Per Caritatem

R. Douglas Whitfield earned his Bachelor’s degree at New York University and his Master of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently serving as an assistant pastor in Washington, DC. His interests include biblical studies, African-American history, and race.

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How should a Christian community interpret passages in the Old Testament that appear to permit slavery? On my reading, it seems that the most fruitful way for the Christian community to interpret passages in the Old Testament vis á vis slavery is to employ a hermeneutic with a redemptive trajectory which continues to advance the call of the text beyond its historical context and into the world of post-resurrection reality and expectation. Put another way, the Christotelic flowering of the indicatives of the gospel provides the resources for a transformation in our understanding of the imperatives that we encounter in the Old Testament text concerning slavery. Careful attention to the contours of the divine meso-narrative of Scripture, along with a dynamic understanding of the two-age structure of Scripture can manumit the interpreter from bondage to static modes of interpretation that have been used to defend or justify slavery.

To begin with, the reader must see the series of movements within the Biblical texts. The first movement to be detected is the movement from the historical-cultural context to the pronouncements of the biblical text. When the two are placed beside one another, there is a redemptive trajectory at work wherein biblical texts improve upon cultural norms of the time, albeit, in a subversive and developmental manner. Though the development of these texts is commensurate with the development of the culture, the biblical ethic is always ahead of the prevailing culture.

The next movement to detect is the trajectory between the biblical text, in its particular redemptive-historical location, and the telos of the text as it is to be consummated in the eschaton. This is where the resurrection and the two-age structure must determine our reading, advancing the call of the text beyond its historical-cultural borders. There is an inextricable relationship between the indicatives and the imperatives in Scripture. It is the indicative of God’s redemptive activity that drives the imperatives that are given to the community of faith (cf. Exod 20). Where there is a heightening and development in the indicatives, there is a heightening and development in the imperatives. With the resurrection comes the consummate indicative that carries nothing less than an eschatologically charged hermeneutic and ethic. Put another way, the resurrection demands new age interpretation and praxis- the type of interpretation and living that introduce the life of God’s new creation into the present brokenness. This kingdom-present behavior and hermeneutic must come to the fore, particularly in contexts where it is all too obvious that the kingdom has not yet been fully realized.

The resurrection overturns the brokenness that was introduced into human relationships, bringing restoration. The pride and entitlement that would lead one to believe that they have proprietary authority over another human being is dealt a lethal blow by the resurrection. Disregard for the human rights of fellow image bearers is no longer conscionable in the new age that has been ushered in by the resurrection because one of the primary goals of the resurrection is the restoration of the image. This restoration is both individual and corporate in its scope, shaping the ways in which fellow image bearers relate to God and to one another. The Lordship that Christ demonstrated in his resurrection produces people who recognize only one sovereign who rightly holds determinative authority over other people.

The love that the resurrection produces in renewed people will not rest content with a foot on the neck or fear in the hearts of the weak. The resurrection introduces a drastically different vision of human relationships. However, these realities come to fruition in the community of faith only inasmuch as they allow the all-encompassing significance of the resurrection to permeate their interpretation and living. The Christian community must adorn the gospel with functionally and interpretively.

The resurrection has massive interpretive implications. However, if the reality of the resurrection does not inform one’s interpretive approach to the Old Testament slavery texts, then the biblical text will always appear to be lagging behind contemporary culture, ethically speaking, and resurrection realization will be stunted (as it was in the antebellum south). The reason why many interpretive approaches to these texts are unsatisfying (and down right disturbing) is because some interpreters are content with a static read of the indicatives and imperatives. They are unwilling to go where the resurrection boldly takes us. The redemptive trajectory present in the text remains undetected and the contours of the text are flattened out with the hammer of literalism and dislocation. The result is that these contemporary interpreters provide a read that is regressive with respect to contemporary culture because they take texts that were progressive in their redemptive-historical location and freeze them in time in order to carry them into contemporary culture. They fail to follow the trajectory to its proper end. This resurrection-less, old-age interpretation has the appearance of biblical fidelity and accuracy because it carefully measures words, grammar and syntax in order to draw contemporary equivalents. The problem is that it denies the interpretive, social and ethical power of the resurrection, failing to understand how this sweeping reality is woven into the narrative of Scripture in all of its culturally polyvalent glory. These texts are treated atomistically, permitting the old-age imperatives to stand precisely because the consummate, new-age indicative is ignored. These readers fail to understand that exegesis does not equal interpretation.

N.T. Wright helps us to frame our understanding of resurrection implications when he says, “The worldview questions, when posed to the early Christians, elicit a set of resurrection-shaped answers. Who are we? Resurrection people: a people, that is, formed within the new world which began at Easter and which has embraced us, in the power of the Spirit, in baptism and faith. Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored; in bodies that will be redeemed though at present they are prone to suffering and decay and will one day die. What’s wrong? The work is incomplete: the project which began at Easter (the defeat of sin and death) has not yet been finished. What’s the solution? The full and final redemption of the creation, and ourselves with it; this will be accomplished through a fresh act of creative grace when Jesus reappears, and this in turn is anticipated in the present by the work of the Spirit. What time is it? In the overlap of the ages: the ‘age to come’, longed for by Israel, has already begun, but the ‘present age’ still continues.”[1] If Bishop Wright were speaking to this discussion, I believe that he would say that we must go and work out the implications of the resurrection in our own particular contexts- beginning with our Bible reading.

Slavery will have no place in the new age that is characterized by the resurrection, and it is this resurrection life that shapes the narrative of Scripture. As more Christian communities begin to read the Old Testament with these redemptive lenses, social restoration will begin to rise to the surface. This is not a hermeneutical silver bullet, but it seems to me the most helpful way to begin dealing with the difficulties that Old Testament slavery texts present. To summarize, we must move away from the old wineskins of static interpretation that flatten the dynamic trajectory of the Biblical text, exchanging them for the new wineskins of redemptive trajectory hermeneutics that take into account the canonical contours of Scripture and the transforming power of the resurrection.

Notes


[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 581.


7 Responses so far

Hi R.,

I would find it helpful if you provided an example of the sort of “redemptive transformative hermeneutics” for which you are advocating in this post. Without that, I am left feeling fairly ambivalent about what you have written.

I understand the 1500 word limit, but perhaps you could supply a bit of exegesis as a comment here?

Many thanks.


Hey Dan,

I was just thinking about this- thanks for prodding. I believe that a good example of what I’m advocating could be demonstrated in Deut 23:15-16   “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.” If I’m in the ballpark concerning the ANE context, this imperative would have been quite counter cultural and redemptive in its outworking. The Code of Hammurabi makes hiding a runaway slave a capital crime and actually sets a bounty price for the return of a runaway. One could also cite the international treaty between Pharaoh Rameses II and the Hittite king Hattusilis III (c. 1280 B.C.), which includes an extradition clause requiring the return of fugitive slaves. So, as this biblical text is set against the ANE cultural context we can see a redemptive trajectory, an ethical movement and improvement. I would also say that this imperative was based upon Israel’s fairly recent release from slavery (indicative). I hope this helps to concretize my thoughts a little bit. Thanks again for engaging.

RDW


Hey RDW,

Thanks for this first example, but it still leaves me with my ambivalence. What you’ve done is a standard act of historical-critical exegesis that requires no “Christotelic flowering” and makes it clear that this text, on its own terms (regardless of any post-resurrection perspective), cannot be used to defend or justify slavery.

What I thought you were suggesting in this post was a way of engaging texts that, apart from the perspective of a “redemptive transformative hermeneutics” (appear to) support slavery. To reiterate, however, the passage from Deut 23 does a fine job of rejecting slavery on its own terms.


Dan,

You are right-For some reason, it seems that I was answering a question that was different from what you were asking (Maybe the late hour contributed to the failure to answer your question). I was thinking that you were asking me to demonstrate the first movement (Ancient culture to Scripture)- my bad. I will try to give what you asked for by the end of the day (which is the second movement)… Just so that we’re clear, what I wrote above is not a “finished” reading in my view, just the first movement. My apologies…

RDW


Hey Dan,
Take two! Let me first say that I think you underestimate the hermeneutical depravity of some folks when you say “…this text, on its own terms (regardless of any post-resurrection perspective), cannot be used to defend or justify slavery.” I think that this text, interpreted statically, can and has been used to justify slavery because it still permits ownership of slaves today, so long as the church offers similar kinds of refuge for runaway slaves. I cannot recall the citation at the moment (James Henley Thornwell’s Collected writings, I think), but I read something like this in an antebellum argument for slavery (prior to the fugitive slave act)… Refuge should be given by “Christian masters” for those fleeing from “unbelieving masters.” This was meant to protect slaves in abusive relationships without requiring emancipation. However, if initial movement is detected (Like what I have shown above) then, I believe, we have a trajectory to follow. So, I don’t think this text rejects slavery on its own terms.
Now, let me offer what I think is a sound starting point for locating a trajectory in this text. The section of which this passage is a part deals with how Israel was to engage certain relationships (Protecting runaway slaves, dignifying women through the rejection of cult prostitution, protection of the poor through no-interest loans, keeping one’s word to God and protecting field laborers). The key issue at stake seems to be the shalom or full flourishing of interpersonal relationships where there were typically barriers and stratification. In the case of slavery, in particular, the call of the text is for Israel to go beyond the bare minimum, beyond cultural expectations as it pertained to relating to others- but it still wasn’t far enough from our contemporary vantage point. It’s a movement in the direction of healing and equalizing these relationships, that was based upon the Exodus indicative- but this text is still regressive for us if interpreted statically.

However, when we read this text in light of the resurrection, in light of the ultimate reconciling work of God we are led to deal with the fruit and the root of oppression as Christ has modeled it for us in his redeeming work. When the text is red in light of the powerful God who came in the vulnerability of human flesh in order to redeem the vulnerable, it drives us to take up the same cause. God’s power, demonstrated in the resurrection, is directed at the transformation of individuals and social/structural brokenness. It seems to me that the resurrection demands, not just due diligence in taking care of the runaway slave (while permitting the institution to remain in tact), but that we re-envision human relationships en toto, particularly those that maintain the master-slave stratification.
In other words, the resurrection takes us to a place of human relational flourishing. This takes us to a point wherein this institution that caused the slave to flee in the first place is categorically challenged. I believe that this is the heightened call of the text is for us to pursue at least an initial realization of the caste-less kingdom of the eschaton. This text is a seed-form revolution against this oppressive system of relating to other human beings (I think this begins to open up more in the gospels and epistles). The wars and debts that produced most slavery in the ANE context will one day be no more, as a result of the resurrection. The heightening of the indicative in the cross, resurrection and ascension provides the resources for us to introduce this way of relating to one another now.
Christ, in his saving work, didn’t just free individuals from slavery to sin and death- he tore down the foundation of the entire institution of slavery to sin and death. He didn’t just wait for runaway slaves to come into his jurisdiction to take care of them. He actually ventured into their context of slavery in order to free them and tear down the system that had captured them.
In short, this text will only do for us what we want it to do (reject and dissolve the institution of slavery itself) if we view it through the resurrection. No resurrection, no resolution. Thanks again for pressing, Dan. Folks like you humble me…

RDW

p.s. Sorry for being long-winded!


Hi RDW,

Thanks for this response, I found it very helpful.

A few thoughts:

(1) I’m still not convinced of your reading of Deut 23.15-16. I think it really does away with slavery and that the (interesting/disgusting) American example you provide is a misreading of the text when it is taken on its own terms. To accept runaway slaves, to permit them to live wherever they wish, and to refuse to oppress them seems like a pretty strong refusal of the system of slavery (a much stronger refusal than simply stating “slavery is wrong” … indeed, that seems to be a major problem with a lot of our understanding of ethics today — we are good at puzzling out if things are “right” or “wrong” but are terrible at living out the implications of those conclusions).

(2) Be that as it may and keeping this passage in the foreground, I’m unsure what else the Hebrew tribes could have done to venture “into [the] context of slavery in order to free [slaves] and tear down the system that had captured them.” Apart from radically welcoming runaways, what is the alternative? Go to war with Egypt or Babylon in order to tear down the system? Fight a war against terror in order to extend freedom into the world? Similarly, what are the options available to us today to engage in this sort of activity? Given the slavery that exists around us — from sweatshop labour to human trafficking and sexual exploitation — how are we to follow the example of Jesus?

(3) I suppose, that our different understandings of this passage lead us to different conclusions. In relation to Deut 23.15-16, I see Jesus as simply fulfilling the law that already existing and not adding anything particularly new to it. However, given that you see this passage as still compromised with the system of slavery, you’re bound to see the resurrection as offering something new to this matter.

That said, the sticking point might not so much be methodology as the passage at hand. I’m all for engaging in a post-resurrection (and post-Pentecost) rereading of the biblical texts (including the NT texts!), not in order to make the texts say something they were never intended to say, but so that we know what the significance of those texts might be for us today.

Thanks again.


Hi RDW,

Thanks for this post. it is highly suggestive of how the Resurrection as hermeneutical starting point, informs a Christian understanding of the moral order and undercuts static ontological readings of the biblical text. I especially appreciate the point you derive from noting the move from historical context to textual perspective. I haven’t given much consideration to the interpretive payoff when noting such moves. nice.

It is very clear to me that Paul’s halak/applications of ‘new life’ reasoning is driven by his consideration of what the resurrection means for the social order (i.e ‘if you are RISEN with Christ, seek those things which are above….’) OK. Clear enough. What is not yet clear to me and that I am still working out is how a resurrection ethic maps onto and informs ethical issues not explicitly mentioned by Paul (i.e. political order) as he doesn’t seem to concerned with church-world dynamics. Perhaps, he is and I don’t have the exegetical nose for it yet or perhaps, I’m asking the wrong question. In any case, thanks for the provocation to thought.