Especially in Christian circles, there is a common belief that there exists a universal code of morality that governs all humanity, a set of immutable laws that have always been and always will be the standard for mankind. Generally this code of conduct is equated with the Ten Commandments, the laws that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. Interestingly most cultures would embrace these statutes as rules to live by reinforcing the idea that they are universal principles.
However, there are exceptions, and if we study history we come to know that what are exceptions in modern times were in fact often the norm in ages past. While the Ten Commandments may more or less be a normative framework for acceptable behavior today, the evidence of days long past shows us that the standard of moral conduct in various cultures in ancient times has differed significantly from these statutes or at least in the interpretation of these statutes as we know them today.
We should ask if indeed a static code of divine laws has always been in place for the human race, how is it that historically it has not been recognized as such? The records that we have from bygone cultures tell a tale of acceptable behavior that we would admittedly be very uncomfortable with today but for them was the highest ideal of right and wrong. We could take the posture that those who endorsed different moral systems were misguided or at worse depraved, but such a quick dismissal of their values is not an easy thing to do, for those who held them dear were the best people of their day, the shining stars of their tribes and nations and far from common criminals.
It might be troubling for some, but the solution to this problem suggests that what we call the “laws of God” are in fact not static, but rather fluid changing over the course of human history. And that this should be the case is simply because mankind has been changing over its long existence. The human race has evolved from brute beasts to civilized intelligent beings, and over the course of the millions of years that that took place the requirements of God for man’s behavior have incrementally changed as his mind developed and his understanding increased.
Morality entails among other things the question of how one should treat or behave toward his neighbor, something that depends heavily on the level of awareness that one has of his fellow man. When we were barely more than animals with brutal and selfish behavior characterizing our existence, our understanding of the needs and feelings of our neighbor was extremely limited and with that the standard of how we should act. But as our intelligence evolved and with it a budding spirituality, man slowly began to come aware of the dignity and value of others so that his responsibility toward his neighbor also increased.
Slowly but surely the race has been migrating from the brutality of our ancestors to the way of mercy that is particular to civilized and more spiritual people. That we might be aghast at the behavior of cultures in ages past is only a testimony to how we have evolved beyond the highest level of moral conduct that was known in yesteryear. Certainly for people of the past, what are now considered reprehensible acts were in the eyes of God very acceptable even though for us they would be clearly sinful. And by extension, some things that we consider right and just in modern times will be deemed evil in ages to come, if not only generations to come.
We will consider now one such example of a socially acceptable practice which has existed since the dawn of humanity but is at the present time rapidly fading away as civilization progresses. It is an act of justice that is hotly debated particularly in the U.S., and the very fact that there are strong factions on either side is an evidence that the moral bar is being raised for the world. As the standard of moral conduct is elevated, there is necessarily friction as people wrestle with it until final acceptance is made and it becomes the new norm for society.
The subject we have in mind is the issue of capital punishment, an age old institution that we can trace from ancient times until the present. Sketching its history, we focus first on the time when Rome ruled the West. In that era, the death penalty was essentially universal being practiced by all nations on earth to one degree or another. It was a form of justice that was administered for a wide variety of crimes, and many of them very petty by our standards. The ways it was carried out were undoubtedly cruel according to the modern sense. In terms of those who witnessed the events, capital punishment was not particularly a private somber act of the judicial system but rather a form of entertainment, a spectator sport which often drew large crowds to take in the sight of blood and gore.
Among others, Rome had principally two forms of execution. Beheading which was certainly the easier of the two was reserved for Roman citizens who broke the law in some particular fashion. But the other technique, perhaps the cruelest the world has every known was crucifixion which was the fate of those who could not claim citizenship and had done something “worthy of death.” Originally invented by the Persians around 700 B.C., it was even then detested by the Greeks as a heinous form of torture, but the less civilized Romans had no problem adopting it to enforce the message that they would stand for no nonsense in keeping order in the Empire.
Though it had started out as a punishment for rebellious slaves, eventually it was extended to all subjects of the Empire who couldn’t claim Roman citizenship. Naturally it was the appropriate form of killing for the inhabitants of Judea, and many a Jewish insurrectionist was raised on a cross to die an agonizing death. It was the way that many a Christian martyr exited this world including several of the apostles, not to mention our Lord himself. Of course their only crime was apostasy as they refused to participate in the state religion of Emperor Worship, and so they were considered rebels and dangerous dissenters.
But the cross wasn’t the only fate of Christians. The Roman appetite for entertainment brought summary executions in the public arena to satisfy the bloodlust of the people. Not only the martyrs, but other condemned criminals were sent into the arena to “fight” the lions though without any weapons. The gladiators might have had a little more of a chance with sword and spear, but often after slaying the beasts they were in turn put to death to feed the savage thirst of the Romans. In that day and age, there was no shortage of barbarous ways to dispose of the condemned. Being torn to pieces by the lions might have been a more preferable way to go for many a Christian virgin who was subjected to an even more degrading and savage death. Not a few young women were tied naked to a cart and smeared with the fluids of a mare in heat before the public eye. A stallion would then be brought in and encouraged to mate with her. Needless to say this cruel act produced hemorrhaging in her body cavity and an agonizing death ensued.
It would be nice to think that after the Christianization of Europe, a spirit of religious toleration would have appeared but this was hardly the case in the Dark Ages when Charlemagne ruled Europe as Holy Roman Emperor. Though centuries after the fall of Rome, capital punishment was just as pervasive in all its forms of mutilation and was reserved for those who did not embrace the new faith of the West.
Admittedly the man upon whom western civilization was built, Charlemagne was nonetheless harsh by modern standards in keeping order and uniformity in his empire. Perhaps with the vision of the West serving as a bulwark of Christianity, he tolerated no apostasy. Those who wished to revert back to paganism and the old religions of Europe were quickly met with the sword. The Emperor had much confrontation with the Saxons who proved to be intransigent pagans. Ultimately he offered them baptism or death which was no empty threat. On one occasion he beheaded 4500 Germans who failed to convert. For Charlemagne, a unified faith would be the glue to keep his realm together and at peace, and he was not in the least afraid to use capital punishment to achieve it. Though from our perspective we would undoubtedly say he went overboard in his zeal for religious purity, for he even policed the practices of the Christian faith itself. As barbarous as it may seem, the Emperor also put to death those who dared to eat meat on Fridays during Lent.
Around a thousand years later, the European nations seemed to become somewhat more religiously tolerant, but though this ground for the death penalty had more or less evaporated, there were still plenty of crimes on the books that called for execution. In England, perhaps the most enlightened nation of the 19th century there were still 160 crimes in the legal code that were punishable by death. Not just big ones like murder, treason, or insurrection but what we would call relatively small crimes like petty theft or cutting down a tree in a public place. America as the daughter nation of Britain followed suit with the same kind of judicial system, and both did not fail to use cruel techniques such as the breaking wheel. In this hideous form of execution, the victim was tied to a wheel and bludgeoned to death. After suffering countless broken bones, he would die in agony from the contusions and hemorrhaging.
Despite the fact that the West continued the age old tradition of capital punishment into the 18th and 19th centuries, there were however signs that the institution was beginning to change and lighten up. The trend at this time was a migration away from the executions that caused the most pain toward more quick and humane killing. With this sentimentality gaining ground in Christendom, the guillotine was developed in France. Nations sought to replace the brutal techniques with the more painless ones, and so eventually the gas chamber and the lethal injection became popular in countries like the U.S.
The consciousness of humanity was taking a step up at this point in history and not surprisingly other dimensions of capital punishment were also changing. With the desire to ease the suffering of the condemned was also the longing to restrict how many members of society should receive this ultimate punishment. The death penalty for more insignificant crimes like small thefts and the like became a thing of the past. The people could only feel justified in calling for death for relatively high crimes like murder and espionage. Additionally the idea that executions should be public spectacles as if for the traditional entertainment of the populace also evaporated, and at one point in time America declared televised punishments as unconstitutional.
However, even with these great steps toward mitigating the extent of the death penalty, many Western nations by and large felt compelled to take the next step by abolishing it altogether particularly in the second half of the 20th century. Some traditionally Catholic nations such as Portugal, Venezuela, and Italy had done away with it as early as the mid-1800s, but by the 1960s and 1970s, England, France, Canada, and Australia had all put an end to capital punishment in their nations. As of today the U.S. still practices it but it is on a state by state basis and slowly but surely each is abolishing it in favor of life imprisonment.
In a world that once administered the death penalty universally, 50% of the nations have now abolished it with an additional 25% which employ it only under exceptional circumstances. The remaining 25% still actively use it, but it seems that if the trend continues all the nations of the earth will cease to dole out capital punishment in years to come.
With a higher consciousness taking hold of the human race, it is quickly becoming unthinkable to take the life of another man irrespective of the atrocities he may have committed. With the moral bar being raised to a new level, the world overall is choosing to follow the way of mercy rather than justice. It is seeing more value in trying to rehabilitate hardened criminals in “correctional facilities” rather than ending their lives in a miserable state. Perhaps it is indeed because humanity has become more aware of the dignity and value of each member and can no longer revel in cold hard justice.
In time, it will certainly be considered morally wrong to take the life of another man in punishment the world over even as many already consider it to be wrong today. In generations to come, the people of the earth will look back at us in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and label us as barbarians for administering justice as such. And certainly from their perspective and the standard that they will be held to in that day, it would undoubtedly be true.
Capital punishment is one such issue of morality that is useful to cite because it is a good example of an institution that humanity is currently wrestling with and is a practice that is in transition. However there are many other examples of morally acceptable behavior that were valid in ancient times but are unquestionably no longer considered right in our day. We will now turn to the Bible tracing several practices which were very respectable among our ancestors and were both directly and indirectly sanctioned by God but are clearly objectionable to us in modern times. Moreover they are not only unacceptable to us but also to God at this day and age, for as a race we have evolved mentally and spiritually to the point that such conduct can no longer be condoned among mankind with a higher awareness of the needs, feelings, and dignity of the human person.
We look first at a custom of our forebears that immediately turns our stomachs, one that to us is unthinkable but was fairly prevalent 4000 years ago. It was the rite of human sacrifice, a religious observance that undoubtedly stretches back to prehistoric times and for which we have a good deal of information both secular and biblical attesting to the practice.
The offering of sacrifice is of course as old as religion itself, for no sooner did man come to acknowledge deities higher than himself then he sought to please them and gain their favor in some way. The oblations of vegetables, fruits, and grains were certainly among the very primitive foods offered to the gods, but as time went on and the theology of the human race progressed, more substantive things were sacrificed including animals, especially because of the special role that blood would play in religion for many an age. Ultimately human sacrifice came to be at the pinnacle of the entire sacrificial system and was believed to be the most efficacious in currying the favor of the deity. In its highest form, it was a sacred and holy rite entailing a willing victim who consented to give up his life for the sake of the tribe. Entrusted with the prayers of his people, through death he would travel to the home of the deity and plead the cause of his clan, presenting its supplications and concerns. Certainly in this its most noble form, human sacrifice was a form of great faith particularly on the part of the willing victim who would forfeit his life for the sake of his countrymen.
Often the willing victim was the ruler or king of a particular society who was sent to the gods to present the needs of his people. According to several scholars, after the king had reigned for a long period of time, he would make way for a younger more capable man by sacrificing himself for the tribe. It has been noted that often it was in the case of national emergency such as a time of famine or hardship that the ruler would be sacrificed to make known his people’s plight to the god or goddess and solicit help.
Yet there were other theological reasons for some making the supreme offering, and they usually involved the matriarchal beliefs of some ancient cultures. Such societies practiced fertility religions which focused their energy on the life giving goddess. The main thrust of this primitive faith was that the female deity constantly needed to be fertilized to ensure the earth would yield her bounty. Naturally this was the primary concern of our ancestors who struggled to survive and needed to make every effort possible to guarantee that the crops would succeed and that there would be enough animals in the forest to hunt. And so a male member of the clan was carefully chosen and accepting the great honor was revered and specially treated before death and his solemn journey to the goddess.
Certainly there were well meaning and willing victims who participated in the ritual of human sacrifice, but not surprisingly many more were either less than willing or not cognizant of what was going to happen to them. In the latter category we refer to child sacrifice which was very popular in the ancient Near East. Often it involved devotion to the Ammonite god Molech and was practiced particularly among the Phoenicians and the Canaanites. Even the Israelites joined in this form of worship in the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem as we are told in the Book of Kings.
A large bronze statue of the god was erected in some locales with a hollow and open belly in which there was a furnace. Those wishing to pay homage to this god would cause their children to “pass through the fire.” That is, they would cast one or more of their children into the furnace to be consumed by the flames. Naturally we in modern times are aghast that innocent children could be treated in such a brutal way, but we must remember that it was not in the consciousness of the ancients to think this way.
Indeed they were pious people who had great respect for their deities, and certainly they loved their children as we love our children. Undoubtedly it pained them to offer up their own children, but for them it was a major sign of faith to turn over their own flesh and blood in devotion to the deity. We see this form of piety among both the common man and the ruling class and note that even kings did not hesitate to sacrifice their own heirs for a good cause or to implore the aid of the gods. At a time when the kings of Judah, Israel, and Edom united forces to invade Moab, the king of Moab took the supreme measure to attempt to turn the battle in his favor. According to the Book of Kings, “he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall.” And perhaps respecting this great offering God reversed the situation for the Moabites, for we are told in the next sentence, “The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land.”
Clearly, the ritual of human sacrifice was prevalent in the ancient Near East, but should we still have doubts about the moral validity of the practice, particularly from the perspective of God we need only turn to a few relevant passages of the Old Testament. Perhaps the classic example of human sacrifice is the story of Abraham and his son Isaac found in the Book of Genesis. In that narrative God spoke to Abraham and instructed him saying, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Without hesitation, Abraham saddled up his donkey the next morning and began the journey with his son to the mountains.
That Abraham complied without protest implies an important idea to us. Namely the great Patriarch was neither shocked nor surprised at the request made of him, for the idea of human sacrifice was both acceptable and reasonable at that day and age. Undoubtedly he was very distraught at the notion of losing his own son for whom he had waited so long to obtain, but he knew God wasn’t joking and proceeded to cooperate in all seriousness.
Abraham did not question whether or not he was really hearing the voice of God, for he knew all too well that child sacrifice was a morally acceptable thing, perhaps the highest form of devotion at the time. And that God indeed asked him for this ultimate offering is an evidence that in that bygone era it was an act of righteousness to slay one’s own offspring in homage to the deity. Of course by definition, if God desires something, it cannot be wrong, and so it was that child sacrifice was a true act of piety some 4000 years ago.
Unquestionably if there was something morally reprehensible about the whole account we would certainly have an editorial comment to that effect as so often was done throughout the scriptures, but in the narrative of Abraham and Isaac as well as another story from the Book of Judges there is a definitive lack of criticism on the subject.
One of the many judges who ruled Israel after the death of Joshua and the ascent of King Saul was Jephthah. A mighty warrior of Gilead east of the Jordan, Jephthah was the son of a prostitute, and because of his irreputable birth his half brothers eventually drove him away from the family home. However, when the Ammonites started to make war on Israel, they quickly recanted of their mistreatment of Jephthah and “eating humble pie” asked him to be their leader in the battle with the Ammonites. Jephthah consented, and in making preparations for the war, he made a vow to the Lord pledging, “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.
As it turned out, the judge was indeed victorious over his enemies and afterwards proceeded home intent on fulfilling his pledge. Only when he approached his dwelling, it was his daughter, an only child who came out to greet him dancing to the sound of a tambourine. Naturally Jephthah was devasted. His promise to God might have been a bit rash at the time, but presumably he was expecting one not as dear as his own daughter to become the object of his sacrificial offering. Perhaps he anticipated another such as a household servant to come through the door.
In any event, Jephthah made good on his word, and after giving his daughter a full two months to mourn her departure from the world, he made of her an oblation as he promised. Vows were to be taken seriously, and certainly the biblical editor was satisfied that Jephthah was a man of his word. In closing the account he notes that “from this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.”
Similar legends and customs are known from other races in antiquity. Perhaps the best known comes from the story of the Greek hero, Agamemnon, who had to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigeneia to the goddess Artemis in order that his fleet, might be delivered from the calm (or contrary winds) by which Artemis was preventing it from sailing to join the siege of Troy. A similar account relates the story of Idomenaeus who having returned safely from Troy was later overtaken by a violent storm and vowed to sacrifice to Poseidon the first living thing that met him when he reached home. The first to greet him was his son, whom he thus slew, but as a result, a plague developed, and Idomeneus was driven out. The Trojan War took place around 1100BC, about the same date as Jephthah and only supports the idea that the practice of child sacrifice was fairly widespread at that time.
So far we have focused our attention on the ritual offering of individuals which was certainly prevalent in times past, but we must acknowledge yet another form of sacrifice that was equally popular a few thousand years ago. Though it isn’t always immediately recognized as such, the mass slaughter of whole towns and cities including the extermination of all the innocent civilians was certainly a sacrifice in its own right. Particularly in thanksgiving to the victor’s god, the offering up of all the prisoners of war was seen as a token of gratitude for the defeat of their enemies. The total annihilation of the vanquished including women and children, cattle and sheep was in fact an acknowledgement to the deity of its benevolence in helping to win the war.
We look no further than the pages of the Bible to see this idea in action multiple times in the history of the Israelites. One such early record is the Fall of Jericho as recorded in the Book of Joshua. In that narrative, the Israelites had just crossed the Jordan and were beginning their campaign to conquer the Promised Land. On the day of taking the city, they walked seven times around Jericho until the walls miraculously collapsed. Then at the command of the Lord’s prophet Joshua, they put to death everything in the city and burned it to the ground. Only the precious metals were recovered for the treasury of the Lord’s house.
Joshua’s official words to the Israelites were that “the city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord.” Technically the term in this context is a religious word implying that all the living things in Jericho were consecrated to God and marked for destruction. The inanimate objects such as the silver and gold which obviously couldn’t be destroyed were to become the sacred possession of the Lord’s in the tabernacle. By this definition we understand unequivocally that the taking of Jericho was a true sacrifice to God and one ordered by God. Not just the ruthless killing of civilians in an ordinary war, the destruction of Jericho was an oblation commanded by God himself as troubling as that might be to our modern ears.
A similar story comes to us during the time of the reign of King Saul. The Amalekites had fought with Israel when they were coming up out of Egypt, and at this time they were to be punished for what they had done centuries earlier. Saul was instructed, “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
Unfortunately, Saul did not completely follow through on the command, for he and his men kept the best of the cattle and the sheep but only destroyed everything that was weak and worthless. For this he received a hearty rebuke and ultimately lost his kingship. The narrative underscores the fact that in these divine injunctions, God is not discriminating. He calls for the destruction of both strong and weak, and while the temptation for the one required to offer the sacrifice is to keep what is desirable for personal use, the very heart of the oblation is to forfeit any potential gain to honor the deity.
While Saul failed to kill all the livestock in his dealings with the Amalekites, in another episode in Israelite history, there was a failure to kill all the people which also received a hearty condemnation. While they were still making their way to the Promised Land, the people were told to make war with the Midianites who had seduced them into immorality some time before.
The army was successful and effectively killed every Midianite man, but we are told they “captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks, and goods as plunder.” When Moses went out to meet the warriors after the battle, he was very angry. He chided them saying, “Have you allowed the women to live? … Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”
Interestingly Moses made a type of concession which was not unheard of in that day and age. Often times a conquering tribe would kill all of the men and pregnant women and keep the remaining females whom they would rape and turn into slaves along with the children. In this instance, it was not enough to just keep the women and children as chattel, but he ordered that only the virgin females be kept alive as sex slaves for the army. Apparently he anticipated trouble if Midianite children should grow up among the Israelites, and wishing to preserve the bloodline had them exterminated.
Of course this broaches the subject of our next issue of morality, a social institution which was very prevalent in the past and only died out in the West in the last couple centuries. To our modern sensibilities, it is hard enough to imagine divine sanctioned genocide, but almost as equally troubling is the idea of slavery being a respectable system, and yet it was for all of human history until only fairly recent times.
It certainly existed in all civilizations of the past, and its existence was unquestionably taken for granted by the authors of the bible who wrote about it in their narratives matter-of-factly, without criticism or comment. Beginning with the very patriarch of the Jewish people himself, Abraham, we see the practice of slavery in force. The man who several times in the scriptures was called God’s “friend” was an owner as was his wife Sarah who possessed an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar of whom several chapters of Genesis tell her story. There was also slavery in the family of the patriarch Jacob, for his two wives each had a slave-girl of their own.
The forebears of the Israelites might have been owners, but as we are all aware, their descendants wound up on the other side of the fence. Beginning first with Jacob’s son Joseph who was sold as a slave and brought down to Egypt, the children of Israel ultimately became enslaved for a few hundred years. Apparently though, the hardship they experienced in that land did not make them swear off the institution of slavery forever, for no sooner did they enter the Promised Land than they began to subjugate the Canaanites as their bondservants.
The original plan that Israel had upon entering Canaan was to exterminate all of the indigenous inhabitants and claim the territory completely for itself. However, in practice this was not entirely the way it turned out. For various reasons, the Jewish people were unable to wipe out all of the natives and so attempted to subjugate those that remained into slavery.
The first such example of this is found in the story of the Gibeonites who were a local Canaanite tribe. This nation had heard about how Israel was putting their neighbors to the sword and fearing for their lives, they resorted to a ruse in order to save themselves from destruction. Craftily they approached Joshua who was leading the Israelites at the time and explained to him that they had come from a faraway country. As evidence of it, they had donned old worn out clothes and carried with them old moldy bread as if to illustrate the effects of a long journey. Having convinced the leaders of Israel that this was indeed true, they asked that a treaty be made between the two nations, and so it was that an oath was sworn pledging peace between the Twelve Tribes and the Gibeonites.
However it wasn’t too long before Joshua and the elders realized that they had been tricked discovering that the Gibeonites were in fact their neighbors. Having sworn to them a fraternal oath, they were powerless to attack them, and so they did the next best thing. In the language of the Bible, the elders proclaimed, “Let them be woodcutters and water carriers for the entire community.” In this way they became the first bondsmen of the Israelites serving them for hundreds of years. Indeed other groups of Canaanites would also receive such a fate, for we are told in other passages that those the Israelites failed to dislodge were ultimately subjected to forced labor.
Not that the Israelites had any reservations about turning anyone into chattel, the divinely inspired Law of Moses which had been passed down to them only a few decades earlier made clear provision for slavery and established the legitimacy of the practice as did most legal codes of the Near East at the time. The Prophet allowed for the institution of permanent slaves in the Book of Leviticus instructing, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”
Indeed while foreigners could be full-fledged slaves, the Israelites could only subject one another to a mitigated form of servitude. A fellow countryman could become what is more akin to an indentured servant often after selling himself or being sold to a neighbor. Often it was the case that when one had become poor or had an insurmountable debt to pay that he would sell himself or some of his children into slavery. However the provision of the Law of Moses only allowed this situation to continue for six years at which point the Israelite was to be free once again.
Throughout the period of the Old Testament, both among Jews and Gentiles the institution of slavery was woven into the fabric of the culture, and this certainly persisted into New Testament times as well. The apostle Paul alludes to it several times in his writings recognizing it as a legitimate social system. In his letter to the Ephesians, he writes, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” And similarly in the epistle to the Colossians he instructs, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”
We in modern times might shudder to think that the apostles themselves would support a system which we now regard with reproach, but we must remember that in the consciousness of the age it was a practice that was not considered wrong for the idea of human rights as we now understand them had not yet emerged. And because man’s awareness of the dignity of his fellow man was still fairly limited in this day and age, the practice was certainly valid in the eyes of humanity. More importantly it was morally acceptable in the eyes of God as well who expects no more of us than the particular stage in our development will allow.
Paul actually devoted an entire letter, albeit a very short one to the circumstance of slavery. It came to pass that the apostle converted a runaway slave named Onesimus, and rather than grant him asylum from his owner as we in the West would now demand, he sent him back to his owner Philemon with a letter. Paul knew the owner as a fellow Christian, and so he felt confident that Philemon would not do harm to Onesimus upon his return. Yet recognizing his legal right as master of the runaway, he felt obligated to turn him back over to his rightful owner. However, in sending him back, he appealed to Philemon to regard Onesimus less as a slave but as a brother and fellow Christian.
This request seems to have raised the moral bar to some degree on the institution. Not that Paul’s sentiments in any way were condemning slavery on the whole, but his wish that Onesimus return to his master more as a brother than as a bondsman set the tone for the policy in Europe in the ensuing centuries. Once Christianity became the legal religion of the Empire, it was expected that wealthy Romans should free their slaves should they become Christian. And so the slave markets of Rome in the early Dark Ages were populated with pagans instead. At the end of the 6th century, Pope Gregory was very taken with the beautiful blond Angle slaves and he vowed to evangelize them. Slowly but surely the Germanic barbarians were converted reducing the pool of those who could legitimately be enslaved by wealthy Christians in Europe. Ultimately by the 9th century the only people who could acceptably be subjugated as chattel were the pagans of Eastern Europe whom we know as Slavs. Of course it was from this name that we derive the word “slave” itself. They too were all converted by the turn of the First Millennium and so Europe was left without any tribe of people to take as bondsmen.
It is nice to know that Christians thought of each other as brothers and therefore should not own a fellow Christian, but at this point in history the idea that slavery in general was unacceptable had not yet entered the minds of the masses. As a solution to the deficit of non-believers, the feudal system was instituted in place of formal slavery. In the feudal system, serfs were bound to a particular plot of ground rather than being owned by an individual, but they fulfilled basically the same role as agricultural slaves.
Slowly but surely there were stirrings of moral change with the passing of time. In the early 12th century, the great churchman St. Anselm decreed, “Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals.” But he was one of few voices that began to see slavery as objectionable. While slavery had greatly dwindled in Europe in the Middle Ages, once the Colonial Age was upon Europe there became a great need for laborers. Criminals were sent off to the Americas to work as slaves or indentured servants in various capacities. The Colony of Georgia received numerous convicts to work in addition to the poor as an alternative to debtor’s prison.
Of course at this time the African Slave Trade was spawned to provide labor to work the plantations in America. A very lucrative triangular trade was established as ships set sail from England to the coast of Africa where goods were exchanged for slaves. They in turn were transported to America and sold for great profit. Unloaded of their human cargo, the ship owners would load their boats with crops and commodities from the colonies to take back to England for sale.
For over 200 years the African Slave Trade was very strong, but it seems by the early 19th century sentiment was finally building to a point in England and elsewhere such that it could no longer be justified. Abolition movements were on the rise toward the end of the 18th century which ultimately led to the end of the slave trade in 1807 and then abolition in 1833. Despite the profitable nature of owning other people for free labor, the consciousness of the West had finally risen to a point where it decided that the institution of slavery was wrong. One by one over the next 150 years nations put an end to this system. Of course it was abolished in America with the Civil War in the 1860s and then Spain followed suit in the 1880. China made slavery illegal in 1910, and Liberia and Ethiopia abolished it in the 1930s. Arabia seems to have been the laggard of the nations only outlawing it in the 1960s.
Slavery in all forms became unacceptable during the period. From ancient times, most cultures have made provision for those who could not pay their debts to be sold into slavery for the benefit of their creditors, together with their wives and children. The basic principles remained very similar in western countries into the 19th century, for one could still be imprisoned and forced into penal servitude simply because of debt. But even this practice became objectionable with the emergence of modern bankruptcy laws. Humanity taking a step toward higher moral ground decided that the way of mercy was better than that of justice and so sought to give debtors another chance rather than punishing them for their financial misfortunes.
It is probably not coincidental that slavery made a transition from morally acceptable to unacceptable at the same time as capital punishment and punitive cruelty were waning. That both were on their way out in roughly the same time period only illustrates how the human race as a whole has taken a substantial step higher in its spiritual evolution in the past few centuries with moral changes in multiple areas.
Thus far we’ve covered several major topics, but our survey of human morality wouldn’t be complete without touching on cultural rules and regulations concerning sex and how they have changed over time. Of course while in this day and age a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman is considered the norm, this was certainly not always the case. Even today there are pockets of people who have other than mainstream marital arrangements, but in ancient times the variety of different kinds of unions was great.
Looking back only 2000 years we see a number of cultural norms for sexual relations that were considered acceptable in their respective locales. While among the Greeks and the Romans monogamy was the norm, among their neighbors to the North it was not so. The Celts and Scythians were known for their polyandrous marriages, that is a union of one woman with two or more men. In particular it was the custom of the Celts for each one woman to be shared by all the men of the family. However all of her children were known to the society as the offspring of the man who had first slept with her, regardless of the actual paternity which naturally was uncertain most of the time. On the other extreme just to the East of Europe was a fiercely patriarchal culture that widely practiced polygamy. Among the Semitic peoples it was not uncommon for a man to have more than one wife or concubine.
If we go back further in time, marriage arrangements become even more bizarre to us who look back from the modern perspective. It seems that originally, tracing back to the Stone Age there was a common conjugal arrangement known as a group marriage. As the term implies, this was a union of multiple men and women who cohabitated together in a somewhat permanent relationship. Contemplating races like the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon of Ice Age Europe who often lived together as small groups in caves, it was the natural arrangement for sexual relations. The evidence of this once normal form of marriage still exists today among generally isolated peoples whom we would consider virtually Stone Age in their development. By way of example are the Patagonian Indians and the Eskimos who to this day practice the group form of marriage, in all likelihood the oldest type of union known to man.
Before we are too fast to criticize all of these non-standard arrangements questioning how any of them could have been valid forms of marriage even among our barbaric and uncivilized ancestors, we must first visit the history of the Jews before ultimately passing judgment. It should come as no surprise to many that the Israelites as a strongly patriarchal Semitic group practiced polygamy from the time of Abraham all the way until the time of Christ. As the people of God for whom we have a divine written record of their history and laws, it is very relevant for us to consider the voice of God (or perhaps lack thereof) on this topic of morality throughout the Old Testament.
The great father of the Jewish people, Abraham, was a very righteous man, one about whom it was said he was the “friend of God.” Yet the “father of faith” was not averse to having concubines during his lifetime. Actually at the insistence of his wife Sarah, the patriarch slept with her slave-girl Hagar, for in ancient Middle Eastern Law the children born to the slave would legally belong to her mistress. In this way, barren Sarah had hoped to obtain a child for herself as indeed she did.
But this conjugal arrangement was not a one time event for Abraham, for we are told that at the end of his life that he “left everything to his son Isaac. But while he was still living he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.” In chronicling the life of Abraham, the author of Genesis wrote of these events without the slightest bit of criticism, implicitly suggesting that the practice was at least by the standards of men to be quite acceptable.
Of course we may still wonder if God considered it so, and so we must turn to the Law of Moses for an indication of divine sentiment toward polygamy. That there is actually an explicit provision for multiple wives in the Book of Deuteronomy would seemingly be a good sign that it was permissible and therefore morally lawful in the eyes of God who inspired the text. The passage actually deals with an issue of inheritance and reads, “If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love.”
That polygamy was indeed legitimate from the perspective of both God and men at this time in history is underscored by many passages which allude to the practice without any hint of criticism. Nor do these narratives make any commentary at all, for the custom was not at all unusual. We must keep in mind that this is significant, for the prophets who recorded many of these stories were not remiss in condemning all kinds of moral evil, and yet they are silent on the practice of polygamy. In fact they only have praise for men like King David who was called the “man after God’s own heart” and yet had at least eight wives that we know of. In fact it seemed to be encouraged by the clergy of the day for a king to take more than one wife. Joash who was king of Judah a few centuries after David came to the throne as a child, and we are told that his advisor, the priest “Jehoiada chose two wives for him, and he had sons and daughters.”
Up until the time of Christ, polygamy was particularly a mark of the wealthy who could afford multiple wives and children and was less popular among the common man. While certainly a legitimate practice when the Messiah walked the earth, it would seem that the establishment of Christianity raised the moral bar on the institution of marriage, for the apostle Paul gives us hints that monogamy is the higher standard. In his instructions to Timothy on the qualification of a bishop, he indicates that the man “must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife.”
As a result of the tone set by the apostles, the Christianized West has generally condemned polygamy, and in the modern world it is illegal in such countries. However, there have been periods of exception due to hardship, particularly after the ravages of war. Even as late as the 17th century, a legal provision was made for a man to take more than one wife in Germany after so many men were wiped out in the Thirty Years’ War and a great population imbalance existed. A similar plan was underway in Nazi Germany to address the shortage of men lost in the war but of course was never realized.
We’ve made a quick survey of sexual relations in the context of the institution of marriage, but naturally this subject is broader than just that. And so we close our look at the morality of sex briefly addressing the “oldest profession in the world” which is commonly known as prostitution. It is fair enough to say that most cultures throughout history have looked down on the idea of paying for sex, though it must be said that many nations tolerated the institution nonetheless, perhaps because it offered a better alternative to rape, sodomy, and other sexual crimes.
While selling sex for purely physical interests has not generally been respectable, it might surprise some to know that in the Ancient World there was a religious form of prostitution that was very highly regarded and seen as a service to the deity. In the Middle East in particular, the profession of “Temple Prostitute” was one of great honor in service to the goddess Ishtar who was known as the “Mother of Harlots” and the “Great Whore of Babylon.” Those familiar with the Book of Revelation will immediately recognize these as derogatory terms from the perspective of the Jews, but for the religious people of the Fertile Crescent they were terms of endearment and words of praise for the deity.
Though from our modern point of view it is hard to imagine the work of a temple prostitute to be any more than physical as would be the case with any whore, those involved in such sex work had an advanced theology behind them. As we have touched on earlier, the religions of ages past were primarily focused on fertility as it was a central need of primitive man. In the sacred rite of prostitution, the priestess would represent the goddess while the client would serve as proxy for the god. The union of the two, ideally impersonal was not intended merely for carnal pleasure but for the higher purpose of ensuring the fertility of the land. Each time the sexual act was carried out in this holy context it was seen to be a contribution toward this cause and an offering to the deities whose benevolence made sure the earth brought forth its bounty.
From the testimony of an ancient historian, in both Babylon and Cyprus it was a legal requirement for all women to prostitute themselves in the temple at least once in their lives. Each woman would come to prepare to live in the temple precincts until she had fulfilled her obligation with a client. While many spent only a short time in this capacity, the official temple priestesses devoted their lives to this work and were cheerfully regarded as the Joy-Maidens of Ishtar, serving the goddess in what was clearly considered a high capacity.
We know from the Law of Moses that prostitution was illegal among the Israelites and without exception frowned upon in the Promised Land. However, centuries earlier among the forebears of the Chosen People, this does not appear to be completely the case. In the Book of Genesis there is the account of the patriarch Judah who ultimately became the forebear of the most prominent tribe in Israel. In that narrative we are told that after Judah’s wife died he took a trip to a nearby town to visit the men who were shearing his sheep. When his daughter-in-law Tamar also a widow learned of it, she quickly went off ahead of him on the road and disguised herself as a prostitute. Indeed it was her intention to sleep with her father-in-law, for without a husband for herself she could obtain no children to carry on the family line. When Judah came across her on the road, he did not recognize her, and he proceeded to solicit her services for the price of a young goat.
Naturally Moses couldn’t be proud of the patriarch in reporting this incident in the Book of Genesis for according to the law he delivered to the people it was undoubtedly scandalous. But he did something to clean it up and make it more palatable for his readers so as to avoid smearing the name of Judah. In Hebrew there are two words for prostitute. The first is zonah which refers to one who sells sex simply for the physical pleasure of the client. This is the common type of harlot which has always been prevalent throughout the world. But the Hebrew language had another word for a different kind of prostitute. The word kadeshah meaning a holy or consecrated person is used for the shrine prostitute or temple priestess that we have described. The author of Genesis carefully referred to Tamar as a kadeshah in the story to white-wash the whole incident, for he sought to preserve the reputation of the patriarch. It would seem that in that day and age among the primitive Israelites that the office of the shrine prostitute was still considered respectable, and so the word was deliberately chosen to make it seem that Judah was seeking to have sexual union with a temple priestess rather than a common whore.
With our brief sketch of sexual mores in ages past, we conclude our survey of the evolution of morality among the human race. We have traced the relationship of man with fellow man in a number of areas and have noted how with higher awareness of the dignity of the human person, the race has gradually migrated from the brutality, selfishness, and obliviousness of our ancestors toward a more respectful, merciful, and empathetic posture that is characteristic of modern people. Not to suggest that people are by any means saintly by and large in today’s world, but compared to our forebears we have indeed come a long way and as a race continue to move toward a higher standard as the moral bar is slowly but surely raised for mankind. Indeed after perhaps only a few centuries, it is we in the 21st century who will seem like barbarians to our descendants, and in fact from their higher perspective, they will be right.