Exaltation as manumission from slavery

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.


  1. Nothing to add, except to say that this is insightful and moving.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, you’ve done well here. Thanks for this.

  3. I agree, well done Ronan. What is striking to me is the paradox that you allude to, in that by becoming slaves to Christ we become more free than are the slaves to Mammon. So it is still somewhat a “liberating” slavery. His yoke is easy.

  4. Researcher says:

    Seeing the title of this post, I thought that you were talking about the gospel doctrine lesson for this week. Of course, we’re probably on a different week than everyone else in the church, and you aren’t talking about the gospel doctrine lesson, but you could have been…

    I’ve been requested to teach GD on Sunday and consequently have been giving Alma 5-7 a much closer reading than normal. The captivity imagery in the first part of Alma 5 is rather striking.

    When the angel visited Alma Jr, the angel told him to, “remember how great things he has done for [the people of King Noah including his own family] for they were in bondage, and he has delivered them.”

    When Alma visited the people in Zarahemla he in turn reminded them:

    And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church, have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?

    Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them.

    And now I ask of you, my brethren, were they destroyed? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, they were not.

    And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved.

    Sorry for the length of the quote, but I felt like it fit in well with your beautiful post.

  5. Great post. I’d also point out that the Book of Mormon recognizes several non-free statuses. One uses the term ‘bond’; for example, Alma 1:30:

    And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.

    Note that during the ‘Zion’ period in the Book of Mormon, there was no ‘bond’ status (4 Nephi 1:3):

    And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.

    There are also references servants (for example, Ammon offered himself as a servant to King Lamoni and worked with other servants).

    Slavery (if that was different) also existed; however, it appears that King Benjamin had issues laws (cf. Mosiah 2:13) specifically forbidding slavery (Alma 27:8-9):

    And the king [Anti-Nephi-Lehi] said unto him: Yea, if the Lord saith unto us go, we will go down unto our brethren, and we will be their slaves until we repair unto them the many murders and sins which we have committed against them. But Ammon said unto him: It is against the law of our brethren, which was established by my father, that there should be any slaves among them; therefore let us go down and rely upon the mercies of our brethren.

    So it’s not clear if ‘bond’, ‘servant’, and ‘slave’ represented different conditions in the Book of Mormon, or if they meant similar things at different times.

    As I said, great post. ..bruce..

  6. Bruce,
    There were many servile statuses in the ancient world. By “slave” we typically mean “chattel” i.e. property to be bought and sold, a person without claims to kinship. I think the NT imagery intends slave proper, as Christians are said to be “bought.” We have a new master, but are still slaves until the day when God turns our faces to the east. One way of manumitting was through adoption: the slave becomes his master’s son.

  7. Thanks, Ronan. Your concluding paragraph is gorgeous.

  8. We have a new master, but are still slaves until the day when God turns our faces to the east.

    We are anointed to become such.

  9. LRSmylie says:

    Your post reminded me of a Rembrandt painting, “Return of the Prodigal Son.”


    Depicted is the life of one enslaved to Mammon, returned home to the true Master of the house from which he comes. The son’s shorn head looks like a newborn, perhaps an indication of his readiness for a new birth – or an anointing.

  10. Nice post.

  11. Very nice.

  12. Nice.

  13. Martin Willey says:

    I like the manumission imagery a lot, but agree with Matt G that the “Slave to Christ” idea is at least paradoxical. Most of the references I can readily think of talk about our conversion to Christ as liberating, not enslaving (See, e.g. Gal 3:24-29). Do you think those references are to future exaltation, not mortal discipleship? Or, am I missing scriptural references that more directly discuss our capitivity in Christ?

  14. We call Christ “master” and “lord” which at the very least denotes a subordinate relationship. The parables of the talents and the labourers in the vineyard offer a view of God as “master” and his people as “servants” (=slaves). Our enslavement to Christ (and do not think only of African slave ships when hearing that word) is liberating in the sense that our new master, unlike Mammon, has a light yoke.

    The Mormon view of exaltation, in my mind, is a view of a future and complete manumission. We are to become “joint heirs” and stand equal — socially — to God. But not yet.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    As Ronan mentioned, almost every time you read servant in the KJV NT it is a translation of doulos, which means slave. Paul is constantly calling himself a slave of Jesus Christ. Try reading some NT texts and substitute the English word slave for servant and notice the effect.

  16. Excellent, Ronan. Simply excellent. (both the post AND comment #8)

  17. Martin Willey says:

    I agree that there are many references to Christ as master and lord, and I think they make the servant/master/manumission metaphor complete. I was just wondering if there were references that developed the slavery image more fully or directly. I like the Paul references. Thanks, Ronan and Kevin. Very thought provoking.

  18. I am reminded of the Mameluke dynasties of Egypt in the middle ages which lingered on some levels right up until Napoleon’s invasion in 1798. The term “Mameluke” in Arabic means “owned” and is a synonym for slavery. The Mamelukes were generally bought/brought as slaves while children out of the Balkans (a lot of Albanians in particular), were trained in the arts of war, and eventually became both highly skilled soldiers and emancipated freemen. Eventually these slaves became so influential and powerful in Egypt that they rose up and became the country’s rulers and ruling class, producing in the process some of the most beautiful art and architecture in the world (the mausoleum of Qait Bay in Cairo’s City of the Dead contains one of the most stunningly beautiful carved stone domes in the world). The slaves literally became kings.

    Not to get too romantic though, a Mameluke ruler generally had a short bloody tenure and violent death. A good read that includes a chunk on Mameluke Egypt is Max Rodenbeck’s wonderful “Cairo: the City Victorious”.

  19. Jamal,
    I spend most of my time looking at the elite slaves of the ancient world, particularly those who owned property. As someone has noted, “slavery stripped away a person’s kin ties and fastened them onto his or her new master’s lineage.” A slave’s situation depended entirely on the master. Who “owned” the Mamelukes?

  20. Ronan,

    I believe primarily the Sultans and Amirs (i.e., kings and princes). The wikipedia entry looks decent at first glance: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamluk

    You might also try to read up on the Turkish Janissary system and the Saqaliba in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain).

  21. daproff says:


    Forgive the intrusion, but technically, it is inaccurate to state that there is only one Hebrew term that means both “servant” and “slave”. The Greek word “doulos” (not Hebrew) means slave or bondage, but there is another Greek word (diakonos) which means hired servant rather than slave. It also means to “minister” as in to tend to another, as well as to be a subordinate administrator to a higher magistrate. There is also the Greek word oiket?s which refers to all those who fall under the authority of the same householder. The Hebrew word ‘abad can refer to slaves, but it also refers to doing work, serving, laborers, and subjects such as those under the rule of a King or law. Another Hebrew word-sakiyr refers to hirelings or paid laborers.

    In short, it would be a mistake to substitute the word “slave” every time one reads the word “servant” in the New Testament.

  22. daproff,
    Always glad to have feedback. I agree that several statuses exist under the rubric “abad” and that some are better described as “servants.” This is certainly the case in Babylonia, the material with which I am most familiar. But those people called “servants” in the OT who are demonstrably kinless are definitely “slaves.” Calling Hagar a maidservant or some such hides who she really was.

  23. Ronan,

    I agree with you that the Biblical rendition makes it clear that Hagar is the property of Sarah, but we must tread carefully when applying modern biases about slavery with every instance of it anciently, in particular when the individual situation is more accurately understood as servile.

    God bless.

  24. Regarding the ayn-b-d root of “slave/servant”. I don’t know Hebrew other than tangentially, but the same root exists in Arabic. While I’m not a linguist, my experience with the word over the years has really only shown me two uses (my experience includes the LDS standard works, Islamic religious contexts, historical reading, modern cultural usage). Either a true slave (used matter of factly or as a derogatory racist term such as one hears applied towards sub-Saharan Africans all too frequently in the Arab world), or else in a spiritual symbolic sense describing a person or prophet’s relationship to God. Almost all the “Abdul” names one hears in Arabic/amongst Muslims mean servant/slave of God (generally using one of his ninety-nine characters/attributes for the second half of the name, though occasionally the name of God itself in Abdullah or the rarer Abd al-Ilah – “servant of the God”). Some Christians use Christ or titles of Christ in this fashion (i.e. Abdul Masih – “servant of Christ).

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