Myth: The Bible is morally pure and free from atrocity.
Fact: The Bible if filled with countless acts of barbarism and tyranny.
The Bible is filled with countless stories of aggressive warmongering, genocide, pillaging, plundering, wanton destruction, sexual slavery, rape, misogyny, child abuse, homophobia, unfair laws, cruel and unusual punishment, the punishment of innocents, and brutal chattel slavery. God himself authorized all this, as entire chapters of alleged direct quotes from Jehovah show.
The Bible is filled with countless barbaric acts and tyrannical laws, almost all of them commanded by God. The following examples refute any claim that the Bible is an infallible source of morality, decency or fairness. But before we proceed, let's pre-empt three defenses commonly made by Christians.
The first is that any atrocious laws we find in the Bible were written by fallible humans, not God. However, nearly all laws in the Bible are presented as direct quotes from God, copied verbatim by religious leaders like Moses. Take, for example, Leviticus 20:1,9:
The second defense is that levitical law is obsolete and no longer valid today. But that argument is off-point: the presence of any atrocity or unfairness in the Bible, at any time in history, invalidates it as a source of eternal truth and morality.
The third defense is that humans do not have a right to kill or commit atrocities, but God does. However, this is not a defense, but a capitulation. The atrocities and immoralities listed here should be even less expected of a fair and perfect God.
Here, then, is the list that every Christian should know:
War, genocide and war crimes
To make room for Israel in the Promised Land, God ordered the "total destruction" of the seven nations that were already occupying it. (Deuteronomy 7:1,2.) The genocide was to be absolute, encompassing both people and animals: "Do not leave alive anything that breathes." (Deuteronomy 20:16.)
Once Israel had thus conquered the Promised Land, God ordered Israel to initiate numerous wars of aggression, killing all captive men and non-virgin women, and bringing any virgin women into sexual slavery. (Numbers 31:7,17-18.) God even ordered the suckling infants of the enemy to be massacred. (1 Samuel 15:3.) Sometimes God ordered the enemy cities to be lit on fire and destroyed completely; other times he ordered them to be pillaged and plundered. (Joshua 6:24; 8:2,8; 11:11; Numbers 31:25-40.) If a soldier found a female captive to be attractive, God allowed him to force marriage, and therefore sex, on her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14.) In modern times, this is called rape.
God also frequently caused or ordered the deaths of innocent children, infants and the unborn. He did this during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, the drowning of the entire human race during Noah’s Flood, the slaughter of Egyptian firstborns during the Passover, and the massacre of the Mideanites and Amalekites, among countless other examples. (Genesis 19, Genesis 6-7, Exodus 12, Numbers 31, 1 Samuel 15:3.)
The Bible’s treatment of women was abominable. Women not only had a submissive and inferior status to men, but they were considered chattel. (Genesis 3:16, Exodus 21:7-11, Numbers 30.) God set the monetary value of women at 50 to 66 percent of that of men. (Leviticus 27:3-7.) Women were to learn quietly and submissively from men, and were never to teach men or have authority over them. (1 Timothy 2:11,12.)
Double standards abounded. A wife found guilty of adultery was to be killed along with her lover. (Deuteronomy 22:22.) But, hypocritically, no law prevented a married man from carrying on with as many affairs as he pleased, as long as they were not with other men's wives. Likewise, prostitution was illegal for Jewish women. (Deuteronomy 23:17.) But there was no law forbidding foreign women to be prostitutes in Israel, or for Jewish men to frequent them which was a common practice. And if a master and his female servant had sex, and the woman was engaged to another man, the master merely had to pay a fine, but the woman was to be whipped. (Leviticus 19:20-22.)
The Bible found no fault with Abraham and Isaac for knowingly giving their wives to other men for sexual use. (Genesis 12:11-16; Genesis 26:7-10.) In fact, the Bible praised Lot and Ephremite for offering their daughters to be raped, so this fate would not befall their male guests. (Genesis 19:1-8; Judges 19:22-24.) If a man raped a virgin who was not engaged to be married, his "punishment" was to pay a fine and marry her. (Exodus 22:16.) As for female servants, male masters could legally rape them. (Exodus 21:7-11; Leviticus 19:20-22; Deuteronomy 21:10-14.) The Bible even shows such holy men as Abraham and Jacob forcing sex on their female slaves (Genesis 16:1-2, Genesis 30:9-10.) Curiously, Christians defend servitude in the Bible by claiming that the rights of these servants were "well-regulated." (!)
Throughout history, men have accused women of "penis envy," but the Bible contains many inadvertent examples of womb envy. The most famous is the story of Adam, who gives birth to Eve when God reaches into Adam’s body and pulls out the rib that eventually becomes Eve. (Genesis 2:21-22.) The story continues in a misogynistic vein, blaming the fall of the human race primarily on Eve, even though Adam ate the forbidden fruit too. As punishment, God tells Eve that her husband shall rule over her which is more of a reward than a punishment for Adam. God also afflicts Eve with pain during childbirth, a curse apparently so pleasing to the male writers of the Bible that they gratuitously repeated it twice. To make matters worse, the Lord then gives Eve a sexual attraction to her husband, so she will be constantly led into this painful state. But when it comes to Adam, God curses the ground, not Adam. (Genesis 3:16-19.)
The Bible claimed that if parents loved their children, they would punish them with a rod. (Proverbs 13:24, 22:15.) In fact, it encouraged heavy use of the rod, reassuring parents that the child "will not die." (Proverbs 23:13.) But even more incredibly, the Bible claimed that heavy, injurious beatings brought a spiritual benefit to the victim. (Proverbs 20:30.)
It gets worse. Parents could legally kill stubborn and rebellious children, as well as children who merely cursed, disrespected or disobeyed them. (Exodus 21:17; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Leviticus 20:9.)
Children were also frequently punished for the sins of their parents. Fathers could sell their daughters into slavery to pay a debt. (Exodus 21:7-11.) For a sin that Ham committed, his son Canaan was cursed to become "the lowest of slaves" to Ham's brothers. (Genesis 9:20-27.) A bastard was not allowed to enter the Assembly of the Lord -- and neither were his next ten generations. (Deuternomy 23:2.)
God ordered the death penalty for anyone engaged in homosexual acts. It also used ridiculing or hate language to describe homosexuality, including "perversion," "indecent," "unnatural" and "detestable." (Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26,27,32.) God also prohibited people from wearing clothes of the opposite sex, saying that the Lord "detests anyone who does this." (Deuteronomy 22:5.)
Law, order and government
Israel's government was based on dictatorship, not democracy or other forms of political or individual freedom. This dictatorship took the form of either a monarchy (1 Samuel 8) or a theocracy (Exodus 3). The Israelites tried a brief period of decentralized authority, where priests, judges and clan-leaders led the various tribes of Israel but each in dictatorial fashion. (Judges.) This only led to chaos and military defeat, however, and created the demand for a king. (1 Samuel 8.)
As with all dictatorships, law and order in the Bible were indefensibly harsh. The Bible authorized that all the following people should be put to death:
The Bible also allowed people to be punished by up to 40 lashes with a whip. (Deuteronomy 25:1-3.) Any woman who defended her husband in a fight by grabbing the private parts of his assailant was to have her hand cut off and with "no pity." (Deuteronomy 25:11,12.) A convicted thief who could not repay his theft was to be sold into slavery, even though a thief who has absolutely nothing is probably stealing food to stay alive. (Exodus 22:3.)
The Bible also featured unfair laws, like giving birthrights to the firstborn son. Such a son would inherit twice as much property as the others and become head of the family or tribe. (Deuteronomy 21:17.) Whether you believe in merit or equality, this law fails the fairness test on either count.
Another injustice is God’s punishment of innocent children for the sins of their parents. For example, God didn’t punish just Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit; he punished the entire human race (Genesis 3). In the Second Commandment, God says: "For I… am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me." (Exodus 20:5-6.) Why these future generations should receive such undeserved fates cannot be based on any system of personal justice or responsibility.
Curiously enough, the Bible contradicts this philosophy in Deuteronomy 24:16, which says "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin."
But perhaps the worst Biblical atrocity was slavery. It doesn't matter where you look the Old Testament, the New Testament, the words of Jesus, or the leaders of the Catholic or Protestant churches for 1,800 years all these sources legalized, approved or acknowledged slavery. The Bible has countless texts that explicitly, tacitly and directly support the institution of slavery, but none which explicitly condemn it. Christians have found many broad, indirect, and ambiguous texts that purport to oppose slavery, but these fail outright to the Bible's explicit approval of slavery. (1) For example:
In the Old Testament: The Fourth Commandment itself acknowledges that people may own "manservants" and "maidservants." (Exodus 20:10.) Other laws state: "The slave is [the master's] property." (Exodus 21:20,21.) "If you buy a Hebrew servant..." (Exodus 21:2.)
In the New Testament: Paul commanded: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear." (Ephesians 6:5, a command repeated in 1 Timothy 6:1, Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9, and 1 Peter 2:18,21.) Remember that Paul lived under the Roman Empire, whose slave system was one of the most terrible in history.
In the Gospels: Even Jesus used the master/slave analogy to describe God’s relationship to his followers. He went so far as to compare God to a master rightfully beating and torturing his disobedient slaves. (Matthew 18:23-35, Matthew 24:50-51, Luke 12:47). This is not the language of someone who opposes slavery as a great evil. How would we feel if Jesus compared his disobedient followers to a disobedient woman, who was justifiably beaten by her husband? Or a disobedient Jew, who was justifiably tortured by Nazis? The analogy is repulsive, and suggests an approval for brutal forms of slavery.
Christian apologists have many defenses of slavery in the Bible and the later Christian Church. Here are some of the most common:
"The Bible speaks of servants, not slaves." The word "slave" evokes the image of someone in chains being whipped by a cruel master, whereas the word "servant" evokes the image of a butler or maid, a much less offensive image. However, as we shall see below, the Bible allowed the horrible mistreatment of both slaves and servants alike, so the distinction is irrelevant. Furthermore, the Bible itself clearly distinguished a "hired hand" from both a slave and a servant. (Deuteronomy 15:18, Leviticus 25:39,40.) Scholars suspect that Christian translators changed the word "slave" into "servant" to avoid embarassment.
"The Bible regulates the treatment of slaves in humanitarian ways." This argument, popular with Christians, borders on complete falsehood. The Bible advocated the worst form of slavery possible: chattel slavery, in which slaves are the private property of their masters. (Exodus 21:20,21, Leviticus 25:45; Matthew 18:25, Philemon.) Like any property, a slave could be abused, exploited, bought and sold. The Bible permitted owners to beat slaves with a rod so severely that they could not get up for two days which is an extremely severe beating. (Exodus 21:20,21.) Whipping was another permissible slave punishment. (Leviticus 19:20.) The normal law of lex talion did not apply to masters who beat their slaves. If a master hit a servant and destroyed his eye or tooth, the master was not obliged to give his own eye or tooth in return, but to let the slave go. (Exodus 21:26,27.) Only if the slave died as a direct result of the beating was the master to be given an undefined punishment. (Exodus 21:20.) Masters were also allowed to rape and impregnate their female slaves against their will. (Genesis 16:1-2, Genesis 30:9-10; Exodus 21:7-11; Leviticus 19:20-22; Deuteronomy 21:10-14.) And the Bible tacitly admits that slaves were exploited (that is, not rewarded fairly for their work), because their lack of pay made them "worth twice as much as that of a hired hand" to the master. (Deuteronomy 15:18.)
Slaves who were foreigners or captured in war were open to the full horrors of slavery. They and their children could never be freed, unless the master wished. It was only Jewish slaves who held certain limited rights. Jewish slaves could be given the option of freedom after six years of service, or in the Year of Jubilee, which occured every 49 years. (Exodus 21:2; Leviticus 25.) If a Jewish male entered slavery with a wife, he could leave with his wife, but the master kept any wives or children that the slave acquired during slavery. (Exodus 21:3,4.) Jews could sell themselves to rich aliens living in Israel, but they were to be treated like hired hands, not slaves, and they and their family could buy their freedom back. (Leviticus 25:47-53.) The Bible says that Jewish slaves were not to be treated "ruthlessly" unlike foreign slaves, who could be brutalized. (Leviticus 25:44-46.)
"Slavery is not theologically compatible with the moral, ethical, psychological, spiritual teachings set forth by Jesus (e.g., Love thy neighbor as thyself)." This is only an indirect argument against slavery, and cannot begin to compete with direct and explicit authorizations of slavery like "Slaves, obey your masters." Furthermore, the Bible makes clear that it is possible to love and abuse someone at the same time. For example, a father who loves his son should beat him with a rod (and so severely that wounds result) fathers who hate their sons spare them physical abuse. (Proverbs 13:24, Proverbs 20:30.) The Bible also says a man can love and still dominate his wife. (Colossians 3:18-19.) So the Bible somehow thinks that it's possible to love people, even as you are abusing and dominating them.
"Jesus' goal was spiritual revolution, not socio-economic revolution against the Roman Empire." But the New Testament does make broad commentary on earthly laws and socio-economic issues. Jesus approved of taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22), a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor (mark 10:21-25), mercy in judicial matters (Matthew 7:1-6, John 8:3-11), and quick court settlements (Matthew 5:25). He further opposed Jewish leaders on such legal matters as divorce (Matthew 5:31,32, Matthew 19:1-9), swearing of oaths (Matthew 5:33-37), the technicalities of Sabbath observance (Mark 2:23-28), intentions of murder and adultery (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28), fasting (Luke 5:33-34), altar gifts (Matthew 5:23-24), and, most importantly, lex talion "an eye for an eye" (Matthew 5:38-41). His silence when it came to denouncing slavery is a deafening one, considering all the other legal and social matters he commented upon. Besides, the Bible does make a comment on the legal institution of slavery albeit in support, not opposition. (That same command: "Slaves, obey your masters.")
"Galatians 3:28 says: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female: for you are all one in Jesus Christ.’" Christians here are lifting this verse out of context. One must read the entire 3rd and 4th chapters of Galatians to see how Paul is clearly talking about spiritual unity and equality, and how anyone can be saved by faith. Salvation doesn't depend on one's social position in life. Indeed, Paul is conceding life's harsh realities: you may be a slave here on earth, but you'll be saved in heaven just like anyone else. This is hardly a call to tear down earthly slavery. You can see this point another way as well. Converting to Christianity doesn’t obliterate the differences between male and female, either not literally, and not socially. Socially, Paul still reserved quite different roles and positions for men and women. (See 1 Corinthians 14:35-36; Colossians 3:18.)
"When Paul returned Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, he exhorted him not to kill him, since Onesimus had converted to Christianity and was now his brother in Christ." Yes, but apparently Paul thought nothing of sending the successfully escaped Onesimus back into slavery. To put this into perspective, imagine that Philemon was regularly raping a woman. The woman escapes and finds Paul. But Paul sends her sends her back to her rapist, with a letter saying: "Please don't kill her, as you may legally do; she is a converted Christian. But you may continue raping her as before." Obviously, this defense misses the point.
"There are numerous examples of anti-slavery sentiment within the Christian Church down through history." But these voices were always in the minority, and never in positions of high authority within the Church. For Christianity's first 1,800 years, we find the church’s highest authorities and holiest texts consistently approving of slavery.
The implications of these findings
These texts prove that the Bible is not an infallible source of morality. True, there are laws that we can all agree on, like "You shall not murder." But there are also many laws that are indefensible. Even if Christians could find a technical, legalistic defense for some of these laws, then they would be hit with another problem: the same excuses could be used to dismiss their favorite laws, like the ones condemning homosexuality. Christians are placed in the impossible position of saying which laws in the Bible remain valid, and which are to be dismissed as barbaric relics. No one has ever proposed a coherent mechanism that selectively accepts some laws while rejecting others at least, not one that survives logic.
We should rely on the best principles of modern moral philosophy, and not archaic and barbaric laws, to inform our moral guidelines.
1. For a fuller description of the Bible's treatment of slavery, see http://www.religioustolerance.org/sla_bibl.htm.