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.

5 Responses to “Slavery and Marriage: Do conservative gender roles parallel slavery?”

  1. I agree that loving, biblical complementarianism does not parallel slavery. My question has to do with whether or not the biblical teachings to married women are made within parallel contexts to that of godly marriage today. My understanding is that women were often considered the property of their husbands in the past, including in biblical times. Women are no longer considered husbands’ property, not by either comps or egals.

    So, for me, just as I want to read the teachings about slavery through the lens of different times and cultures I also think it is wise to read the Bible’s teachings about women in marriage in the same way. I don’t feel dogmatic on this point and I have many remaining questions. But I think that the beginning of a better model for godly marriage finds its seeds in the teachings and actions of Jesus and Paul, just as do the seeds of the ultimate abolition of slavery. I am *not* suggesting that biblical teaching to women in marriage is a form of slavery. I am only suggesting that there may be some cultural differences between marriage in biblical times and our times today, just as we all (I think) can see that there are differences between slavery then and now.

    • Thank you for stopping by and sharing, Wayne.

      I know that I definitely don’t have everything figured out, either.

      I wonder if women were necessarily considered property, or simply to be lifelong minors in need of a guardian? Or, is there any real difference between those two concepts?

      And, what started/reinforced such a mindset?

      I can guess some things that may have reinforced such a mindset, whether it was ownership per se or guardianship:

      1. Menstruation. Common sense dictates that if you’re bleeding, something’s wrong. You’re not healthy. Women menstruate only when not pregnant or nursing, therefore, women are at their best when pregnant or nursing. I’m not sure if this line of logic was ever followed by anyone, but I could imagine someone thinking along those lines in the absence of modern medical science.

      2. Menstruation. In the absence of tampons, this really restricts women’s ability to move freely on a consistent basis.

      3. Raising children. In the absence of pacifiers and formula milk, it was obvious at bare minimum that women are designed for the lioness’ share of taking care of children (or at least infants).

      4. Pregnancy.

      These three points all center around women as either having a time of vulnerability or in the third case of taking care of those with the greatest vulnerability. The fourth case combines both concerns.

      Advances today mitigate some of these obstacles to female involvement in the public domain. Most people, myself included, consider this a good thing.

      Wayne, I think you’re spot on in pointing out that the circumstances between marriage of biblical times and marriage of modern times have significant differences which should lead to us reevaluating how to apply biblical passages.

      One angle I think many overlook is the interrelation between the marital relationship and the parent-child relationship. Once upon a time, people courted and marriage was considered a contract between the parents of the bride and groom.

      But with the invention of the car, no longer did teens have to hold hands on Daddy’s front porch where he could see them. They could drive off and go on “dates”, and even kiss outside of marriage. Nowadays we consider this perfectly normal.

      I wonder how aware fire-breathing complementarians and caped crusading egalitarians (to use Hobbins’ terms) are of these differences, and the developments of parent-child, husband-wife, and employer-employee relationship. I suspect it would be worthwhile for more people to slow down and discuss those things first.

  2. By the way: the recurrent themes of women engaging in insubordinate deception (sometimes involving sexuality and/or childbirth) sets us up for the surprise in Exodus 1. Shiphrah and Puah likewise deceive a male authority figure about something regarding sexuality and childbirth, but in this case it is viewed positively — commended, even.

    Sudden dramatic reversal.

  3. Hi Gary,

    Somewhat related to this discussion, David Instone-Brewer has produced some solid work on marriage and divorce, including a treatment of the Jewish divorce certificate, which was unique to Israel. He points out that the language of marriage and divorce in Judaism has slavery overtones most likely due to Exodus 21:10-11, where the marriage rights of a slave wife are given. If a slave wife has these rights in a marriage, it was reasoned, then certainly a free wife has equivalent rights; and if a wife has these rights, then certainly a husband would also have equivalent rights. According to Judith R. Wegner, as cited in Instone-Brewer’s _Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context_ (p. 102), “a Jewish wife was not similar to a slave in early Judaism.” However, this law in Exodus 21 formed the basis of much legal discussion on marriage and divorce among the rabbis in Israel and most likely is what added slavery overtones to the discussion. Instone-Brewer (p. 101) also points out that rabbis compared in detail the divorce certificate to a certificate for emancipation from slavery—even the wording of the two was very similar—and gives examples from the Mishnah (m. Git. 1.4-6; 9.3).

    Ben Putnam

  4. Though I am not sure about his take on לא תגנב lo tignov in Exodus 20:15, Kalman Kingsley has put together a nice presentation on slavery (and theft and restitution) in the Bible. It’s in the form of a photo album on Facebook with footnotes. Worthy of notice and consideration, in my humble opinion.

    “You Shall Not Slave-Trade”

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