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You’ll notice that I keep coming back to this theme – that ancient people simply weren’t as advanced in their knowledge as we are today, so a lot of their writings ended up being badly misguided. Up to this point, I’ve mostly been discussing this in terms of their understanding of the physical world; but now I want to shift gears and turn to a different area in which the biblical authors’ limited worldview led them to believe things that we now recognize as badly outdated: namely, their approach to morality.
Now, don’t get me wrong, a lot of what the Bible has to say really is deeply inspiring and valuable. Passages like “love thy neighbor” and 1 Corinthians 13 are a couple of the better-known examples, but there are plenty more where those came from. There are also, of course, plenty of parts that are basically morally neutral – all the long genealogies and so on. What can’t be overlooked, though, is that in addition to these good and neutral parts, there’s also a sizable proportion of the Bible that contains a shocking amount of bigotry and brutality – the kind of thing that may have seemed normal at the time it was written, but would get a person sent to prison if practiced today. So while it’s true that there are some genuine diamonds in the rough, the “rough” that they’re buried in is really rough; and I consider this to be yet another very good reason not to take the Bible’s teachings entirely literally.
Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about. To start off, you probably already know how commonplace slavery was when the Bible was written, what with the Exodus story of the Israelites’ escape from bondage in Egypt and all. What a lot of Christians aren’t as aware of, though, is the fact that the Bible never actually condemns slavery itself as an institution – only the fact that the Israelites were the ones being enslaved at the moment. Aside from that one exception, the Bible is actually unambiguous in its support for slavery, even going so far as to give specific instructions for how to buy and sell slaves (Exodus 21:2-9, 22:3; Leviticus 25:44-46; Deuteronomy 15:12), how to mark them as your property (Exodus 21:6; Deuteronomy 15:17), how to beat them (Exodus 21:20-21), and so on. New Testament passages like Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18 admonish slaves to obey their masters with respect and fear, and Luke 12:46-48 suggests that if an unruly slave were to act out, there’d be nothing particularly outrageous about his master torturing him or even chopping him into pieces. Genesis 16:6-9 tells the story of a slave running away from her abusive master, only for God to send an angel to stop her and turn her back, telling her that she must submit to the one who abused her so harshly. And Exodus 21:7-11 even goes so far as to provide instructions for how to sell your own daughter into slavery; apparently this was such a common practice among God’s followers that it warranted its own section.
None of this ever raised any eyebrows among early biblical readers – because the Bible’s target audience was adult Israelite men, and as was typical for civilizations of the era, the concept of moral equality for anyone outside that narrow circle just hadn’t really been established yet. This meant that anyone who wasn’t an adult Israelite man got the short end of the stick – and that included not only non-Israelites, who were routinely enslaved, but also women and children (both Israelite and not), who were generally regarded as little more than property themselves.
Exodus 21 is one of the places where this oppressive stance is most overt; in addition to the verses mentioned above, Exodus 21:4 adds that if a master gives one of his slaves a wife and she bears him children, then if that slave is later freed, neither the wife nor the children may join him, because they still belong to the master (never mind their personal happiness and the sanctity of the family).
But the attitude that women and children must always be subservient to men goes well beyond explicit cases of slavery. Right from the beginning, Genesis 3:16 establishes that the role of the husband is to rule over his wife, and the role of the wife is to submit to her husband. The New Testament echoes this sentiment, with Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:4-5, and 1 Peter 3:1-6 commanding wives to obey their husbands in all things, and 1 Timothy 2:12 even saying outright that a woman must never be allowed to teach or hold any kind of authority over a man, but must instead remain silent, contributing value to her community only by bearing children. 1 Corinthians goes further still, saying not only that women must never be allowed to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), but also that they must keep their heads veiled due to their inherently subordinate nature (1 Corinthians 11:1-13). And according to Numbers 30:3-16, a woman can’t even make a vow or pledge to do something unless her husband or father permits it (forget about entering into contracts).
Templeton elaborates on the role of women according to the Bible:
An unmarried woman was regarded as the property of her father or of a brother. A father could, at his option, give her away or, indeed, sell her to a prospective husband. He could also sell her as a slave and she had no say in the transaction. A prospective groom paid what was called a “bride price,” in part because the bride had some value around the house and in the bedroom and because if she bore him children they would be the property of the husband. If a man seduced a virgin he was required to pay her father a bride price and do so even if the father refused to give her to the seducer in marriage.
Married, the woman remained a chattel. If her husband died before she bore him a son she was not permitted to marry anyone outside the family. Her husband’s brother was required to take her as his wife and the first-born son of that marriage bore the name of the dead husband.
A man could offer his daughter as a prize. King Saul offered his eldest daughter to the man who would bring down Goliath, and his youngest daughter to the man who would bring him the foreskins of one hundred Philistines.
How’s that for status!
And this attitude becomes especially manifest when it comes to the issue of adultery. Templeton continues:
Adultery was defined as “lying with another man’s wife” and was viewed from the male perspective only. If a man committed adultery he was regarded as having transgressed, not against his wife, but against the husband of the woman with whom he had the illicit relationship.
Really, by the Bible’s logic, it wouldn’t even have made sense to accuse a man of “transgressing against his wife” by taking on another woman; after all, as Templeton notes, “a man was free to have as many wives and concubines as he could support.” (Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David all had multiple wives, and Solomon famously had hundreds.) It was only when he slept with a woman who had already been claimed by someone else – infringing on another man’s marital property – that any wrongdoing was considered to have occurred. But by the Bible’s reckoning, such a transgression against another man really was a serious offense; any such infringement constituted a capital crime.
The Bible’s penalty for adultery, according to Leviticus 20:10, was death for both the man and the woman. If a man even so much as suspected his wife of committing adultery, he could take her to a priest and make her drink a special potion which, if she was guilty, would cause her womb to miscarry – God’s version of a forced abortion (Numbers 5:11-31). After that “trial,” she would have to face the consequences of her sin: a painful execution.
Similarly, if a man married a woman and then (after sleeping with her) became suspicious that she might not have still been a virgin when she married him, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 says that her family had to produce evidence of her virginity – otherwise, the men of her city were commanded to drag her to her father’s doorstep and stone her to death. Leviticus 21:9 adds that if any priest’s daughter were unchaste, she likewise had to be killed – burned to death by fire. (What about unchaste sons? There’s no mention of any penalty for them at all.)
The running theme here is that the Bible only considers a woman’s life to have value if she’s sexually “pure.” If she has slept with any man other than her husband, then her life is forfeit. Horrifyingly enough, this even applies to cases of rape; if a woman is betrothed to be married to one man but then is raped by another man in her city, then Deuteronomy 22:23-24 says that she should be killed outright – the rationale being that if she had really “not wanted it,” she could have cried out more loudly for someone to come rescue her. In the case of unmarried virgins, it’s slightly different; if the woman is not betrothed to anyone at the time of her rape, then there’s no death penalty for either herself or the rapist – rather, the only penalty is that the rapist must pay her father 50 shekels of silver and then take her as his wife (since, after all, she’s “damaged goods” now, and her father won’t be able to marry her off to anyone else, but can at least sell her to the rapist himself and still have it count as her having “never slept with anyone other than her husband”) (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Never mind whether the woman herself has any desire to marry the man who raped her; the only thing that matters is that her father be reimbursed for his financial loss (sort of a “you break it, you buy it” policy). In fact, the Bible has so little regard for women’s welfare that in several places it flat-out encourages rape. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 says that if you’ve conquered a rival tribe and find an attractive woman among the prisoners you’ve captured, you should take her home, rape her, and force her to be your wife. According to Judges 5:30, it’s your right as a conqueror; women are included among the spoils of war just like livestock or any other kind of property.
This brutal reality, that women are so deeply deprived of their autonomy in the Bible – not even able to choose who they want to marry, much less what their husbands do to them afterwards – adds an especially dark dimension to the aforementioned law that adultery be punishable by death. As Tom Robbins points out:
Virtually all marriages [from biblical times through] the Middle Ages were arranged between strangers, and the Church disallowed divorce. Therefore, romantic love was almost exclusively a function of adultery. It was for adulterers that troubadours sang their courtly ballads, it was for the attention of another fellow’s wife that the jouster risked the lance.
By making adultery punishable by death, then, the Bible was often making romantic love itself a capital crime. This might seem almost cartoonishly fiendish to us today, but the men who wrote the Bible weren’t exactly the romantic type. According to 1 Corinthians 7, even getting married at all was considered to be less than ideal; if at all possible, it was preferable for everyone to remain chaste and unmarried for life. As Jason Curry puts it (quoting 1 Corinthians 7:9), marriage was regarded as “a lesser-of-two-evils compromise for Christians too weak to resist their sexual urges, ‘for it is better to marry than to burn.’” The idea that a more humane or respectful attitude toward gender relations might be possible – much less a genuinely warm and loving one – doesn’t seem to have even occurred to the biblical writers.
Having said all this about the biblical laws regarding relationships between men and women, though, the laws might be even worse when it comes to the relationships between parents and their children. Leviticus 27:3-7 actually places a dollar value on human life, and makes it clear that the life of a woman is worth about half that of a man, and that the life of a child (one month to five years old) is worth one-tenth of that of an adult (age 20-50). The lives of babies less than one month old aren’t assigned any value at all.
And the parenting advice offered up by the Bible affirms this low valuation of children’s lives. Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-15, and 29:15 repeatedly stress the importance of regularly beating your children to keep them in line, and Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that if they’re particularly disobedient, you must bring them out into the town square and stone them to death. This commandment is echoed in Exodus 21:17 and Leviticus 20:9, which say that anyone who curses their parents must be put to death; and Jesus himself affirms it in Matthew 15:4 and Mark 7:10. Just for good measure, Proverbs 30:17 adds that anyone who disobeys their parents will have their eyes plucked out by ravens and devoured by eagles.
So far, then, the pattern here seems to be that the most vulnerable groups – slaves, women, children – are the ones that the biblical God has the least moral regard for. But his vindictiveness doesn’t stop with just them; in Leviticus 21:16-23, he expresses his contempt for the disabled as well, forbidding everyone with physical “defects” – i.e. everyone who has a blemish, or is blind, or is lame, or has a flat nose, or has broken hands or feet, or has a crooked back, or is a dwarf, or has an eye defect, or has scurvy or scabs, or has damaged testicles – from even approaching his altar, lest they “desecrate” it with their imperfection (never mind that he was the one who gave many of those people their traits in the first place). He reiterates himself in Deuteronomy 23:1-6, saying that no eunuch may be permitted to enter the congregation of the Lord, and adds that no one born out of wedlock (nor their descendants) may be allowed in either. He even forbids certain races – the Ammonites, the Moabites, and their descendants – from ever entering his congregation; so we’ve got racism too along with everything else. How does this square with the idea that he loves everyone and wants everyone to come to him?
Continuing the list of people on God’s blacklist, you probably already know that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. This is most famously expressed in Leviticus 18:22, which calls it an “abomination;” but it’s also reaffirmed in the New Testament – as in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which says that no man who is gay (or even “effeminate”) can go to Heaven, as well as Romans 1:26-32, which calls homosexuality “vile” and “worthy of death.” But the Bible doesn’t just instruct us to rebuke homosexuality as being worthy of death; as in the case of adulterers, non-virgin brides, and disobedient children, it insists that our duty is to actually drag gay people out into the street wherever we find them and execute them for their crime (Leviticus 20:13).
Likewise, if we encounter anyone who blasphemes God’s name with a curse (Leviticus 24:10-16), anyone who’s a witch or wizard (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27) – remember, this was back when people still believed that witches and wizards really existed – or anyone who does any kind of work on the seventh day of the week (Exodus 31:14-15, 35:2), the Bible says we must put them to death as well. It might seem insane to us today to kill another person in cold blood just for, say, working on a Sunday (would a modern-day version of this law still apply to ambulance drivers and firefighters?), but according to Deuteronomy 17:12, you’re not allowed to question it; questioning the commands of a priest is itself a crime that’s punishable by death. And if anyone should become so repulsed by all this killing that they decide that they’d rather worship a more merciful god instead, then not only must these nonbelievers themselves be killed (Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 17:2-5; 2 Chronicles 15:13), but according to Deuteronomy 13:6-18, you must find out where they live and burn their entire city to the ground, slaughtering every man, woman, and child you find there. Even if it’s “your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend […] you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death.” If there’s one thing that the biblical God finds utterly unacceptable, it’s the idea of religious tolerance.