This post is an appendix to Part 3 of the Conversation between me and Neal Campbell. You can read his post where he brings out these passages here and my response to him here. (To read my responses to each of Neal’s statements, click on the statement and the text will drop down.)
In order for us to begin to understand the severity of God’s judgment against the people of Numbers 31, we need to understand what happened in the story of Ba’al Peor as cataloged in Numbers 25. The virgins were spared in Numbers 31:18 because they had no role in what had happened in Numbers 25. They were also unable to continue the Midianite line by themselves. God’s command to destroy the Midianites was to protect Israel from themselves lest they again be seduced as they were in Numbers 25. These virgins who were spared were shown mercy. It is difficult for us with our modern lenses and sensibilities to understand this as merciful when it would be possible for these survivors to be married to their captors – something that may have been dreaded by them. Yet they were spared, and in the context of the Ancient Near East the taking of plunder in warfare, both human and property, was the cultural and societal norm.
So what do we do with a passage like this where we have not only slavery discussed, but the beating of slaves? The first thing that we need to remember is that the slavery we read about in the New Testament (Greek/Roman context) is not the same as slavery as we think of it over the past 500 years. Slavery as we read about it in the Old Testament (Hebrew debt-servanthood) is not the same as NT or recent historical past. It is a completely different concept. As challenging as it is due to our heightened and raw sensitivities, we need to be able to recognize the nature of slavery in it’s Ancient Near East context.
Slavery a la Exodus 21 would be better titled as servanthood or indentured servitude. It was typically an apprentice or servant like arrangement designed for the payment of debts. Paul Copan, chair of philosophy at the Palm Beach Atlantic University, suggests that the language of owner is reminiscent (although don’t take the parallel too far) of professional athletes today. Players are often traded from one franchise to another where they have a new owner, and must continue to honor their formal contractual agreement. This hardly suggests slavery.
In the communal environment of the ANE, debt was familial, not individual. As such, an individual could choose to sell himself (Lev. 25:47) in order to work of his debt, or he could offer up his wife or children in order to provide during lean times. We can see the fundamental difference in the commands given to slave owners. For example, in Leviticus 25:46, 53 we see these slaves were hired from year-to-year and were to be treated well (in comparison to other cultures in the ANE). Slavery wasn’t imposed on another. It was a voluntary, albiet less than desirable, situation.
Indeed, the Old Testament laws regarding slavery forbade lifelong servanthood. Masters released their slaves every seven years with all debts forgiven (Lev. 25:35-43). The slave in this context was deeply embedded into the home of their owners. Interestingly, provision was made for the slave who desired to permanently serve a particular master in Exodus 21:5. Isn’t it interesting that the Hebrew law required the release of the slave regardless of the master’s wishes, yet if a slave wished it, he could commit himself indefinitely?
The passage that Neal brought forth demonstrates the uniqueness of the laws governing slave ownership in Israel. Under the Babylonian Hammurabi code, masters could cut off the ears of disobedient slaves. Under that code, anyone helping runaway slaves would be subject to the death penalty. Yet the Bible has strict laws that serve to protect the slave from harm. If an owner accidentally injured a slave (knocking out a tooth or gouging out an eye), that owner would be required to set that slave free. The verse at hand holds the owners accountable for the lives of their slaves – if they kill a slave through discipline, that owner will now be put to death for murder! I could go on…the Bible says that kidnapping someone for the purpose of selling them into slavery is punishable by death (Ex. 21:16), runaway slaves were to be given refuge (Deut. 23:15,16).
Bottom line, there is no parallel to slavery in the context of Mosaic law to the slavery we know and abhor. This objection is one based on imposing a 20th century definition on an ancient context. An anachronistic error.
In the ANE, taking the king’s concubines was a way of symbolically dethroning the king and claiming his kingdom. This behavior by David’s sons (and, of course, David) was contrary to the command of God. Rape, infidelity, and sexual immorality was forbidden—which is why we see those who engage in these activities judged harshly.
God does not threaten the “rape of wives as punishment to men” in these passages. This is not a threat, but a prophetic utterance of what will come to pass as a result of their action. Just as if I were to say, “Because you have maxed out all of your credit cards, taken out title loans against your vehicles, and have several outstanding loans from payday loan services, you will surely come to financial ruin.” The difference would be that prophetic words uttered by Nathan under the instruction of the Spirit are certain to be accurate where my prediction, albiet likely, is not sure.
Look at Deut. 22:23-24 and notice the implication of the scenario as presented. The implication is not that the woman was raped, but that she engaged in sexual immorality willingly. If she were in the city and was taken against her will, she would have cried out. This law protects the man from an unjust accusation, because in this scenario she would be culpable for the offense as well. It also protects the woman. She knows that she must cry out and thus invalidates the tried and true tactic of the rapist, “Be quiet or I’ll kill you.” This law gives her motivation to struggle, scream, make noise, and resist her attacker regardless of his threats. As a result, she will be less likely to be raped. In Deut. 22:25-27 the offense occurs outside of the city where no one would be able to hear her cry and come to her aid, so the law shifts in her favor and she is protected.