Observations on life; particularly spiritual

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Slavery and freedom

Slavery & sin - Diagram 1 200px

We are all slaves to what we follow

Immigrants to Australia are told we have freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement. We are a democracy with laws against discrimination based on race, gender, disability or age. People are autonomous and are generally free to live as they want to. Therefore, we don’t have slavery where people are owned by their master and are totally dependent on them. But are we really free?

Slaves of sin

Jesus said we are not as free as we think. When He was on earth, He told the Jews “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:31-32NIV). They objected: we’ve never been slaves, so how can we be set free? They had forgotten about the Babylonian captivity. Also, in Jesus’ time they were ruled by the Romans. But Jesus explained “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (v.34).

So Jesus describes two types of people. Those who are slaves and those who are free. First the slaves. He says whoever practices sin is a slave of sin. As slaves have masters, such people are owned and controlled and committed to sin. They can’t break free by their own strength. Sinners can’t escape sin. Are we like them; slaves of sin, ignorance, false teaching, and superstition?

Second the freed. But “if the Son (Jesus Christ) sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v.36). When a person trusts in Christ’s sacrificial death, they are freed from the slavery of sin. The evidence of this is that they “hold to my teaching”. They follow Jesus. Is there enough evidence to show that we follow Jesus? Jesus calls these people sons.

Are you a slave or a son (v.35)? Here we see that because slavery was common in Biblical times, the Bible often uses it to illustrate spiritual truths. And there are more to come.

Freedom purchased – Redemption

Slavery can involve hard work and cruelty. Slaves seek freedom from their slavery. Let’s look at two examples from the Old Testament. First, when God promised to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, He said, “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment” (Ex. 6:6).

To redeem means to buy back or to release by means of a payment. It costs. This was illustrated in the 10th plague when the firstborn across Egypt died, except for the Israelites. In this case the payment was the lamb that died instead of the first born (Ex. 13:13-15). So God used a mighty display of power (described as “an outstretched arm”) to release them from slavery. He also judged the Egyptians in the plagues and when the army and their chariots and horses were lost in the Red Sea.

The second example is how debt slaves could be freed from their slavery. When people fell into debt they could sell some or all of their family into slavery so they could work to eventually repay the debt (Lev. 25:47-49). Such debt slavery was a form of welfare. If a relative was able to repay the debt, then a debt slave could be released from their master. The price was determined by the number of years remaining until the year of jubilee when debts were cancelled (Lev. 25:50-52).  This person was called the redeemer and the money paid was called the ransom (Lev. 19:20). The redeemer rescues people from a bad situation. In this case they were freed from slavery as shown in the diagram.

Slavery & sin - Diagram 1 400pxThe Bible uses this illustration to describe what Jesus did. The Jews thought that Jesus would redeem them from Roman domination (Lk. 24:21), but God had a different redemption in mind (Rom. 3:24).

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’” (Gal. 3:13). The curse of the law is death. That’s the main punishment for not keeping the commandments (with diseases & disasters Lev. 26:14-45; Dt. 11:26-28; 27:14-26; 28:15-67; 29; 19-28).  Here we see that Jesus took the punishment instead so the Jewish believers were completely delivered from the law. He came “to redeem those under the law” (Gal. 4:5). That was the price paid for our deliverance from sin as well. The Bible says, “You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23).

Slavery & sin Diagram 2 400pxIt’s like being released from slavery or kidnapping and set free. Jesus came to “give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45) and “as a ransom for all people” (1 Tim. 2:6) – where the NLT says, “He gave His life to purchase freedom for everyone”. This redemption results in “forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). This means we can be released from the eternal penalty of our sins. The diagram shows that what Jesus did is similar to when a debt slave is redeemed by a ransom. Christ is the Redeemer and His death is the ransom paid.

The Bible says that Jesus died “to redeem us from all wickedness” (Tit. 2:14). We are delivered from being dominated by sin. From being slaves to sin. From being addicted to sin. We are also redeemed from our “empty way of life” (1 Pt. 1:18). All this is summarised as “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). The Redeemer (Christ) paid the ransom (death) to release us from being slaves to sin. So Jesus is a Redeemer who can rescue us from slavery to sin.

Jesus as God’s slave 

But Jesus was not just a Redeemer. When God promised the Messiah in Isaiah, He was called “my servant” (Isa. 42:1; 49:3, 6; 52:13; 53:11). “When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.” (Isa. 53:11NLT).

The Hebrew word translated as “servant” in this verse is ebed (Strong’s  #5650), which means “slave”. It’s clear that these passages about the servant in Isaiah (Isa. 42:1-7; 49:1-7; 52:13-53:12) refer to the Lord Jesus because He was to experience suffering and be exalted (Isa. 52:13; 53:11). The image is of an obedient slave. This obedience was shown in the garden of Gethsemane when He prayed “your will be done” (Mt. 26:42). The Bible also says that He took “the very nature of a servant” when He lived as a human being (Phil. 2:7). The Greek word translated as “servant” in this verse is doulos (Strong’s  #1401), which means “slave”.

That’s amazing! The one we call Lord was like a slave! The Redeemer was God’s slave. This means that redemption through Christ was God’s idea.  It also means that Jesus obeyed God the Father as a slave obeyed their master. He is the greatest example of obedience and faithfulness for those who have been redeemed from slavery to sin to be God’s sons.

Slaves of Christ

What about those who have been redeemed? The Bible says that Peter, James, Paul and Epaphras were slaves of Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:1; Col. 4:12; Jas. 1:1; 2 Pt. 1:1). Elsewhere Christians are called “slaves of Christ” who did the will of God from their heart (Eph. 6:6). What does this mean?

Slavery & sin Diagram 3 400pxSlaves serve their master who is their lord as shown in the diagram. Jesus Christ has paid the price to release Christians from slavery to sin and Satan and they are now His slave as shown in the diagram. They now have a new master. He is their Lord and they are to serve Him. This applies to people from all nations as Peter told the Gentile Cornelius that Jesus Christ is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). The Greek word translated “Lord” was kyrios (Strongs #2962), which means supreme in power and authority.  It’s a title of honor and respect used by slaves to their masters (Mt. 13:27). Like a soldier says “Sir” to their commander. To confess Jesus as “Lord” is to say He is our “master” and “owner” and we are His slave. Thomas called Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28). In the New Testament, both Jesus Christ and God the Father are called “Lord”.

This illustration is consistent with the Old Testament where the Israelites were said to be God’s slaves. But they were unfaithful. As the Jews were to be devoted to God and Christ was devoted to His Father, so Christians are to be devoted to following and serving Christ.

Slaves of obedience and righteous living

We have looked at being slaves of sin and slaves of Christ. We are all slaves to what we follow. Sin and Christ are like two masters. The Bible teaches that we are slaves to one or the other. Its main message is that we have a choice of master. Paul describes this in Romans 6:

“Since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realise that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:15-23NLT)

Paul says that we are slaves to what controls us (v.16). No one is autonomous. We are either slaves of sin or slaves of Christ. In the first case, sin enslaves by spreading. It’s addictive. Sin can’t be avoided or overcome. Paul said, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:21). Sin leads to more sin and being deeper into sin (v.19). It means we do things that we are ashamed of (v.21). And sin results in death. Moral death. Physical death. Eternal punishment and separation from God. This is summarised in the diagram.

The only alternative is to obey God so that sin no longer dominates. Believers have a new master! They are slaves of obedience and righteous living, which leads to holiness and eternal life. This choice is also shown in the diagram.

Our choices

Because slavery was common in Biblical times, the Bible often uses it to illustrate spiritual truths. We have seen that because we are all controlled by something, there is no such thing as absolute autonomy and freedom. Instead there are choices to be made. Jesus said that we can’t serve two masters like God and money (Mt. 6:24). We can’t follow each way. It’s either one or the other.

We are born as slaves to sin. If we remain that way this leads to more sin and death and the consequence is eternal punishment. But we can be rescued from this situation. God has sent a redeemer who has paid the price so we can be God’s sons instead of slaves to sin. The consequence is eternal life instead of eternal punishment. Have you accepted this offer? It’s the most important decision in our lives.

Christians are redeemed from their previous way of life. They have a new master and Lord. Now they should obey and serve Christ like a slave does to a master and like Jesus obeyed and served God. This leads to holiness and the consequence is eternal life.

As we are all slaves to what we follow, let’s choose Christ as our master and Lord and obey and serve Him daily.

The choice Christians face each day is do I serve sin or do I serve God? Of course it’s best to follow our new master, not the old one. If we lapse, then we can confess our sin and repent by changing our behaviour.

Our choices have consequences. We reap what we sow and harvest what we plant (Gal. 7:7-10). Let’s remember, if we have trusted in the Lord Jesus, then we are His slaves. Then we will seek to please Him and He will work in our lives.

Also see – Does the Bible condone slavery? Part 1 (OT)
Does the New Testament condone slavery?

Written, July 2013


Does the New Testament condone slavery?

Roman slave & master

Roman slave & masterElevated status for Christian slaves

Some people use the mention of slavery in the Bible to criticise God and the Bible. Let’s look at what the New Testament (NT) says about slavery. The Greek word “doulos” (Strongs #1401) is usually translated as “slave” or “servant”. Slavery was prevalent in the Roman Empire, but it was not racist, as many races were involved. The slaves were usually prisoners of war or poor people. Slavery rescued captives from death and the poor from starvation at a time when there was no government welfare or charities. In the NT, slaves are told to obey their masters and a runaway slave is told to return to their master; so it appears to condone slavery.

You may think: what’s this topic got to do with us? Slavery is not prevalent today. We will see that the slavery described in the NT was like employment. As we look at what the NT says about slaves and their masters, we can apply these principles to us as an employee working for a client, team leader, supervisor or employer, or if we lead other workers.

Philemon and Onesimus

Philemon was a slave owner in Colossae which is now in Turkey (Philemon 8-21). As the church met in his home, he may have been an elder in the local church. One of his slaves, Onesimus had apparently stolen from him and run away. But Onesimus had met Paul in Rome and become a Christian and was now willing to return to his master and be reconciled. He was willing to resume his obligation to his master.  Paul wrote this letter to ask Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, no longer as a slave but as a fellow Christian (v.16). What can we learn from this short letter?

First, Paul does not issue an order to Philemon, although he was confident of his obedience (v.21). Instead he presents reasons for forgiving and accepting his runaway slave and then makes an appeal on behalf of Onesimus. Onesimus had become a believer in Rome – like Philemon he was now Paul’s spiritual son and that changed everything. He had a change of character, from an escaped thief to a Christian who helped Paul. From being “useless” to being “useful” (v.11). This is a word-play because the name Onesimus means “useful”. Paul even suggests that the reason Onesimus ran away was so that he could be converted and then return as a fellow Christian. Then Paul makes his appeal, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v.17). He wanted Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back into his household so that they could be reconciled. Although Paul did not order Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery he seems to infer it by saying he knows Philemon “will do even more than I ask” (v.21). This was the legal way to liberation from slavery; whereas escaping was illegal.

Equal before God

According to the Bible, whether someone was a slave or a master it made no difference in their standing before God. Both were sinners bound for hell and both could be saved through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22-23). All sinners are guilty before God and so are condemned to judgement. The Bible says that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13NIV). Everyone includes both slaves and masters and whatever category you can think of. So salvation is equally available to all. It’s not like one’s social standing on earth; no one has any special privileges in this respect.

What about after they become a Christian by trusting in Christ for paying the penalty for their sin? The Bible says, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29). A Christian slave has the same position before God and the same inheritance as a Christian master. Social standing makes no difference in terms of salvation and its blessings. In this way, social distinctions disappear in God’s spiritual family; they are irrelevant. Such differences are replaced by equality and unity. All Christians have equal standing before God (1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11). Our unity in the family of believers transcends all other distinctions, including the social distinction, between slaves and masters. So slaves and masters and workers and team leaders have equal standing before God.

In Paul’s letter to Philemon he said that a Christian slave such as Onesimus was a “dear brother” who should be accepted as though he was the apostle Paul (Phile. 16-17)! What a change of status for a runaway slave! He now shared a common faith with his master. The principle here is “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Rom. 15:7). Because God had accepted Onesimus into His spiritual kingdom and Onesimus was serving God, then Philemon should accept him as a fellow believer. So Christianity elevated slaves to be equal with others in the family of God. By the way, this verse comes after Paul deals with matters of secondary importance in Romans 14 and Paul taught that whether a person was a master or a slave was less important than whether they were a Christian or not.

So our relationships with other believers should cut across the social barriers in our society. If God has accepted someone into His kingdom, we should accept them as fellow believers regardless of their social status. As a church we should accept any believer that seeks to follow God, regardless of their place in society. So a local church can be comprised of people with not only a diversity of nationality and culture, but also a diversity of position in society.

Also Christian slaves and their masters will be rewarded equally by God. “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:7-8). So when they are rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ for the good things done for the Lord when they served others, there is no discrimination between slave and master, they are treated the same. There is no favoritism with God.

Christian slaves and workers

Let’s look at what the Bible says to slaves such as Onesimus and apply this to our working life. When a slave became a Christian they were to be content with their situation and not rebel and demand their freedom (1 Cor. 7:21-24). Instead they were to live the Christian life in their situation. But if they had an opportunity to be freed, they should take advantage of it.

“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves” (1 Ti. 6:1-2). Slaves must respect their masters because otherwise they may dishonor Christ’s name and Christianity.

“Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” (Ti. 2:9-10). Christian slaves were to be loyal and trustworthy because their behavior could either help or hinder the gospel message.

“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Pt. 2:18). Christian slaves are told to respect and obey even hash masters. By enduring suffering, they were following Christ’s example. He suffered unjustly for the wrongs of others. As a worker are we willing to submit to a harsh client or boss? This is difficult in our day when we readily claim our rights, but forbearance is part of the fruit of the Spirit.

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:5-8). Slaves were to obey and serve their masters as it they were Christ. Do we give our client or boss good value? Do we work cheerfully and willingly? Do we work as though God is our boss? If we do, then we will be rewarded for this when we get to heaven. Once again how we work affects our testimony for Christ.

There are similar instructions in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24). As Christians, all our work should be for the Lord. Even the most menial tasks are included in “whatever you do”. Do we serve and work as though we have two bosses: one on earth and one in heaven?

So slaves were to be content with their situation and respect their master submitting to their leadership and obeying them. What about us? Are we content with our work situation? Do we respect our team leader, submitting to their leadership and obeying them? Are we loyal and trustworthy?

Christian masters and team leaders

Let’s look at what the Bible says to slave owners such as Philemon and apply this to team leaders.

“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). They were to pay a proper wage and not exploit their workers because God was watching. Christian masters and team leaders should treat their workers with justice and fairness. The worker deserves their wages and it is the team leader’s responsibility to ensure they receive what is due to them. The worker may also deserve recognition and acknowledgement for a job done well.

“And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Eph 6:9). They are not to be a bully who uses abusive or threatening language because they have a Master in heaven to whom they are accountable. Just because you may have more status on earth doesn’t mean you get preference in heaven.

As masters had positional power over slaves, so team leaders have positional power over their team. In the previous passages we saw that such power should not be abused. To put it in perspective, team leaders must report to higher powers. If not on earth, then certainly in heaven. Christian masters and team leaders are reminded of their Master in heaven.

If you are a team leader, are you devoted to the welfare of your workers (1 Ti. 6:2)? Do you treat them fairly or do you exploit them? Are you a bully? How we lead and manage others affects our testimony for Christ.

Reconciliation

In his letter to Philemon, Paul wrote, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (v.18). Paul was willing to pay for whatever Onesimus owed to Philemon. He said “I will pay it back” (v.19). It seems as though Onesimus had stolen things from Philemon before he escaped and went to Rome. Now he was ready to make restitution so they could be reconciled, but Paul was going to make the repayment. Even though Onesimus was guilty of theft and was obliged to make the repayment, Paul said no, I’ll do it. Paul substituted for Onesimus. Because Paul stepped in, Onesimus could be reconciled with Philemon.

In this case, Paul is like Jesus Christ and we are like Onesimus because Jesus substituted for us. We are all guilty of going our own way and rebelling against God, which is called sin. The Bible says that because we have sinned we are eternally separated from God. But Jesus took the initiative and paid the death penalty for us so we can be reconciled with God. Because Jesus stepped into our world, we can be reconciled with God. Have you taken up His offer like Onesimus did with Paul?

Conclusion

So does the NT condone slavery? No, it mentions slavery because slavery was prevalent when it was written. The Bible records practices in society at the time, such as slavery, which it does not necessarily approve. For example, slaves were mentioned in some of Christ’s parables because they were common at that time. However, the NT does say that kidnapping slaves is as sinful as murder because it is stealing (1 Ti. 1:9-10).

The NT regulates slavery so that the slave of a Christian master was treated as well as an employee. There was to be no abuse or exploitation but justice and fairness. When the teachings of the New Testament are followed, the evils of slavery are removed. That’s why some translations use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.

It’s all a matter of priority. According to the NT, the top priority is to live for Christ, which is more important than improving one’s social status. The main purpose of the Bible is to show the way of salvation, not to reform society. Jesus didn’t come to reform society. He came to reform people. When people repent they have a change in attitudes and behaviour. Changes that come from the inside are more effective than those that are imposed externally such as political and social reforms. Likewise the primary task for Christians today is not to change political and social structures, but to further the gospel by offering forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. Anyway, we won’t have a perfect society until Jesus comes again to rule in His millennial kingdom.

Lessons for us

How we work affects our testimony for Christ. In our work life is there: respect, submission, obedience, contentment, loyalty, honesty and wholeheartedness? Do we work as though God is our boss? If we lead others at work is there justice and fairness or are we a bully? Do we realise we are accountable to God? Let’s honor God at work.

Finally, do social distinctions hinder our relationships with other Christians or affect the unity of the church? Do we have favorites? Do we ignore others? Let’s honor God at church.

Also see – Does the Bible condone slavery? Part 1 (OT)
Slavery and freedom

Written, April 2013


Does the Bible condone slavery? Part 1

shackles

Welfare for the poor

shacklesI have received this question about the Bible: It seems that slavery was condoned in the Bible and there were forced marriages with captive women, which seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners … I ask these hard questions for myself as well as unbelievers who use this to justify their hatred of God and the Bible.

According to the dictionary, a slave is a person who is completely dominated by their owner and works without payment. The word “slavery” implies hardship, exploitation and lack of freedom. Slaves are different to servants or employees who are paid a wage and have the freedom to leave their employment. Let’s look at what the Old Testament has to say on this topic.

“Slavery” in the Bible

Slavery was prevalent in ancient times. People could become slaves due to poverty or warfare or being born to slaves (Ex. 21:4; Eccl. 2:7). The English word “slave” or related words occur in 65-310 verses in the Bible, depending on the translation (see below). Translations with lower frequency use the word “servant” where the others have “slave”. The Hebrew word is “ebed” (Strongs #5650), which describes one who serves another as a slave.

NKJV ESV NIV NLT HCSB
65 125 180 245 310

Israelite slavery

The Old Testament describes the history of the Israelites, who were God’s chosen people. Their first instance of slavery was when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to Potiphar in Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36; 39:17, 19). This included being imprisoned for over two years (Ex. 41:1; Ps. 105:17). After he was freed, his father’s family moved to Egypt because of a famine.

Before this time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country, which was Egypt (Gen. 15:13-14; Acts 7:6-7). As they felt threatened by Jacob’s numerous descendants, the Egyptians subjected them to slavery (Ex. 1:6-14). Under their slave masters the Israelites constructed buildings and worked in the fields. They were beaten by the Egyptians (Ex. 2:11; 5:14). It was forced labour and a life of oppression, suffering and misery (Ex. 2:23; 3:7; 5:6, 10, 13, 14; 6:6). This continued during the 40 years when Moses was in Midian. After they cried to God for help, He promised to deliver them from the slavery (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:7-10; 6:6-8). The Israelites were finally delivered after the ten plagues and God miraculously lead the exodus towards Canaan (Ex. 13:20-22).

Afterwards they were to remember they were slaves in Egypt (Dt. 16:12; 24:22) and that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Lev 26:13; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:11; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:12; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5, 10; 15:5; 24:18; Josh. 24:17; Jud. 6:8; Jer. 34:13; Mi. 6:4). At the Passover festival they celebrated their release from slavery (Ex. 13:3, 14).

The Israelites then travelled to Canaan where they eventually divided into two kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At times they were enslaved by the Arameans (Syrians), the Phoenicians (Tyre & Sidon) and Philistia (2 Ki. 5:2; Joel 3:4-6, Amos 1:6). Over a 10-year period the Assyrians attacked Israel until they were conquered and deported to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29; 17:3-6; 18:9-12; 1 Chron. 5:26). This was God’s punishment for their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23). So the Israelites were slaves to the cruel Assyrians.

Then the Assyrians attacked Judah, but God delivered them (2 Ki. 18:13-19:37). Later Isaiah predicted that they would be conquered and deported to Babylon (2 Ki. 20:16-18). This was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took prisoners back to Babylon where they were captive for at least 70 years (2 Ki. 24:12-1; 25:1-21; 2 Chr. 36:20). Next they were slaves to the Persians (Ez. 9:7-9; Neh. 9:36-37), followed by the Syrians and Egyptians in the inter-testament period. In fact from this time until 1948, Judea was always ruled by other nations.

What’s it like to be a slave? In Psalm 123 the captives in Babylon plead to God for deliverance. They had endured contempt and ridicule from the Babylonians.

So God used slavery to get the Israelites out of Egypt so they could settle in Canaan. He also used slavery as punishment for their idolatry in Canaan. In more recent times, He used the Nazi holocaust, which was worse than slavery, to give Judea back to them in 1948.

Canaanite slavery

When a criminal is convicted of a serious crime, they are sentenced to gaol where they lose their freedom. Gaol or prison is a form of slavery, which I will call penal slavery.

The earliest mention of slavery in the Bible is when Noah cursed Canaan; “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:24-27NIV). The descendants of Canaan were extremely wicked (Gen. 15:16; Dt. 9:4-5; 18:9-13). That’s why they were cursed to be slaves. Because of their wickedness, the Canaanites were to be driven from their lands or destroyed when the Israelites settled in Canaan (Ex. 23:23, 31). But some Canaanites remained in the land and these were used by Solomon to built the temple, the palace, and the city walls (1 Ki. 5:15; 9:15-22; 2 Chr. 2:17-18; 8:1-9; Eccl. 2:4-7). Also the Gibeonites (Canaanites who deceived the Israelites) were woodcutters and water carriers for the tabernacle (Josh. 9:23-25). So the prediction was fulfilled when the Canaanites were slaves to the Israelites. In this case the Canaanites were better off than otherwise – as they hadn’t escaped to another country they should have been killed during the Israelite invasion of Canaan.

The Canaanite slavery to the Israelites and the Israelite slavery to Babylonia were both examples of penal slavery.  A thief who couldn’t make restitution for their crime was also to become a penal slave (Ex. 22:1-3).

How other nations treated slaves

Samson lived when the Israelites were ruled by the Philistines. He had great strength and killed many Philistines. When the Philistines finally captured Samson they gouged out his eyes and bound him with bronze shackles in prison where he worked grinding grain (Jud. 16:21). That was slave labor!

When the Ammonites besieged an Israelite city, they would only agree to a treaty if the right eye of the Israelites was gouged out (1 Sam. 11:2). Fortunately that didn’t happen! Also, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, they put out king Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon (Jer. 39:7).

When the Amalekites attacked Israel, they abandoned an Egyptian slave when he became ill (1 Sam. 30:13). After he had been without food or water for three days, David gave him food and water.

Other nations were slave traders – they traded slaves for merchandise (Ez. 27:15). So these nations were cruel to their captives.

How Israelites were to treat slaves

So far we have seen that because slavery was prevalent in ancient times, it is recorded in the Bible. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean that God approved it. But what does God say to His chosen people about slavery?

Debt slavery

If we can’t meet the repayments on a car or house, they are repossessed. If we are made bankrupt, we are restricted from business ownership and overseas travel and required to repay our debts before we can be discharged. In a world without government welfare and charities, God put laws in place to protect poor Israelites (Lev. 25:35-38). They were to be helped with no-interest loans and sold food at cost. So a Jew could not profit from the poverty of a fellow Jew. But God also put some other provisions in place.

“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:39-43).

Here we see that a Jew could repay their debt though physical labor. But they were to be treated as household employees or indentured servants, not as slaves. In this way, adults or children could become slaves to pay debts (2 Ki. 4:1; Neh. 5:4-8).

“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today” (Dt. 15:12-15; Ex. 21:1-4; Jer. 34:14).

Debt slaves were to be released after working six years or in the Sabbath Year or in the Year of Jubilee if that came earlier (Dt. 15:1-11). This meant that they could not be enslaved for more than six years. They were not to be perpetual slaves. The reason they were to be released was because God said, “the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt” (Lev. 25:55). The slave was to be released with provisions to ensure they didn’t fall straight back into debt. The NIV Bible calls this slave a “servant”, presumably because they are treated more like an employee than a traditional slave. As employees like servants don’t sell themselves to their employer, this is a form of slavery which I will call debt slavery. It is like a debt repayment scheme. After the work was done, they were freed. After all, Solomon said that“the borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7).

Voluntary slavery

“But if your servant says to you, ‘I do not want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant” (Dt. 15:16-17).

In this instance, we have a debt slave who is about to be released. Instead, they chose to continue working for their master or owner because of the good conditions and lack of oppression. This is a form of household slavery which I will call voluntary slavery. As noted earlier, the NIV calls this type of slave a “servant”. The hole in their earlobe was the sign of a voluntary Jewish slave.

Captive slavery

Prisoners of war are captive to the victors (Num. 31:7-9; Dt. 20:14; 21:10). This is a form of slavery which I will call captive slavery. For example, the Jews were captives of the Babylonians. As the Israelites were not meant to enslave Canaanites and they didn’t usually get involved in distant wars, this would not have been a significant source of slaves in Israel. But when God used Israel to punish wicked nations, the survivors were often captive slaves. The Canaanites mentioned previously were captive slaves. Also, captured Ammonites were Israel’s laborers (2 Sam. 12:31). Such captives could be taxed by their new ruler and used to provide labor and military forces (2 Sam. 8:2).

The Israelites slaves were to come from other nations, not from Israel (Lev. 25:44-46). When the kingdom of Israel defeated Judah they intended to take the men and women as slaves (2 Chron. 28:5-15). But after they were confronted, the Judeans were freed. However, the Jews did have Jewish slaves when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was that the Israelite salves had not been released after serving for six years, as God had commanded (Jer. 34:8-22).

Captive slaves were often penal slaves. For example, Israelite idolatry led to Philistine and Ammonite oppression (Jud. 10:6-10; 13:1). This captivity was part of God’s judgement of wickedness.

Rights and privileges

In all the above cases, the owners of Jewish slaves were commanded, “Do not rule over them ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53). What a contrast to the cruelty of other nations in Biblical times and in world history!

The Jews were to give a foreign slave refuge and protect fugitive slaves rather than returning them to an owner (Dt. 23:15-16). Slaves were to share many of the privileges of others in the household. They were to rest on the Sabbath day and could eat the Passover if circumcised and celebrate Jewish festivals (Ex. 12:44; 23:12; Dt. 5:14; 12:12; 16:10-11, 13-14). A priest’s slave could eat of the offerings, which was prohibited for an employee (Lev. 22:10-11).

Although foreign debt slaves could be bought and owned as a person’s property and passed on to subsequent generations (Lev. 25:44-46), they were to be loved and treated as fellow citizens (Lev. 19:34; Dt. 10:19).

What about allowing a slave to be beaten (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27)? Slaves were given similar rights to free citizens; the punishment for mistreating a slave was the same as for a free person. There were laws giving punishment if a slave was injured or killed and if a man slept with another’s female slave (Lev. 19:20-22). There was a penalty of death for kidnapping an Israelite into slavery (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7).

Forced marriages?

What about forced marriages? Marriage contracts allowed a family to find a better life for their daughter (Ex. 21:7-11). In a world when most marriages were arranged by the parents, a young girl could be sold as a maidservant so she could be a potential wife or concubine in a wealthy family. The payment could be viewed as a bride price that was paid to the parents of the bride. She was adopted until the marriage was completed. If she became a concubine or wife in a wealthy family she would be better off than in poverty. In this case the woman was to be treated in the same way as any wife or concubine; she was not a sex slave. Whether or not she became a concubine or wife, her rights and privileges were to be protected.

When the Israelites were travelling to Canaan the Moabite and Midianite women enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-18). This resulted in a plague that killed 23,000 Israelites in one day (1 Cor. 10:8). God told the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites. So an army of 12,000 men killed all the Midianite soldiers and captured women and children (Num. 31:1-47). But Moses said that because it was the women who had caused the Israelites to sin, they must be killed and only the virgin women kept as the spoil of battle (Num. 31:18, 25-47). These women probably became household slaves; there is no evidence that they were forced into marriage. After all, it is recorded that there were slave girls in David’s household (2 Sam. 6:20, 22).

An Israelite could marry a foreign female prisoner of war if she was not a Canaanite (Dt. 21:10-14). The marriage was of a probationary nature because he could let her go wherever she wished if he was not pleased with her. However, he could not sell her as a slave. This form of captive slavery seems like forced marriage, but it would probably be better for the woman than slavery in a foreign nation. What would you rather be: a wife or a slave? The woman who was released from the marriage also seems to be better off than a slave because she could “go wherever she wished”.

Liberation from slavery

Slaves long for deliverance and release from slavery and suffering into a life of freedom and joy. Debt slaves could be released and redeemed by the payment of a ransom price. If girl slaves didn’t become a concubine or wife, they could be redeemed (Ex. 21:8). The value of a slave was 30 pieces of silver, similar to the amount paid to Judas Iscariot (Ex. 21:32; Mt. 26:15)!

God redeemed (freed) the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 6:6; Dt. 7:8). Jeremiah predicted that God would also redeem them from captivity in Babylon (Jer. 31:11). If Jews were slaves to a foreigner living in Israel, they could be released in the Year of Jubilee or earlier if they were redeemed by a relative (Lev. 25:47-55).

Summary

God’s attitude to slavery in the Old Testament is like His view of divorce. Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt. 19:8). Both slavery and divorce were not God’s plan, but He gave practical ways to deal with them.

The Old Testament regulated “slavery” in Israel by removing the oppression, cruelty, exploitation and racism that is usually associated with it. Instead they were to be treated as employees and given opportunities for liberation. “Debt slavery” was a form of welfare, an employment contract that was a repayment scheme which saved the poor from starving and was so good that it could lead to “voluntary slavery”, which was a form of lifetime employment. “Penal slavery” and “captive slavery” were sentences for wickedness. In all these cases there was a loss of freedom for the good of the person and society.

So “slavery” in Israel was different to that in other nations. This type of “slavery” was different to what is usually called slavery, which makes it difficult to translate the Hebrew word “ebed” (Strongs #5650). As we don’t have an English word for it, many Bibles use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.

Slavery was an important part of Jewish history. Joseph was a slave who reached an exalted position. Jesus took “the very nature of a servant (or the humble position of a slave)” when on earth, but has now been exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2:7-9). The Jewish Passover was a celebration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of our liberation from slavery to sin.

So debt slavery as described in the Old Testament is largely an example of God’s compassion for the poor and disadvantaged people in their community.

Also see – Does the New Testament condone slavery?
Slavery and freedom

Written, February 2013


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