Does the Bible condone slavery? (Part 1)

Q. It took the United States almost 90 years after it was founded, supposedly on Christian principles, to end slavery.  Finally people understood it was wrong to own another person.  Even after that, African Americans have been kept down and discriminated against. 
In Leviticus 25 it gives instructions on how to purchase foreigners, even their children, and treat them like property.  But they were told that the people of Israel must not be treated that way.
In Exodus 21 it talks about how to buy a Hebrew slave—that they must set him free in the seventh year, and if he got married while he was in slavery, he can’t take his wife with him when he’s freed.  If he wants to keep his wife he has to say he’s happy with his master and have an awl pushed through his ear lobe, and agree to slavery for life.
Also in Exodus 21 it tells you it’s all right to beat your slave to the point of death, as long as he doesn’t die right away.
Jesus didn’t seem to condemn slavery either, and the apostle Paul even says that slaves should obey their earthly masters with respect and fear, as sincerely as they would serve Christ (Ephesians 6:5).
Why would God permit the Israelites, and later the Christians, to treat people like this?

Statements like these that the Bible makes about slavery are very troubling to thoughtful and compassionate followers of Jesus.  It’s important to emphasize that we get a very different picture of the Bible’s view towards slavery when we consider the big picture rather than individual verses.  So let me speak about the big picture first in this post, and then in my next post discuss the statements you have cited.

The central redemptive metaphor of the Old Testament, echoed throughout that part of the Bible, is God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  To me this sends a clear message that God did not create slavery and does not approve of it; God wants people to be free.  Slavery is instead like divorce, which, as Jesus explained to the Pharisees, is something that’s regulated in the law of Moses to protect people when it happens, not something that God commands.

While Jesus didn’t speak directly against slavery, he did use the image of being set free from slavery as a metaphor for the salvation that he brought.  He could only do this if slavery wasn’t something that God instituted and upheld.  For his part, the apostle Paul said that in Christ there was neither slave nor free, and he told slaves to gain their freedom if they could.  He lived out this big vision in a practical situation when he appealed personally to Philemon to set Onesimus free.

It was Christians inspired by this big-picture teaching of the Bible who fought successfully to end government-sanctioned slavery in Britain, the United States, and other parts of the world.  Contemporary Christians are equally motivated by their biblical convictions to fight modern-day slavery through organizations such as the International Justice Mission.

man&brother“Am I not a man and a brother?” Influential cameo created by Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the British pottery company and committed abolitionist.

By contrast, people who wanted to maintain slavery appealed to individual verses.  In response, people who wanted to end slavery argued that slavery in ancient times—the situation the Bible actually speaks to—was very different from slavery in the American experience.  They challenged slaveholders who appealed to the Bible at least to practice a much more moderate, “biblical” form of slavery (the slaveholders declined to do even this):
• Ancient slavery was not racially based and did not presume that some races were inferior to others and so could justifiably be enslaved.
• In biblical times masters owned their slaves’ labor but not their bodies or persons; that’s why masters were required to set their slaves free if they caused them permanent bodily injury.  They were also required to set free concubines (female slaves they had married) if they did not honor them as full wives.
• Freedom could be purchased for slaves by their relatives; slaves could even buy their own freedom.  In Roman times some slaves were adopted into their masters’ families and even became heirs; many interpreters believe this cultural practice lies behind the metaphor of “adoption to sonship” that Paul uses in Romans to describe salvation.  In a more ancient example, Abraham’s household servant Eliezer would have been his heir if he hadn’t had a son.
So when we see the Bible regulate slavery rather than abolish it outright, we need to recognize that it’s regulating a very different institution than the one known from the American experience, which violated at every turn the biblical laws designed to protect slaves.

(In my next post I will address the individual passages you cited.)

Were the verses really put in the Bible by someone riding on horseback?

Q. I’ve heard that the verses were put in the Bible by someone who was riding on a horse, and that when you come to a bad verse division, that’s where the horse stumbled.  Is that true?

This story is almost true.  The verses were added to the New Testament by Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus), a French printer, linguist, and classical scholar.  He  wanted to create a concordance to the Greek New Testament and needed to mark off small stretches of text so words could be easily located.

Robert Estienne, the French printer who added the verses to the Bible

His son Henri finished the concordance project in 1594 after his father’s death and tells us, writing in Latin, that his father put in the numbers in 1551 while traveling inter equitandum from Paris to Lyon and back.  This could mean “on horseback,” but it more likely means “while traveling by horse” or simply “while on a journey.”

Bruce Metzger explains in The Manuscripts of the Greek Bible:

“Although some have understood [inter equitandum] to mean ‘on horseback’ (and have explained inappropriate verse-divisions as originating when the horse bumped his pen into the wrong place!), the inference most natural and best supported by the evidence is that the task was accomplished while resting at inns along the road.”

Caspar René Gregory says similarly in The Canon and Text of the New Testament:

“Henri uses the words ‘while riding,’ ‘inter equitandum,’ and it has sometimes been supposed that he actually did it while jogging and joggling along the road upon the back of his steed.  . . . Yet I do not think that he did that, or that his son Henri says that he did that.  It seems to me to be more likely that the words ‘while riding’ simply mean that he did it in the breaks of this long ride.  When he got up in the morning he may have done something before he set out.  During the morning he may have rested a while at a wayside inn, and certainly at noon he will have done so.  And at night he doubtless . . . ‘divided’ away until it was time to sleep.”

So Robert Estienne wasn’t actually on horseback when he added the New Testament verse divisions.  Nevertheless, as Gregory notes, this was a hasty, distracted job.

The verse divisions in the First Testament (Old Testament) have a different history.  As I explain in my book After Chapters and Verses:

“By the early centuries of our era, those who read the Hebrew Scriptures aloud in the synagogues had to pause at regular intervals to allow for an Aramaic translation, since most Jews no longer spoke Hebrew.  By the year 500, the short stretches of text that were read before a translation had become standardized.  They were indicated in manuscripts by a soph pasuq mark (:).  Even so, two different systems remained in use, one in Palestine and the other in Babylonia, until they were harmonized by ben Asher in the tenth century.  When Stephanus versified the New Testament five hundred years later, similar ‘verses’ were created in the Old Testament by numbering the stretches of text between soph pasuq marks.”

So the First Testament verses were created in a haphazard process over the centuries, and this, too, made for some arbitrary and senseless divisions, as anyone who reads through the Bible, rather than picking out a verse here and there, will find out very quickly.

And so we shouldn’t think there’s any such thing as a “Bible verse,” a portion of the text that has been carefully marked off for us as a unit of meaning and authority.  The verses as we know them today are historical accidents that are just as likely to mislead us as to inform us.  Indeed, there are many places where it would almost be preferable to appeal to a horse stumbling than to admit that a person had introduced a verse division there intentionally!

Why does Ruth speak in poetry when she pledges loyalty to Naomi?

Q. Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

Pieter Lastman, "Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi"
Pieter Lastman,
“Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi”

To respond to this second question of yours, you’re right, Ruth’s words to Naomi really do stand out as Hebrew poetry, in parallel couplets.  It’s surprising that Bibles don’t format them this way:

Entreat me not to leave you
or to return from following you;

for where you go I will go,
and where you lodge I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,
and your God my God;

where you die I will die,
and there will I be buried.

After elegantly concluding her poem by varying the you-I progression with a solemn final statement, Ruth swears an oath that she asks God to enforce:  “May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you!”

I don’t think this language is actually taken from an ancient Israelite marriage ceremony.  (The opposite is true: people have taken Ruth’s words and turned them into marriage vows.)  Rather, it’s characteristic of Hebrew narrative that when someone has something crucial to say, on which the story line turns, they say it in poetry. In the ancient oral culture, this would make the saying memorable and repeatable (kind of like an advertizing slogan today).

For example, when Sheba son of Bikri foments a rebellion against David, he shouts in poetry:

We have no share in David,
no part in Jesse’s son!
Every man to his tent, Israel!

To give another example, David’s promise to Bathsheba about who will succeed him is also spoken in poetry, and it’s quoted several times at crucial points in the succession narrative:

Solomon your son shall reign after me,
he shall sit upon my throne in my stead.

Samuel speaks similarly in poetry when he announces God’s rejection of Saul as king and when he pronounces judgment on Agag.  The Israelites proclaim their refusal of Rehoboam as their king in poetry as well.

Examples like these show that poetry was used for important pronouncements in Hebrew narrative, probably reflecting the actual customs of the culture.  And we have to admit that among her many other qualities as a “woman of noble character,” Ruth was a fine poet.

Did Boaz already have another wife when he married Ruth?

Q. I see that you are posting about Ruth on your blog.  I have two questions for your, a little more in depth.  Here goes:

1) Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

2) I have also heard the theory that Boaz was already married when this story happened, and that he probably took Ruth as a second wife (or perhaps more).  I think this view is based on the fact that Boaz seems to be a wealthy and presumably middle-aged man.  What are your thoughts about this?

That’s all.  I am enjoying your blog!

Thanks for your kind words and for following up on my recent posts with these questions.  Let me begin with the one about Boaz.

While it’s possible that Boaz did have another wife (in this culture, this wouldn’t have kept him from marrying Ruth), it doesn’t say anywhere in the book that he did, so we shouldn’t assume this.  What we do know about Boaz, as we’re told when we first meet him, is that he’s a “man of standing,” prosperous and influential.  As I explain in my Joshua-Judges-Ruth study guide:

“To get enough money to live on, Naomi is selling the portion of the fields around Bethlehem that belonged to her late husband Elimelek. The hope is that, as the law intends, a goel (family guardian) will ‘redeem’ this property, buying it from Naomi, but also on her behalf, so that she has both the money from the sale and the field’s produce year by year. The other family guardian is initially willing to make this sacrifice. But when he learns he must also marry Ruth and give her children in her late husband’s name, he backs out, explaining, ‘I might endanger my own estate.’ (He can’t afford to part with the money for the property and then divide his remaining worth among his current children and those Ruth will have in the future.) But Boaz is a ‘man of standing’ who’s in an adequate position to help out financially in this way.”

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, "Ruth in Boaz's Field," 1828
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Ruth in Boaz’s Field,” 1828

This explains why Boaz is the right husband for Ruth.  If he did have another wife, which is possible (although again, not mentioned in the book, so we should not assume it), this would raise the further question of polygamy.  We need to appreciate that in this culture, women were dependent on male relatives for provision and protection. So the commandment in the law of Moses for a close relative to marry a widow, even if he was already married himself, was a compassionate provision for her needs and those of her current and future children and dependents.  (Naomi, an older widow herself, is one of Ruth’s dependents, and so Ruth’s proposal to Boaz, as I noted in this post, is also an act of compassion to her.) 

I’ll answer your question about Ruth’s poetic promise to Naomi in my next post.

Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 3)

Q. What was really going on between Ruth and Boaz that night on the threshing floor?  I’ve heard the interpretation that she seduced him in order to get him to marry her.  Is that right?

This interpretation has spread farther and wider than I’d ever imagined.  In response to my first two posts about it, someone contacted me to say that they’d recently heard it in Christian circles over on the other side of the world!

But since this interpretation, as I said in my first post, reflects an inadequate understanding of Hebrew vocabulary and idiom, of the thematic development of the book of Ruth, and of ancient Israelite customs, I think it’s important to set the record straight.  Arguments have continued to be added to the original claim that the phrase “she uncovered his feet” is a euphemism for sexual activity, so let me address two more of those arguments in this final post.

First, I’ve heard it said that since the threshing floor, where a successful harvest was celebrated, was notorious in ancient times as a place of drunkenness and immorality, we should only expect sexual activity there between Boaz and Ruth.  This was true generally of the threshing floor after harvest in the pagan world, and perhaps even in much of Israel during the period of the judges, in which the book of Ruth is set, when “everyone did as they saw fit.”

But we should not expect this of Boaz’s threshing floor.  The book of Ruth ominously warns us of the dangers an unprotected young woman faced during the period of the judges, but it also introduces Boaz as a God-fearing man who respects and protects women.  When we first meet him, he greets his harvesters in the name of the Lord.  He later assures Ruth that he’s ordered his men not to lay a hand on her.

So while the wine is indeed flowing freely at this harvest celebration (the book tells us that when Boaz went to sleep, his “heart was merry,” and this was no doubt true of the others), this deep sleep only makes it possible for Ruth to slip in unobserved and enact the symbolic proposal ritual.  Boaz praises Ruth as a “woman of noble character” and ensures that she leaves before dawn so that no one will get the wrong impression.  This is in keeping with his characterization in the book as a godly and honorable protector, and so it is quite unfair to him to assert that he took advantage of Ruth when no one was looking.

A second argument I’ve heard in favor of a sexual interpretation of the threshing floor episode is that Ruth was in desperate circumstances but powerless, so we can’t blame her for using sex, the only tool at her disposal, to ensure her survival.

The fact is that by this point in the book, Ruth is no longer desperate.  She has courageously gone out to glean and has seen God go ahead of her providentially to lead her to the fields of Boaz, where she has been safe and favored.  Boaz has allowed her to glean on such generous terms, in fact, that Naomi has been amazed by how much grain she has brought home.  The two women were destitute when they arrived back in Bethlehem, but now, after the barley and wheat harvests, they have plenty of food to make it through the winter.

It’s actually with a view towards Ruth’s long-term marriage prospects, not towards their own short-term survival, that Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor.  So there is no need for Ruth to resort to desperate tactics.  And there is no reason to believe that she would, not after seeing God provide for her when she stepped out into the unknown, first leaving her home country, and then bravely gleaning in the fields.

When we understand her whole story, we recognize that Ruth is an inspiring example to us of loyalty, love, faith, and courage.  If we argue instead that out of desperation she adopted expedients and compromised herself–but, we hasten to add, “we understand, because of her situation”–we are condescending to a woman whose trust in God may well be greater than our own.

In a follow-up post, “Was Ruth inviting Boaz to contract a marriage by consummating that marriage?” I address a variation on the modern sexual interpretations of the threshing floor episode. This interpretation is proposed in a comment (below) on this post.


Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 2)

Q. What was really going on between Ruth and Boaz that night on the threshing floor?  I’ve heard the interpretation that she seduced him in order to get him to marry her.  Is that right?

In my first post in response to this question, I answered the claim most commonly advanced in support of this interpretation.  I showed that the phrase “she uncovered his feet” is not a euphemism for sexual activity.  Rather, this action, which occurred literally, was a prelude to her request to Boaz, “Spread the corner of your garment over me,” a symbolic action promising that he would care for her as her husband.

Let me now address another claim that is made in favor of a sexual interpretation of this episode. Boaz speaks of a “kindness” that Ruth has done by showing attention to him rather than “running after the younger men.”  It is sometimes argued that he is referring to a sexual favor that Ruth has just granted.  However, to know what Boaz really means by this, we need to consider his entire statement.

Boaz says, “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier.”  Since he clearly expects Ruth to know what he means, he must be referring to something that the two of them have talked about before.  And since readers are expected to understand as well, this conversation must have been recorded in the book. They have only had limited dialogue to this point, so the reference is not hard to identify.  When they first meet, Boaz explains why he is showing her such favor.  He says, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.”

"Landscape with Ruth and Boaz" (detail), Joseph Anton Koch, 1823
“Landscape with Ruth and Boaz” (detail), Joseph Anton Koch, 1823

In other words, when Ruth and Boaz meet again on the threshing floor, he’s not speaking at all about a “kindness” that she has just done for him, sexual or otherwise.  Rather, he’s speaking about second and greater kindness that Ruth is now doing for Naomi.  By being willing to marry an older, well-established man, she is ensuring that Naomi will be provided for into the future.  But this also means that as young widow, Ruth is sacrificing the opportunity for a new love match with a man closer to her own age.  This, Boaz recognizes, is a “greater kindness,” an even more significant personal sacrifice than the one she’s already made by leaving her homeland.

So Ruth is not using sex to catch a new husband. Far from it. If anything, she’s making other values and commitments a priority as she approaches a new marriage.

In my next post I’ll consider some further claims that are made in support of a sexual interpretation of the threshing floor episode in the book of Ruth.

Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 1)

Q. What was really going on between Ruth and Boaz that night on the threshing floor?  I’ve heard the interpretation that she seduced him in order to get him to marry her.  Is that right?

Wenzel Bible (1389), illustrating "He awoke in the middle of the night and there was a woman lying at his feet."
Wenzel Bible (1389), illustrating “He awoke in the middle of the night and there was a woman lying at his feet.”

The interpretation you describe, that Ruth seduced Boaz, has been making the rounds for years.  I’ve encountered it before, and that’s why in my study guide to Joshua-Judges-Ruth I explain that “by lying down next to Boaz at night,” Ruth is only “symbolically proposing marriage to him,” and that “all of this is done honorably, within the customs of this culture.”

The sexual interpretation of this episode reflects an inadequate understanding of Hebrew vocabulary and idiom, of the thematic development of the book of Ruth, and of ancient Israelite customs.  In the next several posts I’ll respond to this interpretation by addressing the various claims it’s based on.

Let me begin in this post with the claim that the statement that Ruth “uncovered his feet” is a euphemism meaning that she had sexual relations with Boaz.  There is an idiom in Hebrew using the verb “uncover” that describes sexual relations, but it’s to uncover a person’s “nakedness,” not their “feet.”  For example, the general law against incest in Leviticus, which the NIV translates “No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations,” says more literally, “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness” (ESV; the NRSV is similar).  The specific incest laws that follow use this same idiom.

It’s a disputed point whether “feet” is ever used in Hebrew as a euphemism for the male sexual organs.  Some see this in contexts such as Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim, who covered their faces with two of their wings and their “feet” with two other wings.  Does this mean that they were naked and covering up modestly in the presence of God?  Or were they clothed and covering their actual feet, in a sign of reverence?  Scholars are divided over this question.

But whether or not “feet” is ever used in Hebrew as a euphemism this way, we need to understand the meaning of term in this passage in Ruth based on the context there.  It’s significant, for one thing, that Naomi tells Ruth to “uncover his feet and lie down,” and that the narrator then reports that she “uncovered his feet and lay down.”  If this really were a euphemism for sexual relations, she would instead lie down first and then “uncover his feet.”

The passage also says that some significant time later (“in the middle of the night”), Boaz woke up and discovered Ruth “lying at his feet.”  This clearly refers to a location, and it suggests strongly that “feet” means literally feet throughout the passage.  Ruth “uncovered” Boaz’s feet, pulling back his garment, specifically so that she then could ask him to “spread his garment” over her, meaning to assume the responsibility for her care, as her husband.  In other words, this is a symbolic act.  Similar symbolism is used, in a different context, when Jonathan makes a covenant of friendship with David:  he gives him his robe to show that he will provide for him (along with his weapons to show that he will protect him).

Some might argue that this passage in Ezekiel is a “smoking gun” that proves the expression “spread the corner of one’s garment,” for its part, is a euphemism for sexual activity:  “When I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body.”  But we need to understand this statement in the context of Ezekiel’s parable, in which the woman is represented as naked because she was abandoned as a baby and has never been cared for or provided for.  That the phrase is actually describing marriage is clear from the parallel statement that immediately follows: “I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you . . .  and you became mine.”

A better understanding of Hebrew idiom and Israelite customs shows that Ruth is not having sexual relations with Boaz when she “uncovers his feet.”  I’ll continue to address the claims that are made in support of a sexual interpretation of this passage in the book of Ruth in my next post.