Every so often the religion editor of one of the larger online news sites asks me (along with a handful of other people he calls his “faith council”) for comments on news reports, or answers to questions about the Bible or religion. He has begun an irregular series of articles on the Bible that focuses on those parts of it most attacked by critics. Not too long ago he focused on slavery. Some critics of the Bible have suggested that it supports slavery—or at least doesn’t condemn it.
I pointed out that critics of the Bible are odd in how they read it. They do things with the biblical text that they would never do with any other works of literature. They read the Bible very naively, and accept the understandings of the most ignorant. I doubt that they’d seek out a flat-earther to explain cosmology, but they do the equivalent when it comes to the Bible. Who’s more likely to give an accurate portrayal of Hinduism: Mahatma Gandhi or Hindu nationalists who blow of mosques and murder people? Who’s more likely to give you an accurate portrayal of Islam, a Sufi mystic or the Taliban? And yet, when it comes to the Bible, critics want to interpret it the way slave holders in the old South did, rather than the way the abolitionists did.
Which side seems more likely to have an accurate concept of the Bible: slave owners or those who opposed slavery? It was abolitionists motivated by their faith who spearheaded the abolition of the slave trade. Why not listen to John Newton, the former slaver trader who became an Anglican minister, as well as the author of the well-known hymn, Amazing Grace? Why not listen to what the MP William Wilberforce had to say?
Something else needs to be stressed: the Bible never encourages people to own slaves. It never commands, “thou shalt own slaves,” it never argues that slavery is a good thing, and it never teaches that people deserve to be slaves or that some people are better than others. Instead, the Bible uses the image of slaves being freed as a metaphor for sinners being rescued from sin and guilt. Consider the story of the Exodus, when God rescued the Israelites from 400 years of slavery in Egypt and how the New Testament used it to picture redemption. In fact, the common New Testament Greek word used for “redemption” was a technical term that meant “to buy from the slave market and set free.” In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he compares the Israelite’s passage through the Red Sea when they left Egypt to baptism(1 Corinthians 10:1-14). In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Hosea purchased his wayward prostitute of a wife out of the slave market to serve as a picture of how God would rescue Israel from its bondage to idolatry (Hosea 3).In the New Testament, Paul very explicitly states that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Paul did tell slaves to be obedient and work hard, but he told all Christians, regardless of their circumstances, to be obedient to those in authority and to work hard. He also told slaves that if they could gain their freedom, they should certainly do so (1 Corinthians 7:21-23). In his letter to Philemon, a slave owner, Paul encouraged him to free his runaway slave Onesimus.
Jesus rather specifically taught that all the commandments of the Bible can be summarized with just two: to love God and to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). Paul also reiterates this (Romans 13:9-10 and Galatians 5:14). Thus, when one thinks about interpreting the biblical materials and the stories it contains, it should be understood that if you interpret it in a way that leads you to violate either of those commandments, then you’re doing it wrong. Since critics of the Bible invariably choose the worst of the possible interpretive options, they can’t help but be consistently mistaken.
One other point that needs to be made: the people and events in the Bible are not always to be taken as “go and do likewise.” Many of the stories in the Bible are designed to demonstrate what NOT to do. They are negative examples. If you find that the biblical story or events make you uncomfortable, or if you think what happens is a bad idea, then that might, in fact, be the point of the story. Too many people, critics and believers both, entirely miss the point of what’s going on. The critics’ use of the Bible consistently reminds me of the words attributed to Cardinal Richelu: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” Consider the use politicians and pundits make of the sound-bited words of their opponents. It’s so easy to take a person’s words and make them mean exactly the opposite of what they really intend. The Bible, given its status and how it’s embedded in western civilization, unsurprisingly gets sound-bited a lot, by believers and critics alike.