Saturday, December 17, 2016

Slavery Past and Present

Slavery is big business right now both in America and around the world. According to reporter Annie Kelly writing for The Guardian, “an estimated 21 million people are trapped in some form of forced labour.” 

The money involved is equally staggering. The estimates according to the United Nations are that "profits from global forced labour [are] at least $44bn a year.” 1 And almost every one of us in the United Sates benefits. We benefit from lower prices on goods made overseas by forced laborers. 2   We benefit from lower food costs for food such as prawns and other sea foods produced by enslaved Burmese and Cambodian fishermen.

And that does not take into consideration the huge worldwide slave sex trade, girls kidnapped or sold into prostitution in  America and overseas. Over 100,000 children are trafficked in the United States every year and 20 million worldwide, many of them in India where my daughter worked with a non-government organization to rescue minor girls from prostitution on GB Road in Delhi.  Estimates are that as many as 4000 are forced to work in the sex industry on GB Road alone 4

But even this is not the whole picture. Slavery takes many forms, some of them less recognizable than others. One of those less easily recognized forms of slavery, except in retrospect, has been economic slavery. The irony in American history was that while the North condemned the enslavement of African slaves in the South the growing industrialization of the North was creating its own slave class. These were people, largely immigrants, who survived only as they and their children worked in the sweatshops of industrial America for wages that provided barely enough for them to exist.

And today?

Kevin Bales argues in Disposable People:

Where once there was "old" slavery, based around the legal ownership of other human beings, there is now, according to Kevin Bales, "new" slavery, where "the total control of one person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation" is the norm. This change is intimately related to the advent of a truly global economy, in which producers and consumers exist at even further remove from each other. Here, profit is the sole driving force behind the enslavement of people who are now victimised [sic] not because of their race, but because of their vulnerability: they are enslaved simply because they can be, their servitude no longer legitimated by reference to any standard of civilisation [sic] but maintained by their poverty and illiteracy, the corruption of public authorities, and the ever-present threat of violence. In Bales's words, this new slavery is "faceless, temporary, highly profitable, legally concealed, and completely ruthless". 5

To say that slavery is big business doesn’t come close.

And who benefits? Me and almost certainly you.  We benefit when we buy a pair of Nike sneakers made by barely subsistence level foreign labor. We benefit when we buy a burger at McDonalds or Burger King where people who are making barely enough to live on serve us. We benefit when we click on the pornography site on the Internet. And those who are enslaved in those industries pay the price. That is economic slavery.

Economic slavery and oppression that enslaves people to their hurt is not new.

The song writer in Psalm 10 speaks of it:
2 In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor; . . .
3 For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
    and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
With the suffering and inhumanity we see in just these examples, it is right that slavery should be universally condemned. Every decent person should be distressed at the suffering we inflict on other people for the sake of our comfort or greed or lust. And it is no wonder that we search for a reason and a solution. Sometimes we call out the criminals who enslave their victims and the governments who turn a blind eye to the suffering or the police who are on the take in places like Delhi. Sometimes we blame big business and the CEOs who profit hugely as they take advantage of the little guy.

But the truth is, we are the ones to blame,  though we seldom admit our culpability. No. That would mean we would have to confront the flaw in our own inhumanity that willingly uses other people to their hurt and our benefit. No. Instead we play the freedom card and justify our inhumanity by saying as long as people freely choose to work at a job that does not pay a living wage, why should I be blamed. Or as long as I can buy this pair of jeans for $20, why should I care if forced labor in Guatemala made that possible.  No. We seldom go that far.

So we blame God.

In fact, blaming God has become a pastime on some anti-theist websites and in YouTube videos. But is God to blame?  Has God caused our inhumanity? Has God sanctioned our crimes by not speaking out, by not giving us laws to prevent it? That is the question that drove my search into the Bible and what it says about slavery.

I began with some of the Bible passages that Dr. Hector Avalos included in his book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship. It is Dr. Avalos’s thesis that the Bible and God - though Avalos does not actually believe in a God - and Christians who do believe in God are responsible for the incredible suffering that slavery has caused through the centuries and is causing today. Basically his complaint is that God didn’t put his foot down on slavery and make it illegal and that Christians have been historically less than firm, perhaps even culpable, in regard to slavery in the years since the last page of the Bible was written.

So here are the passages Dr. Avalos identifies as evidence in support of his thesis and a few others that Avalos ignores:

Genesis 9:19-27 and Noah’s Curse
Ham the son of Noah disrespected his father and received his father’s curse, which was focused on Ham's son Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers…”May Canaan be the slave of Shem….and may Canaan be his [Japheth’s) slave."

This passage is evidence, or so it is said,  that according to God one particular people group, the Canaanites, would be by his decree slaves of all the rest of humanity. Sometimes these Canaanites have been identified as the black races. But that is without warrant; the Canaanites in the Bible were not black.

But were they ordained by God to be slaves? No.

This passage is the first mention in the Bible of slaves. The word is  עָ֫בֶד  (ebed). Ebed is translated both as slave (Gen. 47:19) and as servant (Gen. 42:11). The precise meaning is to be found in the context.

The fact that one word in Hebrew can be either slave or servant reveals a problem that is found in all of the ancient literature: there is seldom a clear way to determine if slave or servant is what is meant. We usually understand a slave to be a chattel slave, one who is the property of his master. But servant can be either a bond servant or a hired servant or a voluntary servant or as simply one who serves.

Here in Genesis 9 the idea is best understood as a simple servant because the people of Canaan were not generally the slaves of either the ancestors of Shem (Israel was of Shem) or of Japheth.  In the unfolding history of Israel, the Canaanites did become the servants of Israel in the sense that they served and at times as slaves, but the latter was rare. Most of the time the Canaanites lived alongside the Israelites  as free men though servants to the king, as were all Israelites. Some became trusted military men in David’s service.

The passage, however, recognizes the fact of servants and slaves in the culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE). And that is important. Slavery was a fact of life in the ANE. There are records of slaves “ in The Code of Hammurabi in Babylon in the 18th century BCE.”6

But the institution of slavery goes back far earlier. According to the author of this Ancient Origins article it arose when civilization came to be based on cities, and agriculture in the surrounding areas supported  the city populations. That would have been about 10,000 years ago. But even that is not far enough back. Hunter-gatherer societies practiced slavery before that period.

Up into the 1700s, at least in the Pacific Northwest of America, hunter-gatherer Indian tribes would capture slaves from their enemies and employ them in their villages. Captured slaves were considered wealth and status. But they were not generally mistreated. Some married into the tribe. 7 Slavery has been part of human cultures from the beginning. 

Historically the next place the Bible speaks of slaves is in Job. 
The book of Job, the oldest piece of literature included in  the Bible  coming from Mesopotamia in about 2000 BCE, records that slavery was not only present but  that there was a recognition of equality between master and slave. There were standards of care for slaves, and a responsibility to God for that care. In Job 31:13-15, Job was arguing that he had lived a well ordered life as a servant of God in caring for his slaves/servants.

Next, in Genesis 15:3, a slave/servant might even be the heir  of his master.
When Abraham had become old and had no son he turned to Eliezer of Damascus, a man in  his household,  as his possible heir. Was Eliezer a slave? A servant?  A hired man? Abraham calls him בֶן־ (ben). That word is often used for son. But Eliezer was not a son. It was also unlikely he was a hired man. Hired men were rare in that culture, and a hired man would not be considered a son or one belonging to the household. It is likely that he was a servant/slave toward whom Abraham felt great affection  and whom he considered his chief and trusted servant.

No one in the Bible is considered to be without fault. And Abraham certainly was not. Yet Abraham illustrates even in his imperfection what would be a well ordered life as a servant of Yahweh God. In this relationship with Eliezer, Abraham is a picture of a well ordered life relative to a servant.

Next, in Genesis 16, it was acceptable  to take a servant/slave as a concubine/second wife.
Hagar is described as a שִׁפְחָה. That word means either maidservant or slave girl. Within the culture of the ANE a שִׁפְחָה may be considered a concubine, a wife but secondary in  status to the wife.  However, it does not appear that Hagar was considered a concubine until Sarai gave her to Abraham. The fact that Sarai could give her to Abraham implies that Hagar was a slave rather than a servant and that Hagar’s child would be considered Sarai’s.

It would not have been considered improper in the culture for Sarai to give her servant to her husband as a concubine. It should not be inferred that Hagar was forced against her will into that relationship since she was pleased to have born a son for Abraham. It was not rape as Avalos implies.  The son born to Hagar and Abraham would have been considered as much a son as a son born to Sarai and Abraham (Gen. 21”:11f).  That is why Sarai wanted Hagar and Ismael her son sent away. She did not want Ismael to be considered the firstborn in position over Isaac.

But there is the part about Abraham sending her away. It was permissible in the culture since Hagar was not a wife. A slave could be dismissed. But it seems less than honorable of Abraham and less than compassionate of Sarai.

It should be noted that God did not command that Ishmael and Hagar be sent away. In fact, God in response to Hagar’s complaint promised both protection and blessing to Ishmael. But he did not command Abraham to countermand Sarai’s desire to send Hagar away.

Then this in Genesis 17:12, the circumcision of slaves.
All Israelites were to be circumcised. It was a sign of their belonging to God by covenant (Gen. 17:1,2). When God made this covenant with Abraham he had all his servants and  slaves circumcised (Gen. 17:27).  Slaves who were foreigners were to be circumcised. That brought them under the covenant God had made with Abraham and to a degree made them equal in the society to an Israelite. (Ex. 12:43-45) Though there was no command given regarding the progeny of these slaves, we may assume that they were assimilated into the nation of Israel as free men and women just as the foreigners who left Egypt with the Israelites in the Exodus were considered to be Israelites by circumcision and by birth after several generations.  The difference was that the foreign slaves did not have the right of emancipation after 7 years,  as did a Israelite who had become a slave by debt or by choice. His sons, however, were not considered slaves. There is no evidence of a slave class.

2 Chronicles 8:8,9. Canaanite slaves.
When Solomon began to build the temple and the fortifications of his kingdom he made Canaanites the laborers. This argues that these Canaanites were not slaves to that point. They were not a slave class. But with the big project of building under Solomon everyone was required to play a part. Israelites were conscripted as soldiers or taxed. The assimilated Canaanites were required to do the labor.

Ecclesiastes 2:7. Solomon as a slave owner.
If Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon he acknowledges that he was a slave owner. It was a mark of power and wealth. It may have been common among the wealthy class in Solomon’s time. It is unlikely that the common Israelite had servants or slaves. The common Israelite was a farmer who had a limited amount of land allotted to him by God. He had no need of slaves. Israelites who had acquired more land and needed laborers may have had servants or hired men and women as is implied of Boaz in Ruth 2. But Boaz is clearly a generous man living a well ordered life as a servant of Yahweh God and did not mistreat his workers.

Isaiah 14:2. Israel will take captive as slaves/servants the remnant of Babylon.
The prophet predicts that the Lord will turn upon Babylon for her sins against the Jews, and like Jews were slaves/servants in the land of Babylon so Babylon would be slaves/servants of the Jews when they return to the land. And that became reality as the Jews returned from Babylon (Ezra 2:64,65).  But it is far from certain that these menservants and maidservants (Ezra 2 indicates there were 7,337) were unwillingly held as slaves or unwilling to follow the Jews back to Jerusalem. In any event, it was not a disaster to those menservants and maidservants who returned with the Jews to Jerusalem. In the end they were assimilated into the nation Israel.

Jeremiah 34:9. Slavery was being perverted.
It is clear that slavery continued to be practiced in Israel up to the time of the captivity in the 6th century BC. But it also seems that it was recognized as an evil to be repented of. It may be that these men mentioned here had violated Yahweh’s commands about enslaving other Israelites.

Lamentations 5:8, Jeremiah’s lament.
With the Babylonian victory over Judah, Jeremiah laments that  the Jews have now been enslaved because  they once enslaved others. It is God’s punishment on them for their neglect of God’s law which might well have included unlawfully enslaving people. Poetic justice is a common theme in the way God deals with peoples.

 Exodus 21:16, Slave trade.
The kidnapping of someone to sell him or her as a slave was forbidden and punishable by death.  Slave traders have only evil intentions. They sell people for their own profit with no thought to the good of the people.

Exodus 1, Israel enslaved
Israel suffered a huge disaster when after they had been welcomed as sojourners in Egypt they were made slaves. It was an experience that would color the thinking and the life of the nation from that moment on.  It is the background of all the laws regarding slaves given by Moses. The Israelites must not treat others as they had been treated. Slavery was a reality, but the mistreatment of slaves must not be.

The laws God gave to Israel included regulations governing slavery:

Exodus 21:2, Hebrew slaves.
Hebrews might become slaves, usually because of economic necessity. But Hebrew slaves are to be set free after 7 years. They were to be set free fully provisioned (Deut. 15:12-15). But a slave wife, if she had been purchased separately by the slave owner and she became the wife of a slave later was not set free at the same time. She apparently still had the 7 years of service due her master.

Was this regulation an advancement on the regulation for setting free the slave on the Jubilee year (every 50th year)?  Dr. Avalos implies that it was. If Deuteronomy is regarded as written in Moses’ lifetime, it is unlikely a revision. The Jubilee year would be considered a special case if it fell in the middle of the 7 years ordinarily specified.

Exodus 21:7-11, women slaves.
When a woman was purchased as a slave she was to be considered the wife of the slave owner. She had the rights of a wife, and that included protection from being sold to someone else. She would not be displaced by a later wife. If she was not treated as a wife, she had the right to her freedom.

Exodus 21:20,  killing a slave.
If a slave owner killed a slave, it was a crime to be punished. Whether that was to be capital punishment or some other is not certain in the verse.  But because no other penalty is required, we can infer the same punishment for a man who kills another either by accident or intention (Ex. 21:12-14).

Exodus 21:21, 26-27, injury to a slave/servant.
If a slave owner injures his slave but the slave recovers from his injuries, the loss to the slave owner of the time of recovery was considered to be the penalty. But if the injury was serious enough to maim the slave, that slave was to be freed as compensation for his injuries.

Some have argued that Ex. 21:21 allows a slave owner to beat his slave nearly to death and get away with it or that if the slave dies after a few days the slave owner is not to be held responsible for the death. That takes the passage out of context with the other rules of just treatment and penalties. Because the death of a slave due to beating is covered in verse 20 and the significant and long term injury to a slave in verses 26-27, we can infer that this case was different. It was an injury that didn’t lead to death, and it was an injury that was not permanent.This law did not allow the mistreatment of slaves; ir considered mistreatment a wrong, but not one that required additional punishment.

Leviticus 25:35-43, Hebrew slaves
Hebrews could become slaves by indenturing themselves to a master. They were not the property of the master. They were to be treated as hired workers. He and his family were to be set free from their debt at the year of Jubilee. Or they could be redeemed (25:48).

The reason that Israelites were to be treated in a special way was that they belonged as slaves/servants to the Lord (25:55). They had already been redeemed by God so any slavery subsequent to that was temporary and more indentured servant-hood than slavery. They were not to be treated as property. This was God's provision of a safety-net, but it was not to become a trap.

Leviticus 25:42-46, a Foreigner could be a slave for life.
Foreigners were not protected from slavery. They were protected as slaves by the same laws that applied to all slavery, but they did not have the right of release after 7 years or at the year of Jubilee. They would be slaves for life.

Yet, there is no evidence of an institution of slavery. Apparently, the children of those slaves were not to be considered slaves.  Those children might even have been considered as Israelites since they would be circumcised.

Deuteronomy 23:15, runaway slaves.
Slaves who had run away from masters outside of Israel were to be given refuge and not returned to their owners. They were to be free. 

The land of Israel was a land of refuge for both the Israelites who were refugees from Egypt and for anyone else seeking refuge. It was better to be in Israel than anywhere else.

That general principle might be the guiding principle regarding slavery and foreigners. Being a slave in Israel for a foreigner was better than being free outside of Israel. As noted before they were accorded the same rights as Israelites, except for their bondage. They had become, as it were, the people of God and covered by the covenant.

That was a blessing that far outweighed their bondage. They had the blessing of knowing of God and his mercy. They had the blessing of knowing God personally, and many foreigners became fully men and women of faith – as did Ruth and Rahab.

Joel 2:28-29, God’s people as his servants/slaves.
As we come to the end of the Old Testament Joel predicts the time when God’s slaves/servants will have the Holy Spirit poured out on them. The significance to our research on slavery is that Joel reiterates the basic principle of the Bible from the Exodus forward: God redeems us to himself. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God.

That would have been a principle easily understood by most in that culture. Few were  absolutely free. It was not an egalitarian society. With few exceptions everyone was the subject (servant) of a king. A person not subject to a king was considered an outlaw, as Nabal considered David when he was running from Saul.

Later in the New Testament Paul would say that we as believers in Jesus Christ are to obey God because we are not our own; we have been bought with a price (we are his servants), therefore, we are to glorify in the lives we live. Of himself Paul says he is a “doulos" ( a voluntary bonded slave) of Jesus Christ.

Tying it all together:
Slavery was a reality everywhere. But it was not universally evil. In some cases it served the critical needs of a slave for home and livelihood. In some cases it resulted in  the opportunity for improvement for their families that would not have been possible otherwise. In every case from before the law to the end of the Old Testament slaves were to be treated generously and with a sense of equality as human beings. Mistreatment of slaves was punished.  A Torah observant, faithful Jew, such as Boaz, lived a well ordered life following the law as a servant of Yahweh God. He would not have mistreated his servant/slaves.

Slavery in the New Testament

Slavery was an institution in the Roman world. At the beginning of the first century A.D. and through the second century the number of slaves might have been as many as 10 million people, 1/6 of the population.  Many had been captured during wars with Rome, but many were also the children born to those captured and enslaved enemies. Since Rome had no provision like the Jews of including the children of slaves in the nation as people with rights under the covenant of God, slave children often remained slaves. These slaves might have been laborers and have been mistreated, but there were also well educated slaves who served in households as servants and many times as what we would consider professionals like teachers and doctors. 9

When Christian began to make converts among the Romans and Greeks many of those Romans were slaves, and a few were even slave owners.

To these Christian slaves and slave owners Paul wrote instructions in several of his letters to churches and one letter to a particular slave owner, his friend Philemon. Here’s what he said:

To slaves he urged obedience to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-8 and 1 Timothy 6:1). They were to render service to their masters in the same spirit as they were to serve God. They were to consider their service to their masters AS service to God. Paul told them that in so doing they would bring honor to the Lord.

Their life witness to the Lord was more important than even freedom, especially if that freedom would result in defrauding their master. Paul even sent runaway slave Onesimus  back to his master Philemon because he did not want Onesimus to live with the fact that he had not only wronged Philemon by running away but had apparently stolen from Philemon when he left and had not returned what he had stolen (Phil. 14). Paul asked  that Philemon charge what was owed him to Paul’s own account.

But Paul’s instructions were not to slaves alone. He also wrote to the masters who were Christians. He wrote that they treat their slaves with kindness, those who were believers as fellow believers (Ephesians 6:9).  It is the same thing he asked of Philemon (Philemon 16). But he went beyond merely asking Philemon to take Onesimus back; he asked Philemon to accept him back as a redeemed freed man, redeemed by the debt Philemon owned Paul (Philemon 19).

Paul believes that freedom is God’s design for human beings. He says so in Galatians 3:28 and 4:7. But that freedom of which he wrote was more than the freedom from slavery to a human master; it is freedom to God. And he believes that freedom to God is God’s design equally for men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave or free (Galatians 3:28). That freedom to God is our most urgent need.

Freedom from slavery to a human master is desirable, and if it can be obtained lawfully a slave should seek it, but if not they should consider slavery as the place where God has placed them (1 Corinthians 7:21,22). On the other hand, if you are free, Paul says, do not choose slavery.

(The last may sound odd, but, in fact, a free man in Roman society could sell himself into slavery.)

Tying it all together: Slavery is not God’s design for human beings. But it is a reality in our world and has always been. God’s laws given to Israel controlled slavery and made it humane. His commands for Israel also resulted in foreign slaves having the rights, privilege and blessing of a natural born Israelite. That was a blessing that could not be measured. It made the serving worth the cost.

In the New Testament Christians were the agents of freedom.  They not only proclaimed the good news that God had set them free from slavery to sin but by their transformed lives began the process of changing the culture. And they did change the culture. Historian David Brion Davis argues that "the Judeo-Christian belief in a monotheistic God who rules over a homogenous group of people generally prevented European Christians from enslaving one another. As more western Europeans converted to Christianity, this unified religious identity enabled the decline of slavery in Europe." 10 

My favorite saint, Patrick, was as early as the 300s both a slave himself and, as a Christian, the strongest voice for the end of slavery in Ireland and England. In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick warned excommunication  of the king if he did not  punish those who had kidnapped others into slavery. 11Some have said that Patrick was the agent who abolished slavery in Ireland.

Sadly, it cannot be argued that Christians, especially in later centuries, did not participate in the enslavement of many millions of people in Africa and kept them as slaves in  America. Some even argued that the Bible gave justification for their actions. But many other Christians like the Quakers, who provided refuge to runaway slaves and passage to freedom, and Amy Carmichael, who worked her entire life to rescue girls from temple prostitution in India,  heard God's heart for the oppressed and worked hard to end slave trade and slavery. Today Christians work just as hard to end slavery for those who now are sexual slaves and economic slaves in India and around the world, and though slavery is a growing industry around the world, many have been set free as have the girls my daughter served in India.

But there remains the tragic fact that hundreds of millions today are in slavery. Had God made a law making slavery wrong, Avalos seems to argue, it would all be different. But that makes as much sense as saying if God make a law against stealing or lying (which he did) there would be no stealing or lying. No. Our selfish human natures pay no attention to God's laws. What is needed and what God provided was an inner change of heart and mind that willingly submits to God's design for a well ordered life, a heart that is generous to the slave and servant and careful about his or her good and sets the prisoners free.

In the end, those changed hearts result in men and women who abhor slavery and who risk their lives to end it. As did Saint Patrick. As did the Quakers during our Civil War. As did Amy Carmichael in the early 1900s. As did my daughter in the 2000s in India.


7) Josphy, Alvin M. Jr. New Perce Country. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. Print. P. 16

Monday, December 12, 2016

A God Close By

The baseline conviction of the faith community of Israel was that God was intimately involved in their lives. David would write in Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

That conviction was so deep that they believed that God ordered their steps, that God was intimately involved in their lives. The song writer expresses that faith in Psalm 37:

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
    when he delights in his way.

Honestly, that sense of God as a God close by rather than a God far away is foreign to many of us. We think of God as distant. We go to church to be in his presence, but we seldom think of God as present in the ordinary things of life, the cleaning up after dinner or getting the car serviced moments.

The non-believer finds the idea of God as a God close by even more foreign. It seems to them superstitious or quaint.  But the man and women of the faith community of Israel saw God that way. They saw God as the one who guarded all their ways and would lift them up so their foot would not strike a stone and one who would adjudicate between them in  difficult issues. 

This conviction that God knew them intimately and cared for them deeply was the context for the instructions regarding the jealous husband in Numbers 5.

The occasion is a husband's suspicion that his wife has committed adultery with another man, though he has no direct evidence (vv. 11-13). Feelings of jealousy are aroused and he wants to determine if his wife is guilty of being unfaithful to him. He wants justice.

The process is for that husband to bring his wife to the priest who will apply a test. The process was designed  to determine guilt or the innocence (v. 14). The passage assumes neither guilt nor innocence nor does it favor the husband over the wife.

The husband was to bring about 3 gallons of grain as an offering to the Lord. His wife was to be presented to the priest along with the offering held in her hands. It was an act of worship. The priest would "set the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the woman's head." This was a reminder that God would be the judge and that nothing was hidden from him.

The unbinding of the hair was something that a woman would only do in the presence of her husband in the most intimate of moments. It symbolized in this particular moment before God that she was hiding nothing from him. Her life was open for him to know.

The priest would bring holy water and mix with it dust from the floor of the Tabernacle. Holy water is a term not found elsewhere in the Old Testament. It suggest, however, that it is water made holy by its being dedicated to the Lord. But it is also described as "bitter water." That either alludes to the water of Marah (Exodus 15:23) where the water tasted bitter or to the bitterness of this moment of a wife under trial.

Neither "holy water" nor the dust of the Tabernacle floor implies that there is anything in the mixture that would physically cause harm or anything more than a bad taste. So bitterness likely is figurative implying the bitterness of the situation, either being falsely accused  or the consequences that might obtain. 

The priest would require the accused wife to take an oath that included a promise of exoneration, if she is not guilty, and a promise that she would be a curse in her community and that she would experience problems related to her reproductive organs described as "make[ing] your womb swell and your thigh fall away"  and finally a promise of bareness in the future, if she was guilty.
Some read into this description an induced miscarriage or a God-authorized abortion. The New International Version unfortunately gives us the reading of verse 27 that "her womb will miscarry."  But that reading goes beyond the description in the passage, and it goes beyond the meaning of the Hebrew word alah, which is the word for curse. It is the same word as found in 5:23. In the Old Testament childlessness was considered a curse, and that is probably what is intended here as well as the fact that she would be considered cursed by her community. It does not imply miscarriage, and it is not translated as miscarriage in other versions.

The term swelling of the womb seems  to be simply descriptive. It would not necessarily refer to a miscarriage, and there is no other Old testament passage that connects the swelling of the womb or belly with miscarriage or abortion.

"Thigh" is a euphemism for reproductive organs. "Falling away" has many possible meanings from the literal of "falling upon the ground" to the figurative "to perish or experience calamity." It seems more reasonable to read this passage as figurative of bareness or the inability to bear children rather than miscarriage or abortion.

Since the consequences would include the inability to ever bear children, it appears that it would be something other than a miscarriage; a miscarriage rarely results in infertility or physical damage that results in infertility. Even if this test were designed to induce miscarriage, the results would have been the same for the innocent as for the guilty, and that is denied by the fact that nothing would happen if the wife were innocent. The innocent wife would experience none of this. But the fact is  there is no implication that the wife is pregnant at all. So it is more reasonable to read this as some affliction of the reproductive organs that would result in the inability to bear children rather than a miscarriage.

The accused wife was to drink the water. If she was guilty, these consequences would happen to her.

If she was not guilty, she would experience none of these things. She would be exonerated totally. Her husband, however, would be considered to be a false accuser. That is what verse 31 implies.  And a false accusation, even if done without intention was serious. It would bring dishonor upon the husband.

So what is going on?

For one thing we can assume that this was an extremely serious moment. These people believed in God. They believed they could hide nothing from God. This accused wife may be able to hide her guilt from her husband and from the priest. But she would not ever think she could hide it from God. And since she has sworn in an oath before God her submission to his decision, she expects that if guilty she would suffer the consequences and if she is innocent she would not.

We can assume that the wife would know if she was guilty or not. If she was innocent she would go through this ritual with confidence that God would exonerate her. If she was guilty, she would go through the ritual with certainty that God would punish her according to the oath. What she did not believe in was magic. She believed in God.

We can assume also that there was nothing in the water that would poison her or cause an abortion or any of swelling of the belly or the falling away of the thigh. We can assume that because her guilt is not assumed and, therefore, this is not a punishment. It is a test. It is not a trial by fire where surviving is not expected and would require an intervention of God. It is a true test. But it is also an appeal to God for a decision that neither the husband nor priest could make.

From a purely humanistic point of view this situation could well cause, through psychosomatic means, either nothing at all if the wife believed that God would not judge her or the specified consequences if she knew she was guilty and believed God would judge her. We can do those things to ourselves, and the buildup to the test would have increased the possibility of a psychosomatic reaction.

But this is not a God-less and humanistic context. It is in the context of a faith community in which the assumption is that God is and that God acts in human affairs. So a truly biblical explanation is that God does determine the outcome. This is not a trial by psychosomatic responses. It is not a trial by fire. It is not magic.

So bottom line: This passage is not about abortion. There is nothing in this passage that implies pregnancy or abortion.  Neither is there an assumption of the wife's guilt. The results of the test are entirely in God's hands. The chance that the husband is improperly accusing her is, however, present. That false accusation would bring dishonor on the husband and is a check upon rashly accusing his wife.


Philo Judaeus was an ancient Jewish philosopher and theologian who lived at about the same time as Jesus. As a contemporary of Jesus and because he wrote a great deal about religion some have assumed that he certainly would have written about Jesus. But he did not, and that has been taken as evidence that Jesus did not exist, or if he did he was far less than what the gospels depict.

Is that a valid conclusion?

Here is what we know of Philo from his writings, most of it preserved by early Christians such as Eusebius. He was born in 20 BC in Alexandria. He made at least one trip to Jerusalem. His description of the trip is found in "On Providence", frag. II: "There is a city of Syria, on the sea shore, Ascalon by name: when I was there, at the time when I was on my journey towards the temple of my native land for the purpose of offering up prayers and sacrifices therein . . ." That is it. Nothing about Jerusalem. And there is no indication when he made that trip.

Also preserved are two fragments of Philo's description of the Essenes,  a sect of Judaism associated perhaps with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran community and sometimes said by modern historians to be connected with John the Baptist.  The fragments contain only descriptions of Essene life. There is no suggestion in the fragments of Philo visiting an Essene community on the Dead Sea, though there are hints of personal observations that may indicate that he did. 

Philo also made at least one trip to Rome in 40 AD to argue before Roman Emperor Caligula for fair treatment of the Jewish community in Alexandria. That is all we know of Philo's life.
The question is whether we should expect Philo to have had knowledge of Jesus either from his personal acquaintance with Jerusalem or from his acquaintance with an early Christian community in Alexandria and whether he would have written about it if he had.

The answer is probably no. Why?

First, Philo was not an historian. He wrote nothing about Jerusalem that we have in our possession aside from his brief mention that he was going there on a spiritual pilgrimage. He was a philosopher and theologian not a travel writer or historian.

Second, if he had been there during the time of Jesus' teaching ministry would he have noticed Jesus? Maybe. but he might very well have seen Jesus (or John the Baptist) as an Essene. That is what it would have looked like to someone not well acquainted with Jesus but acquainted with the Essenes as Philo was.  But there is no indication of either. So it is probable that Philo was not in Judea during the window of time of 29-33 AD.

Third, would he have written about Jesus from Alexandria? Probably not. Philo was interested in theology. Even if he had heard of Jesus or of his crucifixion, it would not have seemed like a very significant event. A lot of men were crucified in Jerusalem. There were even a lot of messiah's or would be messiahs, some about whom Josephus writes. And Philo writes of none of them. It was not his interest.

Finally, would Philo have encountered Christians in Alexandria? That is possible. But it is also unlikely. Followers of Jesus may not have gotten as far as Alexandria prior to 40 AD. And if they had, they would have been a very small obscure group of what would have looked then to be a Jewish sect. Christians at that time even saw themselves as a Jewish sect, though Messianic. If Philo had known about them, he would have considered them similar to others of the many Jewish sects in the city. But there is not one word from Philo about any of the Jewish sects in Alexandria. They were not his interest.

Botton line: Not finding anything about Jesus in Philo's writings is hardly surprising. It is most likely he knew nothing of Jesus or didn't care enough about Jesus to write about him. Philo's silence, therefore, is no argument for the non-existence of Jesus.

Justus of Tiberias

“Justus of Tiberias, a Galilean, was another contemporary of that time [the time of Jesus] and also wrote NOTHING.” That is what we hear about Justus from skeptics.

Here's what we know about Justus: Justus lived shortly after the time of Jesus and in the locality that Jesus called home. He also was a contemporary and an antagonist it appears of another historian, Josephus.  He wrote about some of the events of the 1st century, particularly the Roman-Jewish war. And he wrote a chronicle of the kings of the Jews up through Agrippa ll.

His chronicle would have covered King Herod Agrippa - who lived at the time of Jesus, who even interviewed Jesus and who had James killed - and Agrippa ll who is mentioned in Acts as the king before whom Paul gave his defense.  In other words, Justus wrote about people who would have known Jesus or certainly would have known about the Christian sect.

Yet as Photus writing 700 years later said, there was  no mention of Jesus in the writings of Justus. Here is what Photus wrote:
I have read the chronology of Justus of Tiberias, whose title is this, [The Chronology of] the Kings of Judah which succeeded one another. This [Justus] came out of the city of Tiberias in Galilee. He begins his history from Moses, and ends it not till the death of Agrippa, the seventh [ruler] of the family of Herod, and the last king of the Jews; who took the government under Claudius, had it augmented under Nero, and still more augmented by Vespasian. He died in the third year of Trajan, where also his history ends. He is very concise in his language, and slightly passes over those affairs that were most necessary to be insisted on; and being under the Jewish prejudices, as indeed he was himself also a Jew by birth, he makes not the least mention of the appearance of Christ, or what things happened to him, or of the wonderful works that he did. He was the son of a certain Jew, whose name was Pistus. He was a man, as he is described by Josephus, of a most profligate character; a slave both to money and to pleasures. In public affairs he was opposite to Josephus; and it is related, that he laid many plots against him; but that Josephus, though he had his enemy frequently under his power, did only reproach him in words, and so let him go without further punishment. He says also, that the history which this man wrote is, for the main, fabulous, and chiefly as to those parts where he describes the Roman war with the Jews, and the taking of Jerusalem. (Bibliothec, Code 33)

That Jesus was not mentioned was disappointing for Photus. He was reading Justus hoping to find some bit of information  to add to the historical knowledge he had about Jesus.

It is disappointing for us, as well. We too would like to know more. We would like to examine Justus’s writing in detail. But we can’t go back and apply the tools of textual criticism to Justus because his works are no longer available.

The minimal information  about Jesus (read non-information) Photus found in Justus Tiberias, however, has not deterred the skeptics. They latch onto Photus’s comment and declare that because Justus did not mention Jesus, there must not have been a Jesus.

But there is actually more in Justus’s comment than the one phrase often quoted. For one, there is the comment that Justus “is very concise in his language, and slightly passes over those affairs that were most necessary to be insisted on.” 

Photus apparently found Justus’s chronicles very brief, briefer than he would have liked. There was no mention of Jesus. But there was also no mention of a whole lot of things that might be of interest. Were the chronicles merely a list of the kings of Judah? Did they include only the affairs of the kings that had great importance to the Jews?  We simply do not know.

Then there is this: “being under the Jewish prejudices, as indeed he was himself also a Jew by birth, he makes not the least mention of the appearance of Christ.” Admittedly this is conjecture by Photus, where the former comment was  observation. But we would conjecture as well.

If Justus’s rhetorical purpose was to tell the history of the kings, and by incident, of the Jews, to encourage the Jewish people in the time after the destruction of their nation, why would Jesus be mentioned? It would have been a digression, at the very least,  and a stinging reminder of the growing sentiment among some Jews who were Jesus people that the Jews and their kings had failed God by failing to recognize their Messiah.

Perhaps if the Jesus movement had been quashed by the kings, Justus would have included them. But as it was, the Jesus movement was gaining ground, even among the Jews at the time Justus wrote. It was an inconvenient truth.

Did Justus slant his chronicles to make the kings look better and thereby pass over any inconvenient mention of Jesus? We don’t know.

Finally, there is Josephus’s comment: “the history which this man [Justus] wrote is, for the main, fabulous.” (In this context “fabulous” does not mean wonderful. It mean fable.) Now, we know that Justus and Josephus had a feud going.  They had fought with and then against one another in the recent war with Rome. Justus continued to be an advocate of the Jews after the war. Josephus was a traitor who had gone over to Rome during the war and remained and advocate of Rome. Justus wrote for Jews. Josephus wrote for Romans. Both had agendas.

The best we can say then from Josephus’s comment is that he thought Justus had exaggerated and perhaps included some fiction in his report of the war to favor the Jews. Did that fablizing carry over into the chronicles of the kings? Was Josephus even accurate? We don’t know.

There is one more possibility. The copy of the chronicles Photus had was almost certainly a copy of the original and probably a copy of a copy, and so on. Since Justus’s work was in the hands of the Jews for whom he wrote, there is certainly the possibility that a copyist had redacted Justus to eliminate mention of  Jesus or Paul or the Jesus people.

We know from the Babylonian Talmud, written in the years after the New Testament events, that Jesus is portrayed as an evil man who sought to lead the Jews away from God and who suffered a just an ignominious death. And that is all the Jews say. It was as if Jesus was dead and gone and the nation was done with him. There is no mention of Christians in the Talmud, even Jewish Christians. There is no mention of Paul, who was from the point of view of the Jews a traitor. It is as though the Jews in writing the Talmud wanted to expunge all this Jesus stuff from memory. Could the copyist of Justus or Justus himself had similar motivations for not mentioning Jesus? We don’t know.  

And that is the best we can say of Justus: we don’t know. Given that there is so much we don’t know, it would seem premature at the least to conclude that because Justus did not mention Jesus there was no Jesus. Or because there is no mention of the Jesus movement including James and Paul there was no James or Paul.

Given also that there is abundant evidence for the Jesus movement among the Jews during the period about which Justus wrote and abundant evidence from non-biblical sources for a real and historical person in this period, that conclusion is totally unwarranted.

What non-biblical evidence? There have been many who have written and cataloged the ancient sources. There is no need for me to do so. I would only refer to one well researched list and to one author who, because he actually is an antagonist to faith in Jesus as God the Son, is a good reference for those who also do not believe, Bart Ehrman.
In his book Did Jesus Exist (of which I have an autographed copy!!!) he gives this list: Papias, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Jospehus, and the Jewish Talmud. He analyses what we have from these writers and concludes that Jesus was most certainly a historical person.

My conclusion:  Though Photus’s comments about Justus are intriguing, we cannot conclude that Jesus did not exist. At best that would be an argument from ignorance. What evidence we do have weighs far more heavily. And that evidence is that Jesus was a historical person, well known in his time and after, and that what he did, though it may seem to some magical, has at the very least, even in the minds of people not inclined to believe, an inescapable aroma of truth.