The Exodus:5 Project
But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,”
Under what circumstances do we tolerate slavery?
It is pretty clear that the Bible allows for slavery, even if the circumstances of the Israelite slave is far more tolerable than the kinds of slaves who come to mind when we think about American history. Israelite slaves earned wages, received adequate sustenance, kept their families intact, had a day off each week, and were free after seven years. In fact, many Israelites entered this slavery willingly to pay off a debt or to avoid the consequences of poverty.
(It is important to note that Canaanite slaves were not the beneficiaries of this somewhat enlightened indentured servitude.)
But I am stupefied at the permission given to the slave to continue his life. Maybe I am more influenced by the Young Rascals than the Book of Exodus, but I believe that it is the natural situation for a man (or woman) to be free. Isn’t that what the “exodus” in the “book of” is all about?
Were I a rabbi among the original generations of scholars, I would have hoped to be known by this ruling: It is forbidden for a master to treat a slave well enough that he makes the declaration that he does not wish to go free. The master must remind the slave of the degradation of his existence every day. He must restrict the choices available to him, burden him with unpleasant tasks and return no expression of appreciation or affection. In the last year of his servitude, he must say to his slave each day, “When will I be rid of your presence in my life?” Only when he has compensated his slave and declared him free may he apologize and express his gratitude for years of service.
Few if any of the slave owners of the American south could be accused of treating their slaves in a manner that inspired appreciation and loyalty. The grueling life of involuntary servitude, considered as personal property, was demeaning and degrading. Whatever dignity was attainable came from within the cohort of slaves who created social conventions and a hierarchy of values to cope with the situation imposed upon them. If, despite their mistreatment, these slaves found compassion and affection for their masters, it can be attributed to a remarkable level of character forged as they rose above the circumstances imposed on their lives.
Or, it can be attributed to something else. It is possible for one person (or one group of persons) to impose on another (or many others) injury so deep and grievous that it will not heal. It is possible for a slave to feel gratitude to the abuser who first damaged him beyond repair and then cared for him in his disability. If there is any shame deeper than enslaving a human being, it is in accepting this kind of “love.” The slave who declares, “I love my massa” deprives his master of the possibility of redemption.
We hear occasional stories of modern slavery – children imprisoned by parents or kidnappers, victims of domestic abuse deprived of the instinct to flee, foreign nationals “hired” to do work and then kept so poor they cannot escape their employers’ clutches. But most of us know neither slaves nor slaveholders.
We are, however, the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. The Jews in America, maybe the most abundantly blessed generations of our people in 3500 years of seeking freedom, none the less remember every year (really, every week) that we were slaves. And at least once a year, when reading this section of the Bible, we remember that we had the full permission of our liberating God to enslave other human beings.
As Americans, no matter when our ancestors arrived on these shores, we carry that legacy as well. Personally, we bought no African in the market, whipped no belligerent woman, sold no mother’s son to a neighbor, denied no ability to read because of skin color. Personally, we were not the victims of those atrocities. Thank God on both counts.
But when we romanticize those times for any reason, we revisit those injuries and demand that the wounds that persist beyond the grave be ignored. We want to hear, “I love my master.” Shame on anyone who gives credibility to the notion of the happy slaves, rescued from deprivation by the generosity of the plantation owner. And likewise, shame on anyone who believes that slavery no longer matters to today’s African Americans in a visceral way. You might as well suggest that Japanese Americans have gotten over the internment camps or Jews have come to terms with the Holocaust.
There are parts of the Bible with which a person of faith must struggle. Some of them are seemingly incidental, such as not mixing linen and wool. Some of them have an urgent resonance in our current society, including discussions of gender and sexual identity. And one of them is any level of patience with the verse that validates the statement, “I love my master.” A more grievous delusion never was and never will be.