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Reviewed by:
  • Jewish Slavery in Antiquity
  • Calum Carmichael
Jewish Slavery in Antiquity, by Catherine Hezser. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 439 pp. $77.00.

This is an outstanding book: wide-ranging, thorough, well-balanced, and unfailingly insightful. It should become the standard volume for anyone wishing to know about the institution of slavery among Jews from biblical times through to the Amoraic period (third to fifth centuries CE). To be sure, the book is as much, perhaps more, about Graeco-Roman slavery as it is about Jewish slavery. The reason is clear. The differences are really rather negligible, and the Graeco-Roman sources tell us more than Jewish sources do about the institution. "Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil" (Edmund Burke). Similar socio-economic circumstances, especially in Rome, Roman Italy, and Roman Palestine, produce the conditions that make the institution an indispensable one. Hezser has no difficulty in disposing of the unnecessary apologetic exercises by previous scholars who extol the Jewish situation at the expense of other societies in antiquity. Throughout her study she has little difficulty in arguing that literary and legal sources reflect less actual circumstances in real life and more individual authors' ideological and hypothetical formulations. Scholars pursuing apologetic aims assume the former. Hezser argues that where we find progressive statements about the treatment of slaves (manumitting them after a number of years has passed, for example), we encounter a form of idealism that distracts from the fundamental lack of humanity in the practice of slavery. The historian E. H. Carr's comment is apt: "Where practice is least ethical, theory becomes most utopian."

At all times in antiquity, upper-class Israelite and Jewish families employed slaves on their estates, in their homes, and as intermediaries in business transactions. Most of our sources for gleaning what information we can obtain comes from bourgeois and upper-class authors (biblical authors, the writer of Tobit, Philo, Josephus, etc.). They undoubtedly possessed many slaves and had not the least inclination to oppose the institution. For one thing, it was a sure indication of one's status in society to possess them. Aristocratic rabbis, Johanan ben Zachai and Gamaliel II, for example, would probably have had a fair number, and if other rabbis had fewer or even none at all the explanation is their lesser economic standing, which sometime shows up in the fact that they also worked as artisans or craftsmen. Among the rabbis also, their students [End Page 222] functioned in many ways as their slaves. Even the covenanters at Qumran had slaves.

The book is well written (although the use of the adversative "though" at the end of a great many sentences is decidedly odd). Editorial failings show up in the repetition of note 8, p. 305 in note 9, p. 306; note 29, p. 333 in note 31, p. 334). However one characterizes it, the phenomenon of male slaves who are feminized and treated as women for sexual purposes by their owners is not an example of desexualization (p. 84)—malsexualization perhaps. Circumcision of infants is an example because the rite desexualizes an original rite of passage for males who have attained puberty; so also is the interpretation of the Song of Songs as an allegory of God's love for Israel and not as an eulogy of earthly love, which it plainly is.

In the final section of the book, Hezser has a most interesting discussion of the role of slave imagery in theological contexts. The story of the Exodus receives particular attention. This is no surprise because that saga became a prototype for other biblical and post-biblical stories of liberation. Its author wove into the tale the social laws and customs of his time, which the pharaoh flouted and God enforced. The story in turn influenced, with whatever practical outcome is another matter, biblical laws relating to slaves and oppressed members of Israelite society. In a way, Hezser's discussion in the final section (slave metaphors and parables, the Exodus narrative in the Bible and its later interpretation in the liturgy of the Passover Haggadah) is an attempt to uncover special aspects of Jewish ideas about...


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