Slavery: a brief history Part 3
Now that we have discussed the difference between the grid by which we see slavery and how slavery is viewed in the Scriptures, let me just go through a couple of biblical insights for you regarding slavery. This will begin to show us the trajectory of God eliminating once and for all the injustice of particularly one people group, one ethnicity suppressing and relegating as lesser than other ethnicities. Notice in the creation narrative (cf. Genesis 1 – 3) when it’s not good for man to be alone and man has a lot of work to do, God doesn’t give the man slaves; He gives man a wife and says, ‘have babies. Fill the earth, subdue it. It’s going to be a lot of work. You’re going to need some babies.’ So men,grow up, get a skill, find a wife, have babies, fill the earth and subdue it. It is not, “Here are seven [insert people group here] to help you. They basically inferior anyways so have at it”. That is not what happened and it would be safe to say it will never happen. You begin to see God in the theocracy use Israel as an agent of His righteous wrath against some people in the ancient world (which is a subject for another day I promise). Once a people group was conquered those brought into the nation were enslaved but in a way that respected there humanity completely. Check out the passages in Leviticus that begin to unpack the Sabbath, New Moon Festivals, Festivals of New Grain and Wine, it was commanded in all those festivals that the Israelites were not allowed to shut down and party while the slaves continued to work. He said, “Everybody parties or I kill everybody.” So on the Sabbath, the slave gets off too. On the New Moon, the slave is off too. In the Grain and Wine Festival, they are shutting down the field, they are putting down the oxen and no one works. They all celebrate together. In both Old and New Testament, provisions are made for the slave to be a part of religious festivals and rituals. This is completely different than how even Rome viewed the presence of a slave in a religious ceremony. If a slave were to be there somehow the presence made the ceremony unclean. So they were good enough to run the empire; they just were not good enough to participate in the religious practices. God explicitly tells Israel, “No, they are coming in to the temple and they are worshiping Me.”
Another very interesting distinction is the Biblical injuction of “No interest loans” within Israel. These were an attempt by God to reduce the amount of slave debt. So if I owed you $100,000 and I came to you and said, “I can’t pay $100 grand. Please don’t send me to prison. Please don’t have me arrested. Let me work off my debt,” you could not biblically go, “Okay, but at 20% interest per year.” You were not allowed to put interest on my debt if I put myself into slavery under you to work off a debt. That was also not heard of in the ancient Near East.
Although there is not text in the Bible that universally condemns slavery as a whole, colonial slavery and the modern day sex slavery that you’re beginning to see specials on and Christian groups are beginning to fight against is explicitly condemned in the Scriptures repeatedly. The idea of stealing someone from this country or kidnapping someone from this place and forcing them into slavery was viewed as wicked, and God [in the OT] used the nation of Israel to punish those countries and, even in some cases, destroy those countries outright.
In the end let us please be honest with ourselves, we don’t want to do that work. Most people don’t want to really wrestle with it what I have just finished writing or the many other things that can be said. People rather just use this as an excuse and then build around that excuse with the hypocrisy of people they know and then go, “See? God can’t be trusted. The Bible can’t be trusted.” But in reality, if we’re honest, we are lazy and watch the Discovery or History Channel [way] too much.
There is one last thing that I want to mention before. In a radical departure from the prevalent views of the day, Israel became a safety zone for runaway slaves. So if you escaped Gaza, if you escaped Tyre, if you escaped any of the neighboring countries and made it into Israel, Israel had not extradition treaties with any of those countries. If you made it into Israel, you were a free man or woman. They would not send you back to your master, and they would not enslave you when you got in. What you will see over and over again in the Old and New Testaments is the command put on God’s people to serve, to feed, to love and to embrace the alien stranger and sojourner. So think of the redemptive themes that are already being the redemptive seeds that are being sown when God says, “If you make it into Israel, you’re free. If you make it into My people, you are free.” This is a shadow of what is to come.