Friday, June 26, 2009

The Plight of a Slave Girl

At this point in our study of the Book of Exodus, God has just given the popular version of the Ten Commandments and is continuing to provide commandments to Moses for the Israelites to obey. Collectively, all of these commandments will be the first complete set of laws which were given by God.

Because they are coming from God, not from man, it is reasonable to expect that these laws represent the epitome of justice. After all, if mankind can come up with laws which are more just than the laws which God provided, then it follows that God is not perfectly just. Besides, why would an infinitely wise God give man a set of morally imperfect laws? So let's take a look how God's laws stack up to our present-day morality. If there is a moral disconnect, either we need to change our morality or we need to recognize that God is not perfect in His justice.

The Plight of a Slave Girl
In most ancient cultures, women played a subservient position to men. They did not have equal rights. Today, while many countries have instituted equal rights for women under the law, many of those same countries still have strong cultural roles which maintain women as inferior beings. Even in the United States, a country born with the words “all men are created equal”, women were not given the right to vote until 1920 AD. And the former slaves in the U.S.? They didn't get true voting rights in the entire country until 1965 AD with the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the sluggish progress at times, it is clear that the trend in our morality is headed toward an egalitarian world view. Is that what God would want?

Depending on how you choose to parse the previous text, at approximately commandment number thirteen God begins providing laws which govern Hebrew servants, both men and women, in Exodus 21:2-11. These Hebrew servants were more like indentured servants than slaves, but the Israelites had true slaves as well (Leviticus 25:44-46). As best as I can discern, the rules for the slaves and the Hebrew servants were basically the same except that the Hebrew servants could become free again after 6 years of service. Well, at least the male servants, and the maidservants which sold themselves into bondage (Leviticus 15:12), could be free again.

According to Exodus 21:7, a maidservant sold by her father is not to be freed. (Notice that through this law God implicitly gives the father the right to sell his daughter into bondage.) The text of Exodus 21:7-11 seems to suggest that the reason for this is that this maidservant is only to be used for marriage, or at least some sort of consummated relationship. Some Christian commentaries go a step further and say that the reason why she is a maidservant as opposed to simply an espoused woman is that she is sold at young age, before puberty, so she is not fit to marry right away. That does not make make the situation any more morally appealing. Furthermore, it also suggests that the self-sold maidservants in Deuteronomy 15:12 as really being temporary concubines, because it implies that there are no other uses for maidservants.

Speaking of consummated relationships, this section has a couple to tackle. First, step back to Exodus 21:4-6 where you will see that if a master provides a wife for his servant, the wife and all of the resulting children belong to the master when the servant is freed. So much for the sanctity of marriage! Clearly, God finds that property ownership (the wife and children) trumps marriage. The only way the servant can keep his wife and family is to swear lifelong servitude to the master.

Second, we see in Exodus 21:10-11 that if “he” (which could be the master or his son) marries another woman and then neglects to provide the maidservant with food, clothing, and marital rights, she is free to leave without payment. That is at least somewhat fair, but you might expect some punishment to the husband for neglecting her for full justice. After all, few women were in the position to support themselves back then.

There is one more point to cover on the sexual role of a maidservant, but we have to jump to Leviticus 19:20-22. There you see that if a man has sex with a slave girl who was betrothed to someone else but not yet free, there is a given punishment. However, that punishment is not nearly as severe as it would have otherwise been if she was free (which would have been death). What this implicitly reveals is that unmarried sex with slave girls was normally acceptable. It is only because she was promised to be married that this was a sin, and the severity of that sin's punishment was reduced because she was still a slave. This is probably because part of a maidservant's expected duty was sex. Otherwise, it would make sense to treat it like any other case of adultery.

How maidservants were actually treated probably varied quite a bit from one master to another. However, putting the pieces together from our study thus far, it is reasonable to theorize that sexual gratification, with or without a marriage, was an expected duty of a maidservant.

What could you do if your maidservant did not “perform” for you? Well, as we saw above you could simply marry another woman and neglect the maidservant, thereby enacting a divorce. Also, because she is your property, you could beat your maidservant into submission, so long as she was still able to get up in a day or two (Exodus 21:20-21). Just try to avoid damaging an eye or breaking a tooth, because then she would be free to leave (Exodus 21:26-27).

The final point in our discussion reveals that slaves are not worth the same as free people. They do not get equal protection under the law. In case you did not catch that implication from the study above above, read Exodus 21:28-32 where you will see that if a man's wild bull kills a free person, the bull and the bull's owner get put to death. However, if that same bull kills a slave, the bull gets killed and the bull's owner only has to pay a fine to the slave owner.

So what did we learn here? God made laws regulating, not condemning, slavery, thereby providing implicit approval of slavery. Slaves and servants are considered property. Their marriages are subject to the rule of property. Men could sell their daughters into bondage. Maidservants likely had to fulfill sexual duties. Servants and slaves could be beaten severely as long as they were not killed, and as long as no eye or tooth damage was done. Servants and slaves do not get protection under the law equal that of free men, and furthermore their lives are worth less than free men.

These are God's rules, not mine. They seem to be contrary to our increasingly egalitarian society. And personally, they are offensive to my sense of morality. So what do you think? Is our society headed in the wrong direction by going down the path of equality, or is it simply that God does not have a sense of perfect justice?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Square Peg of Baptism

John the Baptist is an enigmatic character for Christianity to grasp. As we've seen, he offered a water baptism for the remission of sins, contradicting God's Plan of sin remission through both the Temple system and what was to come through Jesus. Furthermore, what he taught didn't really match the Old Testament prophesies or do much to prepare the way for Jesus' revolutionary system of Salvation.

In this study, we'll cover one of the most controversial episodes involving John the Baptist; the Baptism of Jesus.

The Square Peg of Baptism
You've likely heard the expression before: It's like trying to drive a square peg into a round hole. The only ways you can get a square peg to go into a round hole is to enlarge the hole or remove the squared edges of the peg. Metaphorically speaking, this puzzle accurately describes John the Baptist's baptism of Jesus.

According to the prophesies we covered last time, Jesus couldn't just magically show up on the earth to set things right. He needed a forerunner in the form of Elijah to prepare the way for Him. Who could that be? In the time in which Jesus reportedly lived, there was really only one possible, well-known candidate; John the Baptist.

Being outside of the Temple system's perpetuation of the status quo, John the Baptist seemed to be the only suitable man around who could have been considered a prophet of God at that time. There were false Messiah's of the time trying to lead rebellions, but there were no other men who could be seen as even remotely preparing the way for God to be in accordance with the scriptural prophesies. By necessity (and possibly in an attempt to garnish some of John the Baptist's popularity and credibility) John the Baptist played a part in the story of Jesus.

The problem was that if you include John the Baptist, his namesake, his baptism must somehow play an integral role. You may remember from the previous study that his baptism was for the repentance of sins. Enter; the square peg. That baptism would need to directly apply to Jesus, but Jesus is sinless. Enter; the round hole.

Three of the Gospels record that Jesus was baptized; Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22. Curiously, you'll see that Luke's account doesn't claim that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Perhaps he was just using the preceding text to imply that John the Baptist was doing the baptism, or perhaps Luke is intensionally vague to alter this incongruency and make it theologically possible that the only baptism Jesus had was one from the Holy Spirit.

If Jesus was sinless, what was the point of His baptism? Matthew 3:13-15 is the only account which seems to regard this conundrum. We see that Jesus requests a baptism, but John the Baptist tries to refuse and instead suggests that Jesus baptize him. Jesus tells him to go on and baptize Him to “fulfill all righteousness”. This seems to appear as though Jesus needed to be baptized with water to fulfill some prophesy, but no such prophesy exists. Perhaps instead this was just to fulfill a necessary part of God's non-communicated Plan. The baptism of Jesus still confounds scholars and ossifies critics to this day.

Immediately following the baptism, the three accounts (Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:10-11, Luke 3:21-22) claim that Heaven was opened up and the dove-shaped Holy Spirit incarnate came out of that Heavenly hole. This is a rather interesting concept to grasp; not the Dove-Spirit (which is odd in itself to have part of God join with another part of God), but rather the hole in Heaven. That's quite a worm hole! This linguistic artifact preserves the antiquated belief of that time that God's Heaven was situated right above the earth, and that if you could peal back the canopy of the sky, you would see God.

After the dove comes down, God's voice comes from Heaven saying that He is happy with His Son Jesus. Whether or not anyone else heard God's voice at that time is left for speculation.

The Gospel of John isn't entirely left out of the picture here. While John 1:29-32 does not mention Jesus being baptized, it does say that John the Baptist saw the Holy Spirit come down and remain with Jesus. Because the only mention of this happening is when Jesus gets baptized according to the other Gospels, it seems logical to say that John's Gospel implies a baptism by John the Baptist as well. However, given that John the Baptist was somewhat shocked by getting to baptize Jesus per Matthew 3:13-17, it seems very strange that John's account of John the Baptist's testimony doesn't include such an unforgettable and momentous occasion as the baptism itself.

Perhaps the strangest part of John's account of John the Baptist's testimony is in the verse immediately preceding the anointing of the Holy Spirit. In John 1:31, John the Baptist claims that he did not know Jesus prior to His anointing of the Holy Spirit. It's too bad that John did not have a copy of Luke's Gospel handy. Luke 1:36 tells us that Mary (Jesus' mother) and Elizabeth (John the Baptist's mother) were related. Luke 1:39-45 goes on to say how the fetus of John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth's womb when Mary spoke to her, and how Elizabeth knows that Mary is the mother of yet-to-be-born Jesus (as God). Then Luke 1:56 tells us that Mary stayed for three months with Elizabeth. Yet somehow the author of John expects us to believe that John the Baptist never met Jesus in the nearly 30 year timespan after that. While it is certainly possible, it seems implausible when you consider that Luke paints Elizabeth and Mary as having a tight relationship. After all, Elizabeth was the first person that Mary went to after finding out that she was going to have her holy child.

All of this contextual evidence supports the supposition of skeptics that at least parts of the story of Jesus were fabricated, if not the whole thing. The ill-fitting peg of John the Baptist's baptism was whittled down and glossed over in order to wedge it into the story of Jesus. The fact that the baptism story is similar in Matthew, Mark, and Luke suggests that they had early sources which they shared. The fact that John's Gospel skips the actual baptism and incongruently pieces together with Luke suggests that the story was evolving and developing in different locations which did not always have access to the same original sources.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ten Commandments, and Then Some

Ah, the Ten Commandments. They decorate several court houses throughout United States, and stand as a beacon and rallying point for Christians to show the infinite wisdom of God. What's funny is that most Christians couldn't list all of the Ten Commandments if you asked them. It's also funny that only a much more limited subset could name the often barbaric and intolerant punishments associated with the Ten Commandments. Perhaps the funniest thing of all is that the Ten Commandments aren't really the Ten Commandments, but that's another study.

The Israelites had been meandering around on their Exodus for three months. Immediately preceding the giving of these Commandments in Exodus 19, we see that God has them perform a purification ceremony in preparation. Moses and Aaron went up on Mt. Sinai to chat with God, while all of the other Israelites waited below.

In this study we'll take a closer look at just what God has commanded with the popular version of the Ten Commandments, and maybe get you thinking a little about why these aren't the true Ten Commandments.

Ten Commandments, and Then Some
Exodus 20 contains some of the most often quoted verses from the Old Testament; the popular version of the Ten Commandments. Even so, most Christians are hard-pressed to remember all of them, remember their associated punishments, or the exact circumstances in which they were given. So let's review:

Commandment Punishment
1 Worship only God (Exodus 20:2-3) Death (Exodus 22:20)
2 Don't worship idols (Exodus 20:4-6) Death (Exodus 22:20) up to four generations worth of some other punishment (Exodus 20:5)
3 Don't blaspheme (Exodus 20:7) Death (Leviticus 24:16)
...this sin will never be absolved (Exodus 20:7)
4 Don't work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11) Death (Numbers 15:32-36)
5 Honor your parents (Exodus 20:12) Death (Exodus 21:15, 21:17) a shorter time in the Promised Land (Exodus 20:12)
6 Don't murder (Exodus 20:13) Death (Exodus 21:12, 21:23)
7 Don't commit adultery (Exodus 20:14) Death for both the man and the woman (Leviticus 20:10)
8 Don't steal (Exodus 20:15) It varied widely depending on the circumstances.
9 Don't give false testimony (Exodus 20:16) Punished according to the crime (Deuteronomy 19:18-19)
10 Don't covet what doesn't belong to you (Exodus 20:17) No punishment given.

For those of you keeping track at home, you noticed that the death penalty gets applied to seven of the ten commandments. Ironically, the modern church's self-proclaimed “culture of life” is fighting what they call a “culture of death” in our times, and part of their battle is waged in trying to abolish the death penalty. How far they have fallen from the Truth...

Now here's what most Christians seem to miss: Exodus 20:18-21. The Israelites were seriously frightened by the all of the thunder, lightning, trumpet blasts, and smoke from the mountain which occurred when God was giving them these commandments. They were so frightened that they thought they would die if God continued to talk to them. They begged Moses to speak to God privately and relay the information back to them. Moses obliges, and going on from Exodus 20:22-26 to Exodus 23 is an uninterrupted and continuing list of God-given commandments. The matter is concluded in Exodus 24 with the acceptance of all of these commandments by the Israelites.

You see, it's not that God gave these ten commandments as special commandments. God didn't say “I will tell My top ten commandments to all of you, and then relay the rest to Moses.” God probably would have kept right on going with commandments if it wasn't for the fact that He terrified the Israelites with His voice. The actual words of “Ten Commandments” don't show up in the Biblical text until Exodus 34, and the phrase is accompanied by (coincidentally enough) another set of Ten Commandments.

(I find it somewhat amusing that God's volume control seems to only have two levels. He can either speak at a normal volume for speaking to one man or He can speak so loudly that it sounds like thunder and trumpets to the extent that it scares everyone. There is no in-between.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Oddly, the Desert Makes Me Thirsty

God is said to be our Heavenly Father, providing all that we need just like any good earthly father tries to do for his children. We're going to take a closer look at that claim in this study of His chosen children, the Israelites.

At this point in the story, the Israelites just watched the drowning of the entire Egyptian army in the Red Sea. The Israelites are beginning their forty year journey in the desert, although they don't yet know that. They likely believe that they will be going directly to the Promised Land (Exodus 6:6-8).

Oddly, the Desert Makes Me Thirsty
Parents see to it that their children have the basic necessities until they can fully take care of themselves. Food, water, clothing, and shelter, among the basest of needs, are provided to their children as if they are a given. And they are a given, as long as the parents love the children and have the means to provide them with these essentials. As a child, you may have been sent to bed without dinner some night as a punishment for what you had done, but you were never subjected to being on the brink of starving to death so long as your parents had money for food.

At least, that's the way it's supposed to be. Providing for the needs of your children is the foundation of what is considered good parenting. Many differing philosophies exist for what is considered the best way to raise children, but providing for the basic needs of your children is inconvertible.

Per the Bible, God is our Father (Matthew 6:9). Or, depending on your interpretation of the policy of Election, God is the Father of everyone that is Saved (such as Matthew 15:13). We are told that God loves His children (John 3:16). We know by God's reported omnipotence, that God has the means to fulfill any need, and in fact He wants to meet His children's needs (Matthew 6:26). God should not only be a good father, He should be a perfect father (Matthew 5:48). So let's see how God acts like a perfect father to His children, His Chosen People.

In Exodus 15:22 we find that Moses led the Israelites from the Red Sea and into the Desert of Shur. They traveled in the desert for three days without finding water. Three days. In the desert. Without water.

The desert area where they wandered would have averaged about ~80°F (~27°C) for early April. Contrary to the popular myth that you will die if you go without for three days, the information I found suggests that a person in good health may expect to live up to about nine days at that temperature when resting in the shade. Some factors can be a detriment to survival without water, such as being physically active, being in the sun and/or wind, or eating salty or dry foods (which would have been a part of the typical diet of that time). These factors were likely working against the Israelites.

It is possible that nobody was literally dying of thirst at that point. However, significant dehydration would have been expected across the Israelites, plus all of their livestock. Signs of dehydration include reduction of body and mind efficiency, headaches, and irritability.

Getting back to God here, we find that He chose not to provide them with water for three days during their desert journey. And it wasn't until they complained to Moses that God provided it (Exodus 15:23-25). So, unlike your imperfect earthly father who likely anticipated your needs as a child and provided you with the essentials without you having to ask for it, God waits around for a complaint or request.

Pop Quiz: Which father better demonstrates love of their children and understanding of their needs: a) one that takes them on a trip stopping regularly to ensure that they get enough food an water for each day; or b) one that waits three days before providing such basic and essential resources, and only then after solicitation? Keep in mind, this Father has infinite resources, wisdom, and power at His disposal.

(Momentary Interjection: On the heals of providing drinkable water, God makes a seemingly empty threat or broken promise. In Exodus 15:26 we read how God promises not to plague the Israelites with the same diseases that He bestowed on the Egyptians so long as they obey God's Law. As we'll find out as we continue through the Bible, the Israelites had a lot of trouble keeping God's Law, yet He has not plagued the Israelites accordingly. Note also that they didn't have a choice of accepting this deal with God.)

Now you might think that this episode was enough to jog God's memory as to the need of His children for water. Sad to say, it wasn't. In Exodus 17:1-7 we see how God led the Israelites to through the Desert of Sin (not sin as in transgression against God, but quite possibly Sin as in the Semitic moon god). It doesn't say how long they were without water, but the Israelites became so thirsty that they thought their children and livestock may die and that they were wondering if God was still with them. (They were, no doubt, irritable from dehydration!) In a semi-famous Old Testament moment, God stands in front of Moses while he whacks the rock at Horeb with his staff, and water came out of the rock. Moses calls this place Meribah.

Some may argue that this was done so that the Israelites would learn to rely on God. I don't think you could rationally paint it that way. They were already 100% reliant on God at that time, because God was leading them to a destination which only God fully knew. Only God knew how long the journey would take, so the Israelites could not prepare accordingly and did not know what to expect. They either needed to take matters into their own hands or they needed to trust God to ensure their survival. Given that they were still following Moses, we know what option they had chosen at this point.

Unfortunately, God still doesn't learn that His creations need water. Much later in Numbers 20:1-13 (and yet incredibly similar to the Exodus 17:1-7 account) the Israelites complained again of having no water, resulting in Moses whacking a rock and naming the place Meribah (sound familiar?). When they complained one more time about lacking water and other things in Numbers 21:4-8, they reached God's tolerance limit. He sent snakes to kill some of them. Love, God.

Water is something that is best consumed every day for health, and in the short term is more essential than food. In fact, perhaps the Lord's Prayer should include “give us this day our daily bread and water”. Neglecting such a need is, well, negligent. If a parent withheld water from their children for three days in the desert today, we would call it child abuse. However, this is God's righteous example of being the perfect father.