February 11

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Matthew 13:1-23; Acts 19:1-22; Psalm 35; Exodus 21:1-11

With Exodus 21, the law moves immediately from general principles (in the Ten Commandments) to specific cases. Addressing slavery first may seem strange to us, but is completely appropriate in the original context. Israel had just been freed from slavery in Egypt and the issue would have been of concern. Structurally, the Ten Commandments begin by mentioning slaves and the second half begins with murder. Similarly, Exodus 21 starts with slavery and then turns to murder in verse 12.

Some translations use the term servant to acknowledge differences between the biblical practice and modern slavery, which was more like slavery in ancient Egypt. The Hebrews in Egypt were born into perpetual slavery and forced labour. The biblical requirement to release all Hebrew slaves in the seventh year shows this practice to be more like ‘indentured labour.’ Biblical slavery was something entered into when someone was in debt and would sell himself to a master to work off what he owed over a number of years. He would go free once the debt was paid off or when the seventh year arrived. In addition, if the man entered slavery married, his wife must go free too. Hebrew slavery was not to be the same as Egyptian slavery.

At the same time, many find biblical guidelines for any form of slavery repugnant. Why would God not abolish slavery outright? While seven-year limits introduce some degree of improvement, this is undermined by what follows (Exodus 21:4-11). Men who married while slaves were not permitted to bring their wives and children with them when they went free. Although married, the wives and children belonged to the master. If the slave wanted to stay with his family, he had to agree to permanent slavery. These laws accept practices like men owning other humans, masters branding their slaves, and fathers selling their daughters into slavery, possibly for sexual use. The plain meaning of these texts is repulsive, with implications no civilised society should endorse. How can anyone take a literal understanding of the Bible seriously and also hold that biblical ethics are relevant for today?

William J Webb, in his book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, provides a method of addressing these issues which I find convincing. Volumes have been written about these passages, the issues themselves, and using the Bible in ethics, so only the briefest summary is provided here. Webb claims that passages like Exodus 21 are problematic when applied in a static way. This approach claims the literal meaning of the text should be applied in our culture. This passage would require, at least, acceptance of some form of slavery and ownership of women by men. Today, most societies reject both of these views.

Webb’s approach is that the Bible reveals redemptive movement on some ethical issues. Some, like murder, stealing and adultery discussed yesterday, have no movement. These are always wrong, and declared so throughout the Bible. But with other ethical issues, the Bible itself shows movement towards more and more redemptive values, and in some cases progress continues after the Bible is completed. Such movement reflects the contextual reality of moving people from unethical practices towards more and more ethical approaches, rather than going from bad to good in one sweep. Jesus’ parable of the sower acknowledges that people grow in their knowledge of God’s kingdom values. As people grow in understanding, they will be given more understanding (Matthew 13:12). Moral change is often gradual.

With slavery, Egypt had a cruel system in which slaves were mere property to be treated as tools in constructing society. The Exodus laws start to introduce redemptive features. Perpetual slavery is taken away as the default. A master would have viewed children of his slave girl as his property. Exodus acknowledges that the slave family should have the opportunity to stay together. While falling far short of what currently is seen as acceptable, Exodus finds a way to keep the slave family together. Some movement in the right direction is apparent, though there remains a long way to go. Similarly, daughters were traded like cattle in surrounding societies. Exodus does not outlaw this, but introduces improvements. If the man comes to dislike her, he could not sell her like used merchandise, but was to allow her to return home (Exodus 21:8). And if she was to marry his son, she was to be treated like a daughter, provided food, clothing and conjugal rights. The Hebrew word for food literally means ‘meat’, a luxury in Israel. Some take this to mean that she is to be treated very well, not just with the bare essentials. Cole’s commentary on this verse notes that ‘such an attitude to slaves abolishes slavery, except in name.’ It would take centuries for this to happen, but these laws begin a process of undermining the existing view of slaves so that eventually slavery would be abolished.

A redemptive movement approach requires ways to distinguish between issues where further ethical progress was intended and those which were to remain constant. Webb’s book elaborates on several such criteria. A key one for slavery is that the Bible itself shows movement. Several New Testament passages are clear that in the eyes of God distinctions such as slave and free are abolished (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; Philemon 15-16). The underlying spirit of biblical passages on slavery is that the treatment and status of slaves should be improved. We will see more of this in tomorrow’s section of Exodus. Progress has continued to where today it seems inexplicable that God did not abolish slavery immediately. This is difficult to comprehend fully, and we are left to trust that God in his wisdom knew it would have been too much too quickly. At the same time, he called for such extensive changes towards slaves that the groundwork was laid to see slavery abolished eventually.

Men, women and children continue to be treated like slaves around the world. These passages call for a degree of respect and practical care that is not shown to many people today, even if they are not called slaves. The clear application of the Exodus slavery laws is that the people of God should work to improve the conditions of those being held in positions of servitude. It may not be practical or wise to outlaw these practices immediately, but reforms must be found to improve current conditions and undermine the attitudes that allow inhumane treatment of others to continue.

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