The God of the Bible Likes Slavery

Editorial Note: if you have any issues with what I’ve written, please be sure to read my Caveats page.

 

Introduction

You don’t see the word “slave” much in most English translations of the Bible. Instead, translators have usually changed it to other terms, such as “servant,” “bondman,” and “handmaiden,” perhaps to obscure the upsetting fact that the Bible depicts God allowing slavery and even engaging in slave ownership. For example, in the original Greek version of the New Testament, the Greek word for “slave” appears 130 times; but in the King James translation, it is translated into English as “slave” only once. It tends to get translated into English Bibles as “slave” mostly when discussing people’s relationships with things, such as being a “slave to sin” — but not when referring to God-condoned, coerced relationships between people, nor when talking about people’s relationship to God.

The ancient Greek word for “slave” is doulos, and this word is widely used throughout the Bible. There are many other Greek words for various kinds of “servant,” such as oikos (house servant), leitourgos (public servant), diakonos (steward, or non-menial servant), misthios (hired servant), huperetes (galley-rower, or an attendant who serves with his hands), and paidiske (handmaiden). However, (according to the most authoritative word on the topic, Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testamentdoulos was not ever used by the ancient Greeks to refer to any kind of “servant;” it specifically and exclusively meant “slave.” Translating doulos as “servant” would be like me saying, “Harriet Tubman was a servant before she came to the forefront of the cause for abolishing service.”

Doulos refers to one who is owned as property, and owned exclusively; one who must be always and utterly available and obedient to her / his owner; one who is entirely subject to the will of the owner as to what s/he may do and what s/he may not do, with no autonomy; one who must rely completely upon her / his owner for food, water, clothes, shelter, medical care, family, sex, and everything else; one who gets any and all recompense or punishment from the owner. Which is slavery, not mere service. Slaves had to submit to physical abuse if their owners chose to assault them. Servants were under no obligation to put up with such treatment. Slaves were forced to discharge the work put upon them, with no choice not to, regardless of preferences — and were likely to be branded, beaten, and even crucified for attempting to escape their subjection. Servants were hired, and could quit. Slaves owned nothing, and everything in their possession ultimately belonged to their owners. Servants owned their material possessions and owned what they earned. Slaves had no citizenship because they were considered property; they could not own land, had no rights, had no legal recourse available to them for injustices, could not testify in court, and couldn’t hold public office. Servants were citizens, with the benefits that confers.

Throughout this article, I’ve quoted and used links that accurately translate “slave,” whenever possible. If you look up these passages in your Bible at home, and find that “slave” has been expunged from the translation you have, then keep what I said above in mind, and also keep in mind the context. For example, if a passage suggests that a “servant” is property that can be passed on to your children after you die, it should be obvious that this fits in better with the paradigm of slavery than voluntary service.

Part 1

The God of the Bible is pro-slavery. He consistently permits it. At times, He commands it. He even practices it.

Let’s take a look at what the Bible says on the topic.

“About your men and women slaves: You may get men and women slaves from the other nations around you. Also, you may get children as slaves if they come from the families of the foreigners living in your land. These child slaves will belong to you. You may even pass these foreign slaves on to your children after you die so that they will belong to them. They will be your slaves forever. You may make slaves of these foreigners. But you must not be a cruel master over your own brothers, the Israelites.”Leviticus 25:44-46

From this passage, we can see the following:

• The God of the Bible is permitting buying and selling people;

• Slaves are inheritable property;

• These are slaves for life, unlike indentured servants;

• Masters have complete ownership over these slaves, unlike indentured servants;

• Child slavery is explicitly endorsed.

The last sentence of the above passage also tells us some notable things about how varying groups were treated differently.

• Full and permanent slavery of foreigners was allowed, but full and permanent slavery of Israelites was not allowed. We’ll get back to this, soon;

• We see an example here, as in many other places in the Bible, that the God of the Bible is supremacist, discriminating in favor of the Israelites, His “Chosen People,” and discriminating against everyone else;

• The word “brothers” is intentionally sex-specific, because full and permanent slavery of Israelite women was allowed, but full and permanent slavery of Israelite men was not allowed. We’ll get back to this, shortly;

• We see an example here, as in many other places in the Bible, that the God of the Bible is sexist and misogynistic, discriminating in favor of men, and against women;

• God’s explicit exception to the allowance of cruel mastery in the case of slavery over Israelites makes clear that cruel mastery is permitted for slavery over foreigners. We’ll get back to this, shortly;

• By disallowing cruel mastery over His Chosen People, we see that God recognizes full-blown slavery is a harmful way to treat people, even though He allows such treatment over non-Israelites.

Elsewhere in the Bible we find more about the separate system of slavery that applied only to Israelites, with stricter rules for how masters were allowed to treat them. For examples:

“If you buy a Hebrew [i.e., Israelite] slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom.”  — Exodus 21:2

“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you…” — Leviticus 25:39-40

Although, even within the separate system for these Israelite indentured servants, there’s an exception to the rules commanding for them to be treated better than foreign slaves: God mentions a way for a master of a Hebrew indentured servant to bait a trap, so to speak, to trick the servant into full and permanent slavery  — by giving him a wife, then holding the wife and children hostage and ransoming them against his release from slavery:

“If a master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and the children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.” — Exodus 21:4-6

Apologists often falsely claim that the “slavery” God condones in the Bible was not what we think of as slavery today, not a brutal and unjust system like American black slavery. These apologists point to passages like Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25:39-40, above, to say that it was not kidnapping people and forcing them to work as slaves. Rather, the apologists purport, it was a mutually beneficial relationship, more of an ’employee / employer’ situation than ‘slave / owner’ situation. Apologists like to say that it was really what we now call “indentured servitude,” where people voluntarily sold themselves temporarily to pay off debts or take care of their families. These apologists would like you to believe that slaves in the Bible were actually just hired servants. However, this ignores that Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25:39-40 are special exemptions that applied only to male Israelite slaves, while there was a very different system — full slavery with all of the horrors we associate with it — in place for all others.

As mentioned above, male Israelite slaves were indentured for six years, but female Israelites were slaves forever:

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free.”Exodus 21:7

We see that it gets even worse for these unfortunate female slaves, when we read the rest of the passage:

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free. If she doesn’t please her master who chose her for himself, then her master must let her be bought back by her family.”Exodus 21:7-8

That’s right. In above passage, God is condoning selling one’s daughter as a sex slave. (With the small consolation that if her master is dissatisfied with her sexual prowess, he has to offer her family a buy-back opportunity, before putting her for sale on the open market.) Indeed, the Bible always takes for granted that masters were entitled to sex with female slaves.

In case the term “please her master who chose her for himself” in Exodus 21:7-8 is not clear enough for doubters, here’s a clearer example that owners had sexual rights and reproductive rights over their slaves:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

“Abram agreed to what Sarai said.  So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.”

“When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.Genesis 16:1-4

Could the Bible get even worse on the topic of slavery than God condoning selling your daughter as a sex slave for life, or suggesting holding families hostage to coerce indentured servants to become permanent slaves? Perhaps. Let’s look at one of the cases where God doesn’t merely permit slavery, he commands it. In the following passage, God gives the Israelites orders for how they must deal with all of the cities in the territories surrounding the Promised Land:

“When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here.” Deuteronomy 20:10-15

In case the above passage isn’t sufficiently clear about what kind of slaves those women taken as “plunder” are going to be, there are plenty of similar passages in the Bible that give the necessary context, such as this one where Moses conveys God’s commands for how to handle the Midianites:

“So now kill every boy and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse, but keep alive for yourselves all the girls and all the women who are virgins.” Numbers 32:17-18

From these passages above, note the following:

• God is not “merely” permitting the trading of slaves, He is commanding the taking of slaves through marauding, and using His omnipotent powers to make it happen;

• This includes sex slavery, i.e., perpetual, repeated acts of rape, as part of the exercise of ownership over another person;

• This also includes child slavery, and seems to perhaps be condoning pedophilia with these child slaves;

• This slavery is accomplished through kidnapping, i.e., seizing and detaining someone by force;

• This also includes genocide;

• This also includes theft;

• Since this slavery is by threat of death and by physical force, there is no semblance of any voluntary, mutually beneficial, indentured servitude-type employer / employee situation, here.

Having established that this is not just indentured servitude, what sort of cruelty does God warrant owners inflict upon their slaves?

“If a man beats his slave to death — whether the slave is male or female — that man shall surely be punished. However, if the slave does not die for a couple of days, then the man shall not be punished — for the slave is his property.” — Exodus 21:20-21

In the passage above, we can see that God grants slave owners the right to viciously beat slaves if they choose, without punishment, since the slaves are considered property. At the very least, this includes beating them right up to the brink of death. One could make a reasonable argument that it goes even further than that….

While the Old Testament permits masters to exercise cruelty over their slaves, the New Testament commands slaves to put up with it.

“You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you — not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel.”1 Peter 2:18

Slaves, you must obey your earthly masters. Show them great respect and be as loyal to them as you are to Christ. Try to please them at all times, and not just when you think they are watching. You are slaves of Christ, so with your whole heart you must do what God wants you to do.”Ephesians 6:5-6

Why? To protect God’s reputation, which comes before the quality of life and the safety of slaves.

“Christian slaves should work hard for their owners and respect them; never let it be said that Christ’s people are poor workers. Don’t let the name of God or his teaching be laughed at because of this.”1 Timothy 6:1

Jesus perhaps takes God’s permission for cruelty toward slaves somewhat further than God’s rules in the Old Testament, in the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants:

“But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying to come’, and he begins to strike the male-servants and the female-servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk — the master of that slave will come on a day which he does not expect, and at an hour which he does not know. And he will cut him in two, and assign him his part with the unbelievers. But that slave having known the will of his master, and not having prepared or acted in accordance with his will, will be beaten many blows. But the one not having known, and having done things worthy of blows, will be beaten a few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.”Luke 12:45-48

From this passage, note the following:

• Jesus appears here to think it’s a matter of course that a misbehaving slave would be put to death, and seems to have no problem with it;

• Jesus appears to think that a slave who did something not in accordance with his master’s will because s/he didn’t know better should still be beaten, albeit less severely;

• This is a parable for how God and Jesus treat people;

• Jesus considers people slaves of God and Jesus.

 

Part 2

Regarding the last point, there are well over a hundred passages in the Bible which mention people being slaves of God. Here’s an Old Testament example:

“Israelites cannot be permanent slaves, because the people of Israel are the Lord‘s slaves. He brought them out of Egypt; he is the Lord their God. “Leviticus 25:55

Here’s a New Testament example:

“But now you are free from sin. You have become slaves of God, and the result is that you live only for God.”Romans 6:22

Even in Heaven, people will be there to work for God as slaves, according to the Bible’s descriptions of Heaven:

“And there will no longer be any accursed thing. And the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it. And His slaves will serve Him….”Revelation 22:3

The Bible’s view is that God bought you and owns you:

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Likewise, Jesus owns you, too:

“And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”1 Corinthians 3:23

You are theirs exclusively, and you must even repudiate your family and your own life in your complete and exclusive servitude to Jesus and God:

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”Matthew 10:35-37

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”Luke 14:26

You can only have what they deign to let you have:

“You are my Lord; all the good things I have come from you.” — Psalms 16:2

“Who do you think you are? Everything you have was given to you. So, if everything you have was given to you, why do you act as if you got it all by your own power?”1 Corinthians 4:7

God commands you, and you must obey:

“You must love the Lord your God and always obey his requirements, decrees, regulations, and commands.”Deuteronomy 11:1

Otherwise, you’ll be punished most severely. Here’s a greatly abbreviated version of one part of the many-pages-long list of ways God threatens He will punish you for disobedience:

“If you don’t obey the Lord … by carefully doing all his commandments and his regulations … all these curses will come upon you… Your own fertility, your soil’s produce, your cattle’s young, and your flock’s offspring will be cursed… The Lord will send calamity, confusion, and frustration on you no matter what work you are doing until you are wiped out and until you disappear—it’ll be quick! … The Lord will make a plague stick to you… The Lord will strike you with consumption, fever… with scorching heat and drought; with destruction and disease for your crops. These things will chase you until you are dead and gone. … The Lord will turn the rain on your land into dust… until you are completely wiped out. The Lord will hand you over defeated to your enemies… The Lord will afflict you with … hemorrhoids, rash, and itch. You will be untreatable. The Lord will make you go crazy, make you blind, make your mind confused… You might get engaged to a woman, but another man will have sex with her. You might build a house, but you won’t get to live in it… Your ox will be slaughtered while you watch, but you won’t get to eat any of it. Your donkey will be stolen right out from under you… Your flocks will be given to your enemies. No one will save you… You will be nothing but oppressed and mistreated constantly. The sights your eyes see will drive you insane. The Lord will strike you with horrible inflammation … from the sole of your foot to the top of your head. You will be untreatable. You will become a horror, fit only for use in proverbs and in insults by all the nations where the Lord drives you. You might scatter a lot of seed on the field, but … the locusts will eat it all. You might plant lots of vineyards and work hard in them, but … worms will devour them… your olive trees will fail. You might have sons and daughters, but they won’t be yours for long because they will be taken away as prisoners. Crickets will take over all your trees and your soil’s produce… That’s how all these curses will come over you, pursuing you, reaching you until you are completely wiped out, because you didn’t obey the Lord … by keeping his commandments and his regulations that he gave you… Because you didn’t serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly above all else, you will serve your enemies—the ones the Lord will send against you—during famine, drought, nakedness, and total depravation. God will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has wiped you out. You will eat the offspring of your own womb—the flesh of your own sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God gave you—because of the desperate and dire circumstances…” Deuteronomy 28:15-68

When you think about it, everything discussed in the introduction as specific characteristics of slavery, which demarcate slavery from mere service, also apply to what the Bible says about your relationship to God and Jesus. So it should be no surprise that the Bible uses the term “slave” — not “servant” — more than a hundred times to refer to people’s relationships to God and Christ. And it should be clear that “slave” is not meant to be just a metaphor for your relationship with God.

 

Part 3

At this point, believers are likely to start to protest. These protestations take a few forms. Let’s go through them.

1) “That’s a lie!”

Many believers never read the Bible. They simply don’t know what the Bible says, and don’t believe it could possibly say such pro-slavery things. But it does. If you don’t believe God endorses all of these horrors of slavery, then simply put, you don’t believe in Yahweh, the God of the Bible. I’ve given chapter and verse to show it. Please don’t just take my word for it; see for yourselves.

2) “You’re being too literal. It’s supposed to be taken figuratively. You’re missing the deeper meaning.”

OK, I’d like to hear anyone who says this explain the deeper allegorical meaning of, “So now kill every boy and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse, but keep alive for yourselves all the girls and all the women who are virgins.” 

3) “It was a different time. You have to look at it within its cultural context.” / “Everybody was doing it.” / “Slavery was a major institution in all the nations of the region, and banning slavery would’ve caused too much social unrest.” 

When we’re talking about things like kidnapping people, owning another human being, permanently taking away a person’s rights and autonomy, stealing a person’s entire lifetime of labor, and beating and raping someone on a regular basis — to name a few everyday aspects of slavery — an “everyone was doing it” argument just doesn’t cut it. If God is moral and just, as is claimed, then cultural context shouldn’t matter to Him when people are committing such atrocities.

So what if slavery was a major social institution, and banning it would’ve caused significant social unrest? When in the Bible has that ever mattered to God? When God banned worshipping other gods (Exodus 34:14, etc.), commanded the destruction of altars, images, temples, and idols to other Gods (Deuteronomy 7:5, etc.), and commanded  killing those who worshipped other gods (Exodus 22:20, etc.), did those not upset major social institutions and cause significant social unrest? Disrupting major institutions and causing social upheaval have been God’s stock-in-trade throughout the Bible.

By its nature, slavery is unjust and causes misery and harm, and there is no excuse for a perfectly good, all-powerful being to sanction slavery.

4) “That was Old Testament. Jesus did away with all that. I only follow Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament.”

As with protest #1, this line of thinking only seems sensible to those who are ignorant of what the Bible says. For starters, the Bible tells us that Jesus was with God at the beginning. Then it tells us that Jesus can only do what God does, and whatever God does, Jesus also does. Then it tells us that Jesus and God are one. From such passages, it follows that Jesus must’ve been right there beside God, in perfect unison and agreement with God, while God was commanding taking slaves through kidnapping and murder, and using His almighty powers to ensure that enslavement occurred.

Additionally, the Old Testament also tells us in a number of places that God never changes, and never changes His mind. Likewise, the New Testament tells us Jesus never changes. Along with God and Jesus never changing, Jesus makes crystal clear in the New Testament that God’s law is also unchanging and Jesus is not altering any of it. From these, we know that Jesus has not changed his mind, and that everything the Old Testament says about slavery remains in effect. Anyone who takes seriously what the Bible says about Jesus must take it that Jesus’s position on slavery in the New Testament is identical to God’s position on slavery in the Old Testament.

Jesus never explicitly condoned nor condemned people’s slavery of one another in the New Testament, but what he did say was nonetheless telling. He obviously knew that slavery was rampant and savage. His parables included slaves receiving brutal treatment — not as criticism of the practice, but to show examples of people receiving the consequences they justly deserved, and to make analogies for how Jesus and God shall treat you as His slave. This alone serves as tacit endorsement of slavery. Furthermore, in context of Jesus’s firebrand actions and vocal muckraking about other causes, his silence regarding the possible topic of denouncing slavery was deafening. For him to talk about slavery while never saying a word against it — while being quick to decry immorality and overthrow corruption in other areas — shows that he simply did not consider people enslaving one another to be a moral issue. Meanwhile, the rest of the New Testament further compounds the Old Testament’s reprehensible endorsement of slavery, as I’ve shown.

5) “Enslavement was often a preferred wartime alternative, chosen by enemy populations, rather than being massacred.”

Yes. The Bible does back this up, but how is this an adequate moral justification for slavery? “We gave them a choice when we invaded and conquered them, between being murdered and being enslaved. They begged to be enslaved rather than slaughtered — so it was really voluntary and fair.” Is this seriously an argument that people want to make?

 

Part 4

Slavery is an example of the divergence between secular morality and religious morality. From a humanist point of view, with morality based upon human welfare, forcing others to your will and treating other people as your property to exploit as you please, without regard for their personhood, is practically the definition of evil. And slavery is the epitome of such behavior. In contrast, from a divine command theory point of view, wherein what is good is good because God declares it so and thereby makes it so, and likewise with what is evil, treating people as chattel is considered moral and righteous when God supports it. As He does in the case of slavery, throughout the Bible.

The first slave ship to North America, which started the slave trade in 1562, was The Good Ship Jesus. It was captained by Sir John Hawkins, a devout Christian. He saw no contradiction between his Christian faith and his actions as the founder of the slave trade, because there is no such contradiction.

The proponents of the slave trade routinely used the Bible to defend slavery. For example, in the words of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy during the United States civil war:

“Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God — let him go to the Bible … I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation … Slavery existed in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist until the end of time shall come. You find it in the Old and New Testaments — in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized — sanctioned everywhere.”

As I’ve shown throughout this post, Davis was correct on this point. From Abraham, the founder of Judaism, fathering children through exercising sexual and reproductive rights over the slave Hagar, to the Apostle Paul sending the runaway slave Onesimus back to his owner, an early Christian church leader named Philemon — slavery is approved throughout the Bible on the deepest foundational levels.

Even when translators have replaced the word “slave” with words like “servant,” it takes some cognitive dissonance to read commandments about buying and selling people as inheritable property, whom you have rights to force to work for you without compensation, whom you have sexual rights to and also rights to viciously beat, without realizing this is obviously talking about full-blown slavery. Likewise, it takes willful cognitive dissonance to read the many passages throughout the Bible which support such a system, while insisting that the deity who would make these rules is benevolent, just, wise, loving, and morally sound.

Does ransacking foreign cities, looting all the valuables, killing all the males and deflowered women, and taking all of the virgins as plunder to enjoy, offend your moral sensibilities? How about selling daughters into sex slavery? And ransoming someone’s wife and children to coerce him into a lifetime of slavery? If any of these strike you as morally reprehensible, then your morals are unbiblical. Not merely non-biblical, but directly contrary to those of the God of the Bible.

God’s pro-slavery stance throughout the Bible puts those who worship Him in an awkward position, between pretending the Bible doesn’t mean what it says, and worshipping a God with grotesque and depraved morals. They can deny that Yahweh is pro-slavery, but deep down they’ll realize they are being dishonest, and they won’t fool anyone who actually knows the Bible. They can embrace the righteousness of slavery because it is divinely sanctioned, but doing so is sociopathic, and comes at the cost of one’s conscience and humanity. They can disregard the slavery stuff while accepting the stuff they like, but this implicitly admits that there are areas where God is wrong and should be rejected.

Or they can recognize that these could not be the proclamations of any god worthy of worship, and stop venerating Him. And then perhaps even see that God’s pro-slavery stance throughout the Bible signifies that God was created by man in man’s image, not the other way around.

 

Notable Facts, #4: The Elder Gods

Most Christians think that Jesus’s story — son of God, born of a virgin, rising victorious from death, bringing salvation, etc. — is unique in history. However, Jesus is actually one of a long line of similar, purported gods to emerge from the ancient Middle East and surrounding areas.

Here’s a brief list of some of the notable ones who preceded Jesus, that Dr Richard Carrier researched and was able to confirm are solidly backed up by ancient documentation:

Adonis — Adonis was a dying-and-rising god from ancient Syria.

Inanna — Inanna was an ancient Sumerian goddess. She is one of the oldest known gods of this type; her story is inscribed on clay tablets dating about 1700 BC. In her story, she descends into Hell, is stripped naked, tried in a kangaroo court, stricken dead by a death spell, and then her naked corpse is nailed up. Then, three days later, her minions came down and fed her the food of life, and she resurrected and ascended to glory. So, her story bears many of the same elements that were later incorporated into Jesus’s story, such as trial and punishment, dying and rising, crucifixion, and three days in Hell. Her cult was one of the leading ones worshipped around Jesus’s time, in the city of Tyre. Jesus is depicted as visiting Tyre. One of the largest temples there would have been the temple celebrating Inanna’s death and resurrection. Tyre was one of the major ports in the region, so a lot of pilgrimage and and lot of trade went through there.

Osiris — The Osiris cult was a dying-and-rising god cult that originated in Egypt, then spread all over the Mediterranean. In the Osiris cult, people who were baptized in Osiris’s death and resurrection were saved in the afterlife. It is not plausible that the Osiris cult, popularly being preached in Egypt before the emergence of Jesus, did not influence the incorporation of baptism, resurrection, and afterlife salvation into Christianity. Egypt neighbored Judea, had a large Jewish population, and many among those Jews made pilgrimages to Judea and back.

Romulus — Romulus was the Roman state god. His death and resurrection were celebrated in annual passion plays throughout the Roman empire, in the time immediately before the emergence of Jesus. Thus, Romulus was a well known example of a dying-and-rising savior god (however, he was a savior of the Roman empire, not a personal savior) in Judea, which was a province of the Roman empire.

Zalmoxis — Zalmoxis was a Thracian dying and rising god dating 5th to 6th century BC. Zalmoxis’s death and resurrection assured followers of eternal life, especially those who participated in a ritual meal (i.e., a Eucharist). Zalmoxis’s cult is described in The Histories of Herodotus. The Histories was one of the standard school texts in rhetoric schools of the time. Anyone who learned Greek well enough to be composing stories such as the Gospels of the Bible would have passed through that level of education, and thus would have read Herodotus. Ergo, they knew about the Zalmoxis cult.

All of the above are gods who died and rose again. All of them are savior gods, that grant eternal happiness after death to those who worship them. All of them are the sons or daughters of God, serving God as the intermediary for your salvation. All of them underwent a “passion.” All of them obtained victory over death, which they shared with their followers. All of them were claimed to be historical figures, with stories setting them in human history, despite never actually existing. All of them were popularly being worshipped in the Mediterranean and Middle East at the time that Jesus emerged on the scene. And all of them are indisputably documented, with these features, before Christ. There was a dying-and-rising savior god trend sweeping through all of the national cultures of the Mediterranean, and Jesus was the one to emerge in Judea.

There are many more instances before Christ in the same area or within regions close enough for contact, with features that Christ later shared. Perseus, Horus, Krishna, Attis, Dionysus, and myriad others, were divinely conceived without sexual union. Zoroaster, Buddha, and various others, were tempted by the devil to give up their ministries to rule the world. And so on with Tammuz, Baal, Horus, Glycon, etc.

What do Christian apologists have to say about this? Modern day apologists tend to take either one of two approaches.

(1) It’s a lie. Those are all hoaxes.

Whether out of their own ignorance or out of cynical belief in your ignorance and unwillingness to research for yourself, most apologists these days simply deny that these claims are real. We’re separated enough from Bronze Age Middle East and Asia Minor that they can often get away with simply saying it’s not so. Furthermore — unfortunately — there really is a lot of poorly-cited, overreaching material on the topic (such as the movie Religulous, and books by Kersey Graves, and Acharya S. / D.M. Murdock), which seems to bolster the apologist’s claims that it’s false. Despite the topic being muddied by questionable research, there’s solid substantiation available for many parallels with those prior to Jesus, such as the ones listed above.

(2) Yes, but they’re not identical to Jesus.

When denial doesn’t work, modern apologists tend to point out that there may be some similarities, but they’re not completely identical to Jesus. While no religion is completely identical to another religion (or else it would simply be that other religion), we have here cases which (in my judgment) are too close to be mere chance.

 

Early Christian apologists did not have the luxury of denying the reality of these other, older religions with parallel characteristics, which were still current or within memory. Instead, they handled the issue by accepting the existence of similar prior religions, while trying their best to spin that fact in a way that supported Christianity.

(1) They argued that if you believed that stuff about other gods, then it’s not much of a stretch to believe the same about Jesus, too.

For example, around the year 150 AD, Justin Martyr wrote (Apology 21):

“When we say that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.”

Yes, that was intended to be taken as an argument in favor of Christianity. That might seem unpersuasive, but what else could he say? Well, there is one more thing…

(2) They argued it must’ve been the work of Satan to plant these other cases before the coming of Jesus, to instill doubts.

For example, Justin Martyr also wrote:

“For when they say that Dionysus arose again and ascended to heaven, is it not evidence the devil has imitated the prophecy?”

“For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter’s] intercourse with Semele… and when they relate, that … having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?”

“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.”

This “the Devil came ahead of Jesus, planting parallel religions” argument, as an explanation of Christianity’s relationship to the similar religions that preceded it, is perhaps the flimsiest apologetic I know of — and it remains standard Christian doctrine, to this day. When one believes with blind faith, this is the quality of argument one may have to ultimately found one’s beliefs upon.

To those outside of the Christian faith, it appears that most or all of what we know about Jesus from the Bible and from extra-biblical lore is really an amalgamation of the beliefs in the surrounding cultures at that time. The Jews seem to have been influenced by their neighbors to make a Jewish version of nearby personal savior cults.

Make of that what you will.

 

 

[Note that the first half of this post borrows heavily from Richard Carrier. For more information, please seek out his books, lectures, and other work. You can also find more information from the works of David Fitzgerald, Raphael Lataster, and Hector Avalos.]

The Hitler Canard

In response to my blog post, Questions from Theists: What are the Tenets of Atheism, someone wrote to me, “My problem with human morality is that who defines what that is ? To show it in extreme, Hitler and the Nazis thought they were behaving very morally to rid the world of Jews …”

Ah, yes. Hitler. I’m going to put aside the “who defines what human morality is?” part of the question for another day, and today strictly address the Hitler-as-an-example part.

Discussion of atheism with theists usually comes around to Hitler, at some point or another, especially regarding the topic of morality without God. Thus, I knew I’d have to talk about him on this blog, eventually. So, let’s get this over with.

Theists like to bring up Hitler as an example of godless morality at its most extreme. Hitler is widely considered the worst humanity has to offer — a genocidal dictator, and one of the most hateful, flagitious, murderous people who ever lived. Thus, theists see him as a strong example of what can happen when you take away God as a moral compass.

Without God there’s no moral accountability, and without moral accountability, one is more likely to become a Hitlerian, bloodthirsty, psychopathic monster. Or so the argument goes.

However, there’s a significant problem with using Hitler as the trump card against the moral dangers of godlessness: Hitler was a devout Catholic. In Adolph Hitler’s own words:

“I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.” — Adolph Hitler to General Gerhard Engel, 1941

He was a baptized Catholic, in good standing throughout his entire life, and was never excommunicated. Hitler sought the Roman Catholic Church’s approval when he became the German Chancellor in 1933. This resulted in the Vatican Concordat of 1933 with the Third Reich, which has been described as “a marriage between church and state,” and which Hitler considered to be the approval he sought for himself and the Nazi regime. He met cordially with Pope Pius XI on several occasions, and the Vatican sent archbishops to represent the Pope at Hitler’s birthday parties, every year.

Hitler had the slogan “GOTT MIT UNS” (German for, “God with us”) put onto the belt buckles for all German soldiers. He called himself a Christian and made frequent references to God and Christ.

In accordance with the Law On the Allegiance of Civil Servants and Soldiers of the Armed Forces, all of the members of the SS had to swear this three-part oath:

“What is your oath ?” – “I vow to you, Adolf Hitler, as Führer and chancellor of the German Reich loyalty and bravery. I vow to you and to the leaders that you set for me, absolute allegiance until death. So help me God !”

“So you believe in a God ?” – “Yes, I believe in a Lord God.”

“What do you think about a man who does not believe in a God ?” – “I think he is arrogant, megalomaniacal and stupid; he is not eligible for us.”

When Hitler came to power, he outlawed the German Freethinker’s League, Germany’s largest atheist organization. On this topic, he said, “We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” — Adolph Hitler, Berlin, October 24, 1933

Furthermore, Hitler believed that he was acting on the behalf of God and Christ. His actions were not rooted in godlessness, but rather in godliness. Again, here are Hitler’s own words:

“My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.” — Adolph Hitler, speech in Munich, April 12, 1922

“The work that Christ started but could not finish, I — Adolf Hitler — will conclude.” — Adolf Hitler, December 1926

“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” — Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

“Only in the steady and constant application of force lies the very first prerequisite for success. This persistence, however, can always and only arise from a definite spiritual conviction. Any violence which does not spring from a firm, spiritual base, will be wavering and uncertain.” — Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

“As for the Jews, I am just carrying on with the same policy which the Catholic Church has adopted for fifteen hundred years, when it has regarded the Jews as dangerous and pushed them into ghettos etc., because it knew what the Jews were like. I don’t put race above religion, but I do see the danger in the representatives of this race for Church and State, and perhaps I am doing Christianity a great service.” — Adolf Hitler, 1936, to Bishop Berning and Msg. Steinman, representatives of Pope Pius XI

“By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.” — Adolph Hitler, speech, Reichstag, 1936

Not only was Hitler a Christian, but almost all of Hitler’s high command were Christians, too. Some examples:

Adolph Eichmann, the main logistical organizer of the Holocaust: Protestant.

Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer of the S.S., the General Plenipotentiary of the entire Third Reich, and Hitler’s second-in-command: Catholic.

Hermann Goring, one of the heads of the Nazi party, and founder of the Gestapo: Catholic.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda: Catholic.

Reinhard Heydrich, General of the Police, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, the “Hangman of Prague,” and the main architect of the Holocaust: Catholic.

Rudolph Hess, Deputy Fuhrer to Adolph Hitler: Catholic.

(Note that some of the people mentioned above eventually separated from traditional Christianity because its semitic roots offended their anti-semitic sensibilities, and so they came to replace it with their own, Teutonic “Positive Christianity,” which renounced Christianity’s Jewish origins.)

What about the regular soldiers in the army? The population during the Nazi era was 54% Protestant, 40% Catholic, 3.5% deists, and 1.5% non-religious; assuming that the same was true for those in the army, that means that about 94% of those in the army were Christians, and less than 2% were non-religious.

So, in short, Hitler was a Christian, not an atheist, and almost everyone responsible for the Holocaust, from top to bottom, was Christian, not atheist.

This is all very well documented in film clips, Hitler’s preserved correspondence, his own book, book collections of his speeches, newspaper articles, and the like.  You can research it for yourself.

The best that apologists can offer in response is, “Hitler wasn’t a real Christian. He was just cynically using Christianity for his desired ends.” For now, I’ll ignore the no true Scotsman fallacy involved with making this claim, and also set aside that such a view is speculation, in contradiction to the available data. Instead, let’s actually take the assertion seriously. If Hitler wasn’t a real Christian, and was merely using Christianity for his desired ends, what would that tell us? It would tell us that Hitler correctly recognized that Christianity was the perfect vehicle for rousing Germany into a warmongering and genocidal frenzy — which hardly helps the apologists’ case.

In the Bible, God committed genocide routinely, such as with the Egyptians in the Exodus story and all of humanity in the Noah story. God also commanded people to commit genocide on numerous occasions, such as with the Amalekites. Believers already train themselves to excuse their God’s genocidal tendencies in the Bible, and to convince themselves genocides can be godly and righteous. It wasn’t a big stretch for Hitler and his followers to think God was on their side for another religious genocide. Just like Christians thought about The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch hunts, the Russian pogroms, and so many other cases.

Of course, I’m not saying that theists in general, nor Christians in specific, are genocidal. That would be silly. Most folks, religious or otherwise, are kind, caring people. I’m simply pointing out that religion can be, and has been, tied to many genocides — including Christian ties to the Nazis who planned and executed the Holocaust.

And, of course, even if Hitler had been an atheist, the point would be completely preposterous. There have been genocidal dictators who believed in God and genocidal dictators who didn’t. Lunatics come in all stripes. I don’t think arguing from Hitler’s beliefs gets you very far on either side of the debate. The only thing I think the case example of Hitler certainly shows is that religious belief does not prevent such behavior. I wouldn’t have even bothered with this topic, if not for the fact that it’s already come up in a reply to a post on this website, and doubtless will come up again.

Theists try to pin Hitler on atheism, rather than take credit for Christianity’s role in Hitler’s actions. But this spurious, revisionist tactic backfires when the truth comes out. Rather than ask atheists how Hitler’s deeds were possible within the context of humanist morality, theists with such concerns should ask themselves how Hitler’s deeds were possible within the context of God-based morality. Or, better yet, drop this unproductive line of argument, entirely.

[Note that parts of this post borrow heavily from Devon Tracey. For more information, click here for a Google search of his online presence. Some may take issue with his approach, but his facts on this topic are supported.]

Notable Fact: The Hard-Hearted Pharaoh

Editorial Note: This is part of a regular series that shares notable and perhaps surprising facts that pertain to religion. Some amusing, others shocking. Many of them will correct misinformation that various religious groups like to spread, and / or reveal things they like to hide. A few of them might perhaps reframe people’s understanding about certain topics. Also, if you have any issues with what I’ve written here, please visit my caveats page.

Perhaps you’ve heard the Bible story of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement. God brings it up several times in reference to Himself, during significant occasions. For example, God starts the  original Ten Commandments by saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

If you aren’t familiar with the tale, you can find a synopsis of the story, as it’s usually told, in any of thousands of places online, such as here. Please take a few minutes to read one, then come back.

For today, I won’t dwell on God delivering the Israelites into more than 400 years of slavery before he later delivered them out from slavery. (Genesis 15:13) And I won’t dwell on the fact that there are no indications whatsoever outside of the Bible, no corroborating archeological findings and historical records, backing up that the Egyptians ever enslaved the Israelites, or that the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert, or that Moses even existed at all. Nor will I dwell on the fact that the first plague, leaving no water to drink in all of Egypt, would’ve killed all the people and animals in the country from the outset, ending the story. Nor shall I dwell upon on the fact that the livestock which the story explicitly says were all killed by the fifth plague were shortly thereafter explicitly killed a second time by the seventh plague, and then the firstborn amongst those twice-dead livestock were explicitly killed yet a third time by the tenth plague. We’ll save all such topics for another day.

Rather, let’s start by considering the odd behavior of the Pharaoh in this story. Based upon the way the story always gets retold, you might be scratching your head as to why the Pharaoh didn’t relent sooner. Was God’s first plague, turning every drop of drinkable water in Egypt to blood, not sufficiently persuasive? Was this not an adequate demonstration that God had the power and the will to make his demands met, and that He was not to be trifled with? Through one plague after another, Moses and Aaron sequentially warned the Pharaoh of exactly what horrors God was about to visit upon the Egyptians, and then God carried through on His threats. Through one plague after another, the Pharaoh seemed to capitulate, asking Moses and God to call off the plague, promising to free the Israelite slaves — then took back his word and refused to free the slaves, after God lifted the plague. While festering boils disabled the populace, fire and ice pelted down from the sky, and the land fell into complete darkness, the Pharaoh persisted in his folly. Through the loss of Egypt’s entire supply of water, the collapse of all its fisheries, the destruction of all of its crops, the death of all its livestock, the slaughter of every firstborn citizen, and ultimately the drowning of the entire Egyptian army, the Pharaoh dared again and again, eleven times in a row, to incur another round of God’s wrath.

Why was he such a glutton for punishment? Was he stupid? Was he insane? Was it a deadly mixture of wickedness and pride, as preachers preach from the pulpit and Sunday school teachers tell the children?

If we actually read the story in the Bible, rather than listen to people who revise it, we don’t need to guess. The Bible tells us exactly why the Pharaoh behaved this way: because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, making him refuse. (Exodus 4:21Exodus 9:12, Exodus 10:20, Exodus 11:10, Exodus 14:8)

What?! God was playing both sides, making Moses tell the Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves, and also making the Pharaoh refuse to release the Israelite slaves?! Yes, indeed.

Why would God do such a thing? Fortunately, the Bible also tells us exactly why God behaved this way: to demonstrate His power, in order to become famous. (Exodus 9:16)

It’s something theists usually prefer to leave out of the story. If you bring it up, savvy apologists will often try to spin it to a more palatable interpretation. That particular apologetic goes something like this:

“God doesn’t do that. It’s a matter of semantics. The further the Pharaoh went away from the word of Moses and God, in search of other thoughts, the more deaf he became to them. Then, the more his past experience changed his brain, the more likely it was that the Pharaoh would not listen to God and Moses the next time. The Pharaoh formed his intellectual perception to a particular way of thinking, thus the ‘hardening of his heart.’ It was the Pharaoh’s own actions that hardened his heart. Since the Pharaoh chose not to go to God’s way of thinking, it seemed like God placed more obstacles in his way, thereby giving the appearance that God did it. However, this was simply a natural biological function, helped along by things that the Pharaoh encountered in the environment.”

I can understand why people read interpretations into these passages to fit how they feel that a God they could accept should behave. However, the “Pharaoh did it to himself” interpretation simply does not comport with scripture. God bluntly, explicitly, and repeatedly takes credit for hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, and moreover explains that he planned this from the beginning, along with elucidating precisely why He did it. Then He brazenly says that He’ll have mercy on whom He will and He’ll harden whom He will. He notes that you can’t resist His will, and yet He’ll still blame you for doing what He made you do. Then He defiantly addresses anyone who takes issue with such behavior:

“I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden.”

‘One of you will say to me, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist His will?’ But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” (Romans 9:17-20)

We are left with the uncomfortable fact that God interfered with the Pharaoh’s free will and forced his defiance, so that He would have an excuse to wield deadly supernatural might against the Egyptians, to demonstrate His power, to gain fame.

Exodus 38:26 tells us that there were 603,550 non-Levite, Israelite male slaves 20 years or older who left Egypt in the Exodus, and Numbers 3:39 tells us there were an additional 22,000 Levite, Israelite male slaves 1 month or older who also left. From this, I think we can sensibly surmise that the number of Egyptians killed (all of the firstborn males killed by the Angel of Death, plus the entire army drowned in the Red Sea, plus everyone killed in the the seventh plague’s hail and fire, plus everyone who starved to death when all of the livestock and fish died and all the crops were destroyed by locusts, etc.) would’ve numbered somewhere from several hundred thousand to several million.

So, in this story, God:

1) interferes with the Pharaoh’s free will to force him to behave defiantly, then punishes both him and his entire population for this defiance;

2) plays both sides, demanding that the Israelites be set free while thwarting this from happening;

3) causes at least several hundred thousand preventable deaths, including many tens of thousands of innocent children;

4) does all this for the express purpose of showing off his power, to make a name for Himself.

Why do revisionists leave out the critical part about God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart when they retell this story? And why do apologists strive to reinterpret that part to mean something different than what it actually says? Because God’s actions in the story, as the Bible tells the tale, offend their moral sensibilities. As they should. But the Bible does say that, and pretending otherwise is neither faithful nor honest. Instead, fundamentalist believers must grapple with worshipping a God whose morality contradicts their own.

Notable Fact: The 17-or-More Commandments

Editorial note: I’ll be posting a regular series that shares notable and perhaps surprising facts that pertain to religion. Some amusing, others shocking. Many of them will correct misinformation that various religious groups like to spread, and / or reveal things they like to hide. A few of them might perhaps reframe people’s understanding of certain topics. This is the first in the series.

Also, if you have any issues with anything I’ve written here, please be sure to read my caveats page before responding.

 

Adherents of Judaism and Christianity often hold the Ten Commandments in the highest regard, as the most primary and important of God’s laws. Sometimes they also claim that these commandments are our moral foundation, and / or the foundation for Western law. But did you know that God gave the Israelites two very different versions of the Ten Commandments?

As the Bible recounts it, Moses went up to Mount Sinai, where God dictated the Ten Commandments to him. He engraved them into stone tablets and brought them down the mountain to the Israelites. When Moses found the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, he destroyed the stone tablets in a fit of anger, and then lead a holy murder rampage. Thus, Moses had to go back and get the Ten Commandments from God, again. But  — despite God saying that He would give Moses the same commandments, again — the second time God gave Moses The Ten Commandments, they were not the same as the first. Or so it appears.

The first set can be found in Exodus 20:2-17, and reads as follows:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a carved image — any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;

you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.

“You shall not murder.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Oddly, the Bible then rewords these Ten Commandments a little bit differently in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Read the two versions side by side, and you’ll see that they are not quite the same. Nonetheless, they’re close enough for practical purposes.

Exactly how the passage above divides into “ten” commandments is not universally agreed upon, especially among Jews compared to Christians, compared to Muslims. (See here and here for examples of slightly different interpretations.) However, they are perhaps most commonly shortened and numbered approximately as follows:

1. You shall have no other gods before me.

2. Do not make any graven image.

3. Do not take the LORD’s name in vain.

4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

5. Honor your mother and father.

6. Do not kill.

7. Do not commit adultery.

8. Do not steal.

9. Do not bear false witness.

10. Do not covet.

The other set, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses the second time, can be found in Exodus 34:12-26, and reads as follows:

Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods.

“You shall make no molded gods for yourselves.

“The Feast of Unleavened Bread you shall keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, in the appointed time of the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.

“All that open the womb are Mine, and every male firstborn among your livestock, whether ox or sheep. But the firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb. And if you will not redeem him, then you shall break his neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.

“And none shall appear before Me empty-handed.

“Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.

“And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end.

“Three times in the year all your men shall appear before the Lord, the Lord God of Israel. For I will cast out the nations before you and enlarge your borders; neither will any man covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.

“You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leaven, nor shall the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover be left until morning.

“The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

As you can see, this version of Ten Commandments bears little resemblance to the version God gave Moses the first time, a few chapters earlier in the Bible.

Again, exactly how this passage divides into “ten” commandments is a matter of interpretation that isn’t universally agreed upon, since there are really more than ten in the passage. Is it a distinct commandment to make no deals with pagan foreigners? Or to destroy temples of other gods in the lands you invade? Or to not come before God empty-handed?

This set is perhaps most commonly shortened and numbered approximately as follows:

1. Do not worship other gods.

2. Do not make idols / molten gods.

3. Keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

4. The firstborn male of every womb belongs to God.

5. Work six days; rest on the seventh.

6. Observe the Feast of Weeks.

7. All men must appear before God thrice per year.

8. Don’t offer yeast along with blood sacrifices.

9. The first fruits of the land belong to God.

10. Don’t boil a goat kid in it’s mother’s milk.

Three of these ten are somewhat similar to the other ten, while seven of them are entirely new. So, which set should believers consider the “true” Ten Commandments, the most primary laws from God, the essence of His message, the moral framework of Abrahamic religions, the very basis of the relationship one should have with the LORD?

It poses a conundrum. If the first set is so important, then why did God completely change them the second time? If the second set is so important, then why didn’t God give those, the first time? (And how does this switch from one set to the other congrue with Numbers 23:19, which tells us that “God… is not human, so He does not change his mind”?)

It would seem that the most obedient choice would have to be the second set. The Ten Commandments, Version 2.0, is the most up-to-date option. If God wanted us to treat the first set as the real Ten Commandments, He would’ve given them to Moses the second time, too, right? The primacy of Version 2.0 is bolstered by the fact that God calls the second set the Ten Commandments, and refers to the second set as His covenant with Israel (Exodus 34:27-28) — not the first set.

In fact, if we read Exodus 20 again, carefully, we can’t actually be certain that the first set listed above were ever really the Ten Commandments. It tells us that God spoke those words. It doesn’t say those were the words written on the stone tablets Moses broke. It could’ve been that the second set of commandments listed here was also the set written on the tablets Moses broke, while the stuff God spoke in Exodus 20 was something else. Indeed, this interpretation is the only interpretation consistent with God saying he was giving the same commandments as the ones on the broken tablets, again.

So, either God never intended the first set of commandments listed above to be the Ten Commandments, or He nixed the original ten and gave a new, improved version, instead. In either case, the second set listed here is the only legitimate Ten Commandments.

And yet, the updated Ten Commandments are largely rejected and ignored, while believers focus on the outdated Ten Commandments, instead. For example, if you do a Google image search for photos of Ten Commandment monuments, every single monument picture that comes up is of the wrong version, not the correct one.

Why is this? It’s because we know that the second version is much worse than the first. “Thou shalt not kill” versus “Thou shalt not cook a goat kid in it’s mother’s milk”? It’s no contest which is reasonable and which is worthless and bizarre. The outdated “Ten Commandments” are profoundly flawed (as I explain here), but the newer set is utterly without any merit, whatsoever.

By disobediently choosing the outdated commandments over the updated commandments, theists highlight an important point: many people don’t just derive their morality from their religions nor from supposed divine sources; rather, they also impose their own pre-existing morality onto their interpretations of their religions and onto their imagined divine sources.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s silly to say that the Ten Commandments are our moral foundation, or the foundation for Western law (in addition to the fact that it’s perfectly legal to break at least seven out of ten of the first set of commandments, and ten out of ten of the second set, in almost all Western countries). People didn’t need the Ten Commandments in order for them to know that it’s wrong to kill or steal or commit perjury, they already knew (as is attested by the fact that many cultures came up with codes against murder, theft, and perjury — such as the Code of Ur-Nammu, from Mesopotamia, in 2100 B.C. — long before the Ten Commandments, without consulting the God of the Bible).

But wait! There’s More!

There’s actually a lot more, but I’ll keep it to one final twist in the already twisted story of the Ten Commandments.

In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Luke, each tell the story wherein Jesus Counsels the Rich Young Ruler. In that tale, Jesus recites “the Commandments” for the young man. However, in “Luke’s” version, the Ten Commandments are only five commandments; in “Mark’s” version, there are only six, and one of these six is an entirely new one (“Do not defraud”); and in “Matthew’s” version, there are also only six, with a yet different entirely new one than in Mark’s version (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). So, if you believe that Jesus did not make mistakes, and the Bible is inerrant, then there’s an entire new layer of Commandment perplexity for you to untangle.