Thu | Dec 3, 2020

Michael Abrahams | Slavery in the Bible 2: addressing my ‘reading problem’

Published:Sunday | September 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Two weeks ago, The Gleaner published my column ‘Slavery in the Bible’, in which I expressed concern about the tolerance of slavery in the revered book. My friend, the Rev Clinton Chisholm, responded the following Sunday with a stinging scriptural salvo: “Slavery in the Bible: Michael Abrahams’ reading problems’.

The title made me laugh, and after reading his dismissive dissertation, I called him, thanked him for the engagement, and informed him that I would be responding to his response. Clinton is a theologian and a learned man for whom I have the greatest respect. However, his riposte suggests to me that he may have missed the main point of my article, which is that slavery is unjust, but was tolerated by the God of the Bible.

Clinton’s response also illustrates an observation I have made while communicating with many Christian apologists: wilful ignorance. When something sounding good and wholesome is quoted from the Bible (e.g., “God is love”) there is no issue. However, when pronouncements that reek of cruelty or unfairness (e.g., “God is jealous”) are repeated, you will hear that you need to “look at the context” or “understand the translation”, words such as ‘hermeneutics’, ‘exegesis’ and ‘theology’ will be tossed in your direction, and you will be told, “God works in mysterious ways”, “you cannot understand the mind of God”, or that you should just “have faith”.

Context and translation are indeed important. But there are some activities that, no matter the context in which you examine them or how you translate them, are unacceptable. Slavery is one of them.

Clinton states that slavery in Biblical times was not like “slavery we in the modern world are accustomed to reading about”, equating slavery at that time to “species of labour relations” with masters=employers and slave/servant=employees. This is fallacious! 

Employers pay employees a salary, and are not supposed to own them or control their lives, or the lives of their families. He goes on to say that the Old Testament Hebrew word 'ebed' is better translated to 'servant' or 'employee' rather than 'slave'. I do not dispute this, but the fact remains that slavery did exist. 

Clinton admits it, claiming that “slavery in the ancient world of the Old Testament could not practically be abolished”. Why not? The God of the Bible is omnipotent, and capable of doing anything. Once he got pissed off and drowned almost everyone on the planet. I guess the saying, ‘With God, all things are possible’, is only used selectively, when convenient.

Rev Chisholm stated that the terms ‘buy’, ‘sell’ and ‘acquire’ do not necessarily mean that the person in question is ‘just property’, and compared the situation with a sports player today who gets ‘traded’ to another team to which he ‘belongs’. However, to compare those impoverished and socially disadvantaged servile people with today’s sports stars, who are wealthy and live extravagant lifestyles, is a false equivalence that is patently laughable.

He also said that under Mosaic Law, “master-slave regulations are humanely regulated”.  At this point, I seriously began to wonder what grade of marijuana my preacher friend was smoking, and if he would share some with me, as he appeared to be higher than Heaven. Why? I refer you to Exodus 21:26, which states, “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.” Think about it. A blow to the eye that destroys it, in the days before anaesthesia and antibiotics. The pain, the risk of serious infection, the disfigurement, the disability … and no punishment for the aggressor. 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.

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.”

So, if someone gives their slave some ‘bitch lick’ and ‘claat’ them in their head until they pass out from a concussion, while sustaining contusions, abrasions, lacerations and fractures, and the injured slave remains motionless and comatose for two days before being able to get up, the attacker is not to be punished. SAS CRISE! How the hell is that humane? And when I stated that, regarding slavery, cruelty was tolerated in the Bible, Clinton told me to “read the flipping text”!

Well, I read “the flipping text”, and I will end this column as I did the one two weeks ago by again asking the question: “How can anyone claim to possess a moral compass and trust and revere a book, or collection of books, in which the repugnant act of slavery is tolerated?”

- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.