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Summary: A description and defense of the Old Testament’s laws on slavery; Jesus as the one who saves us from slavery to sin

Slavery

Last week, we looked at the letter to Philemon, a letter about a slave. So this week, I thought we’d look in more depth at slavery. See, you’ll often hear this attack on the bible: the bible’s for slavery, and it’s wrong on that. So why listen to anything the bible says? If it gets something obvious like slavery wrong, we definitely can’t trust it on harder questions. How do we respond to such an attack? Well we need to understand what the bible does and doesn’t say about slavery.

I want to look at slavery in two ways. First, to summarise the Old Testament laws on slavery, and second, to see that Jesus has saved us from slavery to sin.

But let me start with a joke. You might not know that one of the world’s oldest recorded jokes is about a slave. It goes like this; A man complains that the slave he has recently purchased has died. "By the gods,’ says the slave’s former owner (not a Christian, it seems) ,"By the gods", he says, "when he was with me, he never did any such thing."

First, then, a summary and defense of the Old Testament’s slavery laws.

There are a number of ways the Old Testament allowed Israelites to become slaves. They were allowed to sell themselves into slavery. It might be necessary if they were poor, hungry or in debt, Leviticus 25:39. ’If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. So people could sell themselves. But such slaves were to be treated well, like hired workers, not working him like you might want to work a slave.

Another way to become a slave was by being a thief - thieves had to pay back as much as five times what they stole, Exodus 22. And so verse 3 of that chapter, quote: "A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.". Another way to enter slavery might be through assault - for example, a man who strikes a pregnant woman could be heavily fined, the fine going to the woman’s family. Exodus 21:22. If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. So if the fine is more than the man can pay, slavery may result. And other assaults were similar in terms of a fine, and so potential slavery.

Another way into slavery, is that someone might choose to sell their children as slaves - Exodus 21:7 If a man sells his daughter as a servant. Unfortunately it might be necessary for a father to do this instead of selling himself. For if he had other children, he could not leave them with no provider. A very sad situation, but it was allowed. Or you can also become a slave by being born one, as a child of a slave, or by being captured in war as a foreign enemy of Israel.

Notice however, there were some ways of becoming slaves that the bible forbids. Exodus 21:16 is against kidnapping people into slavery: 16 "Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death. Whatever you think of the death penalty, the Old Testament is very much against kidnapping slaves, very much against, for example the African slave trade of 3 centuries ago.

Nevertheless, there were a number of acceptable ways people might become slaves.

So how were slaves to be freed in the Old Testament?

Hebrew slaves served up to six years to pay back their debts. After the 6 years they had to be set free, and given sufficient assets to make a new start. Deuteronomy 15:12 And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. 14 Supply him liberally. This did not apply to women who when they were sold as slaves, were expected to remain with their husbands. So if she married a freeman, she stayed with him. If he divorced her, she was then no longer a slave, Exodus 21:8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. So that’s one route to freedom. On the other hand, if she married a slave, her husband could choose to stay with her, both as slaves, until the year of Jubilee. At that point, the whole family would be freed. Leviticus 25:40 he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. I take it the wife leaves at that point as well.

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