Quo Avadim? image

Quo Avadim?

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The more I think about it, the more annoying it becomes. The Hebrew word avadim is frequently translated either "servants" or "slaves", but on a number of occasions it occurs twice in the same verse, and the English translation changes. This can have a curious effect, especially when it comes to contemporary discussions about slavery; the word used for domestic slaves/servants in Exodus, for instance, is the same word used for the slave/servant of the Lord—that is, Jesus—in Isaiah. Yet a modern reader would never guess this from the context. We would assume, rather, that there was clear blue water between slavery (oppressive, bad; think 12 Years A Slave) and servanthood (voluntary, good; think Downton Abbey), and would be astonished to hear Moses called "the Lord's slave," or Jesus referred to as "my slave, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights."

That’s just the start of it. Look:

Then whoever feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses. (Ex 9:20)

For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. (Lev 25:42)

Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” (2 Kgs 4:1)

And so on. It is not just that this leads us to miss an important social and historical point, namely that everyone in the ancient world was an eved of someone (a point made well in Peter Williams’s outstanding lecture on slavery in the Bible). We also miss the important theological point, especially in the Leviticus text—which is the one that triggered this thought in the first place—that you cannot own Israelite slaves because Israelites are already owned by God. Both of these points are vital to understanding slavery in Scripture, yet are thoroughly obscured by a number of the primary translations.

Translation is difficult. There is no direct equivalent of avadim in English, which is why all sorts of words are needed to render it according to context. The people who translate our Bibles do outstanding work, and most of us couldn’t study God’s word without them. Yet when we read texts like these, we need to bear in mind the ways that our English translations may be fortifying some erroneous modern assumptions. And don’t get me started on douloi.

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