Religion Today

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

God’s Slaves or God’s Butlers?

In February, NewSouth Editions will release a new version of Mark Twain’s classic book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In it, the editor Alan Gribben changed the word “nigger” to the term “slave” every time it appeared (more than 200 occurrences). As someone who regularly teaches this book, he was tired have having the presence of this objectionable word interfere with students’ trying to understand the book’s literary character and social critiques.

Not surprisingly, this bowdlerized edition has already angered literature teachers, alarmed historians, and even excited legislators who treasure the book. Professor Gribben has been accused of changing the past and of altering the words of a master writer like Twain. It is true that the N-word has resulted in the banning of “Huckleberry Finn” from many school and town libraries, and that the word’s removal comprises an attempt to get this important work back into those public collections, but changing words has struck many as violating the integrity of Twain’s literary creation.

Sanitizing books is nothing new; people have done it for centuries. In fact, the term “bowdlerize” comes from Thomas Bowdler who took out the racy bits from Shakespeare more than 200 years ago.

The Bible has not escaped such tampering. Nearly every translation over the centuries—from the earliest Greek, Latin and Aramaic renderings to the most recent translations—have altered something their translators’ found offensive.

In light of the changes to “Huckleberry Finn,” it is interesting to note that one word that English Bible translations have always had trouble with is “slave.” Since the King James translation appeared in 1611, it has been common practice to replace “slave” with “servant.” Nearly every occurrence of “servant” in Old Testament translations and most appearances of it in the New Testament are rendering the Hebrew or Greek word for “slave.”

The defense of this approach is like that just mentioned, namely, the use of “slave” jars with our modern sensibilities. Here are some examples:

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all called “slaves of God.” For Moses, it becomes a common epithet, “Moses, the slave of God.” The same applies to King David, who both refers to himself as a slave before the Lord and after his death is referred to as “David, the slave of God.” In the New Testament, both the Apostle Paul and Titus both refer to themselves as a “slave of God.”

To be sure, the word “slave” in these expressions is jarring. That is why English translations render all of these as “servant of God.” Rather than being God’s slave, then, the notion is more like being God’s “butler.”

When the underlying Hebrew or Greek is not the actual word for slave, it is usually a related term, “boy!” Language that infantilizes slaves is common in most slave-holding societies. Masters think nothing of using it to address a 60-year-old male slave.

Even before Jesus’ birth, the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint was already uncomfortable with the Bible’s frequent use of “slave.” Rather than call David and Moses slaves, it drew upon the child terminology. This resulted in phrases like, “David, boy of God” and “Moses, God’s boy.”

Of course, these biblical passages use slave language in a metaphorical sense. The aim is to show Abraham’s or Jacob’s close relationship with God, not to say that they are property. For Moses and David in particular, the phrase “slave of God” forms an honorific, a title that signifies their special relationship to God; it was a relationship that few other people could claim.

So what do you think? Have the English translators of the Bible done modern Christianity a favor by rendering “slave” as “servant” Or should they have translated the word exactly? Is it easier to explain Moses as a servant of God, or to first explain what it means to be a slave and then to explain how the metaphor of being God’s slave is actually an honorable position?


  • Ephesians 6:5
    "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ"

    - it is obvious for me, it is better to be called a slave of God than that of a human.

    By Anonymous Kenneth Copeland, at 2/03/2011  

  • This is typical apologetics. It doesn't matter if you call them slaves, servants, or butlers. The only reason to make this correlation is to soften the fact that the bible not only tells you that it's okay to own slaves, but how much you're allowed to beat them. Then apologists can say "Oh it was different back then. They weren't really slaves. They were more like servants like Moses was to god. They could leave any time they wanted." That's BS.

    The bible was written by superstitious, ignorance goat herders (200 years after Jesus' death) who didn't understand how the world worked and had to find meaning and understanding to feel safe. It wasn't inspired by a god; It was written by man...just like the Quran. When Xians think about why they don't accept the Quran as the word of a god, they should be able to understand why Atheists don't accept any holy book as the word of a god.

    And 'butler' doesn't correlate here. If a butler quits his job, he doesn't face a fiery, endless torment in hell.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 2/03/2011  

  • In my opinion—I believe that the misinterpretation of the words results in a skewed understanding. I believe that interpretation of historical texts and religious texts is the direct result of many problems that exist today.

    For example, the terms “fiqh” and “Shari’ah” are used in Islamic discourses, such as the Qur’an and others. The two terms have ultimately led to a divide in the faith. Interpretations—or misinterpretations—tend to split people and in my opinion (between evolving the texts to fit today or to interpret them ‘as is’ and without evolution) the real meaning and definition is often lost unless people actively search for the truth (even if sometimes there is no right or wrong answer, the search is what will open the mind and enlighten the soul).

    Another example of misinterpretation would be of Nietzsche’s Superman. His writings were used and are often associated with Nazism when in fact his work suggests nothing, embraces nothing, nor does it indorse thoughts belonging to Aryan, Hitler ideology. Yet his writings were used, with out his intention or conviction, to unite and motivate the German army. (Due to his sister.)

    So I believe it is wrong to change “nigger” to “slave.” For one, the book is part of American History and it embodies a time that should not be forgotten. Hypothetically, if I was black—I would not want the book changed because it reminds people of what the past—our history was like. I want people to remember the injustices the black lived through by the white hand. To change or misinterpret the text—to me—would be like trying to change history, trying to erase the lines of racism. To me, by doing this would be denying the African American’s of today their ancestral heritage and history. If the concern of changing the words is ‘cultural sensitivity’ then I think it is insensitive to try and erase what the race endured during that time period, because without recognizing their path would lead to the misunderstanding of why they are where they are today. (Slavery and racism is part of their past and it is an undeniable factor to their status of today.) I think it is wrong and a terrible form of censorship to deny readers the real words and thus their true meanings.
    ----I would love to read your thoughts on my comment : ) I enjoyed the blog!

    By Anonymous Audrey Jensen, at 2/04/2011  

  • "The Bible" was not written by superstitious, ignorant* goat hearders two hundred years after Jesus's death. You speak only of the new testament, and in any case it has little relevance to the conversation.

    In reference to prophets like Moses as "boy", I think that is entirely appropriate and not in the least offensive towards man. We are His children. So just as you are always your mother's baby, you are always God's "boy".
    As for being slaves of God, I think it cannot be considered offensive. What makes slave status considered offensive is that slaves are dehumanized: treated as objects, etc. To God we cannot be "dehumanized", for behing His slaves is what makes us human. To be slaves of Him only suggests His omnipotence, and the duality of both our free will and His ultimate knowledge.
    As for "servant" replacing "slave" when relating to slaves of men, it's unnecessary. It takes away from what could be a good conversation by just glossing it over.

    By Anonymous Alison, at 3/08/2011  

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