Running with Scissors: Slavery, the Bible, and the Facts

Introduction

I take a unique approach to the Bible.

While I happily affirm both inspiration and inerrancy, I also recognize the fact that the Bible is also historical in nature. It’s why it seems to cause so many problems, especially because of the belief of the aforementioned doctrines as well as an acceptance of the latter facts, because they would seem to conflict, but I don’t believe that they do.

As Bart Ehrman has noted in speaking of the gospels in particular, but a fact that—I believe—can be applied to all of Scripture is that, “…they were written by people in historical circumstances and contexts and precisely in light of those circumstances and contexts.”(1) This means that one of the key understandings that I bring to the Bible is that it is first and foremost a product of history. And it is a history that I had no part in, did not have me in view, and was not written according to my culture’s standards.

But seeing that one of the key doctrines that I believe about it (inspiration) has in view that, “the sacred writings, …are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”(2) What is interesting is that the “sacred writings” that the apostle appeals to are what we call the Old Testament; moreover, he says of them in the very next sentence that they are “theopneustos”, which is sometimes translated as “God-breathed”, and that they are, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”(3) Of course in believing that statement to be true can often result in some rather ridiculous ideas about what it means.

One of the first obstacles to this is that we are infected by a worldview that is completely foreign to the biblical authors, and we’re simply not self-reflective enough to realize it. Indeed, believers will often paint a picture of the Scriptures that is far from the reality that is painted by the texts themselves, and confuse a particular philosophy of interpretation with the text or texts being interpreted because, “The biblical writers wanted to be understood. They did not write with the intention of miscommunicating. More fundamentally, God wanted his thoughts, character, and purposes grasped with clarity.”(4) And that means that we have to approach the text with the intention of trying to understand what exactly is being said, in its original historic and linguistic context, and not our present context.

To that end I want to look at a post from a blog that I have recently been following, that is written from a Jewish perspective—interestingly, an unbelieving Jew—under the pseudonym Elisha ben Abuya, just because it gives a different perspective, namely one drawn from rabbinic, Orthodox Judaism, titled “Biblical Slavery”.

Now, I have written several posts on this issue, and more than likely I will be retreading some of that ground, but primarily, I think that it’s the matter of presuppositions that need to be addressed because that is where Elisha begins.

The Problem of Presuppositions

Elisha begins by identifying four presuppositions that he believes that believers hold when approaching Scripture.

The first is that, “Morality is objective and the only objective source is God.” I would say that is true. As creator of all things, God alone has the means in and of Himself, to ground and arbitrate between moral claims.

The second alleged presupposition is, “The Bible was from God, and therefore the Bible is moral.” I would disagree with this presupposition. If “Bible” is being used as an inclusive synonym for “Scripture,” something which I will sometimes employ, and if what is meant is that it reveals what is moral, then it would be true, but I think that this is not an accurate representation of the presupposition that believers hold.

The next presupposition is, “If slavery is immoral, therefore it is not from God.” I’m not crazy about the formulation because it seems to jump from a conditional to a conclusion. And then there’s the loaded term “slavery”, which is not given any kind of meaningful qualification.

The fourth and final presupposition mentioned is, “If it is not from God, then it is not endorsed by Him in the Bible.” The problematic word in this alleged presupposition is the word “endorsed,” which means, “to openly approve or recommend.”

Elisha says that such presuppositions are problematic,

“One problem with this is the anachronistic view that since we view of slavery to be immoral, therefore the ancient Bible had the same view about the morality of slavery. The apologist who needs morality to be objective, rather than provisional, will attempt to change the meanings within the Bible to align with his or her views. (emphasis added)

This is where I think that there is a tendency to impose some kind of absurd literalism on the text, and attack a misrepresentation of the arguments about God as the ground of morality, and a misrepresentation of what the biblical authors themselves articulate in the text, something that is overlooked by critics because of their emotional and not cognitive reflection of the word that is being translated into English by “slave”.

Elisha begins the body of his post by stating something that might be offensive to some fundamentalist or even conservative believers, but is relatively uncontested in scholarly circles and its something that believers who want to have a confident, coherent, and consistent faith need to realize:

“The five books that compose the Torah were not authored by God, nor was the Torah written by just a single person during a single period in history. There are enough anachronisms, conflicting narratives, as well as outright contradictions, to make that evident to anyone reading it. Unless, of course, the person reading the text had already assumed a Divine Authorship through Moses 3,500 years ago.

I have actually met people, and even go to church with some which makes for some rather heated interaction is Bible studies—probably why I don’t get invited, but I digress—, who believe that God essentially dictated everything to Moses who wrote ever single word. That means that that they have to overlook parts of the narrative where Moses directs others, like his attendant Joshua, to write things down. I do think that Elisha has to engage in broad stroking the facts, but that’s what I would expect from a non-believer, moreover, the examples that he gives just ignores the respective contexts from which they are drawn.

Moving on, Elisha asserts that, “The Torah was obsessed with slavery.” If by “obsessed” he means that the writers just interact with the socio-cultural reality in which they existed, then yes, because, as Elsiha has to admit, “One reason is probably because slavery was ubiquitous throughout the ancient world.”

Elisha goes on,

“[There] is not just one kind of slavery, there is also not just one word for “slave”. And depending upon the writer, the term that means “slave” in one verse might not mean a slave in another.

I don’t think that Elisha is desperately trying to obscure facts here, but he doesn’t really do a good job of explaining what he means here, and its something that I think can best be explained by an actual translator,

“[A] particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that requires a range of renderings—“slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery particularly in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context.(5)

To his credit, Elisha does try to categorize these relationships as they appear in the text, and it’s something that careful readers note when they pay attention to the context. However, Elisha seems to appropriate a literalist method of reading the text that abandons any nuance at some points, then seems to abandon it when it poses a problem to his interpretation; case in point:

“Hebrew slaves cannot be resold or traded, unlike the gentile slaves. This is key to understanding that when it speaks of selling a slave to another Hebrew, the text means a gentile slave. When it tells you not to covet the slaves of another, it means Hebrew slaves, since they cannot be sold to you.

Okay, then he would need to definitely show me where this supposed nuanced differentiation exists:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”(6)

There doesn’t seem to be any indication that one is forbidden in one case and permitted or acceptable in another. It seems to be rather absolute, especially since it is given as a negative, eg “you shall not”.

One of the most aggravating elements is that Elisha will assert something, like, “In one verse, it commands the Jew to be humane to his slaves. In another, the text tells us that beating a slave is an acceptable practice,” but not cite a text to support it. He essentially claims that apologists (ie Christians) are cherry-picking the text, then he proceeds to do the very same thing, without giving any recognition that the author of the texts are, by scholarly consensus, different people who have different literary purposes. I mean, after all, one is from Leviticus, which is concerned with the priesthood and cultic ritual and rites, and one is from Exodus where the context is a collection of legal exemplars wherein the author takes two different, yet related cases and puts them in parallel as a demonstration of the unique nature of Jewish law.

The best—or worst—example that he gives is from Leviticus 25, where a law is stated that distiguishes between the status of Hebrew (ie Israelite) “slaves” have a limit of service (typically 7 years) however no such limit is ascribed to non-Hebrews.

However, Leviticus 25 seems to reflect a condition that exists in a matter of settlement and residence in the land of Israel. Moreover, its in the context of land ownership and the various relationships that arise in such a condition (eg tenant farmers). However, one has to put these laws into context with admonitions in Numbers and Deuteronomy for Israelites to make no distinction between themselves and those who would live among them (eg Numbers 15:15; Deuteronomy 10:19), even as servants.

Conclusion

I want to agree with a statement from Elisha’s closing, but not for the reasons that he, or you, might think. He writes,

“To claim that our modern sense of morality must be in the Torah because it is from God and He is moral is a presuppositional view that is forcing an anachronism upon ancient literature.

This is important to remember because where we stand in time is the result of the impact of God’s revelation of himself in time, and the effect of that revelation being written down, first in part in the Torah, then through the prophets and Writings, into the final and full revelation in the person of Christ, and finally through the apostolic application, which is something that the Christian has over the Jew. Our place in time is the result of judgements made in light of the totality of revelation, and not in spite of it. That means that we need to make an important distinction between morality and law.

Laws ultimately reflect morality, but are themselves subject to morality. Our morality can be rigid, or flexible, which is one of the reasons why I have expressed that there is a correspondence between what is characterized as either subjective or relative morality and objective morality. And I think that it can be best explained by the analogy of comparing a mirror to a photograph.

A photograph is a static image, a point in time. If people treat morality as if it is a photograph of an object, then we can roughly equate this to the objective morality that is promoted by a wooden literalism: we look at the snapshot and believe that we have to conform to it, which can present itself in ridiculous ways. Relativistic morality sees morality as a mirror, and that people approach it and see whether or not they like the reflection. I would like to contend that morality itself is the mirror, and that when the subject looks into the mirror of conscience, they see what the mirror is aiming at, because a mirror can be used to see a number of things. If the person is desiring to see goodness, will point the mirror towards what is good. If a person thinks that they are what is good, then that’s what they will reference; if not, then they will point it towards what is good.

I will argue that what we see, when we look at the Torah, is that we see a God interacting with people who lived in particular circumstances, and who moved them toward a better way that was still within the comprehensibility of their experience, giving them something that we see in vague, shadowy reflections in the laws recorded for us in the Torah. The mistake is to assume that the way (ie laws) that was being pointed was to be normative in all places at all times, that it was the destination and not merely a stop on the path to the destination. Laws, however, are not meant to be set in stone, however principles are, and that is one of the important contrasts drawn in the Torah.(7)

To that end, my major, and therefore primary criticism of Elisha’s piece is that it adds more heat than light to the conversation. He tries to paint his discussion as one of somewhat armchair scholarship, as I often do, where contrasting views can be presented in an easily consumable manner, and he does this through his illustration of different categories of those who would fit under the category of “slave” or “servant”. However, he also wants to glom onto some kind of moral high-horse and pretend that he has grounds to judge the authors of Scripture—and by extension God as the driver of their work in the process of inspiration—in their historical context, which is not only uncharitable, given that they might not have even had the fullness of the Old Testament canon, but also manifestly unfair given that he is actually living in the totality of revelation and Christians looking to live out the fullness of their faith in time. As one writer has noted,

“We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience. To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages. We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviors are considered rude or polite. (8)

The chief duty of the apologist is not necessarily to make the world of the Bible pleasant, something that I believe so many do to their discredit, rather it is to give it proper context. The world of the biblical authors was ugly, complicated, and fundamentally different that ours. But our world is built on certain fundamentals that are presupposed by the authors and are the woven into the fabric of the tapestry of history that holds our culture together. Opponents of the faith, like Elisha, run with their scissors in an attempt to cut the threads that are presuppositionally necessary for a functional and growing culture. The believer is supposed to live in light of the totality of revelation, for its only from there that hope springs.

Notes

1. Bart Ehrman. Did Jesus Exist?:The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Harper-Collins Publishers. 2012. p. 82.

2.2 Timothy 3:15, ESV

3.2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV

4. Michael S. Heiser. The Bible Unfiltered: Approaching Scripture on Its Own Terms. Lexham Press. Kindle Edition. Loc. 109.

5. “Preface to the English Standard Version” The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles. Emphasis added.

6. Exodus 20:17, ESV, compare Deuteronomy 5:21

7. See my commentary on Deuteronomy 27:1-8 from the Deuteronomy series in the post, “A Covenant of Blessing and Cursing”.

8. E.R. Richards &, B.J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL. 2012. p. 11.