Friday, June 2, 2017

"God Did It" Explains the Ethical Treatment of Slaves

Victor Reppert has pointed out a piece of apologetic fluffery that he sees as evidence that the biblical Yahweh raised the ethical level of the Hebrews above that of the rest of the world.  The article, found in the blog Cold-Case Christianity , discusses slavery in the biblical Hebrew culture, and makes the claim that under Mosaic law, the practice was humane and ethical, especially as compared to the form of slavery practiced in the New World in more recent times.  More on these claims later.  With this "evidence" in hand, Victor believes that the behavior of the Hebrews, as influenced by Yahweh's law, rose to an elevated standard of morality that couldn't be explained under naturalism, which he supposes would entail that people act only in their own self-interest.
You can call Yahweh a moral monster, but somehow, he managed a quantum leap forward in the moral consciousness of the Western world. Quite an accomplishment for the most unpleasant character in all fiction. ... I think these leaps are hard to explain naturalistically. - Reppert

First, let us discuss the claims made by this article at Cold-Case Christianity.  The author (J. Warner Wallace) uses Old Testament verses to show that the Hebrews adhered to various laws that required humane treatment with regard to their "servants".  He notes that there were different forms of servitude, including sometimes voluntary servitude for economic reasons (as when someone sells himself or a family member to be an indentured servant), and the kind of slavery that more closely resembles what was practiced in America, imposed upon people acquired by force (usually as a result of warfare) from other nations.  Wallace goes on to cite all those biblical passages that dictate a measure of humanity, and requiring release from servitude after six years.  But in doing so, he fails to differentiate which of those laws applied to Hebrew servants and which of them applied to foreign slaves.  He concludes:
While it is clear that the ancient Israelites did possess slaves, it is also clear the reason for their possession, the manner in which they were treated, and the manner in which they could be released was very different from the institution of slavery in more recent times in Europe and America. - Wallace
Of course, this is a rosy picture, which may be pertinent to the treatment of fellow Hebrew servants, but not to foreign slaves, which was completely glossed over by Wallace.  The reality for those foreign slaves was quite different.  Wallace conveniently failed to cite this passage from Leviticus:
Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves.  You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other. - Leviticus 25:44-46
Clearly, not all slaves were treated the same.  The fact is, foreign slaves were chattel, owned permanently, and subjected to punishing life-long labor or sexual servitude.  The treatment of foreign slaves in the Hebrew culture is discussed in a more honest manner by James Diamond in this article

So where does this leave Victor's thesis?  It is based on a revisionist lie peddled by Christian apologists.  I am aware of no genuine historical evidence that indicates the Hebrews were even slightly more ethical than their non-Hebrew contemporaries in their treatment of slaves.  And a fair reading of the bible, too, shows us that Yahweh as depicted therein was every bit the moral monster that atheists often claim.  After all, those claims are based on the bible itself - not some cleaned-up revisionist reading of it.  The biblical Yahweh is no model of ethical rectitude by our modern standards.  But even if the Hebrews were more ethical than their contemporaries, the bible still condones forced slavery.  If Yahweh wanted to raise the ethical level of his people, why wouldn't he just ban slavery altogether?  And if he was constrained to lifting us up one step at a time, why did he start out at such a level of barbarity?  Why did slavery ever exist in Yahweh's world?

And what can we say about Victor's claim that naturalism can't explain the ethics exhibited by the Hebrews?  Hogwash.  First of all, it is simply not true that naturalism could only result in behavior that is strictly self-interested.  This is yet another trope of the apologists that I dealt with recently (in this article).  Actually, natural evolution does explain tribalism, which is the source of altruistic behavior toward one's fellow countrymen, and hostility toward outsiders.  The Hebrew laws, which favored fellow Hebrews and dealt more harshly with foreigners, are a perfect example of tribalism.  At the same time, we can't deny that the general level of ethics among human-kind has increased over time.  This bears no visible relationship to religious beliefs or practices, but it is related to the gradual expansion of human relationships outside the immediate tribe, as we develop commerce and travel.  In modern times, many of us no longer view ourselves as members of a localized tribe.  Our tribe is all of humanity.  And consequently, our tendency toward a broader altruistic behavior has expanded along with our relationships.

None of this can be explained by religious beliefs.  Those beliefs after all are nothing more than a reflection of our natural ethical tendencies.  But natural human ethics evolve along with our changing human relationships and dependencies.  This occurs despite the biblical texts that express a morality forever stuck in the iron age.  I find it difficult to understand how someone like Victor can deny that that ethics change over time, and that God could have ever condoned slavery if that was not part of his "absolute moral values" from the beginning.


  1. If, for the sake of this argument, we grant the thesis that the Hebrews treated their slaves more ethically than the Western world, especially the New World, doesn't that imply that Christianity degraded the moral level enjoyed by the Hebrews?

    1. That's a good point. And they used the bible to justify it.