how the world works, and by placing faith in the Bible you place faith in a giant game of Chinese whispers to impart the true nature of the universe, that is that the universe is controlled by a transcendent God who performs miracles that we can know about and trust 2000 years later by reading this book only.

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” comes from claims that Jesus was a heathen and not in the Jewish tradition, he is saying here that the Old Testament is still all true, he is not abolishing it, he is fulfilling it.

    We get to impose modern understandings of morality onto the Bible, which we see in nobody here advocating slavery’s return. Why not apply modern standards of understanding how the universe works to the strange miracle claims that are only backed up by the testimony of 1st century, superstitious, uneducated people passed on by Chinese whispers?

  16. Bill L says:

    JWDS,

    Assuming you are from the US, you are probably familiar with the accounts of Squanto. Maybe you also know about the Fuegians brought to London by Robert FitzRoy.

    These are just some examples off the top of my head. I seem to remember reading about some from Captain Cook’s voyages, but I’m having trouble finding a reference.

  17. Bill L says:

    JWDS,

    If I may butt in again, Oisin may have a point that you refer to in your 1)

    Why does a different moral code imply a lack of trustworthiness in their actual accounts of things?

    It seems the brain processes and forms beliefs about factual information the same way it does about moral and value information. When you believe things about morality, you believe you have made beliefs that a rational person should make.

    Mitchell, J. P., Dodson, C. S., & Schacter, D. L. (2005). fMRI evidence for the role of recollection in suppressing misattribution errors: The illusory truth effect. J Cogn Neurosci, 17 (5), 800–810.

    Harris, Sam (2010-10-05). The Moral Landscape (p. 265). Simon & Schuster, Inc.

  18. BillT says:

    All the arguments and doubts about the Bible’s stand on slavery all seem to ignore one vital and irrefutable fact:

    Finally, it is because of the Old and New Testaments that we understand today that slavery is wrong. Though controversial, this is historical fact. Slavery was gradually and peacefully eliminated in Europe, mostly through the work of Christian leaders…

    And that’s not to mention the ethical underpinnings that lead to the end of legalized slavery “worldwide” were undeniably Christian.

    So you can hem and haw and wonder about the clarity of this verse or the effect of that verse but in the end it was Christians motivated by their Christian ethic and faith that brought and end to slavery.

  19. Bill L says:

    BillT,

    What about slavery in the ancient world in other cultures such as India and China? It was abolished in these cultures without reference to Christianity on the recognition that it was just wrong. I’m not saying that Western Christian culture didn’t have a HUGE influence. It did since slavery was such a common practice in these places. But obviously one doesn’t need Christianity to recognize that slavery is wrong.

  20. Tom Gilson says:

    Bill L, I haven’t been much involved in these conversations, because I’ve been working on the ebook I just published here. I’d sure like to see your documentation on slavery in India and China, too. The caste system in India certainly wasn’t abolished! The dalits’ situation may not have been named slavery, but how much different was it?

    There is evidence I’ve seen of a temporary hiatus in slavery in China. I don’t know more than that. If it really was abolished, I’d be interested to learn about it, and to find out more about the real circumstances of the lowest-level working class. Thanks.

  21. Bill L says:

    Tom,

    My comment is really about how slavery was recognized as wrong at various ancient periods in history without reference to Christianity. I do agree with you that Christians later began to be more effective at abolishing it, I suspect that a lot of this had to do with their power in doing so.

    So I really haven’t done research on the subject, I just know that the Persian Empire abolished slavery in 550 BCE, and Ashoka prohibited the trade in 231 BCE. The Qin Dynasty did so in China in 221 BCE and Wang Mang did so again in about 9 CE. Again I agree, they were not all long-term successful, but they did recognize that it was wrong.

    I also used to live in Nepal. I also see the caste system as a moral evil, though from that and the literal slaves I knew there (mostly debt slaves), it is what I try to keep in mind when you and other Christians talk about how slavery should be (have been) done – i.e. they certainly were treated much better then the images we get of the US slavery system.

  22. JAD says:

    I bring a number of assumptions to the issue of OT “slave” laws that allow me to justify it morally.

    1. I accept idea of progressive revelation. That’s the theological idea that God doesn’t reveal his plans and purposes all-at-once but reveals them progressively through out history.

    2. The moral law is not the same as the civil law or the ceremonial law. (see Tom’s comments @ #9) We know this is true even in our culture. For example, you’ve probably heard people say something like, “just because something is legal doesn’t make it moral.” A good real life example of this are prostitution and gambling. Both are legal in the state of Nevada, but doesn’t make either of them moral.

    Furthermore, it’s only the moral law that we should assume to be fixed. The civil law historically can, does and continues to evolve. For example, in the 1960’s the U.S. passed new civil rights legislation… more recently new health care legislation was passed… We could fill the page with other examples. As society evolves and changes so do it’s needs, which need to be addressed by new laws. That’s why even in modern society we have legislatures and courts.

    The so called OT “slave” laws were part of the OT civil law. Note: I am not suggesting that these laws were necessarily immoral, just that we shouldn’t expect them to be ideal. Let’s be honest even modern society is a work in progress.

    3. Just because something is “allowed” under the OT law doesn’t mean that it is condoned. For example, some religous skeptics have argued that the following verse from Exodus chapt. 21 condones corporal punishment of slaves:

    20 “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.
    21 “If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.

    However, if you look at the context you’ll notice that the two verses immediately preceding these says:

    18 “If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed,
    19 if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed.

    These verses are not talking about slaves but about freemen. Are these verses condoning the use of physical violence to settle differences? I think not. There is nothing in the context of this chapter then that justifies using a different logic for verses 20 and 21.

    As Victoria pointed out on another thread Exodus 21:20-21…

    sits in a section of case law (“If this, then that”) ; examples of specific issues rather than abstract generalizations.

    http://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2013/12/christianity-worst-source-evil-john-g-stackhouse-jr/#comment-77275

    4. We need to recognize the limits of the Hebrew language. For example, there is no word equivalent to the English word “slave” in the O.T. The Hebrew word that is translated as slave is the word ebed. However, ebed has a range of meanings; for example, besides slave it can also mean servant or subordinate. There is an on-going debate among OT scholars how ebed should be translated when describing Hebrew servitude. The word slave is obviously very pejorative word in English and therefore misleading.

    Ancient Hebrew was also a language with a very limited vocabulary (at most about 8000 words) so there are limited ways to express modern concepts, even if they had modern concepts. For example, the OT text talks about buying and selling ebeds, but Hebrew ebeds had a temporary contractual relationship with their masters. Also ebeds were to be treated as persons not property. So what was being bought and sold was actually a contract. We still do that in modern society. For example, if a professional athlete is being traded to another team the team accepting the trade actually buys the players contract. Listen to ESPN and you’ll hear that language being used from time to time.
    http://espn.go.com/nhl/story/_/id/9404315/philadelphia-flyers-buy-danny-briere-contract-source

  23. Billy Squibs says:

    Can anyone hell me if there was a legal distinction made between Hebrew slav e and non-Hebrew slaves? Did the same rules apply to both?

    P.s. Writing this on a phone so not made a distinction between servitude and slavery but feel free to do so

  24. BillT says:

    Bill L,

    The end of slavery in India? Ever hear of the caste system. It’s the equal to slavery in most every regard and is essentially still practiced today. And I believe that it was the communists “ended” slavery in China. Simply a trade of one kind of slavery for another it seems to me.

    But obviously one doesn’t need Christianity to recognize that slavery is wrong.

    Actually you do. There isn’t another system in the world which provides the ethical underpinnings to establish slavery as a moral evil. Not even in theory and certainly not in practice.

  25. JWDS says:

    Bill,

    As I understand it, usually those new-world visitors were accompanied by crowds of handlers, and were more there to be put on display than to actually integrate with the society. And a few examples of extraordinary individuals do not make the case: in general, the aboriginal cultures did not acclimate or integrate well with the European cultures.

    As for the neuroscience reference, I can only get access to the abstract right now, which makes no mention of any connection of the study to morality. I’ll try to track down the full text of the article, though…

  26. JWDS says:

    Oisin,

    1) I don’t see how re-iterating your original wording changes anything. You are still setting up a premise that doesn’t seem at all obvious:
    If a group is unable to impart good morals, then we should doubt that they can record facts.
    The Nazi scientists who experimented on concentration camp prisoners were clearly immoral, but does that means we have any reason to doubt the data they recorded?

    2) On the nature of the universe, you commit a number of fallacies:
    -vagueness: you refer to “these people” and “schools of thought,” but we are talking about a specific textual tradition. Where does the OT give any indication that sacrificing an animal was a good way to change the weather?
    -begging the question: what about modern miracle accounts, even in scientific cultures? There are such things, so saying that belief in miracles is just because of ancient ignorance doesn’t actually work.
    -mistaken analogy: you compare the oral tradition of the ancient world to a party game (in the US we call in “telephone”). Do you know anything about the role of memory, written texts, community correction, etc. in oral cultures? Or anything about the historical study of the Bible, in which things are confirmed by other sources (textual and archaeological), etc.? Neither the process of the original transmission nor our recovery of it are remotely like the game of Chinese whispers/telephone. This fallacy could also be called “the fallacy of not knowing what you’re talking about.”
    -more in the fallacy of “not knowing what you’re talking about”: few people think that we know about God by reading the Bible only. Natural revelation is a major category in the history of Christian thought.

    3) You haven’t actually exegeted the passage you quote, or even addressed the meaning of the terms I asked about. Instead, you just repeated the passage and terms without any interaction with actual texts and contexts. For example, Jesus goes on to specifically add or change things about the OT law, so “fulfill” can’t just mean “not change.” And in Matthew’s Gospel, “fulfill” never means “not change.”

    4) Nobody here is saying that we impose a modern morality on the Bible. Rather, people have argued for understanding the Mosaic law’s statements about slavery in the broader biblical context, from the decalogue to the OT prophets to the teaching of Christ himself. Indeed, folks have argued that our “modern” morality about slavery (not shared, mind you, by all the modern people who actually practice forms of slavery, from sweat-shops to sex trafficking) actually comes from the Biblical view of humans and their relationships. You might not agree that that is true (Bill L is currently debating this), but it does indicate that we aren’t simply imposing a modern view on Scripture.

    In sum, most of what you say just sounds like typical talking points, not actual dialogue.

  27. Oisin says:

    JWDS,

    “If a group is unable to impart good morals, then we should doubt that they can record facts.”

    So in the old testament, did God give the prophets the exactly correct moral law which they reported incorrectly which is why the Bible explicitly gets the problem of slavery wrong, or did God just decline to tell the prophets that slavery was morally wrong and even tacitly support it? Either God himself got it wrong, or the reporting of revelation was inaccurate, both of which are massive problems that are not fixed by saying that some of the things Jesus said kinda contradicted the prescriptions for slavery and we should just place more emphasis on these parts of the Bible.

    This is a huge problem for the morality of the Bible, or else the historicity of the Bible, and Tom seems to be leaning towards the historicity, which is why I say we should apply the same doubt of the factual nature of the work to the miracle claims along with the dubious moral quandaries.

    Regarding my previous comment, it should be obvious in context but: these people = people at the time of the events of the Bible, I never said anything about the OT prescribing sacrifice but I did say that it was regular practice among humans of the time which shows these people didn’t understand anything about how the world works and made up their own answers instead, schools of thought = ideas prevalent at the time. Hopefully this clears me of the sin of vagueness.

    “-begging the question: what about modern miracle accounts, even in scientific cultures? There are such things, so saying that belief in miracles is just because of ancient ignorance doesn’t actually work”

    We give no credence to these claims, despite confident eyewitness testimony of things like resurrection, walking on water, virgin conceptions, etc. Why do we give ancient shepherds our vote of confidence when we do not extend the same courtesy to the educated and sophisticated witnesses in modern times?

    “mistaken analogy: you compare the oral tradition of the ancient world to a party game (in the US we call in “telephone”). Do you know anything about the role of memory, written texts, community correction, etc. in oral cultures? Or anything about the historical study of the Bible, in which things are confirmed by other sources (textual and archaeological), etc.?”

    I know that eyewitness memory is well-known in psychology to be highly flawed and open to manipulation by one’s prior expectations and knowledge, and also by the influence of other people’s accounts, opinions and the way questions are phrased. The fact is that the historicity of the Bible relies on eyewitness accounts passed on by word of mouth and then recorded, with every generation of the stories being passed on by word of mouth the evidence gets weaker, and with every transcription and translation more so. We should doubt the historicity of the Bible, and as our moral intuitions inform our reading of the OT support of slavery, so too should our scientific intuitions inform our reading of the miracle claims.

    ” few people think that we know about God by reading the Bible only. Natural revelation is a major category in the history of Christian thought”
    Natural revelation cannot prove bible claims, as a deist I would claim natural revelation is the only trustworthy kind of revelation, for example, so this is irrelevant.

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven”

    Clear as crystal.

    Regarding point 4, you are saying that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being somehow got the problem of slavery wrong, at first at the very least, you are claiming he fixed this later via Jesus. Tom is telling us to ignore this huge problem, and I guess you are too. Doubting the veracity of one part of the Bible requires justification, and I claim it opens the door to doubting the rest of the claims of the Bible.

  28. Tom Gilson says:

    Who’s doubting the veracity of the Bible?

    Isn’t it clear enough by now that not all of the OT was meant to be a timeless teaching?

    Your quotation from Jesus is, as usual, out of context. I suggest you read Acts 10:1-48, and esp. the NT book of Hebrews. Then you can begin to understand what Jesus might have meant by all being accomplished.

  29. Oisin says:

    Tom,

    “Who’s doubting the veracity of the Bible?”

    You doubt that OT accounts, which state that owning slaves is moral, are still true moral laws that God requires us to practice.

    That section of Acts does not forbid slavery, Tom, is a good parable with a good message but the problems created have not been addressed. Notice that Jesus also didn’t condemn slavery, though he did advocate equal rights etc.

    “So in the old testament, did God give the prophets the exactly correct moral law which they reported incorrectly which is why the Bible explicitly gets the problem of slavery wrong, or did God just decline to tell the prophets that slavery was morally wrong and even tacitly support it? Either God himself got it wrong, or the reporting of revelation was inaccurate, both of which are massive problems that are not fixed by saying that some of the things Jesus said kinda contradicted the prescriptions for slavery and we should just place more emphasis on these parts of the Bible.

    This is a huge problem for the morality of the Bible, or else the historicity of the Bible, and Tom seems to be leaning towards the historicity, which is why I say we should apply the same doubt of the factual nature of the work to the miracle claims along with the dubious moral quandaries.”

    I notice that my best questions rarely get answered, apologies for quoting myself but this is the only important bit. I take back claiming you doubt the historicity, but I don’t get what your position is now, surely either God gave immoral injunctions at the time or the people didn’t take the moral laws down correctly?

  30. Tom Gilson says:

    Oisin, I do doubt the veracity of your cherry-picked rendition of the Bible. I’ll agree with you that far. Have you read the further context that I recommended in my last comment?

    That section of Acts wasn’t supposed to be about slavery. It was supposed to address your erroneous conception that every OT law was intended to be followed forever. That was the context in which I gave it. It wasn’t a parable either, by the way.

    You ask us to notice that Jesus didn’t forbid slavery. Has it even begun to occur to you that we’ve been asked to notice that about a million times lately? Jesus didn’t do much of anything by way of changing the law or economy of the times. Instead he died for every person equally, showing that every person is equal in God’s eyes, and began a long revolution of changing persons’ hearts so that slavery was discovered to be wrong on a principled basis.

    This re-quote of yours is simply uninformed with respect to biblical teaching:

    “So in the old testament, did God give the prophets the exactly correct moral law which they reported incorrectly which is why the Bible explicitly gets the problem of slavery wrong, or did God just decline to tell the prophets that slavery was morally wrong and even tacitly support it? Either God himself got it wrong, or the reporting of revelation was inaccurate, both of which are massive problems that are not fixed by saying that some of the things Jesus said kinda contradicted the prescriptions for slavery and we should just place more emphasis on these parts of the Bible.

    This is a huge problem for the morality of the Bible, or else the historicity of the Bible, and Tom seems to be leaning towards the historicity, which is why I say we should apply the same doubt of the factual nature of the work to the miracle claims along with the dubious moral quandaries.”

    Where on earth did you get it that I was questioning the historicity of the Bible? I mean, really, where? That’s just bizarre. If you’re going to make things up out of whole cloth like that, you’re going to get called on it. Do you have the slightest justification for your saying that?

  31. JAD says:

    [This is a continuation of the post I started at #23]
    5. We need to evaluate the laws concerning ebeds in their cultural-historical context not from a conceited modern perspective. Debt servitude for Hebrew ebeds was contractual & temporary (not to exceed six years) and sometimes even fully voluntary. There were also protections for the ebeds against serious bodily injury and laws stipulating how they were to be personally treated. (Deuteronomy 15:12-14). Compared to other ANE cultures, was the treatment of ebeds more or less humane? I don’t see how anyone, who does their “homework”, could conclude that it was less humane.

    We should also compare the Israelite system with other historical analogs. For example, OT servitude more closely resembles the system of indentured servitude and apprenticeship, which was available to poor whites during colonial times, than it does southern plantation slavery. Virtually no one thinks of indentured servitude and apprenticeship as slavery.

    6. Billy Squibs asked:

    Can anyone [t]ell me if there was a legal distinction made between Hebrew slave and non-Hebrew slaves? Did the same rules apply to both?

    Yes, the laws for non-Hebrew slaves were different. According to Unger’s Bible Dictionary:

    The majority of non-Hebrew slaves were war captives, either of the Canaanites who had survived the general extermination of their race under Joshua, or such as were conquered from the other surrounding nations . Besides these, many were obtained by purchase from foreign slave dealers ; and others may have been resident foreigners who were reduced to this state either by poverty or crime. The children of slaves remained slaves, being the class described as “born in the house” , and hence the number was likely to increase as time went on. The average value of a slave appears to have been thirty shekels (from New Unger’s Bible Dictionary)

    On the other hand, foreign slaves were still protected by the Israelite laws pertaining to foreigners.

    While foreign slaves could be made slaves for life, the laws regarding the general treatment of slaves applied to them as well (Lev 24:22, Num 15:15-16). The law made it clear that foreigners were not inferiors who could be mistreated (Ex 23:9); instead they were to be loved just as fellow Israelites were (Lev 19:33-34).

    http://www.rationalchristianity.net/slavery_ot.html#foreign

    According to OT scholar Peter J. Williams, in the year of Jubilee, which occurred every 50 years, all “slaves”, including foreign slaves, were to be set free. (Leviticus 25:8-11)

    Again, from a modern perspective this is far from ideal. However, foreign slaves living in ancient Israel did appear to have it better.

    7. Finally, there are some principles from the OT “slave” laws that I think could be applied to the modern world. For example, during the economic downturn in 2008-2009 I lost my job. (My so called “permanent” job.) Because of my continuing unemployment, I’ve had to gut my retirement savings and apply early for Social Security. Five years ago I was very well off and part of the middle class. I have now slipped into poverty… That’s where I’ll be for the rest of my life. The intent of the OT debt servitude system was to prevent poverty (Deuteronomy 15:4). Is that the intent of our modern capitalist system? If you study these OT laws objectively you’ll discover that they were skewed toward the “worker”, not the “employer”. That’s not true of our system… We’re still operating with a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest form of capitalism which treats people no better than machines, with most of the “rights” skewed towards the employer and capitalist. Tell me again, why do you think our modern system of labor laws is more moral than theirs was?

    Well, keeping with the theme of seven reasons, those are my seven reasons as to why I think OT “slave” laws were moral.

  32. Tom Gilson says:

    Qin Dynasty, Bill L.? I put the question to a China expert I know. He wrote,

    Highly ironic, crediting the Qin Dynasty with outlawing slavery! This is the guy (Qin Shihuang) who forced millions to work on the Great Wall and his own tomb, then buried tens of thousands of workmen with him when he died. This guy is not usually considered one of the great humanists in Chinese history. The poster must either have a black sense of humor, or be rather ignorant of Chinese history.

    Wang Mang was a famous flake; doubt his reforms went far, either.

    Your response?

  33. Oisin says:

    @Tom in 31,

    If you think I’ve used that quote wrong, do explain why it’s wrong, telling me to read other things won’t make it go away. The meaning of the quote is clear.

    See my other comments for quotes, for example #14, reading in context is something you should do too instead of accusing me of making things up.

    Did God get the problem of slavery wrong?
    Is slavery morally good like JAD says?
    Did the people skew the way the Bible presents its stance on slavery?
    Did Jesus fix a problem with the OT?

  34. Tom Gilson says:

    Oisin, see comments 9 and 23.

    I never said or even thought that telling you to read something else would change the meaning of the quote. My advice to read something else wasn’t directed toward that. I was just saying that if you read those other sources you would likely move toward discovering what the quote actually means. Conversely, if you don’t read other sources, which by now you ought to realize are relevant to the matter, you really ought to be careful about assuming that you have the full picture.

    So please give yourself the intellectual respect of recognizing that a quote of context may appear to mean something different than it means in context. Every self-respecting thinker knows that the meaning of a quote may be both clear and also very wrong when taken out of context.

    On a smaller scale, but to illustrate the point, we have a skeptical and/or atheistic commenter on this very blog who says,

    owning slaves is moral

    Jesus came back from the dead

    And most shockingly, “I for one hope to drown in the sea

    Now, all of that is a gross and dishonest distortion of that commenter’s beliefs. I did it, as I said, on a small scale, pulling out parts of sentences without including the whole. It was really quite illegitimate of me to do that, and I hope you won’t take it too seriously.

    On the other hand, this same commenter recognized here, here, and here that context is crucial on a broader scale, noting that others had not read his or her comments in the context that was intended.

    So for someone to say, “The meaning of the quote is clear,” without knowing the full context of that quote, is rather rash, for the quote comes out of an extended work, and the general rule really is that context matters. I think you knew that, and I think the commenter I’ve quoted here knew it as well.

  35. Bill L says:

    Tom,

    You’re probably right. I haven’t really looked into them.

    Thanks

  36. Oisin says:

    Tom,

    You are avoiding the questions I asked. Your whole post could have been condensed down to “sometimes, if you do not quote things in full, the meaning is distorted”. I am perfectly aware of this, i do not think it is true in this case. You are free to dispute that, i am open to alternative interpretations of the quote, telling me i might possibly be wrong means nothing, however, equally i may be intpreting the quote perfectly.

    Regardless of the quote, you are asking us to ignore glaring problems in the written record of the instructions the creator of the universe gave to us, why do these problems exist? I have listed a few posibilities as questions in my last comment, why did you ignore them?

  37. Tom Gilson says:

    Sometimes I get really confused over how my comments are interpreted.

    Nowhere did I ask you to ignore glaring problems in the written record. I asked you to find out more about what they really mean. Don’t you see the difference?

    I did answer your questions, though you don’t realize it. Some time ago I directed you to where you could find some answers, with hyperlinks and all. Since you’re asking again now, here are my answers to your list of four:

    No,
    No,
    No, and
    No

    As for that last “no,” the problem wasn’t so much with the OT as it was with the people of the OT era. The OT was helpful for them in their circumstances of cultural development, but by the time it had done its work, through the experiences of God’s people, the words of the prophets, and especially the work of Jesus Christ (that’s what I wanted you to read Hebrews for) what had been helpful for them was not the right thing to be helpful for people of the age following Christ’s time on earth.

    I covered some of that in the OP, but not all of it.

  38. Tom Gilson says:

    Let me go back to #14. You have to understand I was finishing a book and publishing it while this was going on.

    Since we know that these people were not as morally advanced as we are nowadays, shouldn’t we also consider the fact that their knowledge and understanding of the nature of reality was not advanced either? Since we cannot trust them to impart morals well, should we not also doubt their ability to pass on stories accurately by word of mouth? This would leave many of the miracle claims extremely open to question.

    I’m not sure I see the connection. We do know that they were given to hyperbole in their war accounts, so maybe there’s something there. But an understanding of how a society should be structured is a whole lot more complex and difficult to catch up with than an understanding of what happened a week or a year ago; and no one supposes that humans were ever so poorly advanced that they couldn’t recognize and recall something like, say, the parting of the Red Sea.

    Since moral understanding is more developed now and we should use this new understanding when interpreting the Bible, why do we not use modern understandings of the nature of the universe over the strangely unrealistic sections of the Bible stories?

    Because this “modern understanding of the nature of the universe” is probably quite wrong, in my view and many others’. Apart from its contradicting the Bible, it also contradicts most of what it means to be human: rationality, consciousness, free will, objective morality, and so on

  39. JAD says:

    Oisin,

    Is slavery morally good like JAD says?

    That is not what I said. I argued that (1) the OT system of debt-servitude was not equal to our modern concept of slavery. (2) It was a very humane system (yes, therefore moral) for the time and culture. (3) It was not ideal, but neither is modern capitalism, which hasn’t solved our economic problems.

  40. Tom Gilson says:

    I missed this the first time I read it:

    if you do not quote things in full, the meaning is distorted”. I am perfectly aware of this, i do not think it is true in this case.

    I’m really curious how you can think anything at all about what it means in this case, when you don’t know the context. This comes across as prejudice, not as an informed opinion.

  41. Oisin says:

    Nowhere did I ask you to ignore glaring problems in the written record. I asked you to find out more about what they really mean. Don’t you see the difference?

    You said “A final word: because there is so much that is unknown about the ANE context, it seems unwise to judge God and the Bible on that. It makes a lot more sense to look at the New Testament, especially the work of Jesus Christ, and to make one’s decisions on that basis, where things are so much more clear.”

    The reason these slavery codes are unclear is because they contradict teachings that followed, but somehow you need to reconcile this fact with the fact that the Bible is the perfectly true word of the creator of the universe. You are proposing that people just give God the benefit of the doubt here, because the real answer is that one of my four options has to be true.

    It seems that maybe the way to reconcile this problem is that God has changed the moral laws since then:

    what had been helpful for them was not the right thing to be helpful for people of the age following Christ’s time on earth.

    Can moral law change? If so, is it truly objective?

    I did answer your questions, though you don’t realize it

    You have answered my questions now, but did not beforehand.

    no one supposes that humans were ever so poorly advanced that they couldn’t recognize and recall something like, say, the parting of the Red Sea.

    Patently untrue, the majority of archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that the Exodus never occurred because there is no evidence for it outside the Bible: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Exodus

    Because this “modern understanding of the nature of the universe” is probably quite wrong, in my view and many others’. Apart from its contradicting the Bible, it also contradicts most of what it means to be human: rationality, consciousness, free will, objective morality, and so on

    One does not need the Bible to understand the things you mention here, and from the above discussion we can see that it is a hindrance to discussing objective morality. Only because of the people who think that the Bible is the direct word of the creator of the universe would anyone even consider an argument for the morality of owning slaves.

    This comes across as nothing but prejudice lacking in evidence or information.

    Actually it’s a truth claim that is open to dispute, and you are not disputing it, just using ad hominems.

    JAD,

    That is not what I said. I argued that (1) the OT system of debt-servitude was not equal to our modern concept of slavery. (2) It was a very humane system (yes, therefore moral) for the time and culture

    My emphasis. I do not need to even consider whether slavery was ever moral, because I believe that the Bible was written by people and is not the direct word of the creator of the universe. Why did God decide that slavery was moral before, but is not now? How did he show that this decision had occurred?

  42. Tom Gilson says:

    Oisin, no, it’s not the case that one of your four answers has to be true. I explained that.

    You say, “The reason these slavery codes are unclear is because they contradict teachings that followed.” Sure, with certain caveats I prefer not to repeat again: but that’s only one reason of many. I gave additional reasons in the OP. To focus in on just one reason when there are many is not good thinking.

    Can moral law change? I didn’t say it could. The slavery codes were part of civil law.

    If you’re going to disagree with me, fine, but simply ignoring the reasons I gave for my position gets you and me nowhere. What you’re doing is disagreeing with something I didn’t say, or else insisting your answers are the only one while ignoring another one that’s been offered.

    This also shows that you’re not reading what you’re answering:

    You have answered my questions now, but did not beforehand.

    no one supposes that humans were ever so poorly advanced that they couldn’t recognize and recall something like, say, the parting of the Red Sea.

    Patently untrue, the majority of archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that the Exodus never occurred because there is no evidence for it outside the Bible: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Exodus

    What I was saying (Context!!!) wasn’t that the Red Sea was parted (that’s another discussion). I was saying that your conjecture was wrong, viz, that being morally underdeveloped might mean that they were also underdeveloped in reporting what happened to them. The Red Sea was just an example I gave in support of that point.

    Read more carefully, please!

    Actually it’s a truth claim that is open to dispute, and you are not disputing it, just using ad hominems.

    My goodness.

    Of course it’s a truth claim that’s open to dispute, and I’m disputing whether you’re in a position to make it, given that you’ve concluded what the passage in question means in context, and you don’t know the context. In other words, I’m giving reasons for what I say. That’s not ad hominem, that’s responsible discussion. Your accusation of “ad hominem” is bouncing right back at you, my friend.

  43. Tom Gilson says:

    I think, Oisin, that I need to pull out of this conversation so I can try to catch up with the other one going on here, with Bill L. That one seems to be going somewhere more productive.

  44. Oisin says:

    Tom, your position is weak, that is why you are backing off of communication. You are not making arguments against my points.

    Your reasons in the above post do not explain why God endorsed slavery. You use the phrase “benefit of the doubt”, but this means that you do not know the answer, but cite failings in our knowledge to claim that we should trust God on this one because he said moral things later. Why God endorsed such immoral behaviour before is not a question that was addressed whatsoever, I addressed with potential explanations in my comments, you have rejected them but not provided answers of your own.

    Fine, civil law, I don’t see what difference that makes.

    The accuracy of the Jesus quote does not allow you to sidestep these issues. I do not need to be an authority on the Bible to quote it, but if you are such then of course you can correct my interpretations, which you have not done, my level of authority does not change whether I was correct or incorrect, and I am not dogmatically attached to my interpretation.

    Questions that I think you need to answer:
    Why did God endorse immoral civil laws?
    Were the people of these times behaving immorally, and so sinning right up until Jesus explained how to be moral?
    In the Bible God does not condemn slavery, does this mean that slavery is not immoral?

    My answer: people wrote the Bible without God’s influence. Morality does not rely on revelation and can be discovered, understood and explained without recourse to the Bible. Understanding of God comes from natural revelation alone, the Bible is a book of myths collected by people who knew nothing about the true nature of God. Any exploration of the nature of God must be done in the here and now, subjectively, within the context of one’s own life. Deism is the only way to reconcile one’s experience of God with the newest findings in science, and can do so extremely satisfyingly, then we can begin reading the Bible for what it is: the attempts of our ancestors to explain their experiences of the divine in their lives.

  45. Oisin says:

    Here is a good account of why the responses here are inadequate: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_Bible

  46. Tom Gilson says:

    I’m pulling out of this conversation, Oisin, for the reasons I stated. You can draw your own conclusions, and I’m content with your exercising your privilege to do so. Other readers can exercise the same privilege. The whole discussion is there for them to peruse, and to decide what makes the most sense to them.

  47. SteveK says:

    My answer: people wrote the Bible without God’s influence. Morality does not rely on revelation and can be discovered, understood and explained without recourse to the Bible.

    A formed opinion without any information to support it. To discover morality means that you can discover that you were made in the image of God, made for his purposes – and know those purposes – without the aid of divine revelation. Or if you’re a naturalist – made in the image of nature, made for nature’s purposes, etc. etc. Good luck with that.

  48. JAD says:

    Oisin:

    I do not need to even consider whether slavery was ever moral, because I believe that the Bible was written by people and is not the direct word of the creator of the universe. Why did God decide that slavery was moral before, but is not now? How did he show that this decision had occurred?

    You obviously did not read either of my posts (#23 & #32). Again, I’m arguing (#1) that the OT system was one of debt servitude, which was temporary, contractual and had laws protecting the ebeds (servants) rights. It was nothing like (#2) the system of plantation slavery that existed in the American south before the civil war.

    (#1) was humane and moral, while (#2) was evil and immoral. They are completely different concepts. Do you understand that?

    What gives you the authority to say something is moral or immoral?

  49. Oisin says:

    SteveK:

    Morality is a measure of the wellbeing and suffering of conscious creatures. I cannot directly prove this claim, but it can be disproved, but if it is not disproved then I am justified in making the claim. To disprove it, you must be able to make reference to a moral claim or situation that does not involve the wellbeing or suffering of conscious creatures. This is simply what we are talking about when we use the word morality, it’s about the consequences of one’s actions on the self and other people.

    JAD:

    Again, I’m arguing (#1) that the OT system was one of debt servitude, which was temporary, contractual and had laws protecting the ebeds (servants) rights. It was nothing like (#2) the system of plantation slavery that existed in the American south before the civil war.

    You are selectively talking about male Hebrew slaves, but non-Hebrews were the slave-owner’s permanent property. This is chattel slavery, and is considered one of the most barbaric forms of slavery. Female Hebrews were also sold into slavery for life, with the option of marrying sons of the slave owner to be treated as equal again.

    My authority does not exist, the arguments stand on their own merits. Things I deem morally wrong are things that cause more suffering in the world, slavery is one of those things, to argue that slavery can ever be moral to me you would need to show that a world practicing slavery results in larger amounts of wellbeing and less suffering than a world without. Historically we can see that this is not the case.

  50. SteveK says:

    Oisin

    Morality is a measure of the wellbeing and suffering of conscious creatures.

    You cannot measure and evaluate something without first knowing which standard to apply to the data.

    We know the standard that we call well-being and by virtue of that we know what the lack of well-being is. Which one is morally good – and what exactly is good? We have no idea unless we first know what goodness objectively entails – which requires that we know God (standard of virtue) and what humans are (essence) and what humans were made for (purpose).

    Maybe humans are a grouping of mindless matter in motion, formed by nature for the purpose of destroying the earth, or maybe they were formed for no purpose at all, or maybe humans are spiritual beings made in the image of God for the purpose of knowing and loving God. Can you discover any of these things just by measuring various cause/effect relationships as it relates to human biological functions and lifespan? No.

    We’ve been discussing this in the comments here. I don’t want to repeat everything on this thread so if you are interested, read the comments there.

  51. Oisin says:

    Morality is a human invention, just like maths. Wellbeing is good and suffering is bad, this is their nature, if you tried to claim otherwise it simply wouldn’t make sense because wellbeing constitutes the things we want and the experiences we want, and suffering constitutes the things we don’t want and the experiences we don’t want. Morality is the collective measure of these things. God would skew this measurement, by virtue of right actions resulting in eternal happiness, and wrong actions resulting in eternal damnation if you believe in Hell, but this morality would still be based on wellbeing and suffering. If this is not what morality is, you need to be able to give a moral example (moral or immoral) that has no recourse to wellbeing or suffering.

    Slavery causes suffering, therefore it is morally wrong. You might disagree on morality, and perhaps adhere to divine command theory, in which case you either need to claim that slavery is moral because it is prescribed for in the Bible, or that God told us that slavery is morally wrong, which is a claim that has yet to be justified and in fact contradicts things that the Bible explicitly says. Tom urges us to give God the benefit of the doubt here, would you agree?

  52. JAD says:

    So your views about morality, Oisin, are just your opinion, right? Do you, or anyone else for that matter, have the right to force his/her opinion on other people?

  53. Oisin says:

    JAD,

    My views on morality are objectively either true or false. Either my claim is true, and moral discussion means discussion of collective wellbeing/suffering, or that is not what it means and so I’d need to change my view. I am confident that this is what morality means, because it is indisputable (so far in my experience).

    Force my opinions on someone?

    I presume you are thinking my views on morality are subjective, but no. There are objective facts to be known about our brains, so there are objective facts to be known about wellbeing and suffering, so there are right and wrong answers about how to maximize wellbeing and minimize suffering collectively. I guess my authority is empirical evidence.

    Regardless of which, no-one is attempting to defend the Biblical view anymore. You have really chosen a bad place to try to defend it (the issue of slavery), I kinda regret pushing my skepticism this far into the discussion.

    The only thing I can say in this regard is please take a look into deism and pantheism, it makes so much sense and removes the need for battles against science and crises of faith. Without this authority placed in a single book, we can suddenly view god in a new light: a truly transcendent being/thing whose qualities seem to be of a supreme order and logic, so stunningly complex and beautiful that the experience of it really defies explanation. Moral questions suddenly don’t require us to think people are evil, only that some people are damaged, or dreadfully mistaken about our universe, and we can truly begin to try to build the best possible world for everyone by trying to fix the problems that the “evil” people are suffering from. We can come to knowledge of god through study of his creation, including ourselves and our inner experiences, all of these are pieces of the puzzle as we attempt to unravel the mind of the creator of the universe. Scientists become, not enemies or reductivists or people without access to beauty, but people engaged in dispelling the mystery behind the idea of god and instead attempting to truly comprehend the vastness that lies all around us and inside us.

    This is how I see the world, I put this here to show that I am not some typical atheist or skeptic, though I realise it’s not really central to the discussion.

  54. JAD says:

    Oisin:

    Moral questions… don’t require us to think people are evil, only that some people are damaged, or dreadfully mistaken about our universe, and we can truly begin to try to build the best possible world for everyone by trying to fix the problems that the “evil” people are suffering from.

    [WARNING: I’m invoking Godwin’s law here.]

    So Hitler was not evil? The Nazi’s were not evil? Auschwitz, Trblinka… and the extermination of six million Jews was not evil? But the Jewish O.T. law was? I’m stunned that someone could think that way. Are you anti-semitic?

  55. Oisin says:

    They were immoral, evil implies they were willingly evil. They were under the impression that they were doing good, otherwise they couldn’t have behaved the way they did. They were wrong, probably the most wrong anyone has ever been.

  56. Andrew W says:

    Oisin wrote:

    They were immoral, evil implies they were willingly evil

    Clarification:
    * “immoral” => in conflict with Oisin’s morality
    * “evil” => in conflict with their own morality
    Is this correct? If not, I don’t understand the distinction you are making.

    Issue: (emphasis mine)

    under the impression that they were doing good

    I thought “evil” was the opposite of “good”. Yet “impression that they were doing good” suggests that “good” is objective (at least with respect to Oisin’s morality) but “evil” is not. How the heck does that work?

  57. JAD says:

    Bill L wrote @ #13:

    I think what may seem a bit odd here is that in the 18th Century, you could take half a dozen Pacific Islanders and plop them down in downtown London with a few days of instructions and expect them get along just fine adjusting to the new rules. If that could be done, why not a higher moral code delivered by a visible active God?

    As others have already requested, I’d like to see some more documentation about Bill’s claim here; but even if something like this did happen, exactly the way Bill describes it, we’re talking about changing a whole agrarian based tribal culture, not just a few cooperative individuals. Would what he is suggesting (God, or anyone else, introducing modern like ethical norms into an ANE culture) even be a practical possibility? With that in mind, consider the following thought experiment:

    Suppose the elders of some ancient near east agrarian based culture (this doesn’t need to be ancient Israel) decide to adopt a law in which they unconditionally offer sanctuary to any run away slaves from any other country. Would this kind of law be realistic in a practical sense for such a culture at that time in world history? For example, how could they have avoided being overwhelmed by refugees?

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