Letter from the Editor
Michael D. Coogan, Editor in Chief
From the desk of Michael Coogan
In this update, we are pleased to include over 250 new articles from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics. In these articles, readers will find that interpreters of the Bible, like the Bible itself, do not speak with one voice. As an introduction to Encyclopedia, we also include a "Focus On" essay on slavery by one of its contributors, Jack R. Davidson.
In his essay, Davidson observes that in the debates about the abolition of slavery in the United States and elsewhere, both opponents and proponents of the abolition of slavery appealed to the Bible in support of their positions. For proslavery advocates, slavery was sanctioned by divine decree and detailed regulation. "The slave is the owner's property" (Exod 21:21) is proclaimed by God on Mount Sinai, and the author of the letter to the Colossians tells slaves: "Obey your earthly masters in everything" (Col 3:22). Moreover, nowhere in the Bible—whether the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament—is slavery explicitly condemned.
Opponents of slavery could appeal only to more general biblical principles, such as love of neighbor and the special concern for slaves and other disadvantaged persons found in several biblical laws. For example, in Deuteronomy's version of the Decalogue, the reason for not working on the Sabbath is "so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you." This humanitarian expansion of the commandment goes on to say:
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:14–15; compare Exod 20:11, and see also Deut 24:18, 22)
The same appeal to the Israelites' experience in Egypt is found in laws concerning the resident alien: "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exod 22:21; see also Exod 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 10:19). The implicit principle in these laws is imitation of God, explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 10:17–18: "For the Lord your God . . . loves the resident alien, providing him food and clothing. You shall also love the resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Both sides in the abolition of slavery debates, then, selectively used the Bible in support of their opposing positions, although it may fairly be said that the proslavery side had the better case based on a narrow reading of the text.
As an underlying principle of biblical ethics, imitation of God would appear to be unassailable. God is the father of orphans, the helper of widows, the protector of resident aliens, and the freer of slaves; humans should exhibit the same conduct, as in fact that quintessentially good man Job did (see Job 29:12–16). In the mid-twentieth century, this became a tenet of liberation theology: like God, Christians should show a "preferential option for the poor," and nowhere is that divine paradigm more apparent than in the freeing of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, where God is described as directly intervening on behalf of the marginalized.
As compelling as this ideal is, we must also recognize that it is not the only one the Bible provides. True, God does free the Hebrew slaves, but there were other slaves in Egypt too, not part of the chosen people. The last of the plagues, the killing of the firstborn, afflicts not only "the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne," but also "the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill" (Exod 11:5). Biblical law also calls for different treatment of Israelite slaves and those "from the nations around you" and "from the aliens residing among you" (Leviticus 25:39–46), and sometimes for different treatment of male and female slaves (see Exod 21:2–11, and compare Deut 15:12–17).
Similar inconsistency is evident in biblical writers' attitudes toward the poor. One ancient Israelite ideal (like that of many of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors) was to have a special concern for the poor and other marginalized individuals and groups, and the prophets repeatedly condemn those who fail to do so (for example, Isaiah 10:1–2; Amos 2:6–7). Yet other writers speak of poverty as a condition for which the poor themselves are responsible (Prov 10:4; 13:18; 23:21; 28:19). Moreover, if riches are "the reward for humility and fear of the Lord" (Prov 22:4, then poverty was logically a punishment ultimately imposed by God (see 1 Sam 2:7).
Using the Bible as an ethical guide is no easy task. Not only are there are diverse, even contradictory views in the Bible, there was also most likely development in thinking over the centuries that the Bible was written. As Robert Brawley, the editor in chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics, notes in his introduction to the work, "ancient biblical texts require interpreters constantly to choose among alternatives." But the process does not end there. The ethics of the biblical writers have not only continued to be adopted by later thinkers, but they have also been adapted, amended, and sometimes abandoned. It's salutary to recall that despite the highest biblical ideals, legal slavery was abolished in the United States only a century and a half ago, andits effects continue to haunt our society as it attempts to fully incorporate the highest biblical ideal of love of neighbor.
Michael D. Coogan
Editor in Chief, Oxford Biblical Studies Online