Book Review: ‘Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?’ by Joshua Bowen

Author: Joshua Bowen
Book: Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?
Publisher: Digital Hammurabi Press
Year: 2020
Total Page Count: 243
Price: $19.99 (print)

I. INTRODUCTION

“Slavery in the Bible,” writes biblical scholar Wil Gafney, “represents more than the ubiquity of slavery in the ancient world; it represents the theological bulwark on which the Atlantic slave trade rested.”[1] This fact makes modern Christians uncomfortable. How could the god of Israel – the god of objective moral values – allow such a practice, especially when one considers that it was used as a defense of African slavery in the modern era? If slavery is objectively wrong, then was it not always wrong?

Understanding the difficulty biblical slavery creates, many Christians either ignore it or minimize it. Atheists, on the other hand, often weaponize it in ways that demonstrate their own flat reading of the biblical texts. Sensing these problems and having the requisite training in ancient Near Eastern history, biblical languages, and exegesis, Joshua Bowen (PhD, John Hopkins University) has written a clever, compelling, and concise work on the subject entitled Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery? (Digital Hammurabi Press, 2020). In a little over 220 pages, Bowen provides readers with both sound exegesis and history to demonstrate the realities of biblical slavery in its own ancient context. 

II. SUMMARY

Following a short introduction laying out the pitfalls and perils of the subject of biblical slavery as well as his aims in DOTES (pp. 1-12), the first chapter of DOTES (pp. 13-31) addresses the two types of slavery one finds in the Hebrew Bible: debt-slavery (pp. 18-20) and chattel-slavery (pp. 20-23). In chapter two (pp. 32-65), Bowen offers an overview of slavery in the ANE, discussing the various legal “codes” one finds from the societies among which ancient Israel found itself, and showing that “[a]s in the Old Testament, there are generally two types of slavery that appear: debt-slavery and chattel-slavery” (p. 42). The third chapter (pp. 66-154), the longest chapter in DOTES, provides commentary on four relevant biblical passages: Exodus 21 (pp. 67-113), Deuteronomy 15 (pp. 113-121), Deuteronomy 20 (pp. 121-127), and Leviticus 25 (pp. 127-151). In the fourth and final chapter (pp. 155-191), Bowen address seven objections to the standard scholarly view of slavery in the Hebrew Bible. The volume is rounded out with a conclusion (pp. 192-199) summarizing all that has preceded as well as a source index, a subject index, and a very helpful bibliography (pp. 209-226). 

III. ANALYSIS

Bowen’s work has two main strengths: the clarity with which it is written and the abundant references to scholarly commentaries, monographs, and journal articles. Those familiar with Bowen’s YouTube channel which he runs with fellow scholar (and wife) Megan Lewis will recognize this to be the hallmark of his approach to ancient history and texts. He articulates well not only his position on a given subject but also those of the scholars to whom he appeals. For non-believers wishing to charitably and knowledgably engage with the biblical texts, Bowen serves as a shining example. And pop-apologists could learn a lot from Bowen’s work as well. 

Consider, for example, J. Warner Wallace’s thoughts on the subject of whether the Bible condones slavery. In one of his “Quick Shot” pieces,[2] he offers two potential retorts to a skeptic who raises the issue. The first is to contrast “new world” slavery with biblical slavery: “That form of slavery [i.e. African slavery in the United States] was very different from the ‘ancient near-eastern’ servitude in the Bible.” For example, African slavery was designed to benefit masters whereas biblical slavery “was often focused on the economic relief of the servant.” And while Africans were taken against their will from their native lands, “in biblical times, the path into ‘slavery’ was varied and, in many cases, voluntary” (emphasis author’s). Additionally, while African slaves were considered to be the property of their master (i.e. chattel), slaves in the Bible “were treated as humans and protected by biblical law” (emphasis author’s). Wallace, while playing lip-service to the nuances of biblical slavery, all but flattens it in his defense of it. 

The former cold-case detective would do well to pick up DOTES and pore over its pages.[3] If he does, he’ll discover that his view on the matter is less than informed. For example, Exodus 21:2-6 describes a debt-slave who may become chattel only if he volunteers to do so. But a close examination of that text reveals that any wife married by the slave while he is a slave as well as any children born to them while he is a slave are considered property of the debt-slave’s master. Bowen writes, “The wife is almost certainly not a debt-slave, and their children are simply houseborn slaves” (p. 83). So, while it is true that the debt-slave both voluntarily became a debt-slave as well as a chattel-slave, the move to chattel slavery is rooted in the slave’s desire to not abandon his wife and children who are the property of his master

The second track Wallace takes is to both contrast African slavery with slavery in the Bible as well as to highlight the ways in which abolitionists in the modern era employed biblical texts in their arguments against the slave trade. But again, Wallace’s flattening of slavery as well as his apparent lack of acquaintance with the Hebrew Bible reveals just how uninformed his opinion is. Bowen devotes over twenty pages to Leviticus 25, a section of the Holiness Code wherein Yahweh commands Israel to acquire chattel slaves from the nations around them and the resident aliens dwelling in their midst (vv. 44-46). Bowen writes, 

If an Israelite wanted to purchase a slave…he must do so from among the nations around or the foreign residents who were living in the land. These foreigners could be treated as slaves, kept as permanent property, and passed on to their children as inheritance” (pp. 144-145).

In other words, these foreign slaves were chattel. And it is Leviticus 25:44-46 that Southern ministers in the antebellum era could appeal to in their defense of slavery. For example, Joseph Wilson preached from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, GA in 1861 that, compared to Leviticus 25:44-46, 

[no] law can be plainer. No instruction of truth could more convince the Christian that he is standing upon the surest and safest ground, whenever he resists the imputation that he is a sinner while upholding a system of domestic servitude. He can triumphantly say: “I direct you to the law and testimony” [e.g. Leviticus 25:44-46].[4]

Whatever texts abolitionists appealed to in their attacks on chattel slavery, slave holders could find their own to wield in its defense.

This contrast between Wallace’s handling of biblical slavery and Bowen’s tells me all I need to know about the apologetic impulse. Rather than deal with the biblical texts as they are, Wallace feels the need to whitewash what they have to say, making it palatable for modern readers with modern morals. But Bowen is under no such compulsion; he is simply reporting the facts. Moreover, whereas Wallace has no apparent scholarly basis for his views, Bowen appeals time and again to the work of scholars who have considered biblical texts on slavery. This, in fact, is one of the aims of Bowen’s work: “In the end, it is my hope that the reader will be armed with a great deal of reputable scholarly research concerning slavery, not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also in the wider ancient Near East” (p. 12). Bowen has done his due diligence; Wallace has not. 

Without a doubt, chapter two is where I learned the most (though chapter three was my favorite of the book). Though I am quite familiar with the biblical texts, I have virtually no familiarity with ANE legal codes except those referred to in passing in history classes I took in high school and college. And so Bowen’s discussion of them with regards to slavery served as a crash course in the subject for me. Of particular interest was the fact that many ANE legal codes parallel those found in the Hebrew Bible. For example, just as Israelite debt-slaves were to be released after six years of service (Exodus 21:2), so too under the Laws of Hammurabi “a debt-slave had the right to release after three years of service” (p. 52). There were also protections for foreigners embedded in these codes, akin to those we find in the Hebrew scriptures. Bowen writes that protection of the foreigner “was a common theme found in ancient Near Eastern legal texts” (p. 61). So, when pop-apologists like the odious Matt Slick claim that slavery in Israel “was very different from the slavery of the surrounding nations at that time,”[5] you can rest assured that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Send them a copy of Bowen’s book. 

IV. CONCLUSION

DOTES is a volume everyone who is interested in both biblical slavery as well as biblical studies generally will want on their bookshelf. As an introduction to the subject, it stands as an excellent tool to wade into the waters of such a complex and controversial subject. Bowen’s writing style is easy to follow as it is clear and methodical, and the format of the volume is simple without being simplistic. On the subject of biblical slavery, Bowen has brought his academic training, studious mind, and gentle demeanor together to produce a volume I plan on recommending for years to come. 


[1] Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 72.

[2] J Warner Wallace, “Quick Shot: ‘The Bible Condones Slavery’” (6.17.19), coldcasechristianity.com.

[3] I won’t hold my breath.

[4] Joseph R. Wilson, “Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible. A Discourse Preached in the First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia, on Sabbath Morning, Jan. 6, 1861,” electronic edition, https://docsouth.unc.edu

[5] Matt Slick, “Does the Bible approve of slavery?” (11.9.19), carm.org.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?’ by Joshua Bowen

Add yours

    1. Unfortunately, no. But as this was intended to be a general introduction to the practice of slavery and not how the various sources that comprise the Torah work narratively and historically, it wouldn’t have been in his purview anyway. It makes for an excellent introduction to the subject though and you’d love the bibliography!

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