Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Slavery and the Bible

It is not uncommon to find atheists attacking the morality of the Bible on the subject of slavery, and in so doing, seeking to undermine the very foundations of the Christian faith. They observe—correctly, I might add—that the Bible never issues an outright condemnation of slave-holding, but only seeks to regulate its practice, thus seeming to give it tacit approval. There are numerous provisions in the law, for instance, governing the acquisition, sale, and treatment of slaves (e.g. Ex. 20:8-11, 17; 21:1-6; Lev. 25:39-46; Deut. 15: 12-18; etc.), but nowhere do we find an absolute prohibition stating, “You shall not be a slave-holder.” Neither do we find such an interdiction in Jesus’ teaching, even though he must have interacted with many slaves and slave-holders alike during the course of his ministry, and both figure prominently in his parables (Matt. 13:24-30; 18:21-35; 21:33-41; etc.). Nor do we find a command in any of Paul’s letters requiring masters to release their slaves, but only admonitions to treat them well (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-4). We even find him sending a runaway slave back to his master (Phile. vv. 8-22).

So what are we to make of these things? Atheist Sam Harris says that slavery is perhaps the easiest of all moral questions, and that the Bible gets it wrong. And of course if the Bible gets something this easy so wrong, then its teaching on other matters is also suspect.[1] Harris seeks to claim the moral high ground, which is rather an odd thing for an atheist to do. In a world where God does not exist, there can be no such thing as moral high ground, or low ground for that matter. In a world without God, there is only a vast moral flatland, where no behavior is morally superior to another. Morality is a word signifying nothing. If God does not exist, human beings are, to quote Bertrand Russell, nothing more than “accidental collocations of atoms.”[2] And what does it matter really if one accidental collocation of atoms should happen to capture and enslave another? The most an atheist can say about it is, “I don’t like it.” What he cannot say is, “It is wrong.” He can state his preference if he wishes; but his worldview does not permit him to make a moral judgment.

What is the Bible’s stance on slavery? We will address the subject in the following order:

What is a slave?
Unlawful enslavement
Lawful slavery
To alleviate the effects of poverty
To punish criminal behavior
To punish and restrain enemy nations
Female slaves
Foreign slaves
Treatment of slaves
Summary and Conclusion

What is a Slave?
The Hebrew word for slave is derived from a verb meaning to work. Thus, a slave is a worker, and he is acquired for this purpose. However, under Biblical law, a slave differs from an ordinary hired worker in that the slave becomes a member of his master’s household (cf. Gen. 14:14; 15:2-3; 17:12-13, 23, 27; 24:2; Lev. 22:11; etc.).[3]

Unlawful Enslavement
Biblical law neither approves of nor condemns slavery per se. Some forms are permitted, others forbidden. The distinguishing feature between them lies in the manner in which a person is reduced to the status of slave. Unlawful enslavement takes place when someone is forced into it against his will and without deserving it for crimes committed. Thus, the Bible in no uncertain terms condemns the practice of kidnapping for the purpose of turning free men into slaves.

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death (Ex. 21:16; cf. Deut. 24:7).

The severity of the punishment is indicative of how grievous this sin is in the eyes of God. He reckons “man-stealing” a crime punishable by death. Surprisingly, Harris fails to mention this passage.[4] Paul alludes to it, however, in his first letter to Timothy.

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers [lit., man-stealers] (1 Tim 1:8-10)

These prohibitions against man-stealing apply to private individuals as well as to criminal gangs, and even to rogue nations that make war for the purpose of capturing free men and making them slaves.

Lawful Slavery
Being kidnapped was not the only means by which someone in Israel might have become a slave. Biblical law, in fact, recognizes three morally justified scenarios in which one might have been reduced to this unfortunate status.

Alleviation of Poverty
The first of these was for the purpose of alleviating the effects of poverty. If a man had become so poor that he was unable to provide for himself, or was unable to repay a loan, he might sell himself as a slave to a wealthy neighbor (Lev. 25:39; Deut. 15:12). In this arrangement, the buyer assumed the responsibility of providing for the impoverished man and his family. In return, the man worked for the buyer in order to earn his keep. At the end of six years (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12), or in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:40)—whichever came first—he was to be set free. During his time of servitude, he was to be treated mildly, like a hired servant, not harshly, as if held against his will. This was, after all, a voluntary arrangement (though once entered, both parties were legally bound to fulfill the terms of the agreement). This arrangement might be thought of as a privately run, work-based welfare program, regulated by divine law. When the man’s term of service came to an end, the law required that his master supply him generously with the means to begin life anew.

When you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him (Deut. 15:13-14)

This was a compassionate arrangement that was mutually beneficial to master and slave alike. The master had the service of a grateful man whom he rescued from poverty; the poor man’s needs were met, and he would presumably learn the skills and develop the character traits necessary to live successfully as a free man. If he preferred, however, he might choose to continue as a slave in his master’s household.

But if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever (Deut. 15:16-17)[5]

Most people, I should think, would be glad to regain their freedom once they had recovered from poverty; but it is conceivable, given their kindly treatment, that some might prefer the security of slavery to the responsibilities of freedom.

Punishment of Criminal Behavior
The same arrangement might be made in the case of a man who came by his debt through criminal behavior. It is said of a thief, “He shall surely pay [i.e., pay back what he had stolen, plus an additional amount as a penalty]. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft” (Ex. 22:3). The same principles applied in cases with other forms of criminal or negligent behavior resulting in financial loss. Biblical law regards the wrongdoer as having a moral and legal obligation to compensate the victim (e.g., Ex. 21:33-34; 22:6). If he did not have the means to do so, he might be sold into slavery, with his purchase price going to his victim.[6]

To Punish and Restrain Enemy Nations
Another scenario in which slavery was recognized under Biblical law involves captives taken in war. The question of what to do with prisoners of war has often proved to be a vexing one. Releasing them, even after a formal end to hostilities, involves the risk that they will take up arms again. In order to avoid this, some victors have employed a policy of “no mercy” and have simply killed their captives. Others have chosen to put them to forced labor as state slaves or sell them to foreign nations.[7] Biblical law permitted this (Deut. 20:10-11). This was a more merciful option than killing them, was less risky than releasing them, and could help toward the recovery of some of the costs of war.

Female Slaves
In the same way that a man in the Israel might have sold himself as a slave to alleviate the effects of poverty, so he might have sold a son or a daughter (Neh. 5:1-5). The same provisions applied with regard to the time of service (i.e., release in the seventh year) (Deut. 15:12; cf. Jer. 34:8-22). In some cases, however, special provisions were made for a daughter:  the arrangement might include a promise of marriage (Ex. 21:7-11). If a man’s poverty was so great that he was unable to provide for his daughter, he might sell her as a slave with a view to becoming her master’s wife. This is what it means when it says that the purchaser “designated her for himself” (Ex. 21:8), i.e., he promised to take her as his wife when she should come of age. Or, instead of designating her for himself, he might designate her for his son (v. 9). Contrary to what some have alleged, there is nothing in the text suggesting that she was sold as a sex-slave for her master.[8] She was most likely charged with the household duties common to daughters. This was, in fact, a form of betrothal. The medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides says, “A Hebrew handmaid might not be sold but to one who laid himself under obligations to espouse her to himself or to his son, when she was fit to be betrothed.”[9]

A male Hebrew slave was to “go out” after six years of service. Not so the female slave in question (Ex. 21:7b).[10] She entered the arrangement with a promise of marriage. If her master changed his mind and decided not to marry her because “she does not please her master” (v. 8), he was guilty of a breach of faith (v. 8). To send her out as a young single woman with no means of support would have been an act of cruelty. She was to continue to be provided for in her master’s house, and he was to “deal with her as [kindly and affectionately as] with a daughter” (v. 9). I take this to include an effort to find a suitable husband for her. “If he takes another wife [instead of her] to himself [or for his son] he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Ex. 21:10). The Hebrew word for “marital rights” means “dwelling” or “habitation.” Some understand this as a euphemism for sexual relations and suppose that the girl has been living, not as her master’s betrothed, but as his concubine. It is better, however, to take the word in its basic meaning of “dwelling,” and regard her not as a concubine, but a bride in waiting. If her master, however, should decide against marrying her, and take another woman as his wife instead, he must not diminish her food, her clothing, or her living arrangements. He is bound by his original agreement. He may not take what was pledged for her support and give it to another whom he finds more pleasing. [11]

Foreign Slaves
Unlike Hebrew slaves, who must be released in the seventh year, foreign slaves might be kept in perpetuity and even passed on to one’s heirs. They might be purchased from other nations or from the resident aliens within the borders of Israel (Lev. 25:44-46).

The apparent harshness of this law must be viewed in light of the law as a whole as it regards resident aliens. Like native Israelites, resident aliens could not be enslaved, except as a punishment for crime or in order to pay a debt, and only after a formal conviction in a court of law. On the contrary, strangers were to be treated with kindness and consideration (Lev. 19:33-34). They were to be given access to the gleanings of Israel (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-21). Strict warnings were given against oppressing them (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:33; cf. Mal. 3:5). They were to be given rest on the Sabbath day (Ex. 20:12; 23:19). They had the same legal standing in court as native Israelites (Deut. 1:16; 24:17-18). They had the same right of asylum in the cities of refuge (Num. 35:15). They were not to be defrauded of their wages (Deut. 24:14-15). They could own Hebrew slaves (Lev. 25:47). And if they had been slaves in a foreign land and had escaped, they were to be given a safe haven in Israel (Deut. 23:15-16). Resident aliens could not hold office (Deut. 17:15); but they could serve as warriors and advisors (2 Sam. 18:2; 23:39). If they were converted from their pagan religion and worshiped the God of Abraham, they were admitted into the full religious privileges of Israel (Ex. 12:43-49; Num. 9:14). Full rights of citizenship, including the right to hold a governing office, could be granted in subsequent generations (Deut. 23:2-8).

What, then, was the rationale for allowing foreigners to be held as slaves in perpetuity? It may have been to encourage such slaves to convert to the worship of Yahweh, and thus be entitled to the terms governing the release of Hebrew slaves (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12).

Treatment of Slaves
Biblically sanctioned slavery did not regard the person but the labor of the slave as the property of the master. This is an important distinction. A slave-owner was not permitted to do whatever he wanted with his slave. It was required that masters allow their slaves to rest on the Sabbath and on other holy days (Ex. 20:8-11; etc.). If a master mistreated a slave so that permanent bodily damage resulted, the slave was to be set free (Ex. 21:26-27). If he killed his slave, the slave was to be “avenged” (i.e., the slave-owner was to be executed) (Ex. 21:20-21).

Manumission might take place in a variety of ways. As mentioned above, the law imposed a limit on the number of years a Hebrew slave might be required to serve, i.e., six years. At the end of this, he was to be allowed to “go out free, for nothing” (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12). More than this, his master was to send him away laden with livestock, grain, and wine (Deut. 15:14).

A slave was to be released early, however, if the year of Jubilee should arrive before the completion of six years (Lev. 25:39-41). He might be released early, even apart from the year of Jubilee, if he should be redeemed by his relatives (Lev. 25:47-49). He might even prosper sufficiently so as to redeem himself (Lev. 25:49).[12]

In Exodus 21:3-4 the issue of manumission is considered vis-à-vis the slave’s marital status and what should become of his wife and children when he is set free. There were three possible circumstances under which a slave’s manumission might take place:  (1) The slave might have been unmarried when he became a slave and continued unmarried throughout his years of service, in which case there was no one else to set free; (2) the slave might have been married when he began his service, in which case his wife was to be released with him; or (3) the slave might have been unmarried when he began to serve, but at some point during his years of service he might have been given a wife by his master. In this case, the wife and any children born to her were to continue in the master’s service, and the man alone was to be set free. This is not to say that they would no longer be married, but that he would be free, and his wife and children would continue to be subject to their master. “This may appear oppressive, but it was an equitable consequence of the possession of property in slaves at all.”[13] The master had a financial investment in the woman, and she would remain a slave under his authority until her newly freed husband could manage to redeem her. Her original purchase price naturally included her potential to bear children, and so the children also remained under the master’s authority until such time as they were redeemed.[14]

Summary and Conclusion
Let us summarize. Under Biblical law, slavery was permitted[15] for the following reasons:  (1) as a means of alleviating the effects of poverty, (2) to make restitution for financial losses caused by criminal or negligent behavior, and (3) to punish and restrain enemy nations. In all of these scenarios, the slave-holder had a legal claim upon the fruit of his slave’s labor.[16] Under no circumstances did Biblical law condone capturing or kidnapping free and innocent people in order to make slaves of them. Further, slaves had certain rights and protections that could not be denied to them.

This is slavery as it existed in Israel, regulated by the law of God.[17] And it is altogether different from how slavery was practiced elsewhere in the ancient Near East or in the Greco-Roman world. In these cultures, slaves had little to no legal protection. Not only the labor, but the bodies and souls of men were regarded as the property of their masters, who could do with them whatever they pleased, even kill them, without any legal repercussions. Slavery in Israel, as sanctioned in the Bible, was quite different from this, and quite different, too, from the slavery of the antebellum South, which had a racial component to it that has greatly complicated race relations in the U.S. ever since. To compare the slavery of the Bible, then, with slavery as it has existed elsewhere (and still exists in the Muslim world) is to compare apples and oranges. There are far more differences than similarities.

We should conclude by observing that the Bible clearly favors freedom over slavery. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) (1 Cor. 7:21). In other words, “Gain your freedom if can lawfully do so.” A little later he says, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (v. 23).

Slavery is by no means a creational ordinance. It is a state of affairs that did not enter the world until the fall of man. Apart from sin, there would never have been a need for it. Under Biblical law it was a corrective or remedial measure.

[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York, NY:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. 14-18
[2] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am NOT a Christian (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 107
[3] See Haim H. Cohn, in The Principles of Jewish Law, edited by Menachem Elon (Jerusalem, Israel:  Keter Publishing House, 1975), p. 231
[4] This is a glaring omission. So is his failure to mention the several other ways (distinguished in Scripture and discussed below), by which someone might have been reduced to slavery. Perhaps we should not be too surprised, however, by these omissions. In reading him, one gets the impression that Harris is not very interested in actually understanding the Scriptures or the real-life situations they address, and even less interested in representing them fairly.
[5] The pierced ear was a permanent visible sign of his pledge. The procedure had to be done with a priest as a witness in order to guarantee its voluntary nature (Ex. 21:6).
[6] This invites a comparison with the modern prison system, which is a type of enslavement, but without the work requirement, and thus without the personal and social benefits of restitution to the victim and the character development of the thief through productive labor and the daily oversight of a successful man. Cf. Eph. 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
[7] The problem of what to do with captives of war has been one of the dilemmas that the U.S. has faced with the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. The rationale for keeping them locked up is to prevent them from continuing their fight against the West either in terrorist acts or on the battlefield. In fact, a good number of these prisoners who have been released have reentered the fight. According to a National Intelligence summary report, it is estimated that nearly thirty percent of those released have done so: (Accessed March 15, 2015)
[8] Sam Harris, p. 15
[9] Cited in George Bush, Commentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications, [1843] 1993), p. 310
[10] Although as noted above, she might have entered this service without a promised marriage, in which case she was released after six years of service (Deut. 15:12).
[11] See the discussions in Umberto Moshe David Cassuto, A Commentary on Exodus (Skokie, IL:  Varda Books, 2005), p. 268-269; and Shalom M. Paul, Studies in the Book of the Covenant in Light of Cuneiform and Biblical Law (Eugene, OR:  Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), pp. 59-61
[12] This serves to show how mildly slaves were to be treated under Biblical law that they could conceivably purchase their own freedom.
[13] C.F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1989), vol. 1, p. 130
[14] Here and elsewhere the law recognizes the financial investment a master has tied up in his slaves and requires that he be duly compensated for their emancipation, either by the slave’s labor over a set period of time, or by a payment of money. This was how Great Britain finally abolished slavery throughout its realms; the British government compensated slave owners. This was an equitable solution to the problem, and one consistent with Biblical law. Similar plans were put forward in the United States but failed to garner enough support to be implemented. It took, instead, rivers of blood to put an end to it.
[15] Not commanded, but permitted
[16] These claims are often handled today by a court-ordered garnishing of wages.
[17] This is not to say that Israel always observed the law (see Jer. 34:8-22)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The surpassing love and tenderness of God

When our iniquity had come to its full height, and it was clear beyond all mistaking that retribution in the form of punishment and death must be looked for, the hour arrived in which God had determined to make known from then onwards His loving-kindness and His power. How surpassing is the love and tenderness of God! in that hour, instead of hating us and rejecting us and remembering our wickednesses against us, He showed how long-suffering He is. He bore with us, and in pity He took our sins upon Himself and gave His own Son as a ransom for us - the Holy for the wicked, the Sinless for sinners, the Just for the unjust, the Incorrupt for the corrupt, the Immortal for the mortal. For was there, indeed, anything except His righteousness that could have availed to cover our sins? In whom could we, in our lawlessness and ungodliness, have been made holy, but in the Son of God alone? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable working! O benefits unhoped for! - that the wickedness of multitudes should thus be hidden in the One holy, and the holiness of One should sanctify the countless wicked! (The Epistle to Diognetus chap. 9)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Reflections on Beauty

There are many defects of the modern mind, but surely one of the most serious is its being conditioned to prize mere functional utility at the expense of beauty. When we consider the value of something, we almost always do so in terms of its usefulness. What’s it good for?  What function does it perform?  Is it efficient?

The question we rarely seem to ask is, “Is it beautiful?” How often do we purchase something simply for the pure aesthetic delight we take in it?  Are we not inclined to think such an expense a waste of money?

Yet God has given us senses that appreciate beauty – sights, sounds, and smells that have a pleasing effect. Sadly, however, Christians often fail to cultivate their aesthetic sense. It is thought to be unspiritual to “waste time” on such things. But God’s delight in things beautiful is displayed in his handiwork. Think of the varieties of color he splashes on the sky at sunset, the thousands of hues of green in nature (with none of them clashing), the sparkling heavens at night, the smell of honeysuckle, the sound of birds singing their songs to God, the taste of a good wine. To a modern utilitarian it might seem that God wasted an awful lot of creative energy on things that serve no useful purpose other than to ravish our senses. But God was pleased not only to ensure our survival in the world by providing us with what is necessary, but also to ensure our enjoyment of it by providing us with what is beautiful and pleasing.

Created as we are in God’s image, we are drawn to the beautiful, and unless our aesthetic sense has been stifled by a crass utilitarian brain-washing, we pursue the beautiful, not merely in purely artistic pursuits like painting and sculpture, but in everyday ordinary activities, like how we dress, how we speak, how we set the table, how we worship.

Below are some quotations from various sources that might help us recover a sense of the importance of beauty.

“Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance” (Gen. 29:17).

“And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2).

“See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (Ex. 31:1-5).

“Sound theology leads always to the love of beauty. When there is no love of beauty, we may say, reasoning modus tollens, that there is no sound theology” (Douglas Wilson, Angels in the Architecture, p. 26).

“We were created to make beautiful things - in music, in stone, on canvass, in sculpted gardens and in wonderful buildings” (Douglas Wilson, Angels in the Architecture, p. 31).

“Beauty is never ‘necessary,’ ‘functional,’ or ‘useful.’  And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy… As long as Christians will love the Kingdom of God, and not only discuss it, they will ‘represent’ it and signify it, in art and beauty” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 30).

Note:  Angels in the Architecture by Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson has been instrumental in shaping my views on this subject.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Reflections on the sin of Korah

In Numbers 16 we read about a man by the name of Korah, who along with some men from the tribe of Reuben, accused Moses of exalting himself in Israel. “They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (16:3) It adds an interesting twist to the story when we realize that this Korah was Moses’ cousin. Their fathers were brothers.

The charge that Korah brought against Moses and Aaron had to do with the greater access to God they enjoyed with respect to officiating in the tabernacle. Only they and Aaron’s sons were allowed to serve as priests. Because of this Korah accused them of “exalting themselves above the assembly of the Lord,” claiming that “all in the congregation are holy, every one of them.” Psalm 106 says, “Men in the camp were jealous of Moses and Aaron, the holy one of the Lord” (Psalm 106:16).

Two things might be said in response to this. First, Korah overlooked the fact that this prerogative was not something that Moses and Aaron claimed for themselves on their own initiative, but something that was given to them by God. As the writer of Hebrews says, “No one takes this honor [of the priesthood] for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was” (Heb. 5:4). The priesthood was a divine arrangement. Therefore, in finding fault with Moses about this, Korah was finding fault with God.

Second, Korah himself enjoyed a highly privileged position. Not only was he from the tribe of Levi, thus possessing the right to share in the privileges of that tribe’s unique calling (Num. 1:50-54; 18:1-7, 21-32), but he was also from the clan of Kohath, and as such had greater access to God than the two other clans of Levi (Gershon and Merari). The clan of Kohath had been given the great honor of caring for the holiest items of the tabernacle in Israel’s march through the wilderness (3:31-32; 4:4-20; cf. 7:9). Korah, in fact, had everything but the priesthood. But this was not enough for him. As long as there was something to be had that was off limits to him, he would not be satisfied, especially if someone else was given access to it. Korah challenged Moses on the point of fairness. “It’s not fair that you have something I don’t have!” He was true egalitarian.

Dathan and Abriam, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, joined Korah in his rebellion. They were from the tribe of Reuben (16:1). Reuben camped to the south of the sanctuary, the same side as Korah and the Kohathites (cf. 2:10-11; 3:29). Thus, Korah and his associates and the men of Reuben would have had “ample opportunity to commiserate” with each other in their grievances against Moses.[1]

The men of Reuben may have had an additional objection to the ordering of Israelite society. They may have objected to the fact that their tribe had not been given the traditional right of the firstborn (Gen. 49:3-4).

Moses, however, upheld God’s right to appoint whomever he pleased to the priestly office, and likewise to deny that honor to whomever he pleased.

When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him… You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” (16:4, 7)

Moses turns the charge around. It was not he who had gone too far, but Korah.

Hear now, you sons of Levi:  is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and stand before the congregation to minister to them, and that he has brought you near him and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? (vv. 8-10)

Korah was ungrateful for the high honor the Lord had been pleased to confer upon him. He considered it “too small a thing” and grasped for more than what God was pleased to give.[2] This is very instructive. It could be said to be the essence of all sin. Consider Adam and Eve. They had been blessed beyond measure:  created in the image of God, called into his fellowship, enjoying the delights of Paradise. One thing only was prohibited to them—eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They could eat from all the other trees in the garden except from it. And this is where the devil focused his attention. He aroused their discontent so that they overstepped their bounds and reached for a position which God had denied to them. 

This was the great sin of the king of Babylon, too, who said, “I will ascend to heaven; I will sit on the mount of the assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:12-14).

Jealousy is an insidious evil which can manifest itself both personally and politically. (Think the Occupy Wall Street movement or Progressivism generally.) Envy of the success or privilege of others is base, although it has the advantage of appearing virtuous when indulged in in the name of fairness or equality.

We should do our best, with God’s help, to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness and contentment for all the good we enjoy, even if it is not as abundant as we might wish (Phil. 4:12) or as abundant as what others enjoy. Rather than being jealous of their good fortune, we should rejoice with them in it (Rom. 12:15). Not everyone is called to be rich. Not everyone is called to positions of great influence. God distributes his gifts as he sees fit (1 Cor. 12:4-6).  

For not from the east or from the west
      and not from the wilderness comes lifting up,
but it is God who executes judgment,
      putting down one and lifting up another (Ps. 75:6-7)

This is not an excuse for passivity but rather a call to beware of envy and to seek contentment in God’s providence. 

[1] Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers in NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), p. 303
[2] Later Uzziah would fall into the same transgression. Though he had the great honor of being king, he was discontent that he did not also possess the priesthood and suffered the terrible consequences of his envy (2 Chron. 26:16-21).

"Why don't they teach logic at these schools?"

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself.
“Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”
- C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -

I recently came across this picture, which seems to be making the rounds on social media in one form or another. What do you suppose is its purpose, its intended meaning? What conclusion does its creator wish us to draw? Is it simply that blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists all have the same basic skeletal structure? This is true enough, of course, but also so obvious as to scarcely need pointing out.

So what is its meaning? Given the social and political climate of the day, it seems to be this:  that blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists are all morally equivalent. The picture contains an argument that might be expressed in the following syllogism:

People who have the same skeletal structure are morally equivalent.

Blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists have the same skeletal structure.

Therefore, blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists are morally equivalent.

So what are we to think of the logical value of this argument? Is it valid? That is, does the conclusion follow from the premises? Yes. If it is true that people with the same skeletal structure are morally equivalent; and if it is true that blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists have the same skeletal structure, then it is necessarily true that such people are morally equivalent.

However, while the argument is valid, it is not sound. Let us pause for a moment and remind ourselves of the difference between validity and soundness. A valid argument is one in which the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises, regardless of whether or not the premises are true. Consider an example:

All men have beards.
Doug Enick is a man.
Therefore, Doug Enick has a beard.

This argument is valid (the conclusion—which also happens to be true—necessarily follows from the premises), but it is not sound because one of the premises (the first) is false.[1] Soundness is stronger than validity. To say an argument is valid is to say that its conclusion follows from its premises. To say that an argument is sound is to say not only that its conclusion follows from its premises, but also that its premises are true.

The argument implied in the picture above, though valid, is not sound because the first premise (“People who have the same skeletal structure are morally equivalent”) is false. What does skeletal structure have to do with morality? This point might become clearer if we add a couple skeletons to the picture. Label one, Hitler, and the other, Mother Theresa. They have the same basic skeletal structure. Shall we therefore conclude they are morally equivalent?

We should further observe that the minor term (“blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists”)[2] compares apples and oranges. The color of one’s skin is an immutable physical characteristic and has no moral bearing. Sexual behavior, on the other hand, is…well, behavior, and as such has moral implications. The same can be said with respect to acknowledging or refusing to acknowledge God (religious people and atheists).

The implied argument, then, clearly fails. The most the picture “proves” is that all people, regardless of skin color, sexual behavior, or religious viewpoint, have the same skeletal structure. But then again we already knew that.

[1] Some uncharitable readers might think the second premise false also!
[2] The minor term of a syllogism is the subject of the conclusion. The minor premise is the premise that contains the minor term.