A Response to “The West Wing” Bible Scene

One would think this would be old news by now, but a twenty year old television clip continues to make waves today. More specifically, this scene from the critically acclaimed TV show “The West Wing” is still frequently used in an attempt to discredit both the Bible and those who believe it:



The second season episode is entitled “The Midterms” and it initially aired on October 18th, 2000. Martin Sheen portrays President Josiah Bartlett who, like Sheen, is supposedly a devout Catholic. Nonetheless, when a conservative talk show host appeals to the Bible to support her views on Homosexuality, Bartlett’s religious facade quickly falls to the wayside. His response follows:

I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?

Here’s one that’s really important, because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads [according to Deuteronomy 22:9-11]?

Sadly, this clip is still widely shared as if it were an accurate representation of what the Bible actually teaches. Even more sad is how many people blindly accept this characterization without actually researching these passages for themselves. Let’s examine the President’s accusations one by one:

“I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7.”

While I will be responding to all of President Bartlett’s accusations in this post, I will be giving special detail to his remarks on slavery since the issue does frequently arise in these sorts of exchanges. Key to understanding slavery in its biblical context is the Hebrew word ‘ebad. This word is used over 800 times in the Old Testament and yes, sometimes it does indeed refer to slavery. However, it is also used in reference to other forms of servitude.

This is an important distinction, given our own county’s shameful history. Yet the sort of slavery as was practiced in the antebellum south would also never have been tolerated under Biblical law. In fact, to take a person captive and enslave them would have been a death penalty crime in ancient Israel:.

  • Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves (Exodus 21:16 NLT).

  • If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 24:7 ESV).

We will be discussing capital punishment later in this post, but the point is that  the servitude advocated in the Old Testament was a much more benign system of voluntary indentured servitude.

Ancient Israel had no bankruptcy laws or governmental welfare system. Yet there were a number of avenues set up to help the needy. For example, there was the law of gleaning. When a farmer harvested his crops, he was not to go back and gather the food he missed. Rather, it was left for the poor to come and pick up (glean) for their families (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Another form of aid was interest-free loans (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). And yes, in extreme cases, to offer oneself for a time of indentured servitude was permitted.  In fact, in times of severe economic hardship, having this option could literally save people from starving to death (it is also noteworthy that many early immigrants to the United States financed their voyages through similar indentures ).

Unlike the slavery practiced in America, this system was voluntary, temporary and was not at all based on race. In this arrangement,  the person was basically a live-in employee. We see these regulations in Leviticus 25.39-40:

  • If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell himself to you, do not treat him as a slave. Treat him instead as a hired worker or as a temporary resident who lives with you, and he will serve you only until the Year of Jubilee.

 

  • Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him (Exodus 21:1‭-‬4 ESV).

In other words, the indenture could last no longer than seven years. after which the servant was released, and all debts were discharged (Leviticus 25:35–43). In fact, Old Testament law contained a number of provisions in this area which were very advanced for the ancient world. For example, if a person injured their servant, they had to unconditionally grant that servant his or her freedom (Exodus 21:26,27). Furthermore, Israelites were required to give asylum to runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15,16) ,which would even put them ahead of the United States in light of  the horrible Dred Scott case.

Moving into the New Testament, it is also important to remember that the events described  took place under Roman, rather than Jewish law which radically changed the circumstances. The political structure did not allow for outsiders to attempt to directly work for change. The people could not vote, email their senators or otherwise work for reform. Nonetheless, as we shall see, the genius of the Gospel message set the stage for centuries of reform in the area.

Again, given the lack of political options, the change had to come from within. Encouraging a slave revolt would have done much more harm than good. For this reason, Christian slaves were instructed to be faithful and work diligently for their masters (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:22-2,  Christian employees are also expected to do this today).  This sort of conduct let people tangibly see the transformative power of the Gospel which again, would transform societies in such a way as to make abolition possible. This Christian influence would later motivate Emperor Constantine to abolish slavery in the Roman Empire in 313 AD.  

Nonetheless,  even in New Testament times, slaves  who were able to obtain their freedom were encouraged to do so (1 Corinthians 7: 21-24). In the tiny Book of Philemon, the Apostle Paul encounters and leads to Christ a runaway slave named Onesimus, who had worked for Paul’s friend Philemon. When sending him back, Paul instructs Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ, no more as a slave. Further Paul agrees to personally cover all expenses Onesimus might owe him.
 
Jesus showed His heart in this matter when He declared that His mission was to  “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 NASB1; cp. Isaiah 61:1). God loves the slave just as much as He loves the free person (Galatians 3:28). In 1 Timothy 1:9,10. slave traders are described as “… lawless, unholy, ungodly, profane” and are placed in the same category as liars, adulterers, thieves and murderers. In the end, God will harshly judge those nations that continue to practice slavery (Revelation 18:11–13). Now on to Bartlett’s next allegation:


“My chief of staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?”

Most Christians understand the Sabbath to be a special sign of God’s covenant with Israel and not strictly commanded under the New Testament (see Mark 2:27-28, Luke 6:5, Romans 14:5-6, Galatians 4:9-11, Colossians 2:16-17). Nonetheless, the Exodus passage Barlett quotes is a serious allegation and must be addressed.

It is true that under Old Testament Law, Sabbath breaking was one of numerous offenses that were subject to the death penalty. Yet it is noteworthy that executions were quite rare in ancient Israel. In fact, Jewish history shows very few instances in which these sort of punishments were actually carried out. Does that surprise you? In the words of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

In practice…these [physical] punishments were almost never invoked, and existed mainly as a deterrent and to indicate the seriousness of the sins for which they were prescribed…The rules of evidence and other safeguards that the Torah provides to protect the accused made it all but impossible to invoke these penalties (1).

There are a few important factors to consider. First of all, as Rabbi Kaplan points out,  the burden of proof required in a death penalty trial was extremely high. A death sentence had to be based on the testimony of at least two independent witnesses who, if they were found to be lying, would receive the death sentence themselves (Deuteronomy 17:6-7, 19:18-20). There was also a system of plea bargaining in which a fine or ransom of some sort could be agreed upon instead of the full penalty. The one exception was murder, which did carry a mandatory death sentence (Numbers 35:31).

Furthermore, we no longer live under a theocratic government. Carrying out these sort of laws would be impossible today. Remember that even those who were trying to kill Jesus did not have the authority to do it on their own. They had to appeal to Rome to carry it out. Later, the Apostle Paul was addressing a situation in the Corinthian church in which a man was having an incestuous relationship with his stepmother. Under the Old Testament system, this would indeed be subject to the death penalty (Leviticus 20:10-11). Yet the penalty Paul prescribes in excommunication, not death (see 1 Corinthian 5).

So how does this continue to apply to us in the New Testament age of grace? Do these same penalties bind us today? Yes, but at a different time and by a different agent. As Hebrews 10:28-29 tells us that:

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

In other words, the wages of sin is still death (Roman’s 6:23). While it may not come at the hands of a civil magistrate, having it carried out by God Himself is infinitely more terrifying. In the words of Amos 4:12, “Prepare to meet thy God.”

“Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?”

Up until this point, Bartlett’s claims, while fallaciously argued, do reflect certain common misconceptions about the Bible. Nonetheless, from this point on, his arguments become downright silly. Here the president is referring to the Jewish code of  kashrut, or kosher, which designates certain animals as unclean for food or various other uses. Of course, these  regulations would pose no dilemma for Christians, as these laws are lifted in the New Testament  (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:9-16; Romans 14:13-23; Colossians 2:16-17; 1 Timothy 4:1-4). Nor would it be a problem for observant Jews as modern footballs are made out of leather, not pigskin. 

‘Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?’

From here,  Bartlett moves from misquoting the Bible to outright lying about it. While it is true that there were ceremonial laws recorded in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9-11 against planting mixed seed (kilayim) and wearing mixed fabric (sha’atnez) there was no criminal penalty involved, certainly not death.

Scriptures such as these are generally understood by Christians as having symbolic application regarding God’s people being separated from the world for His purposes. For example, a similar law in Deuteronomy 22:10 forbids plowing with a donkey and an ox in the same yolk. Later, the Apostle Paul would refer to this passage to illustrate why Christians should not be “yolked” together with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14–15). 

Friends, there is a good reason why the Bible has stood the test of time. Our whole system of human rights would not exist without it. Far from condoning slavery, the message of the Gospel was the key to it’s abolition! Think about your own city. How many hospitals, charities, homeless shelters and drug rehab centers were founded by churches or other Christian organizations? The Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the Bible’s central theme, has been the greatest force for good the world has ever known. President Bartlett’s childish tirade does not discredit the Bible in the least. Instead, it only showcases his own ignorance and bigotry.

As we close, I would like to share the string that ties the entire Bible together. 
Far worse than any human enslavement is the fact that we are slaves to sin (if you don’t believe that, please take this test).

The good news is that Jesus paid your ransom so that you can go free! If you have never received this amazing gift, please do it today!

Keep It Real,

James

NOTES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Quoted in The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible by Robert J Hutchinson. 2007, Regency Publishing, Washington DC. pp 103-104.

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