Slavery and freedom in Scripture

Slavery and freedom in Scripture

The Bible says weird, even (deeply) disturbing things, about slaves and slavery.

The Bible also seems to contradict itself on the matter.  For example, the Exodus story is a story of how Israel’s God “frees” his people from the bondage of Egypt so that can be…free?  Nope.  Rather, so that they can be his slaves.

What in the world?

(Is there such a thing as a good owner?)

Yeah, even the guy at the top–Moses–is repeatedly called (and calls himself–??) a “slave of Yahweh.”

And this is not “an Old Testament thing,” as if when Jesus came, he suddenly enlightened everyone.  Saul/Paul of Tarsus, our earliest Christian source and one of the most influential Christian leaders, opens his letter to some Christians in Rome as follows:  “Paul, a slave [or servant] of Christ Jesus…”  He then tells the Roman Christians that they too have been “called to belong to [i.e., be owned by] Jesus Christ.”

Did you know Jesus had slaves?

Ok, so hopefully it is clear that we 21st-century Westerners–especially Americans–don’t quite have categories for–at least some of–the Bible’s references to “slaves” and “slavery.”

Or consider the paradoxical–or contradictory?–statements found within a single verse in the New Testament (1 Peter 2.16):  “Live as free people…live as slaves of God.”  So which is it?

When we read the Bible, we are reading texts written in different languages and originating in a different culture (or, cultures, really) on a different continents over a period of, say, over a millennium.  So reading these texts through the lens of our own (very dark) American history may not be helpful.

Let’s go back to consider the statements just quoted from the New Testament:  “Live as free people…live as slaves of God.”  These seemingly contradictory exhortations actually provide a good entry point into thinking about slavery in the ancient world.

Imagine that you are a female slave of the wife of nobleman in 1st-century Gaul (modern France).  One day you accompany your mistress to Rome, and there the wife of a powerful Roman senator buys you so that you might be part of her entourage of servants.  Performing your responsibilities well, you are noticed one day by a member of the imperial family, at which time you are purchased by the Emperor himself to serve one of his family members (e.g., a daughter).

Obviously, but importantly, once you were sold to a new master, you no longer needed to obey your old master (or mistress).  That is, you were free from their control:  their opinion of you was of little/no consequence; any orders they might issue could be safely ignored.  You need only obey the emperor.  Your purchase by the emperor frees you from the control of these previous masters.  In this sense freedom and slavery are not mutually exclusive realities.

But has your situation improved overall?

Well, it depends on what these masters were like, of course.  Your original owner could have been more kind than the emperor, or vice versa.  But one thing is certain:  your value, or status, in society would have gone up:  being the slave of a noblewoman in Gaul is nothing compared to being a slave of the emperor.  (We’ll come back to this important point).

Now imagine that, for whatever reason, the emperor decided to free you.  You’re free now to go wherever, live however, and do whatever.  With some of your “belongings” and a (probably fairly small) sum of money you are escorted to the door of the palace, and you step out into the streets of Rome.  Here’s a key question:

Has your lot in life just gotten better…or worse?

Almost certainly the answer is worse.  While your legal status went from being slave to free, your relative social status went down–way down:  once a slave to a family member of the emperor, you are now a nobody, a free nobody, but a nobody nonetheless.  Further, your access to the palace–with all its opportunities for growth (for pragmatic purposes slaves were often taught to read, write, and trained to perform extremely important tasks in a household)–are no more.  In addition to these opportunities for growth are opportunities for entertainment and luxury–what we might call “the crumbs from the table” of the emperor.

So in the ancient world, for both slave and free, freedom isn’t everything.  Freedom per se–i.e., freedom for freedom’s sake–wasn’t valued (or idolized?) like it is in present day Western cultural contexts, which value control, autonomy, choice, etc.

Discussing the Apostle Paul’s use of the metaphor of slavery to describe Christian salvation, Dale Martin states that in the first-century Greco-Roman world…

“a slave’s power and status were dependent on those of the owner. The well-placed slave of an important woman or man was an important person. It mattered less that one was a slave than whose slave one was.”  – Slavery as Salvation, pp. 34-35.

That last line is huge, and it helps us to see that how modern Western conceptions of slavery are very different.  This is hardly a novel conclusion.  In his discussion of slavery in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians Anthony Thiselton is right to say:

“Almost every recent writer on Roman slavery is at pains both to stress its variable condition and to distance it from resonances with nineteenth-century American slavery.”

Okay, so maybe that’s a little overstated, but not much.

Now let’s return to our lame “imagine your a 1st-century slave girl” exercise:  actually, the emperor never freed you; you still belong to him, which, as we said, was better (much better) than being freed.  Now imagine that, for whatever reason, the emperor wanted you to go back to work for your former owner (the Roman senator’s wife) while still keeping you as his slave:  you would work for the senator, but you would continue to receive orders from and be answerable to the emperor.  Why?  To forward the emperor’s agenda–perhaps to be an advocate for the honor of the imperial family.

You would live with and serve the senator but be free of his (ultimate) control.

This scenario gives us what we need to understand why Paul might call himself a “slave of Jesus Christ” or why Peter can say, “Live as free people…live as slaves of God.”  Were a slave–or, for that matter, a free person–to hear rumors in the market place of One who was perfect Love, matchless Wisdom and limitless Power; were they to hear that He had been raised from the dead and was being hailed as Lord over evil–the evil actions of men, the evil of disease and death, and the evils of the demonic world–and that He was now calling everyone (even the lowliest slave) everywhere to bow their knee and offer their exclusive allegiance to him as his slave; were they to hear this, it would have the potential to be received as very, very good news.

To be a slave to One who was both (1) worthy of their allegiance (He is perfect Love, matchless Wisdom…) and (2) Lord of the cosmos would have meant your value, status, and worth would go up.  Way up.  It would mean that, even as you continued to live with and serve your former master/lord, you were free of his (ultimate) control:  you were now receiving orders from and were answerable to the One whose empire definitely would (and definitely should) outlast the emperor’s.

And so it is that 1st-century slaves found true freedom:  they were to live as free people, because they were slaves of God.

4 thoughts on “Slavery and freedom in Scripture

  1. Great post, Bruce. Thanks.

    I’ve found that this discussion grates on the ears of many of my fellow Americans because we do value freedom for freedom’s sake. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees,” as the saying goes. Autonomy and independence are sacred American values. However, they’re completely pathological and simply incorrect. You need not be a Christian to recognize that none of us are entirely autonomous or independent .We’re inter-dependent. Furthermore, many (most?) of the circumstances of our lives are entirely out of our control. Our own dispositions and desires are often embedded in us from birth or upbringing; we can shape them somewhat, but what happened to us early on was out of our control and shapes us for the rest of our lives. Accident, trauma, “luck,” and all the other things described in Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” can fall on anyone at any given time.

    We are so out of control. You don’t even need to be a Christian to recognize that. There are numerous internal and external pressures exerting themselves on our thoughts and behaviors that it is simply folly to believe we possess “free” will (that is, in a libertarian sense).

    However, I think recognizing this lack of libertarian freedom, in contrast to the illusory beliefs that autonomy and independence are sacrosanct, is one step closer to better understanding our relationships with sin and God. We’re going to be a slave to something. We will labor under the yoke of sin or of Christ. We are not our own, and we never were – that’s a blasphemous realization in the cultural religion of America, but it’s true. Therefore, when people balk at the language of slavery in the Bible, apart from pointing out to them that slavery in the ancient near east was different from chattel slavery in the American South, I also argue that none of us are free in a libertarian sense anyway and so the Christian assertion better captures the state of things rather than believing we’re autonomous individuals.

    1. “We’re going to be a slave to something.” Indeed.

      Again, much of the ancient world recognized this. In his delightful book Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, Moshe Weinfeld states:

      “In Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece, the granting of freedom and the restoration of individual rights is interpreted as the return of the individual to God; man ought to be the servant of his god, rather than of his neighbor.” (p. 16)

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