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Clinton Chisholm | Slavery in the Bible: Michael Abrahams’ reading problems

Published:Friday | September 1, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Comedian and medical doctor, Michael Abrahams.
Clinton Chisholm

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 (plural).

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 online 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 war and 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).


Servant concept


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 (Jer. 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 sociocultural 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? 125)

Re Ex. 21:2-6, a slave who is 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 Ex. 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 re slavery but re 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 (Ex. 21.2; Deut. 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." (Deut. 15. 13-14, NIV). This approximates our modern bonus, gratuity or a golden handshake.

In the Mosaic code, there are regulations re a master striking his slave (Ex. 21. 20-21), or causing permanent injury to a slave (Ex. 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 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!

"... 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 revolutionized 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.

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' ethic of love.

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

- Clinton Chisholm is a theologian. Email feedback to