Insights, Mistaken Perceptions

Slaves and Slavery

1 Corinthians 7:22 – “For he who is called by Yahweh as a slave is his freedman. Likewise he who is called as a free man is Yeshua’s slave.

What is A Slave
Slavery and bondage, as far as Scripture is concerned, were not regarded as improper or unlawful, but were primarily an integral part of economic factors. A slave could be obtained by capture, purchase, birth, abduction, debt, or self-sale. Therefore, the type of slavery or bondage dealt with in this paper will be limited to that type of slavery defined by Biblical law as slavery of one person to another, either voluntary or involuntary, and the progression of the Hebrew attitude from one of total ownership, in which the master can do as they please, to one of brotherhood, in which the slave is granted total freedom.

The Hebrew words translated as slave or slavery in many Bibles are just as often translated as servant, bondsman, or bondage by other versions. Most of these Older Covenant words stem from the root word, abad [עָבַד H5647]; meaning to work (in any sense); by implication, to serve, labor, or be bondmen. Likewise, in the Newer Covenant, the Greek words used for slave or slavery stem primarily from doulos [δοῦλος G1401]; a slave, bond-servant, or voluntary, fully devoted servant. The word doulos in the time of Yeshua became the most common word for servant without any idea of bondage. Today we would simply call a doulos an employee!

Covenantal Slaves
One of the first instances of slavery mentioned in the Bible is that of Hagar, and her relationship to Sarah. This deals with the ancient relation of the head of household, or master, to his domestic servants or slaves, In this passage, Abram says to Sarai, “Your slave girl is in your power; do to her as you please. Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her” (Genesis 16:6). Though at this point, the Hebrew attitude was one of total ownership, already we can see Yahweh at work beginning to change this attitude. For in the next four verses, Yahweh finds Hagar, sends her back to her mistress, and at the same time blesses her saying, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude” (Genesis 16:10).

The next instance of slavery mentioned in the Bible is that wherein Jacob becomes enslaved to Laban. This relationship of master and slave, or employer and employee, arises out of a contract of seven years to gain a wife. Jacob offered to be enslaved to Laban, saying, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Genesis 29:18). Laban accepted the offer but at the end of the seven years substituted the older daughter in place of the younger, saying that custom required the elder daughter to be first given in marriage (Genesis 29:26). Jacob accepted the substitution and made a second contract to be enslaved seven more years, then married Rachel at the end of Leah’s bridal week. This type of slavery represents voluntary, self-sale slavery, in expectation of a certain, agreed upon payment. Today the bond-servant or slave would simply be called employed, not enslaved or in bondage.

Next comes the scriptures wherein Joseph becomes enslaved to Pharaoh. The sons of Jacob kidnapped and sold their brother Joseph to passing merchants (Genesis 37:38), prior to the adoption of the laws making kidnapping of a fellow Israelite an offense which is punishable by death (Exodus 21:16). This type of slavery represents involuntary slavery, by abduction, then purchase by another. In this too, Yahweh brought blessings and modified his people’s attitudes, for Joseph declares, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people” (Genesis 50:20).

Four hundred years pass, with the Israelites in bondage to Pharaoh. After Moses meets Yahweh at the burning bush, he heads back to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves. However, we see that it was primarily Yahweh who was concerned about delivering the Hebrews from slavery, not so much Moses, so that he could fully begin a process to mold their attitudes from one of ownership to one of freedom. Yahweh does this through his servant Moses, in the form of the many laws, regulations and teachings.

Conditions of Slavery
The laws were instituted in such a manner that the Biblical “master” had very explicitly defined expectations in regards to his or her slaves, contrary to modern, Western definitions of slavery, wherein the “master” has total, unlimited control over the slaves and their bodies.

Below are some of the provisions of the Mosaic or law:
1. A daughter sold as a slave could not be sold to a foreigner. She could either be redeemed by her relatives, or given to a son as a wife. She must, thereafter, be treated as fully as any further wives the son might marry (Exodus 21:7-11).
2. A poor Hebrew who had sold himself to a rich master could be redeemed at any time, either by themselves or by a relative. The master could not, however, rule with harshness over them (Leviticus 25:47 54).
3. It was forbidden to forcibly return a fugitive servant to his master. In this connection was expressly provided that the runaway slave might reside in any place they chose in any town, wherever they pleased (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).
4. It was incumbent upon a master to guard against the escape of his servant, for if he escaped, the law afforded no relief (1 Samuel 25:10).
5. “Though a master might correct or discipline his servant, he had no right to kill or seriously injure him. Doing so made the master liable to punishment, and in some cases, the slave was given freedom. (Exodus 21:21-32).
6. A servant was entitled to rest on the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:14).
7. A Hebrew slave could only serve for six years, and had to be set free in the seventh. If single when hired, he must leave unmarried (Exodus 21:2-6; Deuteronomy 15:12-18).
8. A servant might achieve the status of a son (Proverbs 17:2).

In these scriptures, we see Yahweh reminding his people of their own slavery in Egypt to Pharaoh, and commanding them to be righteous in their dealings with each other, strangers, and their servants. Another step in the process of molding their attitudes from one of ownership to one of freedom.

In the Newer Covenant, we see the molding process continued. Many provisions of the Deuteronomical law are re-stated. Ephesians 6:9 exhorts the masters to stop threatening their slaves, “for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.” Colossians 4:1 repeats it: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” Paul, in Galatians 4:1 puts forth the premise that children who will inherit their father’s property are “no different from slaves,” implying that a slave should be treated no differently than a natural born son or daughter.

Scripture also has a lot to say about the duties of the slave. The slave can willingly stay with the master after his term of service (Exodus 21:5). A slave who steals may be sold to make restitution (Exodus 22:1). A slave cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13) and must stay alert (Luke 12:37). A slave is not greater than his master (Matthew 10:24; John 13:16; John 15:20). Slaves are to obey their masters (Colossians 3:22; Titus 2:9). A slave is to be content with their vocation (1 Corinthians 7:23).

Freedom From Slavery
One could be a “slave” to one’s own passions and desires, to a ruler, or even to another person. Paul says that if an opportunity to become free presents itself, then by all means take advantage of it (1 Corinthians 7:21). Once again Yahweh continues molding our attitudes from one of ownership to one of freedom. We are especially to be free of bondage or slavery to other humans so that we can be slave of Yahweh/Yeshua (1 Corinthians 7:23; Galatians 5:1).

Slavery, or bondage, is not forbidden by Scripture, as it is primarily what today we would call employment. However, forced slavery according to the Bible is not acceptable. Freedom from bondage is the goal. Paul exemplifies this in his dealing with Onesimus (Philemon 1:9-18): the change is status from one of total ownership, in which the master can do as they please, to one of brotherhood, in which the slave is granted freedom. Yahweh continues to mold our attitudes and actions in proclaiming the slave free, equal on all accounts, sons and daughters, no longer in bondage.