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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