Hector Avalos’s New Book is a tour de force, Part 3

This is the final part of my review of Dr. Avalos's new book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, which I began writing about right here. You'll just have to get it at some point and read it for yourselves. But it is really really good, just what the doctor ordered! ;-)

In chapter 3 Avalos surveys contemporary ancient near-eastern literature along with that of the Greco-Roman world. he summarizes this chapter up in these words:
Once we examine those primary Near Eastern sources, we do not find much that is new in Christianity, and we find many Near Eastern advantages that the Bible did not offer slaves...If Christianity made any advances, it would not be because it was original, but because it reverted to ‘pagan’ practices that preceded it. (p. 61)
In chapter 4 the good doctor examines the most important OT passages on slavery:
Genesis 1:26: Let Dominion Begin
Genesis 3:16 and Female Subjugation
Genesis 9:19-27 and Noah’s Curse
Genesis 16: Rape of a Slave Woman?
Genesis 17:12 and Genital Mutilation
Genesis 17:23: Abraham, the Blessed Slavemaster
Exodus 1-15: A Liberationist Paradigm?
Exodus 20:10 / Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and the Sabbath
Exodus 21:1-6 and Term Limits
Exodus 21:16 and “Manstealing”
Exodus 21:20: Killing Slaves
Exodus 21:26-27: Beating Manumission
Leviticus 25:42: Who’s your Master?
Leviticus 25:35-43: Jubilee Manumission
Leviticus 25:44-46: Enslaving Outsiders
Deuteronomy 15 and Inner Biblical Progress
Deuteronomy 23:15: Fugitive Slaves
1 Samuel 8: Exclusive Service to Yahweh?
Ezra 2:64-65 and Slave Societies
Job 31:13-15 and Justice for Slaves
Joel 2:28-29: Possessing Slaves
Take for instance Leviticus 25:39-46 which was "certainly one of the most often quoted by pro-slavery advocates to demonstrate that God allowed slavery." (p. 86) It reads:
And if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee; then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family, and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with harshness, but shall fear your God. As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness (Lev. 25.39-46).
It has been claimed by some biblical scholars and apologists that the word for slaves used in the OT ('ebed) "means servant, a subordinate, an official, but does not connote ownership of the person." Avalos argues such a conclusion "is clearly contradicted" by this passage, "for it uses the word ‘ebed when describing how the Israelites are allowed to buy slaves. Verse 45 states that an ‘ebed ‘may be your property’ and may be inherited by the slavemaster’s children (v. 46). If buying and inheriting an ‘ebed does not ‘connote ownership of a person’, then what does?" (p. 64)

Some biblical scholars, Avalos tells us, think this passage "was meant to revise the law in Exodus 21.6," which allows the enslavement of Hebrews. Leviticus 25.39-44, in contrast, specifically prohibits enslaving Hebrews, and shifts slavery completely to outsiders. If this is the case, then "calling this an ‘advance’ would be most questionable." Why? Because "one could argue that it bespeaks of a further differentiation between insiders and outsiders that later authorized the enslavement of non-Christians, including Muslims and Africans." (pp. 86-87)

There is a lot to say for this chapter which Avalos sums up in these words:
This brief survey of representative biblical passages shows a repeated attempt by modern biblical scholars to mitigate the ethical implications of slavery in the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars ignore the slavery theme, and others try to engage in comparative ethics in order to show the superiority of biblical directives. A repeated technique is to compare the ‘biblical’ best with the pagan ‘worst’. In all cases, we can find misrepresentation of neighboring cultures and/or the omission of countervailing examples and evidence.
In chapter 5 the good doctor examines the most important NT passages on slavery:
Matthew 7:12: The Golden Rule
Acts 17:26 and Human Unity
1 Corinthians 7:21: Better to Remain in Slavery?
Galatians 3:28: A Magna Carta of Humanity?
Galatians 4:7: No Longer Slaves?
Ephesians 6:5: Obedience through Terror
Philippians 2:4-6: Slavery as Human Destiny
Colossians 3:18-4:1: The Magic of Socio-Rhetorical Criticism
1 Timothy 1:10: Manstealing
1 Timothy 6: Honoring Christian Slavemasters
Philemon: What Are You Insinuating?
Take for instance Acts 17:26 which reads: "And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation." This was one of the most widely used abolitionist texts, Avalos tells us, "which "supposedly establishes that human beings were all created equal." (p. 97). However, the most reliable manuscripts do not have the word "blood" in it. Nonetheless, Paul in this same sermon used a similar expression of the classical writers when he said in v. 28, "...even some of your poets have said..." Avalos then quotes from Seneca, who admonished his readers to "remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies". And he quotes from Cicero, who said "men are grouped with Gods on the basis of blood relationship and descent...there is a blood relationship between ourselves and the celestial beings; or we may call it a common ancestry or origin." Avalos asks: "So why do Christian apologists credit Christianity for initiating the idea of universal brotherhood when even the New Testament says that the idea already existed in non-Christian cultures?" (p. 98)

Take as another example Galatians 3:24-28, which reads:
So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justifed by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal. 3.24-28).
"Those espousing a non-egalitarian understanding of this text have the advantage," Avalos argued, for "being considered the offspring of Abraham, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or slave-status, does not mean that differences have been erased in any other sense. That is to say, Paul does not mean that slaves do not exist literally anymore. Thus, ‘there is no slave or free’ cannot mean ‘there exist no slaves or free people’. Otherwise, if slaves do not literally exist anymore, then nor do free people. Colossians 4.1 alone refutes the idea that Paul thought slavery had been abolished in Christianity: ‘Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.’" (p. 110)

While Dr. Avalos says a great deal more about these OT and NT passages than I have mentioned he summarizes what he has found:
Attitudes toward slavery are sometimes worse and more inhumane in the New Testament than in the Old Testament...While the Old Testament set term limits for some slaves, New Testament slavery can be indefinite. While the Old Testament railed against enslaving fellow Hebrews, the New Testament allows Christians to own fellow Christians. The Old Testament required the emancipation of some severely injured slaves, but the New Testament advised Christian slaves to be submissive even to cruel masters. So if there is a trajectory from the Old Testament to the New Testament, it is toward an increasing acceptance of slavery and its cruelties.
Chapter 6, "Christ as Imperial Slavemaster" might be the most interesting one of them all, for in it Dr. Avalos shows how that,
Jesus cannot be regarded as an abolitionist in any sense. He never required abolitionism from his followers; rather, the opposite is true. Jesus’ parables portray the Kingdom of God as a slave colony, where God can do as he will with his slaves. In the Kingdom of God, bad workers are punished with horrific tortures. More importantly Jesus is patterned in some traditions as the parallel of the Roman emperor. Regardless of any other benign and loving portrayals of Jesus, that imperialistic portrayal has had detrimental consequences for non-Christians around the world for the last 2000 years.
This is truly a great read. I can only hope that it will soon be available in a paperback version that is reasonably priced before too long.