THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM (OR CHURCH)
It’s impossible to ignore the presence of slavery in the bible. Many people wonder if slavery is evil, then why is it in the bible, both Old and Testaments. To fully explain this concept would take a series of lessons, which I do intend to publish soon, as I get time to responsibly put them together. I will however give you a brief answer for general understanding.
First and foremost, we in the 21st Century have the tendency to view things only from a 21st Century perspective, but God exists outside of time and relates to us holistically throughout time, beyond time and the cultures we have created. God deals with us from and through the lens of HIS prospective. We must look at the many aspects of servitude throughout history.
IT’S CLEAR AMERICAN SLAVERY WAS EVIL
Slavery and servitude have existed in numerous cultures, in many forms throughout history. Yes, slavery as it was in America was evil. In fact, God strictly forbade kidnapping people and selling them into slavery…(Exodus 21:16)… 16 “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death). It’s clear God forbade this and it was punishable by death. So, how do you explain Exodus 21 that outlines regulations for Hebrews who choose to buy a slave? Or how do you explain Ephesians 6:5-9? (5 Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him)
As for Exodus 21, these were not SLAVES; the word is more properly translated servants. These people were not enslaved for life. They were indentured servants, who served a period of seven years and were then to be set free, unless he or she chose to stay with his or her ‘master’. Now, as crazy as this may seem to us in the 21st Century, in ancient times there was no government support as we have in the recent past. Social structure and societal roles were strictly set in many cultures. If a family was poor or destitute, then it would most likely stay that way for generations. To some, servitude was a means of supporting families and sometimes preventing homelessness and starvation. If you read Exodus 21, there was no separation of families as took place in the southern United States. You will also notice in Deuteronomy 15:12-18 that God commanded that servants were not to be sent away empty-handed. This was a means for families to be lifted up from poverty and being destitute, unless they CHOSE to stay. This was not the equivalent to American slavery. (Deuteronomy 15:12-18) 12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed.14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. 16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same. 18 It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.
There is however another aspect of slavery, the evil aspect. Sometimes during war, people would be captured and subjugated. And, yes sometimes people were and are kidnapped and sold into slavery. Remember, God allowed His own chosen people to be slaves in Egypt for 400 years. Remember in Exodus God said He hardened Pharaoh’s heart so He wouldn’t listen to Moses? (Exodus 9:12 But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses.) This was for the purpose that God could show His power to the Egyptians and for our example. In Isaiah 10:5-6 God tells how He used Assyria, a heathen nation, to punish His own people. (5 Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury!) 6 Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder,). Remember that God allowed His people to be taken captive by the Babylonians, that at the time of Jesus Israel was under Roman rule and in A.D. 70 they destroyed Jerusalem. Remember also that God used the Romans, a pagan, non-believing nation, to crucify His only Son. Throughout the Old Testament, even though war is evil, God used to discipline His people, and as judgment on unbelievers…for our example.
GOD USES GOOD AND EVIL FOR HIS PURPOSE
My point is this…both good and evil exists in this world, and God used both good and evil for His ultimate purpose. It’s obvious God won’t use good people to do evil, so He even uses evil people to discipline, and execute judgment on both His people and unbelievers. Afterward, the evil people will be judged. It’s not that they’re cursed, as Jesus said in John 3:18 says they are already condemned due to they’re own unbelief. Notice in Isaiah 10 that God says even though He used Assyria as a rod of correction against His people, he will still punish them for their evil that were predisposed to do anyway.
The fact is that God often used the existence and reality of something as evil as slavery to discipline His people or judge unbelievers. In regard to Ephesians 6:5-9, God made provision for His people’s behavior if they happened to be servants. His Godly character and holiness must be maintained in all situations…good and bad.
Notice this, any group enslaved never remained enslaved. God always heard their cry and set them free…hopefully to show His power to the oppressor and love to the oppressed.
Also notice in the book of Philemon, that God encouraged his friend Onesimus to return to his ‘master’, but He also encouraged Philemon to do the right thing and set him free upon his return.
SO WHY DID MOSES INCLUDE IT IN THE OLD TESTAMENT?
One more thing is worth your consideration. In Matthew 19, the Pharisees confronted Jesus, asking Him is it lawful for a man to divorce His wife. Notice Jesus’ response in the NKJV… “4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Isn’t interesting that even though the book of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 permits divorce, Jesus makes it clear that just because Moses put it in the law during that dispensation of history, that it was never God’s will. Malachi 2:16 confirms this in saying that God hates divorce. This slight departure from the topic is to prove that just like slavery, just because there was provision made in the law, doesn’t mean that God condones it in it’s most evil form. Remember the ‘servants’ in the New Testament were indentured, and Paul urged Philemon to release Onisemus was he returned. It’s possible that Onisemus decided to stay beyond his seven years…no one knows.
THERE’S MUCH MORE TO SAY…
This is definitely not an exhaustive summary of all the verses concerning slavery, and there’s still much more to be said, but I think it will give you an idea of the concept in the bible. I know there are many who will not agree with this analysis, which acknowledges the reality, of servitude, as well as harmonizes, Old and New Testaments. I welcome comments and thoughts. You may expand upon the content of this article, or express why you disagree. I only ask that all comments are positive and respectful.