Mr. Peter Wickham (of Barbados) is a very educated man but he and even most Christians need to understand how to read an ancient text from a different cultural milieu to ours. I illustrate the need with Mr. Wickham’s (mis)reading of the issue of slavery in the Bible in his column in the Barbados Nation newspaper of May 25, 2014.
Mr. Wickham charges that “Slavery is justified in both principle and practice throughout the Old and New Testament.”
Most of us learned in English literature class the basic truism 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 less than 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 was a universal expedient and in an age of wars of conquest or of revenge, slavery 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 Hebrew word ‘ebed is better translated ‘servant’ or ‘employee’ rather than ‘slave’ because there is nothing inherently lowly or undignified in being an ‘ebed. The Ebed-Melech (literally ‘servant of the King’ = royal official) who rescued Jeremiah and is four times referred to as a Cushite (Jer. 38.7, 10, 12; 39.16) 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 realize 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). There are also societal injunctions re slaves in Lev. 25. 39-43, Deut. 15. 12-18 and Jer. 34. 8-22, all designed to limit the master’s power over his slaves.
With specific reference to Mr. Wickham’s umbrage with “selling one’s daughters into slavery (Ex. 21:7-11)…” I empathize, because there are linguistic difficulties surrounding the translation of the Hebrew text but I would advise that the ‘selling’ is not re slavery but marriage. Bear in mind that in a context of limited collateral options one’s labour power was a major basis of relational and occupational bargaining, hence debt-bondage, etc. Asking/expecting a fee for offering your daughter for marriage (= ‘selling your daughter’) was the 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.
Note too that the idea of ‘selling someone’ should not necessarily offend since even we moderns talk about ‘selling or trading’ a sportsperson to a team to which he ‘belongs’ —a modern contractual agreement analogous to what obtained in the ancient world. (I am indebted to Paul Copan for this analogy in his helpful book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, 2011, p.125).
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. 14 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”.
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 was radically counter-cultural to the mores of first century AD Greco-Roman society. Paul asks the owner of the run-away slave Onesimus “I appeal to you on the basis of love…I appeal to you for my son Onesimus…I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you…Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” (vv.9, 10, 12, 15, NIV).
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.
Mr. Wickham and Christians could be helped by the ongoing research work of fellow Bajan Trevor Francis on Christianity and Contemporary Manifestations of Slavery.