Understanding Slavery in the Bible (I)

Why is it important to understand slavery in the Bible?

After all, we do not have slavery anymore in our modern society (so it seems). Therefore what can slavery in the past possibly teach us about modern working conditions?

The Bible was misunderstood

The same word can have different meaning in different context

The word “slave”, like many other words in our daily language, changes over time. In the bible the word “slave” was used over thousands of year over many different cultures and socioeconomic structures. There are much historical details for us to investigate before we can accurately discern what the bible says about slavery. Were all the slaves doing hard labor? Were slavery life long? Could the slaves buy their own freedom? How did the master treat the slaves? How was slavery and race related? Were most of the slaves a certain skin color?

Slavery was prevalent in ancient society

The bible recorded real people and real stories. Since in most of the ancient society, a significant portion of the populations were slaves. Understanding how they lived is integral understanding biblical stories.

The bible had laws regulating slavery does not mean that the bible supported slavery

This is a basic principle regarding the reading of ANY system of laws, including biblical laws. The fact that the bible had laws regarding some aspect of life does not mean that it endorses that aspect of life. For example, the bible has laws regarding divorce (e.g. Dt. 24:1) but Jesus very explicitly stated that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” (Mt. 19:8). Similarly, the bible had regulations regarding war, crimes, the poor, etc. Yes, in the bible there were regulations that allowed people to be sold into slavery, but these does not mean that the bible endorsed slavery. The bible was a book written for real people, and it dealt with real life problems, even the unpleasant ones like slavery.

Master-slave relationship was an image God used to explain his relationship to us

In the Old Testament, Yahweh was know as “the God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt”. The Israelite were constantly reminded of God being the liberator who took them out of slavery.

In the New Testament, a number parables of Jesus portrait God as a master. Disciples were called to “serve” God. Even to this day, we call preachers “servants of God” and we call some officers of the church as “deacons” (“deacon” in Greek means servant). The Apostle Paul contrast the state before and after conversion as “slaves to sin” and “servants of God”.

Many modern labor practices are similar to slavery

While the word “slave” is seldom used as a legal status in modern society, slavery is still present in the modern world. In addition to the deplorable acts of sexual slavery and human trafficking, many regular jobs are in various degree dehumanizing. The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, noted that the industrial revolution had forced workers into mindless and repetitive work:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776

Economist Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen describe capabilities and agency of individuals as central to their freedom. A factory worker working long hour on an assembly line with little opportunity for advancement are therefore subjected to economic oppression, or “unfreedom”, using Sen’s term.

Understanding how God dealt with an unfair social system in the past helps us better deal with systematic immorality in the present

We believe that the bible is the Word of God. Although it was written to an ancient audience, through ancient writers, it is nevertheless applicable for the modern world. God who liberated Israel from slavery is the same God who is advocating for the poor and the oppressed today.


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