Slavery and Marriage: Do conservative gender roles parallel slavery?
In a blog post about whether ὑποτασσω (hypotasso) in Ephesians 5:21 means “submit”, “respect”, or something else, a commenter by the name of Sue made the point that she rejects women’s submission the same way she rejects slavery, given that both slavery and marriage are within Ephesians 5. I responded that I don’t think those two parallel well. The Bible both regulates and perpetuates marriage and the model of marriage, yet the Bible only regulates slavery without perpetuating it. I wrote:
But these do not parallel. … There is nothing in the Bible that demands slavery or seeks to perpetuate it, though the Bible does regulate it. The Bible does, however, seek to both perpetuate and regulate marriage.
To which Kurk replies:
Gary, with your first statement here (your “nothing” one), aren’t you overgeneralizing to the extent that your making an assumption that cannot really be proved? Many preachers up to and during the Civil War in the USA would have strongly disagreed with you. Are you better able than they were to parse out what you see as the problem in Paul’s text (i.e., the regulation of slavery which only seems like a perpetuation of slavery) while retaining what you see as its solution (i.e., the perpetuation and regulation of marriage)?
In this post I seek to answer his question of why I believe the pro-slavery argument is not as credible, and can’t be paralleled, regardless of any similarities between the two conservative arguments. I also briefly respond to the other issues he raises.
In all three scenarios (marriage, parenting, employment), much has certainly changed between biblical times and now. Yet gender is a constant part of one’s inherent physical identity, while social standing and age are dynamic.
I believe we are all in a better position to evaluate the backgrounds of Scripture from a historical and archaeological standpoint (e.g. at what age people married, whether slaves were literate, whether having sex with a slave was permissible) specifically because we have the shoulders of more giants to stand on. This does not grant absolute certainty that we are right and they are wrong, however. We all have confirmation bias, and perhaps the worst thing any of us can do to fall pray to the Zeitgeist is to think we are beyond it.
While I accept my own fallibility, I do not think that complementarian arguments can properly be paralleled to pro-slavery arguments. Whatever other arguments there might be for slavery (the Bible doesn’t forbid it) or for comparing compism to slavery advocacy (Jesus was a slave -> church is bride of Christ), the strongest case for perpetuating either marriage or slavery is to be found in either A. a clear declaration by God, or B. an etiological explanation within the primordial history narrative. Marriage, particularly as something done by a man’s initiative, is enshrined as an instance of A within B (“for this reason…”).
The crucial slavery text within Genesis 1-11 is 9:18-29, in which Noah curses Canaan and says he will serve Shem. This is taken to mean that the Africans will serve the
S(h)emitic European race. Yet this is when God stops speaking and the narrative morally degrades at a rapid pace. The first thing Noah did when God turned around was fall into debauchery, and he (drunkenly?) cursed his grandson for something his son did. Everything within the primordial history is to be taken as having epic repercussions, but that does not mean that God endorses a drunken man’s anger as normative. The extent to which God enforces Genesis 9-10 is debatable.
It seems more clear that God backs the texts of Genesis 2-3, or at least the blessings and punishments therein, given that God actually appears as a character and himself delivers said blessings and curses.
If we do a compare and contrast of Genesis’ overall tone towards slavery and overall tone towards women, we find something interesting. There are episodes where a slave comes through an entire episode as a good character (Abraham’s servant, ch 24), and there’s even an episode of role reversal where a mere slave becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man.
But with women, there’s only two positive role models:
1. Sarah, who called Abraham her lord in the middle of scorning disbelief in God’s promises. Recording this as her redeeming quality is at best a backhanded compliment to her.
2. Unmarried Rebekah in Genesis 24. Rebekah simply goes downhill after that, not back-and-forth like her male counterpart.
Women deceive. They engage in sexual exploitation. They usurp authority. And, granted, male figures do all these things in Genesis, too, but male figures have more redeeming qualities to balance them out. There is no instance in Genesis of a woman taking initiative in place of her husband where something fully good results. Yes, Jacob gets the Blessing as God intended, but it required deceiving and grieving a dying old man who did nothing to deserve it. That was a woman’s idea, lest we forget.
Slaves do engage in actions of their own initiative, sometimes with mixed results as for Hagar (who thought to abandon her child), and sometimes with good results, as with Joseph. In Joseph we find a primary example of emancipation from slavery; Eliezar of Damascus, at least in theory, stood to gain control of all of Abraham’s estate, had he not fathered an heir (15:2).
Yet there is no Amazonesque example of throwing off patriarchy as a sign of divine redemption from brutal oppression, unless Gen 3:16 is taken in an unusual direction.
And so, if the primary text to visit is Genesis 1-11, and if the rest of the book’s stance of women and slaves should inform our understanding of how Genesis 1-11 views the status thereof, then we are left with a more clear impression of slaves gaining emancipation than women doing so. To use this text to back up slavery is to assume that God endorses the anger of a drunken man’s curse, which is debatable. Meanwhile, to use this text to support complementarianism is to assume that God supports his own words in Genesis 3, if nothing else. Slavery does not seem to be a permanent institution, nor necessarily life-long, whereas marriage is assumed to be lifelong and a natural social construct.
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