Friday, March 20, 2009

Various Forms of Slavery

As Americans, we read the word "slavery" through the lens of our own experience - and very harsh experience it is. Slavery as practiced in Western hemisphere until 1863 was one of the most brutal forms of this social institution.

When we read ancient texts, it is important to remember that translators are often perplexed when deciding to render a given vocabulary word into English as "slave" or "servant" - the difference to our eyes being great, but in earlier eras of history, a much more subtle distinction.

In some ancient cultures (notably Rome), these people were given authority within households and businesses; they were educated, wrote books, and made important decisions.

In certain phases of Egyptian and Babylonian history, slavery was more cruel, and slaves were treated like working animals. Moses took a great step forward when he limited slavery to seven years. Prior to that, slavery was lifelong, and, in a majority of cases, it would continue to be lifelong in all societies except the Hebrews.

So read carefully when you see words like "slave" or "servant" and realize that a variety of circumstances can hide behind these terms.


When small children learn their ABC's, they don't realize that they are paying homage to a major turning-point in the history of civilization.

The alphabet represents progress, because earlier writing forms (hieroglyphs, cuneiform) took longer to learn, longer to write, and longer to read. Before the alphabet, very few people could read or write, because it took so long to learn how to read and write; and very little reading and writing was done, because it took so long. After the invention of the alphabet, more people could read and write, and more information was recorded in writing. The alphabet is a Semitic invention.

The term "Semitic", we remember, includes a range of groups including Arabs, Hebrews, Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians, and Ethiopians, to name a few.

Not Semitic are Persians, Hindus, Hittites, and the European language families.

So the rise of the alphabet highlights the importance of Semitic cultures in the ancient world.