Biblical Bondage (Rough Draft)

Biblical Bondage

The institution of slavery is as old as civilization itself. Every society of antiquity connoted little or no taboo with the notion of one person owning another, and one cannot refute the fact that many great architectural constructions of the ancient world may very well have been constructed by the toil of human capital. The Israelites themselves are no exception to this historical phenomenon. It is hard for those subscribing to Judeo-Christian philosophy in the modern context to reconcile with the fact that “God’s chosen people” were a slave-holding society. Although the scripture of the Old Testament is revered by millions to be a guide to morality and a reproach to injustice, the accounts of the Old Testament and the bylaws of the Mosaic Code condone an institution that is regarded as the gravest of social transgressions in modern ethics. It is very important to analyze the slavery practices of the Israelites without the bias which modern ethical perspective bears. If one resolves to conduct an equitable examination of biblical slavery, the impertinent goggles of emancipatory rhetoric and modern social justice must be removed so that one can look into the matter with due respect to historical context in order fully appreciate the complex institution of slavery as practiced by the Children of Israel.

Israelite Practice of Slavery

Just as scholars and historians can evaluate the Mesopotamian culture from its etiological epic writings and its law codes, so can they with that of the ancient Hebrews. The books of the Old Testament include several examples of slaves and their situations in the Biblical saga. The texts also feature several instances which establish modi operandi for a variety of circumstances involving the slaves which the Israelites held. By examining and analyzing these stories and protocols dealing with slaves, one can develop a well-formed perspective on how the Israelites regarded slaves in their society and to what standards they held their treatment in bondage.

The earliest mention of slavery in the Old Testament occurs in Genesis 9. This story involves Noah’s son Ham uncovering “his father’s nakedness”, resulting in a curse of bondage on Ham’s son Canaan. In a wrathful tone Noah exclaims: “Cursed be Canaan / The lowest of slaves / Shall he be to his brothers. / ….Let Canaan be a slave to them” (Genesis 9:25-26). From this text, one could deduct that slavery was a punishment for transgression. The historical-critic would imply that this passage would also be used as etiological justification for the enslavement of the Canaanites during the inheritance of the Promised Land. Elsewhere in the book of Genesis, we find the character of Hagar, the handmaid of Sarai. In this account, the infertile Sarai refers her reproductive obligations to her personal slave, the Egytian Hagar, eventual mother of Ishmael. This could define one fundamental principle in the nature of slave-ownership in Israelite ethics: that perhaps the slaves do not retain their own individuality but yet their personage is consolidated with that of their master. If there is no marital taboo attached to Abram consorting with the servant of his wife, then one can assume that ancient Hebrews regarded a slave’s womb, since it was property, as tantamount with the master’s womb. We also see this occur later in Genesis where Rachael and Leah both refer their husband to consort with their servants. Also in the Hagar story, we can see an example of the theology pertaining to the treatment of slaves. When Sarai, out of jealousy, treats Hagar harshly, Hagar fleas, only to be encouraged by the Angel of the Lord saying “Go back to her and submit to her harsh treatment” (Genesis 16:9). This excerpt shows the potential notion that slaves were unconditionally bound to service, regardless of how they were treated.

Although the book of Genesis features several accounts of slavery practiced in no violation of God’s Covenant, it is in the other books of the Torah which we find regulations of the practice set forth in the Covenantal Code. In examining the Mosaic Laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, one can develop two different notions about the sociology of slaves in Hebrew context. The first is that slaves were rendered as substandard humans and their lives and rights were very insignificant in the eyes of their masters. Evidence supporting this can be found in Exodus 21:28-3:

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. ….. But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.

This clause in Mosaic Law conveys the notion that the life of a slave was only a fiscal loss to their master, and the death of a slave was not regarded as a tragedy as would be the death of an Israelite citizen. Another such assumption can be drawn from Leviticus 25:44-46. This excerpt, expressing how Israelites took slaves from their neighboring tribes and made them slaves for life, is potentially conveying the ethnocentricity of the institution in Israel and how it may have been an implement of nationalism to demean the human value of their uncircumcised neighbors.

Opposingly, there is textual evidence in the Torah suggesting slavery in Israel to be a gentler, less ethnically hostile institution. When the law of the Passover offering is set in Exodus 12:43-44, God rules that “No foreigner shall eat of it. But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised”. This theology suggests that slaves, though they were not Israelites themselves, could be reconciled into the Covenant and were welcome to partake in rituals with their masters. Further examination of the laws in Exodus gives light to the kinder side of slavery in Israel. Chapter 21 of Exodus includes several casuistic laws restricting cruel treatment of slaves:

Verse 20: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then, he must be avenged.”

Verse 26: “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let him go on account of his eye.”

Verse 27: “If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.”

In analysis of these laws, this procedure of slavery is significantly different from what is seen in Genesis and as an instrument of foreign policy. In this depiction, slave owners are held to certain humanitarian standards in the protocols of dealing with their slaves and excessively cruel treatment, even in the punishment of slaves, is illegal. The book of Deuteronomy also issues humanitarian regulations of slavery. Deuteronomy 23:15-17 states “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may chose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.”

In synopsis of the laws and examples pertaining to the procedure of slavery in Israel, one can arrive at the conclusion that while Hebrew philosophy of slavery may not have been compatible with our modern sense of ethical justice, it appears that the practice, as defined by the texts of the Torah, was most likely not as draconian in nature as what we commonly associate with slavery in the ancient world. If the slave-owners of Israel upheld the code of conduct set in their sacred law, it is plausible to imply that the slaves of Hebrews may have been some of the more fairly treated in antiquity.

Hebrew Hypocrisy?

However, there is yet one aspect of the Israelite practice of slavery which remains irreconcilable to many modern readers. This is of course the paradox of Israel being freed from slavery and oppression in Egypt only to become slave-owners themselves in the Promised Land. In the exhibition of Exodus, the writer uses rhetoric that evokes sympathy for the enslaved Hebrews: “So [the Egyptians] put taskmasters over [the Israelites] to oppress them with forced labor.”(Exodus 1:11) “The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform.”(Exodus 1:13). Also, God is depicted as having deep sympathy for the Hebrews in their state of bondage: “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their suffering.” (Exodus 3:7). Also, God is attributed as reminding Israel of their emancipation by His mighty hand. In the Torah alone, there are sixteen different instances where God reiterates his liberation of the Israelites so that they may not lose appreciation: Exodus 13:3, 13:14, 20:2, Leviticus 26:13, Deuteronomy 5:6, 5:15, 6:12, 6:21, 7:8, 8:14, 13:5, 13:10, 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, and 24:22.  After being emancipated by God and reminded frequently of their former status as slaves, the Israelites put themselves in front of the firing squad of modern scrutiny as hypocrites when they took slaves of their own. As paradoxical as this biblical scenario may seem, there are multiple solutions to set confusion at ease about Hebrew hypocrisy. First of all, perhaps the writers of Exodus were not trying to convey that the bondage itself of Israel was the injustice which required divine intervention, but rather implying that it was the atrocious cruelty of the Egyptians toward their slaves was the matter deserving of heavenly correction. This would implicate Israelite theology to hold that slavery itself as a practice was not inherently sinful or unjust, but the exploitation of slaves, as exemplified by that of the Hebrews in Egypt, was the cause for deliverance and justice, and that adherence to humanitarian standards of God’s Law to be the discerning factor in judging between slavery de jure and its malpractice. Secondly, perhaps the only reconciliation available to acquit Israel from hypocrisy is simply the manifest eminence of slavery in the ancient world. Perhaps just because the Israelites were ordained to be a people “set apart” and chosen by God, they were not exempt from observing conventions that were commonplace to their Zeitgeist.

Antebellum Interpretation

Perhaps more obscure and problematic than investigating how the Israelites themselves interpreted scripture pertaining to slavery is how it was interpreted by the Judeo-Christian world nearly three millennia later. By the end of the 18th century there were already contesting theological parties in the Western world on the issue of slavery and the debate would only grow more intense thenceforth. Although the most familiar form of slavery to the Western world, that of Africans shipped across the Atlantic, did not arise until the mid 1500s (Becker, 1999), the rapid influx of the practice quickly made it interwoven with European mercantilist economics and later within the fabric of New World society. Perhaps most paradigmatic, and definitely most dynamic in this form of slavery was that of the Antebellum American South. By the onset of the Civil War, there were over four million African slaves in the United States, the demand for which had be accelerated by the invention of the cotton gin and the resulting boom of cotton production in the southern states. (Becker, 1999) Also characteristic of the Old South was the strong, conservative Episcopalian and Baptist religious fabric. As pious as the Southern planter society was, justification of their slavery practices was eminent. The following is an excerpt from A Religious Defense of Slavery, a 1822 letter to South Carolina governor John L. Wilson from Rev. Dr. Richard Furman, president of the State Baptist Convention:

On the lawfulness of holding slaves, considering it in moral and religious view, the Convention think it their duty to exhibit their sentiments, on the present occasion, before your Excellency, because they consider their duty to God, the peace of the State, the satisfaction of scrupulous consciences, and the welfare of the slaves themselves, as intimately connected with a right view of the subject. The rather, because certain writers on politics, morals and religion, and some of them highly respectable, have advanced positions, and inculcated sentiments, very unfriendly to the principle and practice of holding slaves; and by some these sentiments have been advanced among us, tending in their nature, directly to disturb the domestic peace of the State, to produce insubordination and rebellion among the slaves, and to infringe the rights of our citizens; and indirectly, to deprive the slaves of religious privileges; by awakening in the minds of their masters a fear, that acquaintance with the Scriptures, and the enjoyment of these privileges would naturally produce the aforementioned effects; because the sentiments in opposition to the holding of slaves have been attributed, by their advocates, to the Holy Scriptures, and to the genius of Christianity. These sentiments, the Convention, on whose behalf I address your Excellency, cannot think just, or well founded: for the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were directed to purchase their bond-men and bond-maids of the Heathen nations except they were of the Canaanites, for these were to be destroyed. And it is declared, that the persons purchased were to be their “bond-men forever;” and an “inheritance for them and their children.” They were not to go out free in the year of jubilee, as the Hebrews, who had been purchased, were; the line being clearly drawn between them. In example, they are presented to our view as existing in the families of the Hebrews as servants, or slaves, born in the house, or bought with money: so that the children born of slaves are here considered slaves as well as their parents.

Furman was writing in response to sentiments that exposure to Scripture may have had instigated a recent slave insurrection in South Carolina. His defense of slavery as an institution not only compatible, but inclusionary to the Christian faith is a testament to how resolutely persistent Southerners were in the piousity of their practice. It seems difficult to generally conclude that these Christian slave-owners utilized the text of the Old Testament only to justify the practice before its opponents. These people were obviously immersed in Scripture and by its entailing laws, and it appears that their conscience was clear in regards to the accordance of their practices with the Word of God. As archaic and backwards as it seems to modernity, the Bible-reading slave holders of the Old South, primarily Episcopalians, honestly interpreted the “Curse of Ham” in Genesis 9 as literal doctrine of enslaving Africans, whom they believed to be of Hamite descent. (Parry, 2010). Though our contemporary culture often vilifies all Southern slaveholders, stereotyping them to all be tyrannical, cruel masters defying the principles of liberty and social justice, many of these people truly interpreted the scripture of the Old Testament as rationalization for their practices and conducted their relationships with their slaves in the most Biblically-oriented fashion they knew how.

However, the rhetorical use of Old Testament scripture was not typical of only one side of the slavery issue. Although their scriptural canon was oriented more around the New Testament, abolitionists during the first half of the nineteen century also alluded to text of the Old Testament. Both the Unitarian ministers of New England and the underground slave preachers of the South alluded to the concept of Imago Dei in Genesis1:27, proclaiming the equality of all men because they were all created in God’s Image. One slave minister in Tennessee is attributed with preaching the following:

You are created in God’s image. You are not slaves; you are not ‘niggers’; you are God’s children.” Many weary, spiritually and physically exhausted slaves found new strength and power gushing up into all the reaches of their personalities, inspired by the words that fell from this mans lips. (qtd. in Davis, 2005)

It was not only the preaching slaves who were looking to the Old Testament for scripture of emancipation. The evangelism of the slave community and their familiarity with Scripture manifested in spite of widespread illiteracy amongst slaves. Thus, it was the oral tradition within the Christian slave community which captured the Biblical essence of liberation from bondage. The following is a common spiritual hymn, “Go Down, Moses”, which would have been sung by African slaves during work, leisure, or worship:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go.

Thus spake the Lord, bold Moses said,
Let my people go.
If not I’ll smite your first born dead,
Let my people go.

No more shall they in bondage toil,
Let my people go.
Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil,
Let my people go.

Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
To let my people go.

()

These spiritual hymns were often used by slaves as a subtle method of communication between other slaves, and were sometimes used to spread news of opportunities to escape. The lyrics of this hymn are obviously a reference to the events in the Book of Exodus. In analysis of the context in which the song was used, it is cleat that many African slaves venerated Moses and the Israelites as the biblical model of emancipation and faithfully believed in the embodiment of the same deliverance from God would someday liberate them from bondage. This shows that the faith in the active legitimacy of Old Testament scripture was revered just as firmly by opponents of slavery in America as it was by advocates of slavery.

Drawing Conclusions

The congress of the United States used the term “Peculiar Institution” as a politically correct euphemism while bringing the matter up on the floor during the early 1800s. (Becker, 1999 ) To many ethical minded readers of the Old Testament, peculiar is perhaps just how they find the practice of slavery in the Bible. In synopsis of slavery in its Israelite form, one can definitely conclude that the very concept of owning human property was socially kosher in Hebrew context, so long as it was in accordance with the Mosaic Code. It is only when the text is brought into what can be called an era of Marxian reform that its interpretation becomes theologically problematic. Perhaps the most conclusive thesis which an Old Testament scholar can arrive is that the Israelites, governed by their strict Holiness Code and required to abandon so many conventions which their neighbors practices in commonplace, still offered no literal evidence connoting a taboo to the principle of slavery itself. The very fact that the Mosaic slavery laws were casuistic rather than apodictic reveal that it was viewed as an eminent fact of ancient life. As before said, a scholar must remove modernity’s goggles in order to understand that slavery de facto in Hebrew antiquity was most likely not at all resembling to the atrocities we recognize in European colonization or the Antebellum South. Perhaps if there is some type of moral “slavery de jure”, then it may have been the Israelites which outlined its nature and protocols. The ethical issue has been long settled in Western culture today, and our changed society has no reason to return to slavery’s practice, yet we can use the texts of antiquity to help define the ethical evolution of slavery and other “peculiar” institutions from unquestioned institutions to crimes against humanity.

Works Cited

“A religious defense of slavery.” Religious Defense of Slavery (2009): 3. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO.             Web. 01 Mar. 2011.

Davis, Reginald F. “African-American Interpretation of Scripture.” Journal of Religious Thought 57/58.2/1-2 (2005): 93-105. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 01 Mar. 2011.

Parry, Glyn. “The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications for Slavery.”      Renaissance Quarterly 63.3 (2010): 952-954. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 01 Mar.                 2011.

Becker, Eddie. (1999). Chronology on the history of slavery and racism. Retrieved from                                                 http://innercity.org/holt/chron_1830_end.html on 01 Mar. 2011

http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/freedom/source.cfm

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2 Responses to Biblical Bondage (Rough Draft)

  1. Looks great so far! I would foreground the “problem” here even more…that God’s people were also slaveholders. Keep up the good work.

  2. Pingback: Bondage institutions | Mendocinophoto

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