Mishpatim -- Can you really prove anything from the Bible?
© 2017 S.H. Parker

Parsha Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, is known to the Rabbis as "sefer ha'brit" (book of the covenant). Biblicists and secular scholars refer to it as "the Covenant Code." These three chapters contain the largest number of concentrated commandments anywhere in the entire Torah. And virtually none are ritual, what some people would call "religious" commandments. Such people, of course, don't begin to get what Torah "religion" is about.

"You can prove anything from the bible." I can't begin to count how many times I've heard this. Most associate this kind of sentiment with denigrators of the Bible. But I have heard it from Catholic Priests, Protestant Ministers, even a couple of Rabbis - people who had strong backgrounds,  good knowledge beyond what it took to get by in seminary. And, I especially witness it every time I hear the latest "halachic" ruling by some Israeli rabbi, every time I hear the oral diarrhea of some self-proclaimed "jihadi," every time I deal with a classic, I-got-to-convert-everyone-around-me, fundamentalist christian .... I witness it with every perverted eisgetical "reading" of a Biblical text.

If people read Shakespeare or Twain or any other author the same way they read Biblical texts, they would never have passed high school English lit. Come to think of it, how did these eisegetes finish high school?

Parsha Mishpatim begins with:

2 Should [when] you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work six years and in the seventh, he shall go out to freedom without charge.   בכִּ֤י תִקְנֶה֙ עֶ֣בֶד עִבְרִ֔י שֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים יַֽעֲבֹ֑ד וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם:

Ah ha! See! The Bible approves of slavery! The Bible supports slavery!

Europeans relied on this to justify their slave trade for centuries. And, because the six year rule did not apply to non-Hebrews, life time slavery was "do-able," even sanctioned by god. Even after Europe decided that the slave trade was immoral, American southerners continued to rely on this passage and passages like it to justify slavery for more than another century (and some, even today, do not appear to have given this up).

What everybody misses is that this passage is not an approbation of slavery but sets limits on slavery. This passage, and all the others like it, restrict slavery, not permit it.

The very next pasuk makes it clear that if a man sells himself into servitude and has a family, the "master" must provide for the family. "If he is a married man, his wife shall go out with him" (21:3 - see RASHI for a fuller explanation of how v. 3 was understood).

As I have so often said: Torah is perfectly aware of the sociology of its time. And Torah is perfectly uncomfortable with it.

And this is without noting that עֶ֣בֶד doesn't necessarily mean "slave." It also means "servant." It also means "worker." And, of course, it is the same word used for what the priests do in the temple. In fact, the best we can do in English, for the current context, is "indentured servant," not "slave." But eisegetes are entirely comfortable ignoring what words mean and substituting what they want it to mean. That's what "eisegesis" means.

Just a few pasukim later, we read:

7 If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not go free as the slaves go free.   זוְכִֽי־יִמְכֹּ֥ר אִ֛ישׁ אֶת־בִּתּ֖וֹ לְאָמָ֑ה לֹ֥א תֵצֵ֖א כְּצֵ֥את הָֽעֲבָדִֽים:
8 If she is displeasing to her master, who did not designate her [for himself], then he shall enable her to be redeemed; he shall not rule over her to sell her to another person, when he betrays her.   חאִם־רָעָ֞ה בְּעֵינֵ֧י אֲדֹנֶ֛יהָ אֲשֶׁר־ל֥וֹ (כתיב אשר־לא) יְעָדָ֖הּ וְהֶפְדָּ֑הּ לְעַ֥ם נָכְרִ֛י לֹֽא־יִמְשֹׁ֥ל לְמָכְרָ֖הּ בְּבִגְדוֹ־בָֽהּ:
9 And if he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the law of the daughters [of Israel].   טוְאִם־לִבְנ֖וֹ יִֽיעָדֶ֑נָּה כְּמִשְׁפַּ֥ט הַבָּנ֖וֹת יַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּֽהּ:

Here, it is quite clear: the only reason to bring a young woman into the house is as a future wife for one of family. If she is not married to a family member (father or son, other relatives need not apply), she is considered "betrayed." And, if he does not:

11 If he does not do these three things for her, she shall go free without charge [no refunding of the payment made to the parents]   יאוְאִ֨ם־שְׁלָשׁ־אֵ֔לֶּה לֹ֥א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה לָ֑הּ וְיָֽצְאָ֥ה חִנָּ֖ם אֵ֥ין כָּֽסֶףs:

In other words, you cannot do anything you want with your servants. A young woman will be married to the father or a son and that is that. There is no approbation, only more restrictions.

Next we read:

20 And should a man strike his manservant or his maidservant with a rod, and [that one] die under his hand, he shall surely be avenged.   כוְכִֽי־יַכֶּה֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּ֜וֹ א֤וֹ אֶת־אֲמָתוֹ֙ בַּשֵּׁ֔בֶט וּמֵ֖ת תַּ֣חַת יָד֑וֹ נָקֹ֖ם יִנָּקֵֽם:

European and American slavers never seem to have gotten this far. A "slave" has the same rights, here, as any other resident to be protected by a go'el dam (blood avenger - the clan's "enforcer"). Indeed, I remember learning with Rabbi Gedalyah Engel, of blessed memory, that if the eved is an eved Canaani, a non-Israelite, and, therefore may be far from home and his or her go'el dam is not readily available, the local beit din steps in and acts as the go'el dam.

This is not quite a restriction on servitude. This is threat. Either you treat the servant properly or you deal with "Guido." And all the social rules governing what a go'el dam may do are in full force. Everyone in first millennium BCE Levantine societies knew precisely what this meant. (While, in my opinion, Torah is not enamored of the notion of an avenger, it is not above making use of the institution to curb what it sees as an even worse situation. The right to be avenged for being mistreated is a right of the very highest order.)

"Mistreatment" of any kind is what the pasuk, above, presages. Because just a few pasukim later, we read:

26 And if a man strikes the eye of his manservant or the eye of his maidservant and destroys it, he shall set him free in return for his eye,   כווְכִֽי־יַכֶּ֨ה אִ֜ישׁ אֶת־עֵ֥ין עַבְדּ֛וֹ אֽוֹ־אֶת־עֵ֥ין אֲמָת֖וֹ וְשִֽׁחֲתָ֑הּ לַֽחָפְשִׁ֥י יְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ תַּ֥חַת עֵינֽוֹ:
27 and if he knocks out the tooth of his manservant or the tooth of his maidservant, he shall set him free in return for his tooth.   כזוְאִם־שֵׁ֥ן עַבְדּ֛וֹ אוֹ־שֵׁ֥ן אֲמָת֖וֹ יַפִּ֑יל לַֽחָפְשִׁ֥י יְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ תַּ֥חַת שִׁנּֽוֹ:

Here, it is clear, absolutely no form of mistreatment is tolerated by Torah. A person may have indentured himself. But that does not mean that he surrendered any human, civil or other kind of rights. I know of no eisegete, historically or currently, who gets this far.

How could Torah approve of "slavery?" Torah's key premise is that every person has a master ... God, regardless of temporary exigencies. We read:

5 But if the slave says "I love my master, my wife, and [or] my children. I will not go free,"   הוְאִם־אָמֹ֤ר יֹאמַר֙ הָעֶ֔בֶד אָהַ֨בְתִּי֙ אֶת־אֲדֹנִ֔י אֶת־אִשְׁתִּ֖י וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑י לֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א חָפְשִֽׁי:
6 his master shall bring him to the judges and he shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost and his master shall bore his ear with an awl and he shall serve him forever.   ווְהִגִּישׁ֤וֹ אֲדֹנָיו֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהִגִּישׁוֹ֙ אֶל־הַדֶּ֔לֶת א֖וֹ אֶל־הַמְּזוּזָ֑ה וְרָצַ֨ע אֲדֹנָ֤יו אֶת־אָזְנוֹ֙ בַּמַּרְצֵ֔עַ וַֽעֲבָד֖וֹ לְעֹלָֽם:

Why bore the ear? As Rabbi Engel taught, because this is the ear that heard God at the mountain, yet prefers an earthly master. His reasons for doing so are just irrelevant.

Torah is perfectly aware of the sociology of its time. And Torah is perfectly uncomfortable with it.

There is a pattern emerging here, isn't it obvious?

The world in which Torah was written and in which it was promulgated was a world in which indentured servitude, courvée and slavery were known. Torah could mandate "you will not keep slaves." But not only would this probably have impeded acceptance of Torah's agenda, it would also cut off an apparently popular method of borrowing, indenturing yourself to cover your debts.

Instead, Torah adds restriction on restriction to the point that, if you want to honor or obey Torah, if you want to be of Israel, it just becomes easier not to own slaves. It's easier to lend than to take an indenture. Torah explicitly punishes those who deny their true allegiance, their true suzerain - that you're making an acceptable living and have security serving another ... no excuse.

Similarly, you may recall my remarks on the claim that Torah not only approves of but seems to encourage the death penalty (sedrah Softim). Torah does not approve of the death penalty, except perhaps for idolatry, it makes the death penalty very difficult to enforce. And what latitude Torah leaves, the Rabbis do their damnedest to remove.

There is a pattern here, isn't it obvious? The Torah really is perfectly uncomfortable with the sociology of its time.   

But, to see this, you have to actually read the text. You actually have to understand the social context of the late Bronze/early Iron Ages. You actually have to fit any given pasuk into the overall philosophy Torah expresses (of course, it helps to have a grasp of what that philosophy is, but that's another d'var). And if a pasuk doesn't seem to fit with the philosophy of בְּצֶלֶם (in the divine image), you have to ask a question "why is this commandment given?"  (Asking "why is this commanded?" is, in my opinion, almost always a good idea.)

But, of course, that requires actual study and actual comprehension. Eisegetes, both "religious" and non-religious, are not fond of either activity.