Slavery in the Bible in Modern Western Essay

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Slavery in the Bible

In modern Western countries, many Christians and Jews may wish to portray God as the comfortable deity of a middle-class consumer society like the United States, but the Bible demonstrates that nothing could be further from the truth. In the Bible, the God of history from the story of Cain and Abel, through Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the Prophets and of course the ministry of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Repeatedly, God intervenes on the side of the poor, the weak, the lowly and the outcast, and against the rich and powerful. He has mercy on Joseph when his brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt and elevates him about all others. God takes the side of a young shepherd boy David against the thuggish giant Goliath and then against the evil and corrupt King Saul. With Jesus, the constant messages is that God shows mercy to the poor, the hungry and the sick, but opposes the wealthy and corrupt tyrants who rule the country, and worst of all the hypocrites who claim to believe in God but whose actions prove the opposite. In Exodus, he overthrows the Egyptian Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler in the ancient Middle East, and sets the captive Hebrew nation free. Indeed, the Bible shows these Pharaohs to be murderous and genocidal tyrants, and even though it never idealizes the slaves, God never breaks the Covenant with them.

Exodus is unique in the ancient world, when history was written by kings, generals and aristocrats rather than the lowly, and never portrayed a God who was on the side of slaves. There were stories of slave revolts and rebel leaders like Spartacus, the gladiator who led slave armies all over Italy for three years, but was defeated in battle and 6,000 of his followers crucified along the Appian Way leading to Rome. Certainly the elite Roman historians had nothing positive to say about Spartacus or his rebellion, and more than they had about Jesus and his followers -- insofar as they even bothered to notice them at all. As the ruling elite of the most powerful empire in the world, the give little notice to this messianic leader in the backwater of Judea or to his lowly followers who seemed mostly to be slaves, peasants and outcasts unworthy of their attention. Throughout history, though, the real slaves and outcasts of the world realized instinctively that Moses and Jesus were on their side, even if governments and the institutional church were not. It inspired the slaves in the American South far more than the version of white Christianity that their masters tried to impose on them, especially the injunction of Philemon for slaves to obey their masters. They looked forward to the day when Moses would liberate them from bondage, just as a century later Martin Luther King infused his speeches with "the image of liberation from Pharaoh and a march through the wilderness toward the promised land" (Anderson 31). In fact, on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, King referred again to Moses being taken up to the mountain top to view the Promised Land, knowing that he would never live to see it but his people would.

For the Jews, the Exodus story is like the American Declaration of Independence, and represents the beginning of their nation. They believe that the Bible reveals "the dramatic involvement of God in our personal lives and our history," and serves as God's Manifesto to the world (Anderson 10). God is an all-knowing, ever-present being who "gives and takes beyond human reasoning or justification," and unlike other ancient deities is not predictable (Cahill 91). Time is no longer cyclical in the Hebrew Bible but linear and progressive, which means that "personal history is now possible and an individual life can have value," even for women, children, slaves, outcasts and the poor (Cahill 94). In the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God is not a distant bystander but actively intervenes in history, and also has all the human emotions ranging from anger, to concern to love and hate. Again and again, God also intervenes on the side of the underdog, and punishes wicked individuals refuse to adhere to his moral code, especially the rich and powerful. Perhaps Nietzsche was correct all along that Judaism and Christianity really were the religions of slaves rather than the oligarchy, kings or aristocracy, for the God in the Bible always seems to sympathize with the poor and the oppressed. Jesus Christ is most certainly in this tradition as well.

Although no one knows the exact date of the Exodus or the names of the Egyptian Pharaohs mentioned in the story, it took place in the Bronze Age, in the period 1600-1200 BC. Depending on the exact date, the Pharaohs might have ruled during the time that the Sea Peoples (the Hyskos or Philistines) ruled Egypt in 1600-1500 BC, or later during the reign of Ramses the Great three hundred years later. Any movies that show Hebrew slaves building the pyramids are of course incorrect since those were constructed in the Old Kingdom, at least two thousand years before these events. In any case, the Great Pyramid and other such monuments were built by gangs of relatively well paid free laborers. Goshen and other cities referred to in Exodus really did exist, as did the brick factories in the Nile Delta that provided the materials for the towns that Ramses was building there. As the Bible indicates, there were plagues and famines during this era, and the Egyptians were concerned about incursions from nomadic, Semitic peoples from the desert that they called the Habiru or Apiru. In this sense, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt does fit with general historical events of the era, as does the fact that a young man from a Semitic background could rise to become a high official under the Hyskos Pharaohs. In the Bible, Joseph is the favorite son of Jacob, and for that reason hated by all his older brothers. In all traditional societies, the eldest son is always favored and inherits the title, property and status of his father, but the God of the Bible never plays by those rules. He grants Joseph a higher status and power than all the others, but he also forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery, even though as Pharaoh's highest official he could have had them put to death on the spot with a single word (Cahill 95).

As Exodus unfolds, new Pharaohs come to power who are not sympathetic to the Hebrews, and this is historically accurate, since the Egyptian rulers at Thebes finally expelled the Hyskos. Quite possibly, they really did reduce their old enemies to slavery, which was the normal fate of those defeated in war in the ancient world. One unnamed Pharaoh fears that the Hebrews will become "many-more and mightier" than the Egyptians, which they may well have been under the Hyskos rulers (Cahill 96). In any event, he orders all the male Hebrew children put to death, which makes him seem like a lunatic since he was wiping out his own labor force, yet these was also a common punishment in ancient times for populations that rebelled -- all males executed and women sold into slavery. Whoever this Egyptian ruler really was, he may also have been "an insecure madman, an all-powerful god-king, who fears that someone else could be more powerful than he" (Cahill 99). When this nameless tyrant orders all the male children drowned in the Nile River, the mother of Moses places him in an ark of papyrus and floats him down the river to save his life. Pharaoh's daughter recovers the baby and raises him as a prince of Egypt, although hiring his Hebrew mother as a nursemaid. In this story, the women conspire in secret to defy the will of tyrannical and murderous male rulers, although it may have been just a literary device to explain how Moshe/Moses, a price of Egypt, could end up leading a slave revolt. After all, someone would surely have noticed that one of Pharaoh's daughters was pregnant and gave birth to a son, since this was a crucial dynastic event. She would have had great difficulty explaining the sudden appearance of a male child of royal blood. In reality, Moshe/Moses was an Egyptian name meaning "He-Who-Pulls-Out" and unlike Hebrew males he was not even circumcised (Cahill 102). For whatever reason, though, this man from a royal background became a follower of the Hebrew God and also came to sympathize with the slaves.

When Moses sees and Egyptian overseer beating a slave, he kills the man and buries the body, but when his crime is discovered he flees (or is exiled) to the desert. In the land of Midian, he works as a shepherdand marries one of the daughter's of Jethro, a Semitic clan patriarch. He names his first…[continue]

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