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The use of slave terms in deference and in relation to God in the Hebrew Bible

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posted on 2022-03-28, 13:56 authored by Edward John Bridge
This study analyses the metaphoric use of עבד† ('slave, servant') and the female equivalents אמה† and שפחה† when used in deferential speech in the Hebrew Bible, both in biblical narrative and in prayer. The focus is on the intention of the deferential use of these terms, a matter little studied. Such deferential use of is found to be part of identity construction, in which the speaker who is normally a social inferior to the hearer but is sometimes an equal or even socially superior, recognises that the hearer has power over him or her, particularly in the matter of granting a request. In all cases (including in prayer), such deference is one of a number of strategies of argumentation and/or other polite speaking, to assist the speaker get what they want. When aspects of slavery are evoked, this further heightens the argument the speaker presents. In most cases, the speaker achieves what is wanted from the interaction (indicated in narrative texts). The use of עבד† as a title or to designate people such as officials and courtiers of the king, and prophets to God, is also discussed, to assist in the dissertation's argument that when the metaphoricity of slave terms is played upon, it evokes aspects of the practice of slavery, not the royal court, despite the frequent use of עבד† and its ancient Near Eastern equivalents to denote officials. Other ancient Near Eastern literature, mostly documentary and epigraphic, is referred to and sometimes analysed. Such literature indicates that master-slave deference was a longstanding phenomenon in the ancient Near East, and that such use of slave terms was 'lexicalised', that is, metaphoric associations with slavery is not normally evoked. This is found to be the case in the Hebrew Bible, though at times the metaphoricity is evoked and played upon.


Alternative Title

Slave terms in deference in the Hebrew Bible

Table of Contents

1. Introduction -- 2. Methodology: metaphor and politeness theory -- 3. Slavery in the Hebrew Bible and what associations are evoked in the metaphorical use of slave terms -- 4. The use of slave terms in the Hebrew bible -- 5. Testing the methodology -- 6. Deferential language in biblical narrative part 1: 1 Sam 25 and 2 Sam 14:1-22: the 'slave' is the 'master' -- 7. The use of 'servant' by characters in narrative part 2: Genesis 12-50 -- 8. The use of עֶבֶד in Psalms and other prayer -- 9. The use עֶבֶד of in prophetic literature -- 10. עֶבֶד as a term of relationship -- Appendix


Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy" "August 2010 Bibliography: pages [329]-356

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Ancient History

Department, Centre or School

Department of Ancient History

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Stephen Llewelyn


Copyright Edward John Bridge 2010.




xiii, 356 pages

Former Identifiers

mq:28091 2073083