Labour and working conditions, maybe we think they’re slavery, are our lot for eight hours a day. Sometimes much more. What does the Bible say?
When you put slavery in the same sentence with employment, you know ears will prick up. The definition of slavery is: Slavery refers to a condition in which individuals are owned by others, who control where they live and at what they work. This can include sex slavery, child and forced labor under the most atrocious conditions.
When it comes to God, Who is love (1 John 4:8), immediately slavery takes on a very unsavory taste. It appears to be at the antipodes of Godly principles. And indeed, as the dictionary defines it and as it’s practiced, it’s about as far from Godly as we can imagine.
So, why do we find God condoning slavery in the Old Testament? Why do we find rules to govern forced labor? Why do we even find references to it in the New Testament? What does the Bible say, and especially, what is God’s viewpoint on this subject?
First, we have to keep in mind hardness of heart. A subject I dealt with at length in the last post. Please revise it. In essence, God gave laws for NON law-abiding people, to maintain peace and order in a non-converted society. A non-converted society is one ignoring God, even if outwardly it talks about or even exercises supposedly Godly practices.
Second, we must look at this from God’s point of view. Not from ours, neither from state or national laws of any country trying to control of abolish slavery or establish proper labor laws. What this means is we must broach this subject theologically. Revise the meaning of theological. In one phrase, it means from God’s perspective, not our interpretation.
Next week’s post will expound Godview. That word does not exist in the dictionary because the world is limited to a worldview. Well, a worldview is much too limited for God. The world and its reasoning are wayward with regard to God. The Bible is not a worldview; it presents Godview. Unfortunately, many come at the Bible from a worldview, and that’s why we get so many interpretations and confusing viewpoints, the origin of so many religions.
Here’s the Godview of Whom we work for, to Whom we owe allegiance. It goes right back to Genesis 2, in the Garden of Eden.
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress (H5647) it and to keep it.
I wrote a chapter in Origin of Woman devoted to these words dress and keep. Please read this online Dress and Keep Garden of Eden. Man Destined to be a Gardener? It will give you fuller meaning. In that chapter I pointed out the Biblical Hebrew meaning of dress is worship. God put Adam and Eve in the Garden to worship, not it, but Him.
Now, according to Key 1, One Biblical Hebrew word can have multiple meanings, and Key 2, One Biblical Hebrew word can have contradictory meanings, to master Biblical Hebrew, please understand a fuller meaning of dress, H5647. This is directly related to hard labor and slavery.
עָבַד ʻâbad aw-bad’; a primitive root; to work (in any sense); by implication, to serve, till, (causatively) enslave, etc.:
KJV – ⨯ be, keep in bondage, be bondmen, bond-service, compel, do, dress, ear, execute, + husbandman, keep, labour(-ing man, bring to pass, (cause to, make to) serve(-ing, self), (be, become) servant(-s), do (use) service, till(-er), transgress (from margin), (set a) work, be wrought, worshipper,
Strong, in his annotation uses the word enslave, the KJV translators used the old English keep in bondage, bondmen, bond-service, compel. They too use labour, so we can easily say it’s compelled labor, which is tantamount to forced labor.
Yes, quite amazing, the Biblical Hebrew connects bondage and slavery to worship! When you can explain that, you’ve come a very long way to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. And especially, God’s plan and the relationship of a human being to God Himself. I will come back to this point at the end of this post.
It is important to note all the various translations of that word. The translations are correct. It includes ALL these notions, including that of a slave. There is ample evidence for this, as we shall see. Here’s the implication, and this is one of those hard sayings as I pointed out last week.
Adam was to be God’s servant, he was to worship God alone. As such, Adam was to be God’s slave.
Sounds awful, but why wouldn’t you want to be the slave of a loving God? Think about it, I’ll show you that’s exactly what our destiny is!
What this means is, trying to prove God is AGAINST slavery is nonsense. God is absolutely against the WRONG type of slavery. This is a key principle. There are abominable practices everywhere on this planet. They include forced labour, bonded labour, child slavery, child marriage, descent-based slavery, domestic slavery, slavery in supply chains and slavery in the UK and every country around the world including yours. This slavery takes many forms called unfree labor, but it ends up being slavery.
Please, please realize that God is 1000%, totally against such forms of slavery. He condemns and abhors that type of shackling human beings. That’s the bottom line. The Bible has no tolerance for that kind of behavior.
People have practiced the wrong type of slavery since time immemorial. In Old and New Testament times and today, around the world. The Bible condemns such practice of slavery as we’ll see.
It is because of this abhorrent slavery, because the hardness of the human heart goes to extremes in how it treats fellow humans, that God instituted laws to govern HOW slavery is to be practiced.
Again, this might sound horrible but sometimes, for a human being, it is better to be in a PROPER (please bore that into your mind) master-slave relationship than to be homeless and destitute out in the cold hostile streets who knows where. Or to be treated like dirt and even worse.
The principles we will survey here apply equally to employers and employees. Some, maybe more than we realize, feel they’re treated like slaves, with wages, but slaves nonetheless. Employees are hassled, over-worked, underpaid, taken advantage of, forced to do abominable things or threatened with losing their jobs. They’re working under slave conditions, even if we don’t call them slaves.
Here’s a summary of what the Bible says, there’s too much material to go into all the details, but by grasping the Godview you can understand the rest.
1 Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.
2 If thou buy an Hebrew servant (H5650 directly related to H5647 we saw above, this is a slave), six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
3 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.
4 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.
5 And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:
6 Then his master shall bring him to the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or to the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.
Ouch, bore his ear with an awl. Straightaway this reads barbaric. First, interestingly, slavery is the very first judgment given by God following the Ten Commandments, and the above 6 verses are the very first verses about slavery. How is it possible for a loving God to give such wisdom as the Ten Commandments and immediately follow-up with slavery? Again, when you can answer this question, you’ve come a long way to understanding the Godview, the theology of the Old and New Testaments.
Remember, hardness of heart. These Israelites and the people who accompanied them during the Exodus are anything but converted. This episode is just a few weeks after the Exodus when they witnessed countless miracles of God Almighty. Yet, look at the people’s reaction, “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said to Moses, Speak you with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die (Exodus 20:18-19).”
The people thought God would kill them! Amazing! God had just performed incredible miracles to save them. Hardness of heart is an understatement regarding their attitude. That’s why God gave them worldly, physical judgments, nothing spiritual at all, hoping they’d follow them at a minimum. Even those, they transgressed.
But the physical practices do have spiritual overtones. Here’s a brief spiritual, figurative explanation of the above context of a bought Hebrew slave. This physical slavery is the counterpart of a Christian’s spiritual slavery to God. In the case of a Hebrew, if they are bought it’s because they’re in dire straights, they’ve lost everything (remember each Hebrew has a family and a land inheritance). For whatever reason, criminal, bankruptcy, personal problems, this Hebrew is destitute.
The spiritual parallel is God bought and paid for Christians with the blood of Jesus Christ. If the slave decides to leave after marriage, the family stays. One, because the man loves his family less than his own freedom. Two, because it assures stability for the wife and children. Staying with his master is a free will decision, just as a Christian does with their calling by God.
Now the awl, this is the sign he belongs to his master. Just as circumcision is a similar sign in the flesh. The Christian has a spiritual seal, ” And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads (Revelation 19:4).” The seal of God is the Holy Spirit coupled with the spirit in man (Ephesians 1:13). Like the slave, those with the seal have decided to stay forever with their Master, God, and their family, the faithful Church.
This is the fulfillment of the two great commandments, love God your Master, love your neighbor, which will be all those in God’s family, His Church. And it will be forever. Why is slavery broached immediately after the Commandments? Because It is the PHYSICAL application of the FIRST Commandment. I brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of worldly bondage (Ex. 20:2). The slave master buys the slave out of destitution and gives him a home. The slave then had to show allegiance to his new owner. You shall have no other gods before me (Ex. 20:3).
When one understands a slave master has the position of a loving father to the slave, then it becomes easier to comprehend the whole concept of slavery and employer-employee working conditions in the Bible.
In the surrounding nations then, and with today’s nations, slave masters know nothing of God’s spiritual and physical practices. Here’s what God told the unconverted Israelites regarding their worship and civil practices.
When you are come into the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations.
God condemns their abominable way of life, including their horrendous ways of treating slaves. He gave them better ways. Never forget what Paul wrote about the commandments in Romans 7:12 “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” Look how good they are toward the slave in Deuteronomy. These are the laws that the Israelites were to apply on settlement in the Promised Land.
12 And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold to you, and serve you six years; then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.
13 And when you send him out free from you, you shall not let him go away empty:
14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, and out of your floor, and out of your winepress: of that wherewith the LORD your God has blessed you you shall give to him.
15 And you shall remember that you were a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you: therefore I command you this thing to day.
16 And it shall be, if he say to you, I will not go away from you; because he loves you and your house, because he is well with you;
17 Then you shall take an aul, and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant for ever. And also to your maidservant you shall do likewise.
18 It shall not seem hard to you, when you send him away free from you; for he has been worth a double hired servant to you, in serving you six years: and the LORD your God shall bless you in all that you do.
The forlorn slave had up to six years of instructive supervision to prepare for a new start in life. During that time, he or she had good food and a comfortable bed and a home for their family. They became proficient in a trade after following an apprenticeship. They developed a professional skill, maybe more than one, along with the ethics of working hard and efficiently. And when they left, they were not cast out on the street. They had enough goods and capital to start their new life without being indebted to some loan shark or bank. A more favorable condition than that would be hard to come by, even today.
Non-Hebrew workers did not benefit from all these advantages, but their lot was far better and fairer than anything in the surrounding nations. Here are just a few laws to consider.
- Canaanite slaves must work forever unless injured in one of their limbs — Lev. 25:46
- Not to extradite a slave who fled to Biblical Israel — Deut. 23:16
- Not to wrong a slave who has come to Israel for refuge — Deut. 23:16
Workers had legal rights enforced by Judges
- Courts were to carry out the laws of a hired worker and hired guard — Ex. 22:9
- Employers must pay wages at the end of the day’s work — Deut. 24:15
- If there was an agreed negotiated time for payment, there is to be no delay — Lev. 19:13
- No allowance to oppress workers — Lev. 25:53
- While employed, the hired worker could eat from the employer’s unharvested crops — Deut. 23:25
- But the worker could not eat during hired time — Deut. 23:26
- The worker should not take more than he can eat from the unharvested field — Deut. 23:25
- Even treatment of animals was in the law. Don’t muzzle an ox while it’s plowing — Deut. 25:4
There’s negotiation and absence of oppression. Both employers and employees have rights and one is to respect the other. An agreement is mutual, even with a slave.
The meaning of slavery in the New Testament
In the New Testament, we find Christians involved with vestiges of slavery. We’re in Roman times when slavery existed, and God called both slaves and masters who became Christians. The single chapter book of Philemon, the name of a Christian who had God’s assemblies in his house, and was also a slave master. His slave, Onesimus, had escaped and gone to the Apostle Paul.
Onesimus is a Christian convert, so both the slave master and the slave are in the Church. Paul writes, “For perhaps he (Onesimus) therefore departed for a season, that you (Philemon) should receive him for ever; Not now as a servant (G1401), but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” Paul tells Philemon about Onesimus, but it’s up to him to decide this future of his slave.
Paul requests the slave’s release. On what grounds? Yes, there’s the seventh year release in the Old Testament, but there’s especially Christian mercy. It doesn’t say what the outcome was. However, the key here is although the New Testament talks about slavery, by its sheer existence, in no case does it prone nor condone it, To the contrary, from Philemon we learn to treat them as a Christian should, even letting them go free.
Let’s return to the spiritual meaning of a slave. Here’s the ultimate example, one we are to follow.
25 But Jesus called them (His disciples) to him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority on them.
26 But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
27 And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant (G1401):
28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Jesus came to be a servant, the Servant of servants. Look at the meaning of the Greek.
δοῦλος doulos doo’-los; From G1210; a slave (literally or figuratively involuntarily or voluntarily; frequently therefore in a qualified sense of subjection or subserviency):
KJV – bond (-man) servant.
δέω deō deh’-o; A primary verb; to bind (in various applications literally or figuratively): KJV – bind be in bonds knit tie wind. See also G1163 G1189
In Romans 1:1 Paul calls himself “a servant of Christ Jesus.” He uses the Greek doulos (H1401) which we saw means slave. Peter and James do the same in the first verses of their Epistles. In Rom. 1:9 Paul adds, “For God is my witness, whom I serve (G3000) with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.” Look it up at UnlockBibleMeaning.com. Strong indicates λατρεύω from λάτρις latris (a hired menial); to minister (to God) that is render religious homage: The KJV translations: serve, do the service, worship (-per).
A slave doing God’s service as a worshipper. Interesting, it takes us all the way back to why God created Adam and placed him in His Garden, to serve and worship. That kind of slavery is spiritual excellence.
Slavery with its atrocities is an abomination to God, it is at the antipodes of love your neighbor. The Old Testament laws, because of hardness of their hearts, was a humane employer-employee relationship with everyone’s rights protected. It could develop into a lifetime working relationship for both parties. In the new Testament, Christians become willing slaves of God’s righteousness. Their goal is to be a worshipper or slave of God in His Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of God, forever.
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