The Jewish Bible, including the Torah, were written in the language of the time and place where the children of Israel received them. As the stories of origin that commence the book of Genesis retell classic near eastern myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Torah does so in a way that makes a theological point. In this blog post, we explore the simple meaning of the legal passages regarding the Hebrew Slave in light of a couple of perspectives.
Hebrew Slave: Contrast Theory — Is Torah Absolute or Relative to Society when it was Given?
There are two perspectives from which the modern-day interpreter of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) can accurately understand the direct meaning of a Biblical verse or Biblical passage. Each perspective uses the ambient culture, language, and geography to draw a contrast. Both understand that the Torah is God-given. The first perspective argues that the law as given in the Torah, in contrast to the canaanite law, is absolute, hereinafter ‘the absolute theory.’ Under the Absolute Theory, the Biblical Laws as given remains the divine will even as the culture and society around the world evolve over millennia. The second perspective argues that the law as given in the Torah is intended to show a direction relative to the cultural and religious context in which it was given, thus the law is relative to its cultural context, hereinafter ‘the relativist theory.’ It can be argued that the text embeds an inherent ambiguity in which the reader starts with the absolutist theory, i.e. the text as would be understood by an Israelite at the time it was written, and then examines possibilities to apply the relativist theory based on a deep understanding of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) taken as a whole over the course of years of intense study, hereinafter ‘the contrast theory.’
Hebrew Slave: Contrast Theory in Context of Master Meta Narrative of Exodus
Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun applies the contrast theory to the laws of the Torah, for example, the law of the Hebrew servant. Examine the historical context, the sons of Jacob went down to exile in Egypt due to a famine and in accordance with the covenant between LORD and Abraham. Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun explains that exile and slavery was necessary so that the children of Israel could later emerge on the map of history as a full-grown people without any encumbrances of treaties that would prevent the Israelites from inheriting the Land. Joseph was the viceroy of all of Egypt. Joseph consolidated the land of Egypt under Pharaoh. Joseph died at age 110. There arose a new Pharaoh who did not appreciate Joseph. Biblical scholars posit that there was an invasion or a shift in dynasty so that the new Pharaoh was from a different ethnic group or family line than the one who Joseph served. This new Pharaoh enslaved the Israelite people, lest they become more powerful and multitudinous than the Egyptians. Pharaoh forced us to build store cities. The Sages teach that Pharaoh made us do work that served no purpose.
Hebrew Slave: Remember that you were once slaves in the land of Egypt
The LORD appeared to Moses. The LORD took the children of Israel out of the land of bondage for the purpose of serving the LORD. The Exodus narrative becomes a master narrative that places slavery to humans as something reminiscent of the slavery in Egypt. In many commandments, the Torah explains ‘because you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.’
Biblical scholars point to the law code Hammurabi as a contrast to the laws given in the Torah, particularly the laws of society which are introduced in the book of Exodus. That law code was given by a King so as to preserve order amongst the diverse peoples in his kingdom. Scholars claim that it was a collection of existing laws that Hammurabi used to form his law code. Hammurabi sought to promote justice and harmony.
Hebrew Slave: Slavery to Egypt Fulfilled Covenant with Abraham. Now Serve the LORD.
In contrast, the Biblical law follows God’s (Elohim) creation of the world, the LORD’s promises to our forefathers, the descent to Egypt, and the LORD’s extraction of the Israelite people out of the midst of the Egyptian people with signs and wonders. The LORD appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, which has been identified as Mount Sinai where Torah was later given to the children of Israel. The Exodus request was to take a three days journey into the wilderness and to serve the LORD on this mountain. The LORD revealed on Mount Sinai and gave the ten commandments. The LORD does not want the Israelites to be enslaved to others.
Hebrew Slave: Law of Hebrew Servant Sets Boundaries on Slavery
So, a people leaving slavery must first put forth their vision of how humans can serve one another.
The Hebrew servant:
* In contrast to ancient custom, the servitude is time limited with freedom guaranteed on the seventh year
* Servant leaves with his wife, if he came with her.
* Maid servant doesn’t go free on seventh year
* She may be purchased as a wife either for the master or his son
* She may not be sold to another
* He may not diminish her her food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights
* If he does not do so, she goes free without money
The Sages learn many additional restrictions on the master of a Hebrew servant, to the point that the Sages say that if the master has only one pillow, it must be given to the servant and not the master. The Sages also stated that one who purchases a servant, essentially receives a master (because the laws protecting the servant are very detailed and strict).
Under the absolutist theory, it would say that Judaism supports slavery of this type. Under the relativist theory, it would emphasize the change that Judaism intended to make in the ancient world and would consider how that applies in our era. Under the contrast theory, we live with the ambiguity of the text. For example, food, raiment and conjugal rights are Jewish law requirements for every marriage. That the acquisition of a women is marriage, with all the rights and obligations, can be understood from this passage. That was extremely empowering to women — in contrast to the time and culture where the Torah was given. However, applying the relativist theory to slavery as a whole would lead to the laws that our Sages have put in place that make the Hebrew Servant essentially a long-term contract day laborer — with a number of additional protections because of the danger of abuse.
Hebrew Slave: Rabbis Lean towards Relative Theory but Contrast Theory more Accurate Reading
Based on the prophet Jeremiah, we see that it is a good thing for the Israelites to free their Hebrew slaves. Thus, the divine law that teaches us how to treat people who are dependent upon us and to always remember that it is our obligation because we were once slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. In this blog post, we have learned about the absolutist, relativist and contrast theories of Biblical interpretation. We apply the contrast theory which surfaces ambiguities in understanding the text and applying it to our lives as individuals, families, and as a community. We contrast the law of the Hebrew slave (Hebrew servant) with Egyptian slavery and based on the contrast theory we begin to understand how the Torah teaches important protections for the Hebrew servant.