After the previous lesson set the stage for this study, it’s time to see what Scripture says about slavery. If we start with Genesis, we’ll see it takes some time (in years, not necessarily chapters) to find the practice of slavery. When it arrives, it’s not a small, isolated event. It’s a regular part of their established society. Before we look at those early instances with Abraham, I’d like to take a small detour through the book of Job.
In the first chapter of Job, the text describes several men who reported the tragic events to Job as “messengers” (see Job 1:14,16-18). Their proximity to the events seems to imply they were servants of the wealthy patriarch. The first one was with the “oxen plowing the field (as the) donkeys were feeding beside them” when Sabeans took them away and killed Job’s servants (1:14). The second messenger was with the “sheep and servants,” when the “fire of God consumed them” (1:16), and the third was with Job’s camels and servants as Chaldeans stole them (1:17). Why were they in those places with those servants and that livestock? The obvious answer is because they were slaves who served Job’s family and herds. However, they do not express disdain at Job or joy because of what befell the great man. You could say they were sympathetic in their statements, coming to tell him what happened instead of letting him find out himself.
Because Job was described as a faithful man (see Job 1:1), would it be possible to assume he was fair, kind, or even good to those servants, providing them a home and a job from his great wealth? Further, if he did have slaves, why didn’t God command him to free them when He spoke from the whirlwind? And why didn’t his friends condemn that wicked practice as they looked for accusations to undermine his faithful past? Once again, the obvious answer is the most prudent – because he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
There’s a ton of evidence to suggest Job’s story fits into the timeline of Genesis.¹ If that’s true and Job is a contemporary character to Abraham, then their approach to slavery may have been similar. We know both of them were extravagantly wealthy and possessed at several points in their life great herds of grazing animals. We know that in Genesis 13:6-8, Abraham’s servants and Lot’s servants quarreled with one another over pasture land. We also know that Abraham thought so much of one that he was willing to give him his entire inheritance before the births of Ishmael and Isaac. Abraham’s complaint in 15:3 to God clarifies that servant’s place:
Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed a servant (Eliezar of Damascus) born in my house is my heir!
Those examples show us that some instances of servitude in that day and age consisted of a master-servant relationship that echoes what God wants from us today. If we are to be completely and utterly devoted to God as a subservient worker and honor Him as our all-providing and sovereign master (see John 12:26, Romans 12:11, 1 Corinthians 15:58, Colossians 3:23-24), then surely that model would be acceptable in our world as well. I can’t begin to imagine why God would model our relationship after something inherently wrong, can you?
Christians exist in a perpetual state of need. Because of that, we constantly seek out the grace and wisdom of God as Our Master provides guidance, safety, provision, and (dare I say) hope. Could it be possible that these early examples of servant-master relationships provide the framework for a relationship God wanted to share with the world? Could it be He wanted a symbiotic relationship that benefited both sides? Could it be that simple, I believe it was until we complicated it.
I am comfortable saying that servanthood (i.e. slavery) based upon the experiences of Job’s “messengers” and Eliezar of Damascus wasn’t inherently wrong then and wouldn’t be inherently wrong today. I strongly believe that both Job and Abraham (and by extension, others) were good to their servants and I can’t see any evidence to suggest they considered them property (even though their role in life may have not warranted much more from their society). The patriarchs seem to have been caretakers, willing to share God’s blessings with all those who lived (or served) in their household.
If we want to further dive into Abraham’s view on slavery, might we also ask why he married Hagar before impregnating her in Genesis 16? That behavior seems highly odd for a man who could have viewed her as nothing but property. Ironically, respecting her enough to marry her wasn’t a practice that some men in our modern, enlightened society, displayed throughout our history.²
I am also willing to suggest that mankind corrupted that servant-master relationship in almost every way imaginable. Just look at how prisoners-of-war were treated by ancient civilizations (i.e. Rome, Babylon): some were given an opportunity to succeed (see the books of Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah), while others were cast into forced labor and brutal circumstances (see Exodus and the brutal treatment of captured enemies by the Roman army for a further study of that idea).
The OT stories of Joseph and Daniel depict the sinful option this relationship provides quite clearly. Both were captured against their will and forced to serve foreign kingdoms. However, God didn’t command them to revolt against their masters. Instead, they were to honor them (even though it wasn’t implicitly stated) and bring about God’s Will because of it. Due to their behavior, they were actually afforded opportunities by God to enhance the lives of their owners and countries. We could also speak of Mordecai and Nehemiah as they were given the same opportunities. Nehemiah, in particular, was allowed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem after appearing sad before his king and reaping the courtesy of his sympathetic actions. The king didn’t just let Nehemiah go, he supplied him, and gave him the authority to do it right. No evil tyrant or morally bankrupt slaveowner would grant a slave that opportunity, let alone pay for it. Yet it happened.
Joseph would say later in his life (see Genesis 50:20), after many years of reflection:
You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.
He said that to the very men who sold him off into slavery. In a twist of fate, only Deity can control, his enslavement was what God “meant for good.” It would shock most of us to hear someone use that word today, yet Joseph didn’t stutter or hesitate. Through experience, he knew the worst moments of his life were a part of God’s divine plan.
The final example I want to share is that of Naaman’s servant. Second Kings 5:1-3 tells us she was taken captive by a foreign nation and enslaved against her will. It says in the text:
The Syrians had gone out on raids and had brought back captive a young girl from the land of Israel. She waited on Naaman’s wife. Then she said to her mistress, “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For he would heal him of his leprosy.”
Why did she care about Naaman? Why did she want him healed? After all, wasn’t he the enemy, the one who enslaved her and mistreated her? Before we jump the gun and condemn Naaman, we must ask “why did she want him healed?” Like our previous situations, it’s obvious again, because he cared for her, provided for her, and treated her with dignity. No one wants their enemy healed. They want the opposite. They want them to die a slow, painful death. If Naaman were her enemy, her response to his leprosy is strange, at best. Rather than wish him dead, she wanted him healed.
These stories show another side of slavery. A side we often ignore because it’s not convenient. The truth that comes out of these stories doesn’t match our modern-day philosophy so we reject it. That truth is profoundly simple – not all slave owners were evil, tyrannical men who abused their slaves and not all slaves were in terrible situations that demanded immediate emancipation.
Don’t get me wrong, I wish the circumstances were different and slavery had never existed. As a whole, it didn’t help society, it hindered it. I don’t see much good that came from it, but I do see some, and it’s a measure of humanity’s sinfulness that we corrupted it to a point of no return. That doesn’t mean it is inherently evil.
May I ask you to consider the following. A gun in the hand of an evil person can do evil things. A gun in the hand of a righteous person can save lives. How does that gun do both? Easy, because the gun isn’t evil or righteous, only the person who uses it.
I would say slavery fits the same description. In the hand of a righteous person, it doesn’t degrade another person, rather, it provides protection and purpose. In the hands of an evil person, it takes advantage and robs a person of their dignity. I understand that type of personal responsibility (instead of blaming the instruments of sinners) isn’t a favorable idea in 2019, but it is still practical nonetheless. Things are never inherently evil, sin is the only things that’s evil in-and-of-itself. That means a sinner can corrupt anything and anything can be corrupted (except God Himself).
To be thorough, we must also address two specific moments in the Law of Moses where God addressed slavery. In Leviticus 25:39-46, He didn’t outlaw slavery, rather He regulated it. It says:
And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you – he and his children with him – and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God. And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have – from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover, you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor.
There is a clean line of distinction made between servants from the Jewish line and slaves taken from the Canaanite tribes. There is no command to free, yet there is also no command to degrade. You must combine this passage with Exodus 21:20-21 which says:
If a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.
And then connect it to Exodus 21:26-27 which says:
If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.
While these passages are still hesitant to outlaw the practice, they do put qualifications upon those who would own slaves and servants. It’s not a perfect situation, that’s obvious, but it wouldn’t have been in the Law if God didn’t know men would beat their slaves and servants. These commands speak to the principle behind all relationships – if it’s lived in God’s image by His servants, men from all walks of life can be respected and dignified.
I’d be remiss if a quick survey of the NT wasn’t also a part of this lesson. After all, the NT writers go on to say in Ephesians 6:5:
Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ;
And then in Colossians 3:22:
Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God;
In Titus 2:9:
Exhort bondservants to be obedient to their own masters, to be well-pleasing in all things, not answering back.
And finally in 1 Peter 2:18:
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.
Why didn’t the NT authors tell the converted slaves in the First Century Church to abandon their masters and run away? Why didn’t they command all slaveowners who converted to Christianity to immediately free their slaves? Why didn’t they overturn a society of separation and degradation through social justice?
Ironically, they did. They just didn’t do it to this world in a physical sense, they did it through spiritual emancipation. When Paul said “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” in Galatians 3:28, he didn’t outlaw sinful or imbalanced relationships in this world or even hope to completely change them. He changed relationships in the Kingdom of God and in the world to come. That focus on the spiritual and what’s to come is what “turned the world upside down,” (Acts 17:6).
It would be incredibly presumptuous of us to look at every situation this world has ever experienced and judged it based upon our experiences, our society, and our understanding of proper behavior. Slavery has existed throughout the history of this world. It’s been a part of our existence, even the lives of God’s faithful. Some were slave owners and sinners, but those qualities aren’t necessarily connected. Some were slave owners and faithful. Some were not and sinful.
We must acknowledge the fact that not all slavery was degrading. The chattel slavery of our history in the United States did degrade an entire race of human beings and was completely wrong. It was right of us to put that to an end and its right to fight against it today. Those facts make us hesitant to consider the alternative place slavery had in other parts of our world. Just because it was wrong here doesn’t mean it was wrong everywhere. We abolished it and helped make our country a better place and while I’m not for restoring it, honoring it, or even validating it – I’m also not comfortable saying it was always wrong in every situation. If that were true, what did God say about His character and His children by honoring Abraham, Job, and many others who were obviously slave owners, yet also faithful?
I hope you’ll join us soon as we finish this discussion with a thorough examination of Philemon’s relationship with his slave Onesimus and the ground-breaking implications that short book unleashed on this world.
¹ See an article from Apologetics Press explaining that probability by following this link and another from Biblica by following this link. Both suggest the setting of Job comes closer to the Patriarchs of Genesis than other OT timelines.
² Follow this link to read about the possible liaisons between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves.
All Scripture is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (C) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.