Bondage as Liberation: The Political Theology of Slavery in Late Iron Age Law

–to be given at the special ASOR/SBL Joint Session on “Assyria and the Levant in the Iron Age” in November 2015.

Uniquely among biblical law collections, the Covenant Code (Ex 21-24) begins with slavery, and then moves to the  addressee’s active enslavement of a fellow Hebrew. This striking, even outrageous feature of the oldest Hebrew law collection has never been satisfactorily explained: If the Exodus is about liberation, why does the first detailed set of laws God reveals emphasize its opposite? While elements of the Covenant Code are clearly modeled on Mesopotamian legal discourse, this remarkable feature of its structure cannot be explained by Assyrian influence, and for a very interesting reason: no cuneiform legal collection begins with slave law either.

The text thus raises both a problem of textual composition and a problem of political theology. The first, formal problem is the role of slave laws in the structure of the Covenant Code: why begin with slavery when this theme never begins any other biblical or cuneiform law collection? The second, and more disturbing, problem is political: uniquely within the biblical and cuneiform collections, the Covenant Code presents the law from the point of view of one actively enslaving his fellow. This separates it from the debt-relief law of which it is a part in the Laws of Hammurapi, on the one hand, and Deuteronomy and Leviticus, on the other.

This paper places Judahite and Mesopotamian slave laws in a comparative historical trajectory, arguing that the two literary cultures used the same scribal topos to think differently about sovereignty. By closely investigating a critical point where ancient Near Eastern scribal cultures do not share a common phenomenology, it proposes a solution that builds on but moves beyond the idea of Judahite borrowing and subversion of Assyrian literature.

The panel includes a stellar lineup of

Jacob Lauinger of Johns Hopkins University

Sara Milstein of the University of British Columbia

Peter Machinist of Harvard University

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: