Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Slavery in the Old Testament [Part 2]

Since the accusation has been made that God endorses slavery, I began in yesterday’s post to examine the subject of slavery in Israel to ask whether God, in fact, endorsed it at all. Let’s continue with a second relevant principle to bear in mind.

Two Principles Worth Considering (continued)

As established yesterday, the fact that God tells his people to obey laws in general does not mean they are good laws or that he approves of them.

But this case is different. The objection may well be raised that the Mosaic Law is not like ‘laws in general’ in that it came directly from God, and said exactly what he wanted it to say.

However, even the Law of Moses did not perfectly represent God’s will, preference or desire for his people. This may initially sound a bit heretical, but God was not ‘ok’ with some parts of Israel’s Law, especially when they were slavishly and literally followed rather than used as a guideline to discern a higher, more loving intent. Those who merely followed the letter of the Law doing the minimum possible would inevitably fall short of God’s real purpose.

Principle #2: The Law did not represent God’s perfect will.

The Law in its written form (the ‘letter’) represented whatever diluted version of God’s will that his people might reasonably and generously be expected to follow, given that they were a mixture of believers and unbelievers characterized by stubbornness, selfishness and rebellion from Day 1. And even so, Joshua told the Israelites who promised to obey the law that they wouldn’t be able to keep it.

We know the Law did not represent God’s perfect will because of the teaching about divorce, which is permitted right in the Mosaic law of Deuteronomy 24, looking for all the world like the “will of God”. Except it wasn’t. God made it perfectly clear elsewhere in the Old Testament that he actually loathes divorce. He genuinely detests it.

And yet it was permitted. Why? Jesus tells us the reason. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

That does not mean there was anything wrong with the Law itself. The Law was good. Everything it instructed was an improvement over Israel’s existing conditions. It never commanded a lower standard and nothing about the permissions granted in it was compulsory. It’s the people that were the problem. They happily adopted the lower standard (what was ‘permissible’ rather than what was ‘preferred’) at every possible opportunity.

God knew very well when he gave the Law that words are always subject to interpretation and that the moment his will was written down, most Israelites would be straining themselves to interpret it in the way most advantageous for themselves. If you want to see how to interpret the Law according to the heart of God, read Matthew 5. The Lord starts by affirming that, far from abolishing the Law or the Prophets, he has come to fulfill them. He then introduces a series of statements framed with “You have heard it said that ...” and “But I tell you that ...” which show how the Law should ALWAYS have been interpreted and practiced.

But the higher standard of interpretation by which the Lord understood and taught the Law had never been seriously practiced in the entire history of Israel, except perhaps in the lives of a few truly devout believers. So instead, Israel promised to obey a Law that was basically introduced with the admonition “Prepare to fail miserably”. And Israel did.

Thus it seems that the Law as written was neither intended or expected to express the perfect will of God, nor to produce a society that would be ‘heaven on earth’ but rather, among many other things (like speaking of Christ, showing God’s character, demonstrating man’s inability to keep it), the Law frequently seems to function to limit the damage Israelites would do to one another without it.

When it was obeyed, the Law produced a society that was so much better than the nations around it that it produced awe, but it was certainly not God’s expectation that even a perfect law could produce perfect behavior.

He knows human beings way too well for that.

The Law was frequently an accommodation. It was often damage control. It did not represent God’s perfect will.

So, bearing in mind that Israel’s laws about slavery will not fully reveal the heart or will of God with respect to the issue, what did they actually say?

The Command to Practice Slavery

This will be a very short section, because such a command does not exist. Even for Israel. There are no “thou shalt” pronouncements to keep slaves. Like the divorce issue, you find language like “when you” and “you may”. There is permission in view of Israel’s hardness of heart. There is never endorsement.

The commands with respect to slavery are all about how to do it in a less oppressive way than the nations did it, and how to do it in a less oppressive and more responsible way than they were already doing it.

Slavery In Israel

In the interest of not reinventing the wheel, most of the following rather remarkable points are nicked (with appreciation) from the very able work done by letusreason.org.

·         The majority of Israelite slaves were Israelites. Some sold themselves into bond-service; others were sold to pay debts.
·         Slaves only worked six days a week; they had every Sabbath day off, just as other Israelites did.
·         Jewish slaves could not be held for more than six years and were given a choice to leave or they could voluntarily choose to remain.
·         Female slaves who married into the families they worked for acquired the same property rights as any other married woman.
·         Slaves who were abused by their masters were to be set free.
·         The murder of a slave brought punishment.
·         Foreign slaves seeking asylum in Israel were to be protected.
·         Slaves had economic rights, including the right to own their own slaves.

In all the fine print concerning the treatment of slaves, this phrase repeats over and over: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt”. The sheer number of occurrences makes it evident that it was important to God that his people treat slaves fairly and not abuse them as Israel was abused in Egypt.

Today when people have no other options they end up on the street with no hope of getting off it. In Israel, there were other possible ways to get you and your family back on your feet. Jewish servants were never to be released from service in the seventh year without wine, food and livestock in proportion to whatever prosperity the owner had enjoyed during the term of service.


So even though slavery existed in Israel, it was not the sort of slavery we are accustomed to hearing about and rightly deplore. If individual Israelites both sold themselves into slavery voluntarily and often remained in slavery after the legal time for their release had elapsed, it is clear that Israelite slavery was not the combination of kidnapping and endless forced labour endured by those subjected to it in other parts of the world and at other times.

Notwithstanding Minion’s wisecracking about it, as these passages of Scripture demonstrate, God’s law was the farthest thing from “just the same as the surrounding nations”. While, no doubt, it was very imperfectly and inconsistently followed throughout Israel’s history, the Law itself — that for which God was responsible — was reasonable and fair, so much so that slaves from other nations would flee to Israel where conditions were better.

Was it ideal? Of course not. Nothing is where human beings are involved.

But ‘totally ok with God’? Not in the least.

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