I blogged about slavery at the BCC in 2006. In that post I discussed the Bible’s acceptance of slavery as a social and economic norm. Think for a moment of Abraham’s slaves, men like Eliezer and women like Hagar. Does Ishmael’s rejection make better sense when you consider his status? (Slavery was matrilineal.) And don’t be fooled by the English Bible’s tendency to smooth “slave” into “servant.” It’s a neat rhetorical trick — the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt but Abraham has servants — but the Hebrew term is identical. The New Testament is also comfortable with slavery, from Paul’s injunction for slaves to respect their masters, to the identification of the relationship of God/Man as Master/Slave.
God’s covenant people become slaves to Christ, but they do not simply “imitate the humility and subservience of a bondsman [but] acknowledge the transference of primal loyalties and obligations to a new and awesome power, in the hope of gaining a new and transcendent freedom.” Owned by a new master, Christian lives ascend to something greater than the slaves of Mammon, but they are not yet fully free. Like the slave-stewards in the parable of the talents, we have not yet heard these felicitous words:
Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
This freedom awaits us. The legals systems of the ancient world made room for the modes and meaning of manumission, the transformation of a man from slave to free. I love the imagery suggested by the rituals of freedom which come from the ancient Near East: the distinguishing marks of slavery were removed, the slave’s head was anointed with oil, and his face was turned towards the rising sun. We await this glorious day — no longer slaves, even to a righteous master, but true heirs of God.
1. D.B. Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, 16.
2. M. Dandamaev, Slavery in Babylonia, 445-446.