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Slavery in the Bible: A rejoinder to Dr Abrahams

By Clinton Chisholm

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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In the Mosaic code there are regulations regarding a master striking his slave (Exodus 21: 20-21), or causing permanent injury to a slave (Exodus 21: 26-27). It is simply not true that the latter text, according to Dr Michael Abrahams, “stated that it was permissible to knock out a slave's eye or teeth without punishment…” A master who by ill temper or cruelty harms a slave was legally obligated to free the slave with exemption from any further obligation to pay back the debt with his labour power. Pardon my Ugaritic Mike, but read the flipping text!

Michael, in his recent Gleaner column, said he read the text and maintains his earlier point which I tried to correct. Well, here are a few English translations of said text, Exodus 21: 26-27:

New International Version: 26) An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27) And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.

New American Standard Bible: 26) If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. 27) And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.

Revised Standard Version: 26) When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free for the eye's sake. 27) If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free for the tooth's sake.

Is there no punishment here? As I said in my earlier response to Michael, quoted in my opener here, a master who harmed his slave had to suffer loss of that slave's labour power by freedom for the slave and that slave's debt was written off. No punishment, like seriously?

Yet Michael persists, saying, “Some will argue that letting the slave go is a consequence, and that the owner will lose part of his labour force, but that does not equate to punishment.” Give me a break! I just resisted the temptation to use another Ugaritic expression.

Michael, you need to rethink seriously your view of punishment.

You can be forgiven, though, for saying, “What is even more mind-blowing to me is Exodus 21: 20-21, which states, 'Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.'”

Why? One, context, and two, language issues requiring knowledge of the Hebrew text.

Don't take my word for it, check the Hebrew lecturer at any seminary or Bible college or other such institution. In context the instrument used by the master is a 'rod' not a lethal weapon.

The word for 'punished' (Hebrew: naqam) is quite strong and almost always suggests extreme matching treatment (cf. the modern commensurate desserts), hence death for death.

The last word of verse 21 “property” is literally 'money'; that is, the slave represents the master's investment since he is owed a debt of labour or continued work.

I maintain that slavery in the ancient world of the Old Testament could not practically be abolished. It was not a societal ideal or a social good, but entrenched social institutions cannot easily be abolished because such abolition required individual heart/mind-change plus institutional dismantling.

By the way, even though many Christians share Michael's view that an omnipotent God is “capable of doing anything”, the view is philosophically and biblically unsound. From a common sense and biblical perspective, God cannot lie.

More pointedly, and more philosophically, as two of my former philosophy lecturers — William Lane Craig and J P Moreland — put it, “God's being omnipotent does not imply that he can do logical impossibilities, such as make a round square or make someone freely choose to do something.” (In their Philosophical Foundations for a Christian World View, IVP, 2003, 538)

I got your main point, Michael, that “slavery is unjust, but was tolerated by the God of the Bible”. I hate to quibble by drawing on my training in philosophy, but I must. God tolerated (allowed with disagreement) slavery by regulating how His chosen people used it.

Philosophically, at the heart of tolerance is disagreement. If anyone says Cuba is 400 miles from Jamaica, though I would disagree, I would allow that one the right to maintain that erroneous view — that is tolerance, philosophically speaking.

Mikey, our disagreement will not damage our friendship and mutual respect.

Rev Clinton Chisholm is a minister of religion and scholar. Send comments to the Observer or to clintchis@yahoo.com.

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