Tough verses in the Old Testament

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #1

I’ve been reading through the book of Leviticus and have come across a couple of verses that I wouldn’t be able to explain if an atheist where to bring them up. I understand that I’m supposed to look at the context, but even then I don’t just don’t comprehend what God means by them.

The first instance is found in Leviticus 25. God has just introduced the 50 year jubilee to the Israelites where every fifty years the people of Israel are to take a whole year off from work, and all land sold along with Israelites who had to sell themselves into slavery for financial reasons were to be redeemed. Land was returned and Israelite slaves set free. The verses in question here is verses 39-46:

If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God. As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.

It sounds like here that here that God allows the Israelites to own heathen slaves but any Israelite slaves are shown favouritism. They are to be treated as brothers while the heathen are treated as property. I don’t know how to reconcile this.

The next instance in the next chapter, Leviticus 26. Here, God tells the Israelite what to expect if 1) they keep their side of the agreed covenant, and 2) if they stray away from God and His ways. The verse here is verse 29, where God promises what will happen if they reject Him:

Yet if in spite of this you do not obey Me, but act with hostility against Me, then I will act with wrathful hostility against you, and I, even I, will punish you seven times for your sins. Further, you will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters you will eat. I then will destroy your high places, and cut down your incense altars, and heap your remains on the remains of your idols, for My soul shall abhor you. I will lay waste your cities as well and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your soothing aromas. I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle in it will be appalled over it. You, however, I will scatter among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, as your land becomes desolate and your cities become waste. Leviticus 27-33

I don’t understand if God means verse 29 (in bold) is meant to be literal or not.

(Matt Western) #2

Great questions, and some tough verses to think about, and the first one was a real good one to think about “Why did God tell Israel to free slaves that were Israelites, but were allowed to keep foreign slaves as long as they wanted” - is it favouritism.

I did find some clues on a page by Paul Copen - the second link has a section ‘Owning Foreign slaves’. What do you think of what Copen writes (it’s too long to paste into here)?

interestingly, if you google for: “You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves”, the fourth hit is a book by Maximillien de Lafayette called “The Evil Verses of the Bible and why the Biblical God is Worse than Hitler”. I will be interested in others adding to this thread with some further thoughts.

The second reference

Further, you will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters you will eat.

is a prophetic judgement as far as I can figure out, and was fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar? It’s not a command as to what the Israelites were to do, but rather one part of judgements you list in the verses…

Gill’s Exposition: And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons,… Which was fulfilled at the siege of Samaria, in the times of Joram, 2 Kings 6:29; and at the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, Lamentations 4:10; and though there is no instance of it at that time in the sacred records, the Jews § tells us of one Doeg ben Joseph, who died and left a little one with his mother, who was very fond of him; but at this siege slew him with her own hands, and ate him, with respect to which they suppose Jeremiah makes the lamentation, Lamentations 2:2; and of this also there was an instance at the last siege of Jerusalem, by Titus, when a woman, named Mary, of a considerable family, boiled her son, and ate part of him, and the rest was found in her house when the seditious party broke in upon her, as Josephus (q) relates:

and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat; of which, though no instances are given, it is as reasonable to suppose it was done as the former. Some of the Jewish writers ® think, that in this prediction is included, that children should eat their parents, as well as parents their children, as in Ezekiel 5:10.

Hopefully that Is that a helpful start? :slight_smile:

(SeanO) #3

@O_wretched_man The only thing I could add to @matthew.western’s excellent reply is that so often we look at these laws in the Torah and we imagine in our minds how they were applied. But very often we forget to look at how God actually treated foreigners throughout the Old Testament. Ruth was a Moabite and yet she became an ancestor of King David and ultimately the Messiah. Rahab was also welcomed into the people of Israel, even though a Canaanite, when she feared the Lord. God healed Naaman of his leprosy and the temple had a section dedicated for foreigners to come and pray.

If we actually read the OT - we see there were many laws put in place to protect foreigners, slaves and the poor - and that in practice God always honored anyone who chose to do what was right. So I think we have to be careful not to imagine in our minds that these laws were applied harshly when all of the evidence of how they were acted out is to the contrary.

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #4

Your first two links don’t work, at least, for me anyway. It says “Error loading page.”

I was also wondering how we could explain these types of verses to atheists as well. An atheist could very easily grab, for example, the second verse I have:

Further, you will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters you will eat.

Boy, that puts one in a tough spot, doesn’t it? It sure sounds as if God is commanding the Israelites to eat their children. Don’t tell Sam Harris or he’ll write a book about it.

@SeanO I am aware that God did command the Israelites to treat strangers dwelling in their land well:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 22:21

These verses (that I highlighted in my original post) for could very easily come up in a conversation with an skeptic. I remember watching William Lane Craig’s debate with Sam Harris about the bases for morality. After WLC stated his points and backed them up, he them basically deconstructed Harris’ position (morality based on human flourishing). Instead of responding WLC’s points, Harris attacked the Old Testament of which the university crowd got a good cheer. This is what I mean. To attack the OT is much more rhetorically powerful and much harder to respond to. WLC stayed on topic and so didn’t respond to Harris at all. How can we defend the OT without having to dive into a long-winded response on ancient biblical history? I guess I should read Paul Copan’s book on this subject. I own a copy, but I have a ton of books I’d like to get to as well that I have yet to read.

(SeanO) #5

@O_wretched_man William Lane Craig may have shown great wisdom in sticking to his main line of argument in this instance. Harris used an ad hominem attack against God. It’s not rational, but all of the people already in agreement with Harris would obviously be in strong agreement - as evinced by the jeering.

I think when talking with unbelievers we must be wise - are they really interested in listening / learning or is their mind already made up? Proverbs warns us against trying to instruct a mocker:

Proverbs 9:8 - Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.

If they are open to learning, I think that some issues, like some of these difficult passages, do require some reflection / study and we should be open to walking with them through that process.

One other tactic I’ve seen apologists use is to go back to Jesus. What Harris is doing is trying to take the attention off of Craig’s arguments - to distract people from truth by appealing to their baser instincts - their pride in their own position and rationality. Sometimes we just need to keep coming back to the cross - back to Christ - back to the call to taste and see that God is good.

The Covenant Curses

I agree with @matthew.western that this verse is clearly - very clearly - even to a skeptic - not a command to the Israelites. It is obviously punishment against the Israelites for their disobedience to the covenant. It is not a command - it does not say what to do. Rather it says what will happen if Israel chooses to disobey - as a consequence of their sin they will be judged and that judgment will be terrible.

It does not say ‘you should’ but ‘you will’ - it is obviously a description and not a command.

Leviticus 26:27-30 - “‘If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. 29 You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you.

(Matt Western) #6

Hehe, I hear you about taking some verses like these. :wink: I’ve often heard the joke about Christians reading the Bible out of context, just randomly looking for verses in a ‘lucky dip’ method to try to find God’s will in their life. The joke goes:

The story is told of a man who used this method. The first verse he happened to turn to was Matthew 27:5 which says Judas “went and hanged himself.” Since he was not sure how this verse applied to himself, he flipped to another passage and the Bible fell open to Luke 10:37: “Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise .” The man was quite upset and he did not know how he could ever obey that, so he decided to turn to one more place. Again he opened the Bible at random and to his horror his finger fell upon John 13:27: "Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. "

Sometimes even a Bible teacher with a hobby horse might pick some passages out to support a viewpoint and you listen and go, hmm, is this what the text says, or are they pushing some sort of agenda, or trying to say that the members of the church should uphold a personal standard based on a weak argument. If a speaker goes to a passage and reads one verse, and launches off into a teaching, I want to read the surrounding chapter… and we all should go and check it out for ourselves.

I’ve created two PDF files of the two web pages in case others have trouble as well with the links.

Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery_ An Overview.pdf (291.6 KB)
Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery_ Examining Difficult Texts (Part 2).pdf (301.2 KB)

The section of interest


“[Israelites] are not to be sold in a slave sale. … As for your male and female slaves whom you may have — you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves” (Leviticus 25:42–46, NASB6).

This text troubles many, but consider the following points. First, according to Leviticus 19:33,34, Israel was to love the stranger in the land.Also, Exodus’ laws (Exodus 21:20,21,26,27) protect all persons in service to others — not just Jews —from abuse.7

Second, the verb acquire [ qanah ] in Leviticus 25:39–51 need not involve selling or purchasing foreign servants as property . This verb appears in Genesis 4:1 (Eve’s having “ gotten a manchild,” KJV); and 14:19 (God as “possessor of heaven and earth,” KJV);8 and Boaz “acquired” Ruth as a wife (Ruth 4:10) — clearly a full partner and not inferior.

Third, the “aliens” in servitude (Leviticus 25:45) are the same ones capable of sufficient “means” to purchase their own freedom (verse 47). They were not inevitably stuck in lifelong servitude. The text continues: “if the means of a stranger or of a sojourner with you becomes sufficient” (verse 47). The terms stranger ( ger )and sojourner ( toshab ) are connected to the terms used in verse 45. That is, these “acquired” foreign servants could potentially better themselves to the point of hiring servants themselves. (Of course, an alien’s hiring an Israelite servant was prohibited.) In principle, allpersons in servitude within Israel could be released, unless they had committed a crime.9

Fourth, in some cases, foreign servants could become elevated and apparently fully equal to Israelite citizens.For instance, Caleb’s descendant — Sheshan’s daugher — ended up marrying an Egyptian servant: “Now Sheshan had no sons, only daughters. And Sheshan had an Egyptian servant whose name was Jarha. Sheshan gave his daughter to Jarha his servant in marriage, and she bore him Atta” (1 Chronicles 2:34,35, NASB). Here we have marriage between a foreign servant and an established free person with quite a pedigree. The key implication is that inheritance rights would fall to the servant’s offspring, Atta.

Fifth, God required Israel to give foreign runaway slaves protection within Israel’s borders and not let them be returned to their harsh masters (Deuteronomy 23:15,16); kidnapping slaves was also prohibited (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7).Thus, we need to understand Leviticus 25 with these general humanizing protections in mind.

Sixth, since non-Israelites were not to acquire land in Israel, homeless and landless foreigners would not have much choice but to attach themselves to Israelite households as servants, which might have been the only alternative possible — and not necessarily a bad alternative.John Goldingay writes: “Perhaps many people would be reasonably happy to settle for being long-term or lifelong servants. Servants do count as part of the family.” He adds: “One can even imagine people who started off as debt servants volunteering to become permanent servants because they love their master and his household” (cp. Deuteronomy 15:16,17).10

Seventh, various scholars see the “Hebrew” servant of Exodus 21:2 as a foreigner without political allegiances who has come to Israel.Note thathe was not locked in to lifelong servitude (unless he chose this); he had to be released in the seventh year — presumably to go back to his country of origin .

These, then, are some of the sticky Old Testament servitude passages, and reasoned explanations for them. In the next issue of Enrichment , I will look at slavery in the New Testament.