Exodus Account Edited out of Slave Bible
SYNOPSIS: The Exodus account is not only foundational to the rest of the Bible, it has inspired and shaped cultural and political freedom movements throughout history. The opening of a new exhibit at the Bible museum highlights that even those who wanted to hide its message from those they wanted to oppress, recognized the power of the Exodus narrative.
Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?– Deuteronomy 4:33-34 (ESV)
The Legacy of the Exodus Account
The Exodus out of Egypt has a long history of inspiring freedom movements around the world. The display of The Slave Bible at the Bible Museum, which edited out most of Exodus, underscores that even those who sought to oppose its message recognized the power of the story.
This weekend, billions of believers around the world will remember the significant events from thousands of years ago. Jewish faithful will be obeying the command to remember the day that the LORD brought them out of slavery in Egypt by a strong hand (Exodus 13:3). The Passover was instituted in the 12th chapter of Exodus and ancient records show that it has been observed for thousands of years as the core practice and identity of the Jewish people.
Christians are called by Jesus to remember his life, his sacrifice on the cross, and his resurrection that provided the payment for freedom from sin and death (Luke 22:19). The culminating events of Holy Week are remembered in services on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The Last Supper happened during Passover and Jesus is called the Passover lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7. Celebrating communion (or the Lord’s Supper) has been a central practice among Christians for nearly 2,000 years. The elements used in communion are connected to the Passover meal, which in turn is tied to the concept of salvation – a word that is first dramatically demonstrated in the Bible at the Exodus sea crossing (Exodus 14:13, 15:2).
A previous Thinker Update Investigating Moses’s Old Testament Authorhsiphighlighted the foundational nature of the Exodus and the writings of Moses to the rest of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The impact of the Exodus, however, can be seen in many ways beyond its importance to the makeup of the Bible. One of these ways is in how Exodus has affected the history of freedom movements across the world.
The Power of the Biblical Exodus in Freedom Movements
For centuries, struggles for freedom have tapped into the Exodus account for direction, inspiration and hope. The flight of the Israelites from Pharaoh across the Red Sea in Exodus 14 was read to those on board the Mayflower during its passage across the Atlantic. These Separatists connected their flight away from religious persecution to the Israelites fleeing from oppression in Egypt and they looked forward to what they viewed as freedom in the new Promised Land of the New World.
America’s founders often compared Britain’s King George to the oppressive Pharaoh in their struggle for independence. The Liberty Bell is now located in a bell tower across from Independence Hall in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and signed. The quotation on its face is from the King James Version of Leviticus 25:10 written by Moses at Mount Sinai – PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF.
The imagery of the exodus out of Egypt was so ingrained in the founders’ minds that it almost made its way into the national seal of the United States.
On the same day that the Declaration of Independence was declared, the Continental Congress commissioned the first committee to design a Great Seal as the national emblem of the country. Benjamin Franklin produced a design featuring the Red Sea crossing from the Book of Exodus, which he described in his notes as “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.”
The motto encircling the scene read, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Thomas Jefferson proposed a depiction of the Israelites following the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness. The designs from other committees were eventually adopted after a six-year process.
Passover Celebrates the Exodus: Freedom from the Children of Israel’s Slavery in Ancient Egypt
No freedom struggles invoked more parallels and clues to the Exodus accountthan the abolitionist and subsequent civil rights movements in the United States. Harriet Tubman adopted the alias Moses on the Underground Railroad. Abraham Lincoln was eulogized as a modern Moses for freeing the slaves. Martin Luther King Jr. likened himself to Moses on the night before he was killed.
Those who fought for freedom often pointed to the Exodus account and the writings of Moses, which declared all people to have special dignity by being created in the image of God. The biblical prophets were also frequently tapped for their condemnation of unfair treatment and oppression of the poor. However, those on the other side of the issue recognized the power of messages in Scripture as well, so they often sought to justify their cause by selecting isolated biblical passages that appeared to bolster their position. One such example is the production of the Slave Bible.
Edited Bibles Used as Propaganda During Slave Trade
Slave owners in the Americas often forbade their slaves from learning to read and write because literacy leads to knowledge and knowledge leads to power. However, in at least one case, the slave culture of that day came up with a twisted plot to manipulate and pacify African slaves in British Caribbean colonies. Those in power would use the desire of missionaries (to convert the slaves) to their advantage by ensuring that modified versions of the Bible were produced that would help maintain their control.
The Bibles used by some to preach to these slaves early in the 19th century conveniently removed those portions of the text that gave hope for freedom and equality. To those seeking to keep workers under the boot of oppression, these sections were deemed too dangerous to introduce to the minds of slaves – they might dream of freedom and revolt. Chief on their list of subversive texts was the first 19 chapters of the Book of Exodus. This entire section was removed. (Read more about how a graveyard of possible Hebrew slaves was discovered.)
Teaching Enslaved Individuals More about Obedience and Less about Freedom
Now, one of three of these so-called “Slave Bibles” known to exist has gone on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. The artifact is on loan from Fisk University, a private historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee.
As reported by the Times of Israel the Slave Bible was printed in London in 1807, and it actually excluded 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament. Other large segments that were expunged included the books of Psalms and Revelation, which feature the concepts of hope for a better future, overcoming, restoration and the punishment of oppressors. The forced labor of millions (especially in sugar plantations) that had helped build the vast British Empire was too important to risk with ideas of freedom, equality, and justice.
The British slaveholders certainly did not want to promote ideas found in biblical history that are expressed in the following examples of excluded passages in the Slave Bible:
He who kidnaps a man — whether he has sold him or is still holding him — shall be put to death.– Exodus 21:16 (KJV)
You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.– Deuteronomy 23:16-17 (KJV)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye all are one in Christ Jesus.– Galatians 3:28 (KJV)
At the same time, passages included in the Slave Bible, that missionaries were directed to emphasize, stressed the obligations of servants to their masters:
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.– Ephesians 6:5 (KJV)
But the seventh day is Sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave…– Exodus 20:10 (KJV)
“A volume like this would have been used for manipulative and oppressive purposes,” Seth Pollinger, the curatorial director of the Museum of the Bible told The Times of Israel. Pollinger also shared that his staff recently located two early 19th century letters talking about these Bibles being distributed in the British West Indies (modern-day Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua).”
“So not only do we now have evidence they distributed these volumes along with other literature, but we also notice from the letters that there was a purpose attached to it: teaching those who were enslaved how to be obedient to their masters and what their duties to their masters were,” Pollinger said.
The Message of the Exodus Story Omitted in the Slave Bible
In an 1808 official letter discussing the printing of these Bibles, Anglican Bishop of London Beilby Porteus wrote, “Prepare a short form of public prayers for them… together with select portions of Scripture… particularly those which relate to the duties of slaves towards their masters.”
Rena Opert, the Museum of the Bible’s director of exhibitions, told The Times of Israel, “The exhibit shows the power people think the Exodus story has.”
As a practicing Jew, Opert says she can’t imagine her tradition without Passover. “In fact, we’re actually going to have a haggadah exhibit next year and I’ve been thinking about how we have an entire holiday completely dedicated to something that isn’t even in the Slave Bible.”
A panel in the exhibit states, “The Slave Bible is evidence of an attempt to keep the enslaved enslaved, to deny them access to the true biblical view of what freedom means to all people. Freedom was never designed solely for the privileged but for all humankind.”
The exhibit is titled “The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told,” and is presented by the Museum of the Bible with the cooperation of Fisk University and the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The exhibit runs through August 31, 2019.
Is the power found in the biblical accounts down through history, and the emergence of these ceremonies of remembrance, evidence for the validity for the biblical events they celebrate? Join us as we continue to investigate for patterns of evidence that match the events in the Bible, such as in our upcoming film, Patterns of Evidence: The Red Sea Miracle. – Keep Thinking!
TOP PHOTO: The Israelites Leaving Egypt by David Roberts c. 1830. (from Wikimedia Commons)