Slavery in the Bible: Michael Abrahams' reading problems

Rev Clinton Chisholm

Sunday, September 03, 2017

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The Bible is probably the only ancient text that any Mike, Mary or Marcia waxes warm about, despite stark ignorance of the book's actual texts, original languages and historical contexts.

The lay critic may be very educated, but (s)he and even most Christians need to understand how to read an ancient text from a different linguistic and cultural milieu than ours. I illustrate the need with the issue of slavery in the Bible, which my esteemed friend Dr Michael Abrahams raised in his Gleaner column on Monday, August 28.

Most of us learned in English literature class the basic point that a text must be read in light of its context. What contextual cues do we need to bear in mind to read the Bible responsibly?

Well, for starters, we need to remember that slavery in the Old Testament and through the time of Jesus, though not a societal ideal, was not like the slavery we in the modern world are accustomed to reading about.

Slavery in the ancient near-Eastern world, Michael, was a universal expedient, and so could not be denounced. And, in an age of wars of conquest or of revenge way back then, it was the milder of two cruel options for dealing with captives: kill them or enslave them. Slavery in such an age was a species of labour relations, masters (= employers) and slaves/servants (= employees).

The Old Testament Hebrew word 'ebed' is better translated 'servant' or 'employee', rather than 'slave', because there was nothing inherently lowly or undignified in being an 'ebed'. The Ebed-Melech (literally 'servant of the King' = royal official) who rescued Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38: 7-10) was a prestigious employee.

To be sure, compensation for a 'slave' hardly rose above lodging, clothing and food, but…slavery in the ancient world of the Old Testament could not practically be abolished. The best that a society could do was to regulate its operation. If we are brutally honest we would realise that not even the most progressive or libertarian thinker can even imagine a modern or future world in which some folk would not be hired by and working for other folk.

In this regard, critics and even Christians miss the uniqueness of the Bible's approach to slavery. In the fundamental regulations that governed ancient Israel — the Mosaic Law — master-slave relations are humanely regulated.

Exodus 21: 2-11 as societal legislation “is concerned about the rights, limits of control, and personhood of slaves…” (Walter C Kaiser Jr, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 1991, 98).

Michael says of Leviticus 25: 44-46, “It was also permissible for [Israelites] to purchase children of foreigners, and to treat them as property, passing them on to their own children as a permanent inheritance.” (my emphasis)

If by the bold section Michael is concluding that because the children of foreigners can be purchased and passed on to the children of Israelites, then, by this tradition, the children so passed on are treated as property; he is indulging a non sequitur based on ignorance of the linguistic and socio-cultural realities of the text in that ancient world context. It does not follow that a child passed on is regarded, let alone treated as property.

As philosopher/ethicist Paul Copan advises, “Even when the terms buy, sell, or acquire are used of servants/employees, they don't mean the person in question is 'just property'. Think of a sports player today who gets 'traded' to another team, to which he 'belongs'. Yes, teams have 'owners', but we are hardly talking about slavery here. Rather, these are formal contractual arrangements, which is what we find in Old Testament servanthood/employee arrangements (in his Is God a Moral Monster? p 125)

Regarding Exodus 21:2-6, a slave who was given a wife by his master was not allowed to leave with her and their children during the seventh year after he became a slave because the wife (in all likelihood a slave too working off a debt) needs to liquidate the debt. Even today, I think when you have a job contract for a given period and decide to end the contract prematurely, your employer is due damages from you.

Michael blunders in his reading of Exodus 21: 7-11 because of ignorance of a basic fact that ancient societies had limited collateral options (not being cash-based economies), hence one's labour power was a major basis of relational and occupational bargaining, hence debt-bondage, etc.

My friend deserves a bit of empathy, though, because there are linguistic difficulties surrounding the translation of the Hebrew text, but I would advise — as one familiar with the Hebrew text — that the 'selling' is not about slavery but about marriage. There is no 'sex slave' nuance here, Michael!!

Asking/expecting a fee for offering your daughter for marriage (= 'selling your daughter') was an ancient near-Eastern 'bride-price' custom and is roughly equivalent to the modern tradition of lavishing gifts upon a bride's parent(s) for the honour of marrying a desired lady.

The maximum length of service of a Hebrew slave was six years (Exodus 21: 2; Deuteronomy 15: 12), and when released such a slave had no financial obligations to the master and indeed the master was expressly commanded: “And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you.” (Deuteronomy 15: 13-14, NIV) This approximates our modern bonus, gratuity or a “golden handshake”.

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 Michael, “stated that it was permissible to knock out a slave's eye or teeth without punishment…” A master who by ill temper or cruelty harmed 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!

“…if you peruse the pages of the Bible concerning slavery, you will learn that cruelty was clearly tolerated.” Like, seriously, Michael? Seeing dimly through a dark glass, Friend?

Jesus Christ's radical ethic of love transformed individual lives and progressively revolutionised human relations. Paul's letter to the slave owner Philemon draws on this ethic of love, and the letter was radically counter-cultural to the mores of first century AD Greco-Roman society.

When read properly with awareness of the ethics of the age, the Bible's approach to slavery is astute and subtly radical. What prohibition could not achieve at the time, progressive ethical regulation and personal transformation accomplished over time — the abolition of slavery and the ongoing improvement of industrial relations informed by Jesus's ethic of love.

We must learn to read all literature, the Bible included, accurately and responsibly.

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




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