The meaning of any passage is context-dependent. Its context has many aspects, these include: literary, historical-cultural and canonical (cf Bauckham 1988). An examination of these different aspects will shed light on our discussion of slavery.
i The literary context. Leviticus 25:44-46 is perhaps the most explicit text in the support of slavery; it is the only place in the Holiness Code (H) - a term coined by A Klostermanmn in 1877- where there is discrimination against “temporary residents” (Patrick 1985). Its immediate literary context is that of the sabbath and Jubilee legislation, where slaves, animals and land are included in its provision. Opening up the context a little wider places it within H (Lev 17-26). The Israelite concept of holiness was not a narrow personal ethic, as unfortunately so much contemporary evangelical thinking nothing was excluded from the sphere of God’s holiness. Kaiser sees holiness as the “central organizing feature of Old Testament ethics” (1983 p139). It was the purpose of the book of Leviticus to expound the Law which would separate Israel out as the holy people of God; Israel was to be holy because God is holy. It may be in this context that the discrimination against aliens is to be understood: it reemphasised the distinctiveness of Israel, particularly as verses 44-46 are concluded by “you must not rule over your fellow Israelite ruthlessly”. Israel as God’s slaves were “forbidden to enslave one another” (Wright 1984, p199).
ii Historical-cultural context. Slavery was part and parcel of the social order of the ancient Near East (Wolff 1974, p199; Van der Ploog 1972 p76; Boeker 1980, p156); there were five major causes of slavery (Van der Ploog 1972, p78; Boeker 1980, p72):
• from prisoners of war;
• the sale of children by impoverished parents;
• voluntary enslavement caused by, for example, lack of employment and the need of protection;
• insolvency; and
• those born into slavery.
In the Near East slaves were the property of another (Van der Ploog 1972, p85); they were essential to the economic order and had no rights. They were treated as merchandise (Boeker 1980, p77) and even had a redeemable cash value (30 shekels) (Heaton 1956, p148). The code of Hammuurbai (CH), discovered in 1902 at Susa on an eight-foot-high black stele, was the law code of Hammurbai the king of Babylom (c. 1792-50 BCE); it recognised three classes of people awleum, the normal free citizens; muskenum, members of a social group that was free but dependent upon the crown; and slaves. The CH contains a death penalty for negligence in the settlement of a slave (§ 7); the death penalty for anyone who conceals a slave (§ 19); and (§ 17) a reward for the capture and return of a runaway slave.
Israel’s law was in marked contrast to this; they had all but abolished slavery. (This may have been because of Israel’s long history as a nation of slaves, which gave them empathy with other slaves.) Hebrews were to be released in the seventh year (Ex 21:2; Deut 15:12); they were not to be released empty handed (Deut 15:13); slaves could choose to remain with their masters (Deut 15:16) - the fact that some took up this option shows that slavery was preferable for some to freedom. The Law also offered protection from physical abuse (Ex 21:26-7); though perhaps the most radical provision in the Law was the law of asylum (Deut 23:15ff) (cf CH § 19,17). This law almost gave the slaves a right to runaway, though it presumes that the runaway will be the exception (Wright 1983, p182).
iii The canonical context. The most comprehensive way examining the canonical context is through the framework creation, fall and redemption.
The creation narratives are explicit: all of humanity is the image-bearer of God. This is in contrast to the ancient Near East texts. Amenophis III an Egyptian king, is described by the god Irmon as “my living image” (Clines 1968, p85). Esarhaddon, a seventh century BCE Assyrian king was described as the “very image of Bel” (cited in Clines 1968. p83). In an Assyrian state letter the following appears:
A (free) man is the shadow of god, the slave is as the shadow of a (free) man; but the king is like unto the (very) image (mussulu) of god (cited in Clines 1968, p84).In the ancient Near East the kings, not the rest of humanity, were the image of God (Clines 1968, p85); consequently, humanity were devalued (Walsh 1990) - according to the Enuma Elish (VI.5), the Babylonian epic of creation, they were created from the blood of Tiamat to be slaves for the gods (kings):
Blood will I compose, bring a skeleton into being,
Produce a lowly, primitive creature, ‘Man’ shall be his name:
I will create lullu-amelu – an earthly ‘puppet’-man.
To him be charged the service that the gods may then have rest...”
(cited in Winton Thomas 1958, p12).
In contrast, the Israelite creation epic by asserting that all humanity is made in the image of God it declares that all humanity has equal value (cf Job 31:13-15). It not only “inspires the notion of equality” (Wolf 1974, p202) it undermines the Babylonian basis of slavery.
The fall deformed and distorted God’s good creation. The task of imaging God is made all that much harder (Bishop 1989, p7): the ground becomes cursed (Gen 3:17). Noah finds two ways of attempting to undo the curse (Gen 9). He gets drunk (v21) - the principle of working is diminished; and slaves (v25-6) obviate the need to work the cursed ground (Coombs 1988, p281). Slavery, then, is a result of the fall; the first time it is mentioned in the biblical canon is in the context of a curse (Wright 1983).
The exodus event was a focal point for the nation of Israel, it marked their redemption from slavery and had ramifications for how they treated slaves (eg, Lev 19:42; 25:42). They had been an oppressed people, so they were not to oppress others. Hence the slavery laws although not abolishing slavery - probably unthinkable in the cultural climate - treated it as abnormal and went a long way to humanising it, so much so that it could properly be called “service” rather than “slavery”. Slaves even had rights under Israelite legislation (Kaiser 1983, p98), they could participate in the sabbath rest (Lev 25:6; Ex 20:10) and were almost treated as part of the family.
The prophets were vehement in their attack against the dehumanisation of humanity; none more so than Amos. He denounces both Tyre and Edom for oppressive slave trading - the verb “to sell” in Amos 2:6 is used for the selling of slaves (Soggin 1987, p47). God demands socio-economic justice even for slaves.
Jesus had very little to say about slavery, though that does not mean he advocated it; he was also silent about piracy and arson (Swartley 1983, p51).
The apostle Paul in his articulation of the gospel shows how it cut across all barriers, and that in Christ slavery (as is nationalism and sexism) is abolished (Gal 3:28). Paul accepted the slave Onesimus as a son (Philemon 10), and asked Philemon to take him back “as a dear brother” (Philemon 16); a far cry from the Greek and Roman slavery of the time, when the slave was regarded as an “instrument that can talk” (Boeker 1980, p157).
Neither Israel’s laws, Jesus or Paul advocated the abolition of slavery, though they all pointed in that direction. At the consummation, heralded by the return of Jesus, there will be no slavery on the new earth there will be a new order (Rev 21:1-4). The shalom between humanity, the earth and God, ruptured by the fall will be restored (Is 2:49; 9:5; 11:6-9; 35:1; 66:17). Slavery, human oppression of human, will be a thing of the past we will all live in shalom with each other.
Israel provides us with a model or paradigm for today; this does not mean we accept all the laws in toto: the difference in cultural horizons shows the futility of that approach. The laws are not blueprints, we have to understand them in their context and recognise the direction in which they point (Bauckham 1988).
It is the underlying principles behind the laws that are important: we need to embrace the spirit not the letter of the law (compare Paul’s disregard of the law of asylum (Deut 23:15ff) in Philemon 16).
By looking for the God’s intention behind the laws it removes any problems in cultural transposition, as the norms underlying the- laws will not have changed. It also means that we will not have to divide up the law into any false categories, such as civil/ceremonial, as the purpose of the law would transcend such divisions.
Discovering the intention of the law involves seeing Israel as a paradigm, seeing if there is any development in the law, recognising the role of the fall and seeing what cultural factors influenced the character of the laws. It is not-a trivial task; but it does enable us to draw upon the strengths of the other approaches and to avoid their weaknesses. The purposes of God behind all the Old Testament laws reflect his will not only for Israel, who were to be a light to the nations, but also for the whole of creation; they transcend time, place and situation. Consequently, they will be equally valid today for church and world.
So, where does that leave us with slavery? The purpose and intention of the First Testament slavery laws are, at least, threefold:
- they reveal the abnormality of slavery
- they took steps to alleviate its dehumanising effects and
- they pointed towards its abolition.
Embracing the underlying principles, or spirit, of the law would not mean accepting slavery but to work for its abolition, as in fact people like Wilberforce did.
However, slavery is not a problem that was solved two-hundred years ago, it is still something that confronts us today! In the Sudan, Dinka children are sold into slavery; child slaves are used in the stone quarries of Haryana State, India; and six-year-olds are sold for up to £75 in Bangkok to work in sweat shops. To take the First Testament seriously is to do something about it.
For more information about slavery today
Richard Bauckham The Bible and Politics (SPCK/Third Way, 1988).
Steve Bishop “Towards a biblical view of environmental care” Evangel 7 (1989) 7-8.
Hans Jochen Boecker Law and the Administration of Justice in
Old Testament and Ancient East (SPCK,1980).
David A Clines “The image of God in man” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968) 53-103 .
Eugene Coombs “Has YHWH cursed the ground’? Perplexity of interpretation in Geneis 1-5” in Ascribe to the Lord ed. L Eslinger and G Taylor (JSOT, 1988).
John Goldingay Approaches to Old Testament Interpretation (IVP, 1981)
Joh Goldingay “Divine ideals, human stubborness, and scriptutural innerancy” Transformation 2 (4) (1985) 1-4.
E W Heaton Everyday Life in Old Testament Times (Batsford,1956).
WaIter C Kaiser Toward Old Testament Ethics (Academie, 1983).
Bruce Kaye Using the Bible in Ethics (Grove Booklets no 13, 1976).
Roger Nicole “A response to John Goldingay” Transformation 2 (4)
Denis Nineham Use and Abuse of the Bible (Macmillan, 1976).
Dale Patrick Old Testament Law (SCM, 1985).
J A Soggin Amos (SCM, 1987).
Willard M Swartley Slavery, Sabbath, Women and War (Herald Press, 1983)
A C Thiselton The Two Horizons (Paternoster, 1980).
J P M Van det- Ploog “Slavery in the Old Testament” Vestus Testament Suppl. vol 22 (1972) 72-87
Brian Walsh Subversive Christianity (Regius Press, 1990)
Gordon Wenham “The perplexing Pentateuch” Vox Evangelica XVII (1987) 7-21.
D Winton Thomas (ed.) Documents From Old Testament Times (Nelson, 1958)