Slavery in the Pentateuch

I’ve been reading Peter Garnsey‘s very helpful book Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge, 1996), and I’ve finally gotten to the good part. Well, okay, the whole thing is good, very helpful, but now that I’m done with the section on general ideas (pp. 1–101) and have entered in the study of specific authors and groups, I’m about to read about Philo and Paul, having already read about Aristotle and the Stoics. Maybe I’ll have something to say about Aristotle and the Stoics at some point, and about Philo and Paul, but for now I just want to reproduce Garnsey’s list of points that Philo and Paul would have gleaned from the Pentateuch on slavery.

Of course, Garnsey is not a biblical scholar, certainly not a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, and it is not at all clear that ancient Israelites thought about slavery in the way that Greek sources (particularly the Greek philosophical tradition) thought about slavery. Nevertheless, it is an interesting exercise to read the Hebrew Bible with the questions posed by Aristotle and the Stoics and others in mind, to try to imagine what someone influenced by Greek philosophy (such as Philo and Paul) would have made of the biblical passages referencing slavery.

In the five numbered points below, I’m directly quoting Garnsey (pp. 155–56), except where I have corrected an obvious typo in one of his biblical references.

  1. Slavery was an accepted, structural element in the society of ancient Israel.
  2. Slavery was the fate of others, not of Jews. Jews could be subjected only to temporary slavery, unless they chose to stay with their masters (Exodus 21:1–7; Deut. 15:12–18).
  3. Accordingly, ‘bad’ slavery was defined as slavery (of Jews) to men. ‘Bad’ slavery in the sense of moral slavery (as far as I can see) is present only in inchoate form in the Old Testament writings.
  4. The alternative to slavery to men is slavery to God, which we can label ‘good’ slavery. Moses, Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs were slaves of God. So for that matter were the whole chosen people of God. They had been freed from slavery in Egypt to be the slaves of their God (e.g. Lev. 25:42 and 55), and were firmly instructed not to become slaves of men.
  5. There are some ‘foundation stories’ of slavery which form an intermediate, problematic category. They are the enslavement of Canaan by order of Noah and the enslavement of Esau by order of Isaac (Gen. 9:18–27; 27:1–42). They are problematic because they are ordered by patriarchs, and within their own families. Moreover, the enslavement of Esau is specifically represented as condoned by God, as part of his plan in fact: God tells Rebecca as much when she asks Him what is going on in her womb.

As for that last point, the two specific biblical passages Garnsey has in mind are the following. The first one is the so-called “Curse of Ham” passage—which, as a simple reading shows, actually is the curse of Canaan.

Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.

He also said,

Blessed by YHWH my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave (עבד).

May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave (עבד).

Genesis 9:25–27

The second passage has to do with Jacob’s unknowingly blessing his deceptive son Jacob who disguised himself as the firstborn Esau. Here are the most relevant parts of Genesis 27.

Jacob to his disguised son Jacob whom he thought was Esau:

May God give you of the dew of heaven,
and of the fatness of the earth,
and plenty of grain and wine.

Let peoples serve (עבד) you,
and nations bow down to you.

Be lord (גביר) over your brothers,
and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.

Cursed be everyone who curses you,
and blessed be everyone who blesses you!

Genesis 27:28–29

Jacob to his son Esau, once he realizes Jacob’s deception:

I have already made him your lord (גביר), and I have given him all his brothers as servants (עבד).

Genesis 27:37

See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
and away from the dew of heaven on high.

By your sword you shall live,
and you shall serve your brother;

but when you break loose
you shall break his yoke from your neck.

Genesis 27:39–40

All of these points and passages are worth further reflection, which hopefully I will be able to give them in the future.

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