Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Sexual Freedom: Overcoming Slavery’s Legacy in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Foundational Texts

 Presented by the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project

Bernadette J. Brooten

Why does the phrase “sexual freedom” sound provocative in the context of the Bible or the Qur’an? Indeed, freedom is a quintessentially biblical and qur’anic value. Generations of Jews and Christians have found hope in God’s delivery of the people of Israel from bondage into freedom in the Book of Exodus. The authors of the United States Declaration of Independence claimed, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Thus, they based their claim for freedom on a religious one, namely creation, about which they read in Genesis. For Christians, in the New Testament, Paul sees life in Christ as giving people new freedom and as making them aware of the freedom that the world does not yet enjoy. The Qur’an encourages Muslims to seek freedom from enslavement.

Not surprisingly, Jews, Christians, and Muslims today nearly universally and resoundingly reject slavery as an institution. For example, Pope John Paul II stated that slavery is intrinsically evil and always wrong.[1]

But the problem is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have tolerated slavery throughout most of their history, including within their religious law, and that this acceptance of slavery shaped the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim moral imagination as whole, including in the area of sexuality. As late as 1888, the Vatican’s Holy Office taught, “It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.”[2] For nineteenth century Protestant Christians in the United States, the Bible was central in the debates over slavery. Virtually all pro-slavery advocates appealed to the Bible in support of slavery, and abolitionists also sought support within the Bible for their views. The citizens of the United States in that time generally agreed that the Bible should form the basis of public policy, but they profoundly disagreed over its teachings on slavery, which led to a theological and civic crisis.[3] Some majority-Muslim nations, such as Mauritania and Saudia Arabia, declared slavery illegal only decades ago, and there are reported cases of de facto slavery within their borders today.

The toleration of slavery within the Bible, the Qur’an, early rabbinic literature, classic canon law, and early Islamic jurisprudence raises troubling questions not only for the subject of slavery itself, but also for sexuality and marriage. The idea that one person may own another person’s body is embedded in the ethics—including the sexual ethics—of all three religions. Because we know that sexuality without mutuality and consent is fertile ground for abuse, meaningful consent and mutuality are absolutely vital for sexual ethics. For this reason, we need to transform religious sexual ethics. This transformation will benefit religious and non-religious people alike because the ancient religious texts continue to influence not only clergy and religious practitioners, but also policy makers and legislators.

In this special session, legal historian David Wright, in his paper “‘She shall not go free as male slaves do’: The Female Debt-Slave in the Hebrew Bible,” argues that the Hebrew Bible, as part of ancient Near Eastern literature, considers slavery a valid social and economic institution. Abraham and the other exemplars of piety in Genesis owned slaves. God is even said to have blessed these men by providing them with slaves. How are we, today, to make ethical sense of this positive acceptance of slavery, and of God’s apparent role in it? One important step is to recognize the Bible as a human document, based on other human documents. It was created within particular historical circumstances for particular political, ideological, and social purposes, and was rewritten again and again over time. If we could recognize the ways in which the Bible expresses its writers' ideals and the goals—ideals and goals specific to the age the writers lived in and tied to the customs and expectations of their time—then we could realize the impossibility of simply applying biblical laws to our own society, regardless of how they encourage exploitation or limit individual physical, social, and sexual freedoms. We could, indeed, adopt the method of the biblical law writers themselves: instead of sticking to the literal dictates of the texts they inherited, these authors questioned them.

New Testament scholar Jennifer Glancy, in her presentation “Slavery and Sexual Coercion in Early Christianity,” will note that the presence of slaves in the first Christian communities does not pose a moral challenge to Christians today, but that the presence of slaveholders in those communities does. Understanding the dynamics of ancient slavery, especially the dynamic of sexual exploitation, helps us recognize the lingering impact of slavery on contemporary Christian thought and practice. Feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff argues that “social identities are correlated to certain kinds of perceptual practices and bodily knowledges that, as such, may fall below the cracks of the sort of explicit beliefs and assumptions that can be assessed in rational debate.”[4] Glancy argues that Roman slavery, which structured perceptual practices and bodily knowledges for both slaves and free persons, deformed the moral imaginations of Christian theologians, who were typically elite free men for whom the embodied experiences of female slaves fell below the cracks of explicit beliefs and assumptions that could be assessed in rational debate. She traces the impact of habituation to slaveholding values in readings of the Hagar story by both Paul and Ambrose; she contrasts Ambrose’s endorsement of suicide by elite women threatened by sexual violence with his concern that enslaved women who were used sexually by their Christian masters would become haughty toward their Christian mistresses. In posing these questions, Glancy hopes to invite reflection on the various ways that status distinctions based on race and class continue to deform contemporary perceptions of the harm of sexual violence and coercion.

Historian of Christian thought Sheila Briggs poses the question, “From where did early Christians get their sexual ethics?” in her paper “Gender, Slavery, and Technology: The Shaping of the Early Christian Moral Imagination.” As Briggs points out, the major but often neglected source was their experience of daily life in the Roman Empire. This experience included the all-pervasive institution of slavery and the sexual exploitation it entailed. Both enslaved persons and sexual exploitation were literally on show in the amphitheatre, where Christians found themselves caught up in the spectacle—both as audience and as victim. Those brutal and often sexual spectacles had a profound effect on the sensibilities of ancient people, including Christians. Their moral imagination was shaped by the amphitheater and what went on inside it, and the amphitheater’s influence on their attitudes toward slavery, sexuality, and much else would long outlast the Roman Empire. The amphitheater’s messages about the character of enslaved people, their sexual availability, their promiscuity, and their criminality still haunt the predominantly Christian society of contemporary America.

Talmudist Gail Labovitz, in her paper “The Purchase of His Money: Slavery and the Rabbinic Construction of Marriage and Sexuality,” argues that rabbinic literature constructs its dominant model of marriage through a metaphor of property and ownership. Thinking of marriage as a purchase and women as ownable allowed rabbis to consider marriage, gender relations, and sexuality in terms of the legalities of property—including those relevant to another commonly known category of owned human beings, namely enslaved persons. For example, the legal cores of the two transactions—buying a slave and taking a wife—are highly similar, as are the processes of manumitting a slave or divorcing a wife. Of course, "free" wives and enslaved persons were not of the same status at the time when this literature developed; although slavery and femaleness share similarities as forms of subordination to the male free householder, there are also important differences of power and social standing, which differentiate free woman from enslaved persons. Notably, while the male householder's sexual access to his female slave and her concomitant lack of sexual agency is rarely if ever addressed directly in rabbinic literature, the reality of such sexual contact is presumed in several ways. The rabbis assume for legal purposes that a freed female slave is not a virgin. In addition, by ruling that a man has no legal familial relationship to his own child by a slave woman, or to his father's child (his half-sibling) by a slave woman, we see that the rabbis assumed the existence of the sexual relationships that resulted in these children. In contrast, female chastity for free daughters and wives is idealized, expected, and legally enforced (at least theoretically) in the rabbinic system. The nexus between these two realms of rabbinic law has not yet been fully explored in works either on slavery in the rabbinic system or on rabbinic constructions of (female) sexuality. Labovitz will investigate how these conceptual linkages have served to shape rabbinic ideas about modesty, chastity, female sexual agency, sexual exploitation and violence, and the like.

In my paper, “Early Christian Canon Law on Enslaved Women,” I ask whether chastity can coexist with the institution of slavery and answer, “Rarely.” The early bishops who created church discipline did not intervene in the sexual dynamics of slavery, in sharp contrast to their extensive penalties for other sexual infractions. They knew that Christian masters legally controlled the bodies of their slave women in every way. Such Christian authors as Lactantius, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine vehemently (although rarely) discouraged Christian masters from sex with their slave women. Ultimately, however, the creators of early canon law hesitated to undermine slavery. Thus, the fourth century Synod of Gangra anathematized those who encourage enslaved persons to flee their owners. Basil of Caesarea (fourth century) acknowledged that masters can force sex on their slave women, but chose not to penalize Christians for so doing, instead simply pronouncing these slave women not guilty (canon 49). Further, Basil defined enslaved women’s choosing their own partner without the owner’s permission as a “great sin” (canon 18; cf. 40, 42). The fourth century Apostolic Constitutions placed the penalty of excommunication on Christians who refused to break off sexual relations with an enslaved person, but did not penalize them for having had such relations. Basil and the Apostolic Constitutions did not define the problem as the harm to the enslaved person. Instead, they left enslaved women and men without community protection, leaving them on their own to try to fend off a master’s assault, to submit to the master’s choice of sexual partner, or to refrain from a relationship with a free person (which could have improved their lot in life). Enslaved Christian women, however, may well have resisted and have sought to create their own Christian mode of bodily holiness, such as by fleeing slavery, by choosing their own life partners, or by persisting in a relationship with a free person.

In her paper, “Slavery and Sexual Ethics in Islam,” scholar of the Qur’an and of early Islamic jurisprudence Kecia Ali argues that slavery is deeply embedded in Islamic texts and Muslim history. Indeed, even men's sexual use of unfree women is approved in the Qur'an, attested in the sunnah, that is, the exemplary practice of the Prophet Muhammad, and explicitly sanctioned by classical Islamic jurisprudence. Yet the vast majority of contemporary Muslims forcefully reject slavery as unacceptable in the modern world. This leaves Muslims with a puzzle: How is it possible to resolve tensions between classical Islamic law, which many Muslims still treat as authoritative, and contemporary values? Considering the early Muslim acceptance of slavery to be a product of its time that is not integral to the tenets of the faith opens the way for a solution. Rejecting the historical acceptance of slavery frees Muslims to consider the history and context behind the development of other elements of Islamic law as well, such as regulations governing polygamy and unilateral male divorce. Thus, Muslims become able to treat the Qur'an as revelatory guidance rather than literal law. This is a step toward thinking through an Islamic ethics of sex.

For centuries, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have read the Bible, the Talmud, and the Qur’an through the lens of slavery. A new generation of scholars has developed the tools for reading these texts through the lens of freedom, which includes, first, recognizing that slavery was enmeshed with sexuality and marriage; and secondly, undertaking the painstaking work of disentangling Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sexual ethics and teachings on marriage from the concepts of the slave-holding societies in which they arose. These scholars are using the tools of biblical, rabbinic, and Qur’anic scholarship to contribute to the civic values of a free society.

Bernadette J. Brooten, Brandeis University


[1] Veritatis Splendor (1993) 80, with reference to Gaudium et Spes (1965), from the Second Vatican Council.

[2] Instruction of the Holy Office, June 20, 1866, signed by Pope Pius IX. Cited by J. F. Maxwell, “The Development of Catholic Doctrine Concerning Slavery,” World Jurist 11 (1969–70): 306–7.

[3] Mark Noll, The Civil War as A Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[4] Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 92.

Citation: Bernadette J. Brooten, " Sexual Freedom: Overcoming Slavery’s Legacy in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Foundational Texts," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2008]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.