There is a really jarring scene in 12 Years a Slave where a slave master quotes Luke 12:47 as justification for whipping his slaves. It is jarring because in my heart I feel that slavery is a horrific sin, but yet the Bible does talk about masters and servants. In fact, there are laws about servitude in the Torah. When I was an atheist, I thought that was just another example of backwards thinking of a belief system based on myth. I have been thinking a lot of slavery in context of the bible and have learned so much I wanted to share it. And part of me hopes you are offended, but not so much so that you do not hear how remarkable the Bible is. Or how radical a message Jesus was bringing. Slavery is so integral to the gospel and I feel so few really have considered what the Bible is saying in regards to slavery. It is equally offensive, radical, and profound.
Secular Servitude vs Biblical Servitude
Genesis ends with Israel as a family going to Egypt and Exodus opens with that situation becoming desperate. So horrible is the situation that Israel cries out to God and he remembers them and His promise to them. There are a few things I want to point out about Israel’s bondage to Egypt.
First, how did they come to find themselves in bondage? I think this is important because the truth is we are now in bondage of a different kind. We are slaves to sin like Israel was in bondage to Egypt. So perhaps in seeing our situation for what it is, we would also cry out to God and he would remember us. In the Lord’s prayer, we are taught to ask God for our daily bread. When years of famine came, instead of turning to God, Israel turned to Egypt. Egypt is the antithesis of the promise land and God’s people. It is a representation of the secular world in some ways. Joseph tells his father and his brother about his dreams and they throw him in a pit and sell him. Joseph interprets Pharoah’s dreams and Pharaoh responds by rewarding him as much as he can. In many cases in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible, God is explicit in why someone is being punished and going so far to make the sin clear and the consequences of that sin, but not in the case of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. But we do have this narrative and in it there are some similarities with other stories. Esau sell’s his birthright for food. And now the whole family of Israel finds itself selling themselves for food (Exodus 47:13-31). This is how bondage works: one party makes a payment of money or goods (in this case food) or forgives a debt and the other party commits themselves to serve that person. Israel give their land, their cattle, their money, everything they possess, and ultimately they give themselves and in return they get food. That is the exchange. My mom use to say, “you don’t hate anybody.” Somehow it was so wrong to hate that my mom would not acknowledge any statement where I claimed otherwise. But one of the few claims to hate someone is Esau. He hates Esau because he gave this great gift (his inheritance) in exchange for food. And when he frees Israel they begin to complain because of lack of food and you see that same anger.
So servitude or slavery must be a bad thing? That does not seem to be the case. We must see here and elsewhere there is God’s way and there is a secular wrong way. Egypt represent’s this secular way of servitude. You can see similar parallels with the gifts of God. The God given gift of telling the future is called prophecy. The secular, evil way of telling the future is called necromancy. Necromancy defined by Google: the supposed practice of communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future. Witchcraft, sorcery, or black magic in general. But there is a biblical servitude and that servitude is good. Take a second and define what you think of when you here the word slavery. Compare that to some of what the bible says about servitude in the Torah. A servant is to serve six years and then go out in the seventh year for nothing. A master can physically punish a servant…but only to a point and beyond that the servant may go out for free. It also says that a servant may decide on his own accord that he loves his master and chooses to stay with his master as a servant forever. What?
Servitude is awesome! It must be if someone would choose to make that arrangement permanent. I think the Bible is setting us up for something. It is the greater Exodus to come. Where we find ourselves servants to the one true God. We will not want to go out. We will finally find a leader worthy of a permanency. But consider a second the sign of this arrangement given in Exodus 21:6. If you think that sounds like Jesus being pierced on a wooden cross, that is no accident. First, in celebrating Passover, a flawless lamb is to be sacrificed and the blood put on the doorpost as a sign for God. There is another case similar to blood on the doorpost. The Hebrew word for love. Have you ever heard that Jesus is the prince of peace? He is a prince as he is the descendant of kings like Solomon but not yet crowned king. He is the prince of peace because the name Solomon comes from the Hebrew word peace: shalom. In the same way, Jesus is the prince of love. He is the decedent of King David. David’s name comes from the Hebrew word love: dod. You may have heard a husband dodding on his wife. But Hebrew letters have a symbolic meaning. The “Dalet” is a doorpost. And the “Vav is a nail. So the name for David and the word for love is Dalet Vav Dalet. Or a nail on a doorpost. Which is the sign for a servant making a permanent covenant with his master to enter that relationship forever.
Man as master versus God as master
Just like we see this idea of secular and Biblical servitude, we see a secular and Biblical view of a master, king, or leader. And it is not Biblical versus secular. It is man versus God. God warns Israel in 1 Samuel 8 when Israel demands a king to rule over them that a man, even if given by God, would not make a good king. That man as a master will only seek to enrich himself at the expense of those that serve him. In other words, there is no middle ground. We can serve God or we will serve a man and that man will always, out of his own greed, take the best for himself. Is that not what we see today? King, emperor, Caesar, Pharaoh, president. By any name the result is the same. The American experiment promised something better. We would govern ourselves and that will work. Has it? As the old adage goes: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. We are insane. Also worth noting that God says that a king would tax a tenth. What I would give for taxes to be so low! This is a bad deal that only gets worse. We should, like Israel, cry out to God to remember us. As the Lord’s prayer suggests, “Thine kingdom come!” and “On earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus came to serve?!?!
When I first started reading and researching this topic, I was surprised that the word “slave” is not in the original translation of the Bible WHATSOEVER. That word is not used until later translations. The earlier King James version used “servitude” entirely. So for now it is safe to say the term slave is equal to servant when reading the bible. Is there a distinction between Biblical servitude and secular? Clearly. But this term as being equal is important when reading the New Testament. In the Gospels, our king has finally come! And then he lays this bombshell: “I did not come to be served, but to serve.” Mathew 20:28, Mark 10:45. And probably best illustrated when he washes the feet of his disciples. I am sure this was probably one of the greatest WTF moments in the whole Bible. God himself, manifest as Jesus finally come to set things right and establish His kingdom on earth and then declares, “I did not come to be your king but to be your slave.” Now remember the sign for a servant committing to serve his master forever? He is pierced on the doorpost? Symbolically, Jesus being nailed to the cross has several meanings. He is taking on a curse, our sin. He is a sacrifice for our sin and paying our debts. And he is committing to serve us forever.