The Moral Undoing of Slavery

On the surface of the text this week, the Bible appears to tolerate slavery. What’s the story?

The portion from Exodus and its usual companion in Prophets help us get to a deeper understanding of what – ethically – is really going on. And, if we look further at the wisdom they help generate over time, we get a powerful explanation.

Let’s understand a basic truth at the start. At the times of the Bible’s revelation and compilation, slavery was virtually a universal practice. Indeed its diminishment throughout the world since then has been a slow and uneven process.

My thesis is that while the ancient text does not set out immediately to abolish this powerful and ubiquitous institution, it establishes a historic trajectory that aims effectively at destroying it and ultimately contributes mightily to doing so.

Let’s take a look.

The verses in Torah begin with this: “Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh, he shall go out to freedom without charge.” First, slavery is neither blessed nor encouraged, which, in and of itself, marks a dramatic change from the cruel custom of life-long bondage in the ancient world. Second, limits are imposed, restricting the conditions in which slaves could be held – the term, the treatment, etc.

These limits begin to ameliorate the practice by requiring humane treatment. Even greater limits in Deuteronomy, also grounded in the interest of humane treatment, add increasingly to the burden of those who keep slaves and bondsmen. They do so in ways that begin to create strong disincentives to engaging in the practice in the first place.

For example, the return of runaway slaves who escaped to Israel is forbidden. Such former slaves are to be treated equally with resident aliens.

As time passes, the different treatment of Hebrew slaves and non-Hebrew slaves appears to begin to disappear. The Talmud and later sages and rabbis go further. Slaves are to be given similar food, drink, and lodging to that the master would grant himself or his family. Severe punishment is provided for those who abuse or kill slaves.

But what interests me especially about the verses in Jeremiah is that they give us a vivid picture of the religious foundation upon which the campaign against slavery is constructed.

Here we learn that King Zedekiah had entered into a covenant with the people that bound them to release all their Hebrew bondsmen and bondswomen. Yet, presumably out of the selfishness and power that drives the slaveholder, the people reneged and brought the bondsmen and bondswomen back into servitude.

God is furious that the very people He freed from bondage and who count on His holding true to their covenant are now breaking the covenant they made to free their fellows from bondage.

It is notable that the first two verses of Chapter 33 are added to the reading. This addition makes clear that it is not just the redemption from Egypt that is on the Divine Mind; it is the whole of the covenant. “If not for My covenant day and night; had I not set up the laws of heaven and earth….” In other words, together, the commandments press us ever more expansively to live true in all of our life’s activity to the cardinal virtues of justice and righteousness, mercy and loving-kindness.

These covenant expectations are constantly at war with, and ultimately make intolerable, the practices of slavery. So, what all people found customary in the beginning and could not be changed quickly or easily by a small people’s sacred text becomes subject to perpetual attack by the profound values that that text promotes. And the trajectory of those values as they play out in history leads ineluctably to the destruction of all bases for slavery.

It’s a long road from the social ways of pre-Biblical times to the ideal end. But, one day, as Micah teaches us, all will go up to the mountain of the Lord, all will sit under their own vine and their own fig tree, and none will make them afraid.

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From Meetings with God

This week the portion in Exodus and its companion in Isaiah are incomparably beautiful both in what they share and what they teach.

As we have studied, God rescues us from the “narrow places” in Egypt in order to bring us into the expansive and lovely ways of the promised life.

On the surface of the tale in Torah, the people leave the Sea and arrive at Sinai. Moses is called by God to be given direction and then recites the Divine Instruction to guide the people’s way.

In Isaiah, the prophet also is called by God to take on the mission of guiding the people.

Though the two different meetings are centuries apart, I believe they fundamentally go together. Even more, they both teach us about how, in our own time, we can best live in covenant with God and serve Divine purposes.

First, let’s look at the plot more deeply.

God tells Moses at Sinai: “If you obey Me and keep my covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure…And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

Three days later, Moses approaches God again, with the people, clean, within boundaries, and ready for next steps. Moses, then, instructed by God, offers the people the beginning of the great revelation in right living, the Ten Commandments.

The account of Isaiah’s meeting is also consequential but full of fantastic details. Isaiah sees God sitting upon a high throne, along with angels in the heavenly Temple, and witnesses the most remarkable interaction there.

Isaiah feels impure to be in such a setting, much as the Israelites surely feared they might be at Sinai. Once cleansed, he hears God’s words, in which the Divine seeks a messenger to speak to the people.

God knows that the people can hear and see, but they’d shown, from all the bad they had done, that they did not comprehend their obligations. Isaiah is told to inform them that until they see, hear, and understand in order to “repent and be healed,” their cities “will become desolate,” and “abandonment will be great amid the land.” Yet, importantly, there will be a remnant in which “the holy seed will be the vitality of the land.”

What does this teach us?

First, I believe there’s a Moses in each of us, as well as an Isaiah. We, too, are called to go to God, and we do so in our prayers, our mediation, our study, and our service. We, too, strive to be pure in our going. And God tells us when we draw near that our task is to comprehend the path forward through our eyes, ears, mouths and hearts.

Yet, it’s different after Sinai. We have the words. We’ve inherited them as perhaps our richest legacy from our faithful predecessors. As Moses teaches in his last oration: “It is not in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’…No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

So, having been blessed with God’s words, we are expected to use our God-given capacities of sight, hearing, speech, and wisdom to keep to them.

Our way should never be one of desolation or abandonment. We can be the remnant that repents of straying and return, healed. Then, when we follow God’s direction, we become His treasure. When we become priests and a holy nation, we live to serve others and become bestowers of peace in the world.

Songs For Your Playlist

Our portion in Exodus this week bears a close resemblance to its companion text in Judges in that both contain songs that are musts for your playlist.

First, we experience the Song of the Sea. This song, celebrating deliverance from the Egyptian army across the Sea of Reeds, is begun by Moses and the Israelites and concluded by Miriam and other women.

Then, we encounter the Song of Deborah, a victory hymn which she and Barak sing in the wake of the defeat of their Canaanite adversaries.

Okay, so they’re not your typical popular songs. But why does the Bible give us song? What do these two songs share? And what do they teach?

Much has been written throughout history about the purpose of song, yet we only have time here to try briefly to understand how song might enhance meaning in our texts. I will suggest a few ideas and invite yours.

Song generally can bring emotion to the fore better than mere prose. It tends more deeply to express aspects of powerful experiences. We may taste victory and joy or loss and sadness. We may celebrate achievement, acknowledge important turns in our lives, or mourn defeat or death. The stuff of song can be love, bonding, hope, despair, etc. And the goal of song may be mostly expressive or intended to move others, by inspiring, cheering, soothing, wooing, and the like.

Let’s look at our two songs to discern how they might fit these or other patterns and explore how they affect and instruct us.

But, before we do, let’s acknowledge one wonderful and important aspect of these songs. They are sung in significant part by and about women. There is a strong feminine feeling here that spans from pain and exile to endurance and victory. It is, also, the singing of two strong women – prophetesses, one a judge and warrior and the other a preserver of life and hope. The end of Deborah’s song pays tribute, too, to the remarkable courage and decisive action of another woman, Jael.

First, these songs express powerful emotions about the experience of rescue. And, important to people of faith then and now, they acclaim enthusiastically that it is God Who is the Rescuer.

The songs are intended not just for the celebrating community; they are to be music for the whole world, where the theme of God’s saving power will one day be recognized and sung ubiquitously.

It is not only a physical redemption that God effects for us. It is also our turning to ethical, Divine ways of being. In Exodus, “with your loving-kindness, you led the people you redeemed.” In Judges, “Instead of the noise of adversaries, between the places of drawing water, there they will tell the righteous acts of the Lord.”

Second, these songs acknowledge the importance both of the individual and the group, those who lead and those who follow, in the constitution of a good community. This was so in the achievement of past victories, as it will be in successfully handling future challenges. So, the songs are sung individually and collectively, as a means of both personal and shared expression.

The songs make us appreciate leaders who assist in Divine work. Whether it’s Deborah and Barak, Moses and Miriam, the tribes who have contributed, or the “lawgivers” and “the riders of white donkeys” – they’re all distinguished.

Third, there’s a strong sense of prayer in the songs – with a special joy, a deep gratitude, and hope for the future. It is especially important that we know always that there’s a path back to God when we stray. Singing makes our gratitude for this and indeed all these extraordinary blessings more poignant.

Exodus 15:1-21 and Judges 5:1-31 – these are the lyrics of the two songs. Read them as songs in your mind, heart, and soul, and see if all this is indeed so.

Defeating the “Egypt” Within Us

This week the portion from Exodus and the text from Prophets share one clear theme: Egypt is to be defeated, and its defeat must continue across generations.

On one level, this downfall involves the nation of Egypt at the time of Moses as well as the nation of Egypt as prophesied by Jeremiah in the declining years of the First Temple.

On a deeper level, and the one I would like for us to consider, there’s a way of life that is associated with the Egypt experience that is to be defeated. In other words, we must constantly be aware of an improper way of being that must be defeated, and we call that way of life, Egypt.

What is this Egypt?

Tomes have been written on this topic, and we could (and should) spend considerably more time than this short essay permits on its possibilities. Here, let’s use our time simply to look at the language in the text regarding Egypt to see what it teaches about human behaviors that ought to be defeated.

Let’s start by noting that the word for Egypt in Hebrew is mitzrayim, a word related to meitzar, which means narrow place. For reasons we well understand, narrowness is not a desirable attribute.

In Jeremiah, we begin by reading: “Pharaoh, the blustery king of Egypt, has let the appointed time go by.”

Didn’t we learn last week that God prizes one who is humble and contrite of spirit and reverential of God’s word? Blustery seems the exact opposite of all that.

Letting the appointed time go by – this has the feel of being unmindful of the appointed times in the season when we are called to draw near to God. This may be especially concerning when we miss the time to turn back to God and our fellows after we have strayed and done wrong by them.

Egypt, we read further, is “a beautiful calf,” prey for slaughtering. My mind goes to the golden calf. Does yours? A place where the material is elevated over the spiritual is a place that concerns God, and should concern us, too.

“Egypt’s voice will travel like a snake’s….” One can hardly keep from thinking of the snake in the garden, whose voice appeals seductively to act against God’s direction. It allures, but it leads to destruction.

In Exodus, we read of two plagues that afflict Egypt that also hint clearly of the condition of “being Egypt.”

The first is locusts. Is it the plague or the condition that draws the plague that is so claustrophobic? In the midst of such a plague, one is unable to know how or where to move, creating a sense of hopelessness and even further loss. This incapacity ultimately is horrifying and leads to death.

The second is a darkness that can be touched. People can’t see each other. There’s isolation from care, nearness, and any way out or forward. However physical it may be, it’s certainly, also, a spiritual or psychological darkness. Some sages tie this impoverishment of spirit back to the concern in Jeremiah: when there’s an undue emphasis on the material, especially when it leads to inordinate wealth built largely on the backs of others, there’s a darkness that can be touched. It’s become “too much Egypt,” and it must be overcome.

The text in Torah and Jeremiah both end with the promise of God’s saving hand. We’re redeemed from bondage to tyranny and worship of the material. From those narrow places, we are free to journey to Sinai and the land of promise, where living true to God’s expectations will bring us great expansiveness and blessing.