Tue | Dec 18, 2018

Clinton Chisholm | Slavery in the Bible : a rejoinder

Published:Tuesday | September 19, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Clinton Chisholm
Poet and physician Michael Abrahams.

Michael Abrahams said he read the flipping text and maintains his earlier point that I tried to correct. Well, here are a few English translations of said text, Exodus 21:26-27.

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." (NIV, New International Version)

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." (NASB, New American Standard Bible)

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." (RSV, Revised Standard Version).


Suffer loss


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

The last word of v. 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 institu-tions cannot easily be abolish-ed, because such abolition required individual heart/mind change, plus institutional dismantling.


Unsound view


By the way, though even 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-sensical and biblical perspec-tive, God cannot lie.

More pointedly and more philosophically as two of my former philosophy lecturers, William Lane Craig and J. Moreland, put it, "God being omnipotent does not imply that he can do logical impossibili-ties, such as make a round square or make someone freely choose to do something." (In their Philosophical Founda-tions for a Christian Worldview, 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.

Clinton Chisholm is a theologian. Email feedback to columns@gleaner.com.