Book Review: ‘The Ultimate Guide to Debunking Biblical Slavery’ by Praise I Am That I Am

Author: Praise I am That I Am
Book: The Ultimate Guide to Debunking Biblical Slavery
Publisher: Self-published
Year: 2020
Total File Size: 1250 KB
Price: $9.99 (electronic)

I. INTRODUCTION

There is something to be said for apologists’ work on biblical slavery. In their attempt to downplay it or deny its existence, they reveal their own discomfort with the subject generally. We should all be uncomfortable with slavery and all it entails. Here in the United States, slavery is our nation’s original sin which stained our Constitution and places a very large asterisk next to the names of our country’s founding generation. Because slavery by its nature dehumanizes, we rightly recognize it as an evil and denounce it where we find it. 

But those committed to biblical inerrancy are often forced to deny what is right in front of them. Rather than deal with the text on its own terms, inerrantists devise clever ways of obfuscating what their eyes see but their consciences know is wrong. Consequently, it is not only biblical texts that are misread but also critical scholarship. And not only misread but misrepresented through quote mines and otherwise ignoring context. 

This is the sort of thing we find in The Ultimate Guide to Debunking Biblical Slavery (UGDBS) by Praise I Am That I Am (PIA). Though a short volume, it is replete with examples of quote mining and general misrepresentation of biblical and scholarly texts. It is therefore a representative text of the apologetic enterprise. 

NOTE: As UGDBS is an electronic book, there are no page numbers. References to “locations” are to the Kindle version of the text and are approximate.

II. SUMMARY

UGDBS is divided into seven sections. The first section (locations 10-16) is a very brief discussion of the Hebrew verb ʿābad and whether it suggests “voluntary labor” (location 16) or chattel. According to PIA, only twenty out of the 291 instances of ʿābad “unambiguously” refer to the latter (location 10). In section two (locations 16-124), PIA deals with references to ʿăbādîm in Exodus 21 and argues, among other things, that v. 4 does not imply that the wife and child an ʿebed may leave behind following his release from debt-slavery are property of the master (i.e. chattel; location 19). Section three (locations 124-294) is a discussion of Leviticus 25, contending that while vv. 45-46 are certainly “problematic,” the contentions of so-called “liberal scholars” that these verses are about chattel slavery of non-Israelites are unfounded (location 130). The fourth section (locations 294-476) is a review of Deuteronomy 20-21 as it relates to war captives and so-called sex slaves. Section five (locations 486-534) addresses the question of whether the Pentateuchal laws are legislative. Section six (locations 534-551) deals with an assortment of texts including Judges 5:30, Nehemiah 5:5, and more. The final section (locations 556-571) discusses slavery in the New Testament. 

III. ANALYSIS 

In the acknowledgments that begin UGDBS, PIA writes the following: 

First and foremost, I thank God for leading me to this unbelievable and undisclosed knowledge through Russ Wilkins, my Brother in Christ, who’s called Oneway on YouTube….I have to say much of the credit belongs to him. He is an ancient near east guru” (location 1)

It isn’t clear to me to what specifically on Wilkins’ channel he is referring[1] but it becomes very clear in the course of reading UGDBS that much of what PIA offers is at best second hand. That is, his contribution to the discussion of biblical slavery rests almost entirely on the laurels of others. As a fellow amateur, I can appreciate this: novelty isn’t exactly a virtue for those of us with little to no academic training. But given PIA’s admitted dependence upon Wilkins, we should question what his credentials are. What exactly makes him “an ancient near east guru”? Furthermore, attentive readers will discover that many of the citations in UGDBS are either improper, second-hand, or both. This despite PIA’s assertion that his book “is a compilation of meticulously cited scholars and historians” (location 1). 

For example, in the subsection “Bull Gored Chattel Slave?” (locations 101-124), PIA includes a footnote which references Nahum Sarna’s commentary on the book of Exodus.[2] Here is the note as PIA offers it (location 119): 

Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary Exodus

It isn’t difficult to see why this citation is subpar. It not only lacks publication details (e.g. publisher, date of publication, etc.), it lacks what is arguably the most vital bit of information one can provide in a citation – the relevant page numbers![3] This may seem unimportant to some readers and perhaps even PIA, but one of the many reasons proper citation is so important is because it is an author’s way of saying, “Fact-check me!” Failing to provide a properly formed citation demands that readers take an author at his word. But good scholarship, even from the word processor of an amateur, is a call to healthy skepticism. 

Another issue with UGDBS can be seen in the nature of many of the citations themselves. For example, following his improper citation of Sarna, he has three more notes that read as follows: 

3. Daisy Yulin Tsa (Human Rights) cites: Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967), 266. 

4. Daisy Yulin Tsa (Human Rights) cites S. R. Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1896), 182-183. See also Chirichigno, Debt Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East, 279-280. 

5. Daisy Yulin Tsa (Human Rights) cites: Bernard S. Jackson, “Some Literary Features of the Mishpatim,” in “Wünschet Jerusale                        

There are a number of obvious problems. First, PIA apparently cannot be bothered to correctly cite the author’s name. He cites “Daisy Yulin Tsa,” whereas her name is Daisy Yulin Tsai. Second, the title of Tsai’s work isn’t Human Rights but Human Rights in Deuteronomy with Special Focus on Slave Laws.[4] Third, in note 5, PIA has an obviously incomplete citation. Not only does it lack the full name of the exact publication wherein Jackson’s piece appeared, it fails to offer a page number with which his readers can follow up. Fourth, PIA is using Tsai’s volume as a quote mine and fails to provide where in her work these references to Cassuto, Driver, and Jackson appear. Such lack of care is alarming, especially for one who claims to be “meticulously” citing scholarship. 

More examples of this carelessness could be provided but it suffices to say that PIA should probably learn how to properly cite scholarship before claiming he “meticulously” does so. Moreover, there is great danger in quote mining authors (as I’ve shown before with other apologists),[5] and so PIA would do well to track down sources to quote rather than lifting them from another context. 

PIA on Slavery in the New Testament

Much of UGDBS is devoted to slavery in the Hebrew Bible. I have no interest in dissecting PIA’s views on it as Joshua Bowen (PhD, John Hopkins University) has already done so. Instead, the remainder of this analysis will be devoted to PIA’s short section on slavery in the New Testament (locations 556-571). He opens by discussing two texts, 1 Peter 2:18 and James 5:5-6, writing, 

Ultimately these texts are speaking about employers (masters) because James 5:5-6 is an admonition for employers to [sic] don’t pay their employees. Peter requests employees to take the high road and be obedient to them. (location 556)

As one of the cardinal rules of exegesis is that “a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext,”[6] it would behoove us to consider the specific contexts of each passage. We will begin with James 5:5-6. 

In James 5:1, the author invites the rich (“Come now, you rich people”) to mourn in anticipation of “the miseries that are coming” upon them. This invitation is not a call to repentance as the author has already in his epistle declared the demise of the wealthy (1:10-11).[7] Rather, this section with its diatribe against the wealthy is intended to comfort those upon whose backs the wealthy have amassed their riches. The author’s accusation against the wealthy – the raison d’être for his rhetoric – is that they have “kept back by fraud” the “wages of the laborers [ho misthos tōn ergatōn].” These wages are described as crying out to God, imagery taken from the Exodus narrative where the cries of enslaved Israel reach the ear of the Almighty (e.g. Exodus 2:23). The workers themselves are described with the substantive ergatēs, a term that in biblical and extrabiblical literature refers to compensated laborers.[8] Here in the epistle of James, these are farm laborers who would have been hired at-will by the wealthy to work in the fields during harvest (cf. Matthew 20:1ff). These “unattached workers”[9] would have been very poor, on the margins of society, and therefore to withhold their wages could spell certain doom not only for the laborers themselves but for any family members who depended upon them.[10] If the wealthy were in control, who then could these workers appeal to when defrauded by the powerful? James Adamson observes, “Unlike the slave, who had someone who might protect his interests, the free laborer had none.”[11] With no one to protect them, they cry out to God for help. 

These laborers are not slaves but, in the rhetoric of the Jamesian author, are portrayed as such when denied compensation for their work. That is, by failing to render payment for their services during the harvest, the wealthy have turned these day laborers into practical slaves. This is unjust and for it the wealthy will face severe punishment in the end. Yet despite this portrayal, the only place where the epistle employs the standard Greek word for slaves (doulos) is in 1:1. Nowhere else in the whole of the epistle does he reference slaves or slavery. Thus, this text does not speak specifically to slavery as such. Rather, it is a warning to those who fail to compensate whom they have hired. 

We now turn to 1 Peter 2:18. Unlike the epistle of James with its singular reference to slaves (James 1:1), the Petrine text devotes an entire section to slaves (1 Peter 2:18-25). In context, the epistle’s author has exhorted his audience to “accept the authority of every human institution” (v. 13) so that “by doing right [they] should silence the ignorance of the foolish” (v. 15). He then puts forward his own version of a “household code,” a standard of living for those in the community.[12] Specifically, he discusses two household roles: that of slaves in relation to their masters (vv. 18-25) and of wives in relation to their husbands (3:1-6). While in 2:16 the author employs the noun douloi to refer to slaves, in v. 18 he employs a different noun – oiketai. The former reference is metaphorical, a way to express the community’s reverence for God. In their commentary on 1 Peter, Richard Vinson, et.al, suggest that the change from doulos to oiketēs in the latter is perhaps a way for the author “to make it clear he meant actual, not metaphorical, slavery.”[13]The central idea is that the text is speaking to slaves qua slaves, unique among Greco-Roman literature[14] and instructive for the present discussion. Because the Petrine author employs oiketēs, the context suggests slaves in a Greco-Roman household. In this society, slaves could have been acquired through a variety of ways, most often as a consequence of war or by being born into slavery.[15] These people would become the property (i.e. chattel) of heads of households and employed in various tasks. Thus, “[s]laves lacked legal status” and a “family slave enters into the deepest of liminalities.”[16] It is in this context that the Petrine author calls upon slaves to show great deference to their masters. As Christians, they are to endure punishment from cruel masters even when they’ve done nothing wrong (v. 20). As slaves to God (v. 16), they do not belong to themselves. Therefore, as slaves to human masters, they honor God by submitting to cruelty and suffering. But they do this as slaves, not something else. 

PIA’s claim that the slave of 1 Peter 2 is speaking of a situation wherein a hired laborer is mistreated is a gross distortion of the text that ignores the language used and the context of the passage itself. The epistle of James does not refer to either douloi or oiketai and so it has no bearing whatsoever on the text of 1 Peter 2. It is referring to day laborers while 1 Peter 2 is speaking of Greco-Roman households. 

At the close of his brief discussion of slavery in the New Testament, PIA quotes at length from “Slavery in Biblical Times” by Mark Coppenger. There is no citation offered so it isn’t clear when this piece was published or upon what pages this extended quotation appears. The essence of the quote is this: texts like Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, etc. call upon slaves to obey their masters in light of their service to God himself. With this view I can agree as it does seem to be this is one of the things these texts are teaching. This does nothing to contradict the idea that they are speaking to slaves as opposed to hired laborers. In fact, to alter the sense of the text such that “slaves” are employees renders impotent the rhetorical force of these texts. 

Something else should be noted about this quotation from Coppenger: it doesn’t derive from Coppenger. PIA isn’t quoting from a scholarly publication but rather a research paper written by a student for a class taught by Coppenger.[17] Such carelessness and inattentiveness to detail is characteristic of PIA’s work in UGDBS and calls into question his claim that he “meticulously” cites anything. In this instance, it is not merely that there is no citation but that it is also incorrectly attributed, needlessly so.

IV. CONCLUSION 

There is an aphorism that states, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This volume by PIA is my introduction to his work and it has left me disappointed. Nothing I read in UGDBS led me to believe that PIA has a grasp on the scholarship he was wielding and, much like a young child attempting to drive a car, it has resulted in significant damage to the image of Christian apologetics generally. By quote mining, misrepresenting scholarship, and generally misreading biblical texts, PIA exhibits all the hallmarks of the quintessential pop-apologist. But, of course, PIA didn’t write his volume to convince skeptics like myself; rather, like virtually all Christian apologetic literature these days, it was written for the already initiated. There is great danger in this as these apologetic acolytes become armed with false knowledge, unable or unwilling to fact check what they’ve read. They then become proselytes of prevarication, apostles of the erroneous.

It is for this reason that PIA’s Ultimate Guide to Debunking Biblical Slavery is actually the ultimate guide on how not to write about such topics. 


[1] I have no familiarity with Wilkins and, at the present time, have no interest in becoming familiar with his work. 

[2] Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1991).

[3] Later in UGDBS, PIA cites from Sarna again, but this time provides a properly formed citation, complete with publication details and page number (location 229). This lack of consistency is a sign that PIA did very little editing. 

[4] Daisy Yulin Tsai, Human Rights in Deuteronomy with Special Focus on Slave Laws (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014). 

[5] See, for example, my post “Ludicrous, Liar, or Lazy: SJ Thomason, Child Sacrifice, and Why You Should Actually Read Your Sources” (4.3.20), amateurexegete.com.

[6] D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 115.

[7] In his commentary on the book of James (James, Baker Exegetical Commentary Series [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009], 232), Dan McCartney notes that the referencing to wailing in v. 1 (ololyzō) is used frequently in contexts of judgment in the LXX (e.g. Isaiah 10:10; 13:6; etc.); cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 298-299. Interestingly, here in the book of James it is a hapax legomenon

[8] This is the word Jesus uses when he tells the Twelve that “the laborer [ho ergatēs] is worthy of his food” (Matthew 10:10, my translation). For more, see LSJ, s.v. “ἐργάτης”; BDAG, s.v. “ἐργάτης.”

[9] James Adamson, The Epistle of James, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 186.

[10] Edgar V. McKnight and Christopher Church, Hebrew-James, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing Inc., 2004), 403; David Hutchinson Edgar, Has God Not Chosen the Poor? The Social Setting of the Epistle of James (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 202. It would be no exaggeration to state that these laborers worked paycheck-to-paycheck which, in this case, was day-to-day.

[11] Adamson, The Epistle of James, 186.

[12] Duane F. Watson and Terrance Callan, First and Second Peter, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012) 62.

[13] Richard B. Vinson, Richard F. Wilson, and Watson E. Mills, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing Inc., 2010), 120-121.

[14] Vinson, et.al., 1 & 2 Peter, Jude, 118-119.

[15] Scot McKnight, The Letter to Philemon, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 18; Vinson, et.al, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude, 121

[16] McKnight, The Letter to Philemon, 16.

[17] This research paper can be viewed here.

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