Essay: Slavery in the Bible

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[. . .] God then calls Moses to Mount Horeb (Sinai) and appears to him as a bush burning with fire, but "the bush is not consumed" (Cahill 105). Moses does not know who this God is, and when he asks his Name he receives the replay YHWH, usually rendered as Yahweh or Jehovah. In reality, no one knows the correct Hebrew vowels to use in this word, since no Jews were ever allowed to speak or write the Name of God. They generally used to word "Adonai" (Lord) or "ha-Shem" (the Name), but only the high priest of the Temple was allowed to utter this Name, once a year on the Day of Atonement (Cahill 108). YHWH refers to the old Hebrew verb "to be" so it could refer to a God who is pure Being, or an eternal, self-existent deity who has no beginning or end, and was the Creator of the universe. It could also be used as a way of distinguishing the God of the Bible from all other gods in the ancient world, for He alone had no name, nor could he be dealt with like all the traditional gods of earth, sky, weather, war, sex and fertility. He has dominion over the entire world, including its rulers, who would have no power at all if they defied His will.

God gives Moses a mission to return to Egypt and free the Hebrew slaves from bondage, which Noses is highly reluctant to undertake. He is a condemned man in his homeland, wanted for murder, and would be put to death as soon as he reappeared. Moreover, he protests that he is "no man of words" but a man of action, but God has chosen him just the same and will not permit him to refuse his mission. He promises that "I myself will instruct you as to what you are to speak," and also provides him with Aaron as a spokesperson (Cahill 110). Even in this scene, God shows his preference for the unconventional, and making a renegade and rebel like Moses the leader of his people, no matter that many of them obviously do not accept him. As far the Egyptians, they very likely dismissed him as a fool or a lunatic when he returned from the desert speaking for an unknown Hebrew God. Exodus hints at the mockery he faced when he appeared before another nameless Pharaoh and demanded that he free the slaves. "Who is YHWH?," the king sneers, "I do not know YHWH," although he will come to know Him very soon (Cahill 112).

Pharaoh was the first skeptic, who tried to explain away the ten plagues of Egypt as magic tricks, or the result of a volcano that spewed red ash into the Nile River, which then led to plagues of flies, locusts and dead cattle, as well as illness among the Egyptians. Some historians have placed the events of the Exodus around the time of the explosion of the volcano on the island of Santorini, with its plume as the great pillar of fire that guided the Hebrews out of Egypt. For the Bible, though, the plagues are necessary to break the will and humble a hardhearted, hardheaded Pharaoh who refuses to acknowledge the power of God. Those who heard the story, first in oral form and later its written version, would have understood the main message very clearly that God "is on the side of the little people, the people who have no worldly power" (Cahill 115). In this, the God of the Bible is consistent from beginning to end, and is often shown taking a stand against the powers-that-be, whether they are known as Rome, Egypt, Greece or Babylon, and in the end He always sets the captives free. He is a God of justice and mercy, who favors the weak, downtrodden and powerless nobodies of history, who are ignored or treated with brutality and contempt by the ruling elites.

Pharaoh has finally had enough of these plagues and more than enough of Moses, and warns him that if he brings another plague on Egypt, his own people will die. In threatening to exterminate the Hebrews, though, he has pronounced a death sentence against his own people, for God sends the Destroyer, the Angel of Death, to kill all the firstborn children of Egypt. Like all rulers of his kind, Pharaoh thinks he is a god, but to the real God he is nothing at all. In this revolutionary story, God "delegitimizes…all the political structures of the ancient world," and most of the rest afterwards for that matter (Cahill 116). For those who believe in Him, the Angel of Death passes over their houses, and the Jewish celebration of Passover commemorates this event -- the terrible night when all the firstborn children of Egypt died. After that, the Pharaoh is broken and humbled, his power destroyed, and he orders Moses to take the Hebrews and go. After three hundred years of slavery, they are free at last, and the Egyptians are so glad to be rid of them that they hand over their gold, silver, jewels and other valuables just to see them gone.

According to Exodus, the freed Hebrews do not take the shortest route to the Promised Land along the coast, since that is held by the Philistines, who are probably the same Hyskos who one ruled northern Egypt. Although they were also a Canaanite and Semitic people, they followed gods like Baal rather the Yahweh, and the Hebrews would fight many wars with them in the future for control of the land. Instead, God leads them across the Sea of Reeds (not the Red Sea, which is a mistranslation), the lowland marshes where Pharaoh's chariots were bogged down and destroyed by the power of God. From the start, many of the Hebrews show their doubts about the salvation offered by God and his servant Moses. When they see the Pharaoh's army approaching, they cry out to Moses "is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in this wilderness?" (Cahill 120). Many of them are quick to give up and return to slavery, but God will not permit that. These are his people, for all their sins, doubts, flaws and weaknesses, and he has a mission for them -- to convert the entire world to belief in the one, true Creator God. Acting through Moses, he performs yet another miracle and destroys the armies of Pharaoh, although He also understands that his own people will have to be continually disciplined and chastised so that they never forget that He is their God.

In Western history, the Jews are the inventors of democracy, as well as social and political liberation movements that liberate the common people from bondage. Under the law of Moses and his successors, the Jews are allowed to have bondservants, but they are required to free them every seven years, when all debts were also forgiven. Although the Jews were also punished by captivity in Babylon for this disobedience and loss of faith, God finally liberated them as well, and finally overthrew the Babylonian empire. Jewish liberations movements like the Maccabees later fought against their Greek overlords as well, while there were many rebellions against the Romans, culminating in the destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora of the Jews throughout the known world. Historically speaking, there is a strong affinity between the Jews and many liberation and revolutionary movements, and the story of Exodus is the basis for this. Our modern concept of a "personal destiny is a Jewish idea," and democracy is based on this type of individualism, just as Exodus served as a blueprint for many subsequent liberation movements (Cahill 249). Any tyrants and slaveholders who believed that God was on their side either never read this story or conveniently ignored it, for both Testaments of the Bible made it clear that God loved the poor and oppressed, and did not make distinctions among people based on nationality, color, race or condition. Exodus "is the central event of the Hebrew scriptures," and it offers deliverance for all slaves (Cahill 122). Abraham Lincoln understood this very well in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, when he said that the entire country, North and South, was being punished for the sin of 250 years of slavery, and if the Civil War continued until all the wealth piled up by the slaves was destroyed, then God's justice was altogether righteous. Throughout history, there have been many people "who would do anything rather than give the Jews their due," but in transmitting the ideas of freedom, democracy, individual rights and a God who loved the poor and the enslaved, Western civilization owes them the very heart of its modern identity (Cahill 4).


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