Good start, but bad finish
John Akhwari had a good start in the 1968 Olympic marathon race, but he also had a bad finish. He fell during the race and dislocated his knee but kept on going to finish last over one hour behind the winner. Likewise, the town of Bethel in Israel had a good start but a bad finish.
Bethel was 20 km (12 miles) north of Jerusalem; west of Ai (Gen. 12:8) and south of Shiloh (Jud. 21:19). It has been identified with modern Beitin (or Benin) or with el-Bireh. Bethel was on the ancient north-south ridge road that has been referred to as the Road of the Patriarchs. This road went through Shechem, Shiloh, Bethel, Jerusalem, Hebron and Beersheba.
Bethel was on the northern border of the land allocated to the tribe of Benjamin and Jerusalem was on the southern border. Bethel was assigned to the Benjamites, but they did not possess it, as the Ephraimites captured it from the Canaanites (Josh. 18:21-22; Jud. 1:22-26). So Bethel was an Ephraimite town (1 Chron. 7:28). (more…)
In Sydney we can expect lots of promises over the next few months, with a State election in March and a national election in May. Between Genesis and Revelation, the Bible is full of God’s promises. There are thousands of them. This post contains a survey of God’s promises in the Bible in order to determine which one is the greatest. We will see that the promise given to Abraham to bless all nations is the greatest because it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ and it leads to God’s other promises.
Promises in the Old Testament
The best known promises from God in the Old Testament are called covenants. We will summarize five of these that were given to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah. (more…)
The Trojan Horse is a story by Homer about the deception that the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy and win the Trojan War. After a 10-year siege, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, ending the war.
In this post we look at an older example of deception.
A promise and warning
After king Solomon had finished building the temple, God promised that if he was obedient his dynasty would always rule over Israel (1 Ki. 9:1-9; 2 Chron. 7:17-22). But if his descendants turned to follow other gods there would be disaster and they would be cut off from their land and the temple would be destroyed. (more…)
Imagine an ancient Moabite gazing down upon the Tabernacle of Israel from a hillside. This Moabite is attracted by what he sees so he and his wife descend the hill and make their way toward the Tabernacle. They walk around this high wall of dazzling linen until they come to a gate and at the gate, they see a man.
“May we go in there?” they ask, pointing through the gate to where the bustle of activity in the Tabernacle’s outer court can be seen. “Who are You?” demands the man suspiciously. Any Israelite would know they could go in there. “We’re from Moab”, they reply. “Well, I’m very sorry, but you can’t go in there. You see, it’s not for you. The Law of Moses has barred all Moabites from any part in the worship of Israel” (Dt. 23:3).
The Moabites looked so sad and said, “Well, what would we have to do to go in there?” “You would have to be born again,” the gatekeeper replies. “You would have to be born an Israelite”. “Oh, we wish we had been born Israelites”, they say and as they look again, they see one of the priests, having offered a sacrifice at the bronze altar and cleansed himself at the bronze basin and then they see the priest enter the Tabernacle’s interior. “What’s in there?” they ask. “Inside the main building, we mean”. “Oh,” the gatekeeper says, “That’s the Tabernacle itself. Inside it contains a lampstand, a table, and an altar of gold. The man you saw was a priest. He will trim the lamp, eat of the bread upon the table and burn incense to the living God upon the golden altar”.
“Ah,” the Moabites sigh, “We wish we were Israelites so we could do that. We would so love to worship God in there and help to trim the lamp and offer Him incense and eat bread at that table”. “Oh, no”, the gatekeeper hastens to say, “even I could not do that. To worship in the Holy Place one must not only be born an Israelite, one must be born of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron”. “And even if she was born of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron, your wife couldn’t go in there, because only males are allowed” (Ex. 27:21). Sadly, the Moabite woman turned away. She had no hope in all the world of ever entering there!
The man from Moab sighs again, “I wish that I had been born of Israel of the tribe of Levi of the family of Aaron”, and then, as he gazes wistfully at the closed Tabernacle door, he says, “What else is in there?” “Oh, there’s a veil. It’s a beautiful veil I’m told and it divides the Tabernacle in two. Beyond the veil is what we call ‘the Most Holy Place’”. “What’s in the Most Holy Place?” the Moabite asks. “Well, there’s the sacred chest in there and it’s called the Ark of the Covenant. It contains holy memorials of our past. Its top is gold and we call that the mercy seat because God sits there between the golden cherubim. Do you see that pillar of cloud hovering over the Tabernacle? That’s God’s visible presence. It rests on the mercy seat”, said the gatekeeper.
Again, a look of longing comes over the face of the Moabite man. “Oh,” he said, “if only I were a priest! How I would love to go into the Holy of Holies and gaze upon the glory of God and worship Him there in the beauty of His holiness!’. “Oh no!” said the man at the gate. “You couldn’t do that even if you were a priest! Only the high priest can enter the Most Holy Place. Only he can go in there. Nobody else!”
The heart of the man from Moab yearns once more. “Oh,” he cried, “If only I had been born an Israelite, of the tribe of Levi, of the family of Aaron. If only I had been born a high priest! I would go in there every day! I would go in there three times a day! I would worship continually in the Most Holy Place!”. The gatekeeper looked at the man from Moab again and once more shook his head. “Oh no,” he said, “you couldn’t do that! Even the high priest of Israel can go in there only once a year, and then only after the most elaborate preparations and even then only for a little while”.
Sadly, the Moabite turned away. He had no hope in all the world of ever entering there!
That’s the old way. But it’s not the end! There’s more!
The new way
As Gentiles, the Moabites were, “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12NIV). But Jesus changed this situation. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off (like the Gentile Moabites) have been brought near (like theJewish High Priest) by the blood (death) of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). The old way to God, which was exclusive to the Jews, has been replaced by the new way, which is open to everyone. Here’s how it happened.
When Christ died “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” by an earthquake (Mt. 27:51, 54; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). This signified that all people could now have access to God through Christ’s vicarious (substitutionary) death. And they don’t have to come via human priests.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place (like the High Priest) by the blood (death) of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest (Jesus Christ) over the house of God (all true believers, Heb. 3:6), let us draw near to God (in prayer, praise and worship) with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:19-22). The curtain represented the body of Christ and its tearing represented His death. By this act, God indicated that all believers have access to God. They could be close to Him like the High Priest, not distant like the Moabites and the gatekeeper. This new way of approaching God is open to all who trust in Christ’s sacrificial death when they come in sincerity, assurance, salvation, and sanctification (Heb. 10:22).
So today, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). All true Christians have the same spiritual status. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11). As far as their standing before God is concerned, all believers are on the same level. No believer is spiritually superior to anyone else.
While the old way of approaching God illustrated the new way; the new way is superior to the old way.
This blogpost is based on an illustration in “Exploring Hebrews” (p.94-96) by John Phillips (2002), which was brought to my attention by Jared Wilson.
Written, March 2016
Also see: What does Galatians 3:28 mean?
Sin is serious and dangerous
A warning was given last month in Washington USA when arsonists lit several fires during a period of high fire danger. Some of the fires were started by fireworks. Authorities stressed that fires have a cost and sometimes they costs lives.
Today we look at how Jeremiah gave the Jews a wake-up call by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. We will see from Jeremiah 2-6 that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him.
The Israelites were God’s special people whom He rescued from Egypt so they could live in Canaan. The laws He gave them to follow through Moses are given in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy of the Bible. After peaking in the days of King Solomon, their land was divided into two with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Then in 722 BC, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, so only Judah was left.
Jeremiah preached for 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC) to those living in Judah during the reign of their last five kings about 600BC. At this time Judah was a weak nation; surrounded by many enemies including the superpowers of Egypt to the south, and Assyria and Babylonia to the north.
Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 100 years after Isaiah and Micah and at the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.
The main theme of these prophets was predictions of God’s punishment and God’s restoration of His people. We will see that this is what Jeremiah prophesied as well.
At this time, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies and idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent. They were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Jeremiah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
Will Judah past the test?
Prophets like Jeremiah spoke God’s words to His people. They were like watchmen up on a city wall who see a threat and sound a trumpet to warn of danger (Jer. 6:17; 2 Ki. 17:13). Jeremiah often says: “The word of the Lord came to me”; “The Lord said to me”; and “This is what the Lord says”. That’s the sign of a prophet. These messages would have been given many times, to many people. They are important pleas, commands and predictions from God, and not just a report of historical events. They demanded a response by the people of Judah.
There are three main themes in this passage: Judah’s sin, their need for repentance, and God’s punishment. The relationship between these themes is shown in the schematic diagram which shows that because of their sin, God gives them a wake-up call (a warning) through Jeremiah. There are two possible responses. One is to take notice and repent, which leads to restoration. The other is to ignore and not repent, which leads to punishment.
What is sin? The two main Hebrew words that are translated “sin” occur at least 30 times in the book of Jeremiah (Strongs #2398 and #2403). In these verses they mean not obeying God and rebelling against God (by breaking the covenant, by worshipping idols and by rejecting Jeremiah’s messages). They are associated with wickedness, wrongdoings, crimes, and guilt. And they lead to punishment. So sin is rebellion against God (Dt. 9:7; Josh. 1:18). It’s when we prefer anything or anyone above God (Rom. 1:18-32). It’s not being God-centred. And the Bible says when we ignore God, we have a depraved mind.
What is repentance? The main Hebrew word translated “repent” (#5162) means a change of mind, particularly turning from sinfulness to follow God. It’s a change of mind that results in a change of behavior. It’s a change of attitude towards God. Another Hebrew word that means “turn back or return” (#7725) is also translated “repent” (5:3; 15:19; 34:15). So repentance is a U-turn; a change of direction.
In this passage God is testing the people of Judah like a metallurgist tests ore that has been mined (Jer. 6:27-30). How will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning? Will they pass like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore?
We will look at each of these themes in turn starting with Judah’s ongoing sinfulness.
Judah’s sin (2:1-3:10)
In a criminal court a person is charged with a crime. If they are proven guilty of the offense, a judgement is issued as punishment. In this passage Jeremiah gives God’s case against His people Judah (Jer. 2:9). Because God knows and sees everything, they are guilty of these charges.
He lists their sins (2:1-13; 20-36; 3:1-10; 5:1-5, 12-13, 20-31; 6:10-21). He says that everyone rebelled against God; the leaders, the priests and the prophets (2:8, 26). All ages were involved, including grandchildren (2:9). It happened everywhere across the land (2:20; 3:2). Instead of following the God who brought them to Canaan, they followed worthless idols (2:5, 8, 11). The term “worthless idols” is mentioned 8 times in Jeremiah. They are shonky – they can’t deliver what they promise.
It was shocking. They abandoned and ignored God and ran after worthless idols (2:12, 13, 25). So Jeremiah says, “My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols” (2:11NIV). They broke off their covenant with God (2:20). The covenant was like a marriage covenant – God was like the husband and they were like the bride (2:2). It was also like a Suzerain-Vassal covenant or treaty – God was like the great king and they were like one of his subject kings. But they loved idols instead of loving God (2:25). So they forgot God (2:32).
But they ask God to rescue them from trouble (2:27)! And they blame Him for their troubles (2:29)!
They didn’t learn anything from what happened to the northern kingdom of Israel (3:6-10). About 100 years earlier Israel was conquered and captured by the Assyrians as punishment for their idolatry, but now Judah was practicing the same idolatry. They should have known that God doesn’t tolerate continual sin.
People claimed to follow God, but kept on being unfaithful and wicked (3:4-5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 22). And they had no sense of guilt or shame (3:3; 6:15; Prov. 3:20). It was like leaving their spouse and committing adultery and prostitution (3:1-3). It was spiritual adultery.
They were all greedy (6:13). They oppressed the poor and needy, but say they’ve done nothing wrong (2:34-35; 5:28). No one was honest (5:1-2). They were deceitful and didn’t respect God (5:22-24, 27). Also, instead of trusting in God’s protection, they formed alliances with Egypt and Assyria (2:18, 36).
Jeremiah said, “The prophets prophesy lies (false prophets), the priests rule by their own authority (not God’s), and my people love it this way” (5:31). The false prophets predicted peace while God predicted their defeat and captivity (5:12-13; 6:14).
They ignored Jeremiah’s warning. “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it” (6:10). It was a sad state of affairs.
In 2009, Britain’s most violent prisoner Charles Bronson said he was not ashamed about his past. He has spent 35 years in prison due to violent attacks on prison staff and other prisoners. Like the people of Judah he continued to offend and had no desire to change his ways.
What about us? Do we realise that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT)? Are we aware of our sins and shortcomings? Have we trusted in Jesus as the Savior who took the punishment for these? Sin is serious because it leads to God’s punishment.
The Bible says that Christians are the bride of Christ (1 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:24-27). Are we faithful to the Lord, or are we guilty of spiritual adultery? How much time do we spend on worthless activities or on worthless idols? Is our conscience working? Or do we keep giving in to sinful desires and let sin control the way we live (Rom. 6:12-14)? Have we stored God’s word in our mind so we mightn’t sin against Him (Ps. 119:11)?
Jeremiah spoke to wake up the people of Judah to their sin and its consequences in order to move them to repent and change their behavior. The second theme is Judah’s ongoing need for repentance.
Judah’s need for repentance (3:11-4:4)
First God pleads for the people of Israel who had gone into Assyrian captivity to acknowledge and confess their guilt and change direction to follow the Lord (3:12-14, 22:4:1). He says “return faithless people, for I am your husband” (3:14). God is willing to forgive His people, but they are unrepentant (3:19-20). They need to repent by turning away from idol worship to worshipping the God who created the universe and gave them wonderful promises (4:1-4). Up to now God thought they would return to Him, but they didn’t (3:7, 10, 19).
If they repent while in exile, God says that He will not be angry forever and will bring them back to Jerusalem (3:12, 15). So repentance leads to restoration. This is consistent with the covenant which says that after they have paid for their sins, confessed their sins and their hearts are humbled, God will remember the covenant and restore them back to their homeland (Lev. 26:40-45).
Although the people of Judah heard this message, they didn’t repent by responding to God’s messages and punishments (5:3). Instead they hardened their hearts “and refused to repent”. But if they didn’t repent, then they too faced certain punishment (18:7-11).
Then there is a vision of the coming time when the Jews will repent (3:21-25). There will be weeping as they confess their sins and disobedience. They will feel shame and disgrace and turn to follow God once again. There is also a vision of the coming time called the Millennium when they will have a change of heart and Israel and Judah will be reunited and restored (3:15-18).
Recently Special Operations Commander Craig Smith was in the middle of teaching a swift-water rescue class on Texas’ Comal River, when he spotted a child who had been swept out of his inner tube by a fierce current and dragged under the water. So he jumped in with a line and pulled the boy to safety. He said the near-drowning served to show how dangerous the water can be. Likewise sin is dangerous unless we are rescued by confessing our sins.
Paul told people to repent and turn to God by trusting that Jesus paid the punishment for our sins (Acts 20:21; 26:20). They needed to change their minds about Jesus. When we confess our sins in this way we are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins – past, present and future. Our destiny changes from hell to heaven and we can enjoy daily fellowship with God. Have we told God we are sorry for our sins in this way? Many of those who believed in Ephesus showed their repentance by publicly burning their sorcery scrolls (Acts 19:17-19). Is our new allegiance obvious to others?
Sin spoils a Christian’s fellowship with God. When we confess our sins they are forgiven by God and our daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. “If we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 Jn. 1:9NLT). Do we tell God we are sorry for our sins in this way (1 Jn. 1:5-2:2)?
The third theme is Judah’s punishment if they are unrepentant.
Judah’s coming punishment (4:5-6:30)
One of God’s tests is to send a drought to see if they will turn away from their unfaithfulness (3:3; 5:24-25). Drought was one of the punishments for disobeying the covenant (Lev. 26:19-20; Dt. 28:22-24). They should’ve known this, but they continued in their wicked ways. As they continually refused to repent, the time came when punishment was inevitable.
So Jeremiah predicts that the Babylonians will come from the north and conquer Jerusalem after a siege and take them into exile as slaves (2:14-19, 37; 4:5-31; 5:6-11; 14-19; 6:1-9, 12, 22-26). It will be a terrible time and they are told to “mourn with bitter wailing”. Towns will be destroyed and the land ruined in this disaster. They would lose their houses, fields, wives and children. But a remnant would survive (5:10, 18). The Babylonians are God’s instrument of punishment. It’s punishment for their disobedience as promised in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:31-35; Dt. 28:32-37, 49-68). This happened near the end of Jeremiah’s ministry.
As mentioned earlier, how will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning (6:27-30)? Will they pass the test like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore? They fail because they “rejected the word of the Lord”, which came through Jeremiah (Jer. 8:9).
In July 2015 the annual pilgrimage to the mountain of Croagh Patrick in Ireland was cancelled due to treacherous weather conditions. Powerful winds, heavy rain and thick fog reduced visibility to less than 3 meters. However, several hundred people, including families with young children, ignored the warnings and attempted to set out from the base at Murrisk. Some people were treated by medical volunteers, including a 14-year-old girl suffering from hypothermia. So, people ignore warnings today, just like the people of Judah ignored Jeremiah’s warnings.
What about us? The Bible says, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding (the Mosaic covenant was given by angels; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19), and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (Heb. 2:1-3). If the Jews disobedience was punished, as it was, then disregard for the good news about Jesus will bring greater punishment. Do we pay careful attention or ignore this great salvation?
We have seen that Jeremiah warned the Jews by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. Continual sin is serious and dangerous. Jeremiah’s message was that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him. And the punishment is that the nation was conquered and the people were taken as salves to Babylon. But those who repented were able to return to restore the nation 70 years later.
Today God also says that we are in a dangerous situation. Sin is serious and dangerous. Unless we follow Jesus, we face God’s punishment. Because we’re all sinners, we’ll all die unless Christ returns beforehand. What happens after death depends on whether we have decided to follow Jesus or not. Those who don’t repent face eternal torment, while those who do repent face eternity with our creator and redeemer.
Let’s spread the message about the seriousness of sin and ignoring what God has done for us. We need to recognise our sinfulness and repent by turning around and accepting that Jesus took our` punishment.
Written, October 2015
The Bible is a big book that was written thousands of years ago. Where do I begin to read it? And, what does it mean for a reader today? Here’s a simple outline of the Bible’s structure. It can be divided into two sections. The portion written before the 400 years of silence is called the Old Testament and portion written afterwards the New Testament.
The books of Psalms to Song of Songs are Israelite wisdom and poetry. Most were written 1000 – 700 BC.
Where do I begin?
A history book or a story book is usually read from the beginning to the end. Stories usually begin with an introduction and then suspense builds up to a climax. The climax is the turning point of the story when the main problem is addressed. After the climax there is relief and it ends with a conclusion.
It’s probably best to begin by reading the introduction and the climax of the Bible.
The introduction of the Bible is a foundation for the rest of the Bible. So start with Genesis chapters 1 to 11. It begins with God creating a perfect universe (Gen. 1-2). But then the first couple, Adam and Eve, disobey God (Gen. 3), which brings conflict and evil into the world. This sinful pattern of behavior and its impact is demonstrated by the events described in the rest of the Old Testament. It is a characteristic of humanity that doesn’t change.
Because of their disobedience and wickedness, God punished mankind with a global flood (Gen. 6-9) and by dispersing people across the earth into different languages and nations (Gen. 10-11).
The climax is when God solves the problem of people’s sinfulness. He does this by coming to the earth and taking the punishment that we all deserve. There are four separate accounts of the life of Jesus Christ: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s a good idea to read Mark first because it is the shortest.
The Bible’s climax has two plot twists. Firstly, Jesus’ followers believe He is the Messiah, but their hopes are dashed when instead of setting up His kingdom on earth, He is executed as a criminal. So their great expectations are replaced by grief and loss. Secondly, a few days after His burial Jesus miraculously resurrects back to life and the grief and loss is replaced with joy! What a dramatic fluctuation in emotions!
What’s the main theme?
The Bible is all about God’s solution to the problem of people’s sinfulness. This is God’s promise or God’s rescue plan. It is fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to king David and to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. It is now fulfilled in the Christian church, which includes all nations. In the future it will be fulfilled in the resurrection of God’s people and the restoration of creation back to its original state.
What does it mean?
In order to understand the original meaning of a passage of Scripture it’s good to know who it was written to. For example, the Old Testament was written to Jews living in Palestine, whereas Paul’s letters were written to Christians living around the Mediterranean Sea. It also helps to know where it occurs in the sequence of events shown in the table. For example, was it written before or after Jesus was on earth? The context is also important – what happens before and afterward the passage?
Other questions can be asked, such as – What does it say about God? What does it say about humanity?
What’s its conclusion?
Choose-your-own-path adventure story books and video games have multiple endings. At the end of each chapter/episode, there is a choice between various options, which determines the path taken and the eventual ending of the story.
The Bible has two conclusions. They are heaven (Rev. 21:9 – 22:5) or the lake of fire (hell) (Rev. 20:15). Which one will you choose as your destiny?
Written, January 2015
Welfare for the poor
I 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.
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.
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?
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).
“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.
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).
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).
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.
Written, February 2013