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The Rest of the Law - Part 5 Biblical Slavery

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Issue #145February 2001

The Rest of the Law - Part 5 Biblical Slavery

One reason we have entitled this series "The Rest of the Law" is because it has a double meaning. The first meaning is that this deals with the laws following the Ten Commandments, completing the law, or giving specific statutes and judgments that define the Ten Commandments in more detail.

The second meaning of our title uses the term "rest" in the sense of the absence of works. In other words, our view of the law is not something that is laborious and "grievous" as a heavy burden to bear. It would only be a burden if we attach our salvation to our ability to keep the law perfectly.

If we believe that we must attain perfection before we can be saved, or be worthy of salvation, then that becomes a tremendous burden to us. But if we treat the law as a revelation of the mind of God, giving us a written standard of morality by which we measure righteousness and sin, then the law is a basic guide to relationships between men.

When we view the book of Exodus as a guide from Egypt to the Promised Land, from bondage to freedom in Christ, then the law is an integral part of that freedom march. True freedom takes us from bondage of sin into the liberty of bondage to Christ. There is no liberty apart from being a bondservant to Jesus Christ. We are slaves either to sinful flesh or to Christ. There is no other option.

The law teaches us how to enter into God's Rest. That is the meaning of the Sabbath laws. While the priests in Jesus' day had made the Sabbath a heavy burden, Jesus cut away all of their fleshly interpretations and showed us by His example the true meaning of the Sabbath-Rest.

There are three Sabbath Rests in the law. The first is the Sabbath DAY, the second is the Sabbath YEAR, and the final Sabbath called the JUBILEE. From Moses to Ezra it appears that most of the people (particularly of Judah) observed the Sabbath Day. After the Babylonian captivity, they did begin to observe the Sabbath Year. But no serious attempt was ever made to actually observe the Jubilee. In their eyes it was just not practical. And so they did not obtain any real understanding of the Jubilee, and this has been the case to the present day.

It is not our purpose here to deal with the subject of the Sabbath, but rather to present the concept of Rest as an introduction to the subject of Biblical Slavery. This is the root of the law against kidnapping found in Exodus 21:16.

The Law of Kidnapping

The law against kidnapping, or stealing a person, is found in Exodus 21:16,

16 And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession [as a slave], shall surely be put to death.

The primary reason for kidnapping has always been to put someone into slavery. From the earliest times in man's history, dating at least back to Nimrod in Babylon, men have sought control over other people to use them as a source of cheap labor. Their motives vary. For some it is simple greed, or covetousness. The laborer ought to be paid what his labor is worth, rather than attempt to extract from him as much labor as possible for the cost of food, a roof, and a bit of clothing.

For some, slavery meets a morbid psychological need to dominate other people. We can notice this motive among politicians and power brokers, but also among ordinary people who lack the opportunity to enslave whole populations, but to those who know them they are "little dictators."

People have written thousands of books on each of these topics, because people from all past ages have been concerned about freedom and slavery. Unfortunately, many times people have justified slavery on the grounds that the Bible permits it in the law. That is our concern in our present study. How does the Bible treat slavery?

God is the Ultimate Slaveholder

From the Bible's perspective, God is the Creator of all things. Therefore, God owns all things, including man. For this reason, God is Lord of all, and man is under His authority. Whenever man rebels against God or disobeys Him in any manner, it is a violation of this basic law of creation and of biblical slavery.

A slaveholder can be either benevolent and loving toward those under him, such as we find in the case of God--or, as in the case of most earthly slaveholders, men can be quite harsh and self-serving. God does not outlaw slavery itself, because that in itself is not the problem. If it were a moral problem, then God would have to give up His sovereign right as Creator of mankind.

Because God has sovereignty over His creation, He has the right to establish laws for the rest of us to follow. In doing so, He did not abolish slavery among men, but neither did He give any man absolute authority over another. Under God's law, even slaves have rights. No man has the right of life and death over his slaves. No man has the right to rape his female slaves. No slave owner has the right or lawful authority to mistreat his slaves.

Slave owners are to treat their slaves as they would want God to treat them. In fact, men have often treated their slaves according to their concept of how God treats men. Their misunderstanding of the mind and character of God has led to some very brutal slavery laws. The problem is that they did not know God for who He really is. They only knew Him by the religious traditions of their culture.

What is Biblical Slavery?

In the Bible, involuntary slavery of one man to another is a product of sin. Men become involuntary slaves when they cannot pay their debt in any other way. Sometimes men incur debts by borrowing more than they repay in the contract. Others incur debts by sinning against their neighbors. In either case, the judge sentences the debtor to work to repay the debt. The debtor has no choice in this matter--hence, the servitude is involuntary slavery.

In Exodus 22:1-4 the divine law speaks of theft. The one who steals must pay his victim restitution. Verse 3 says that the one convicted of stealing "shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft." This is involuntary servitude--slavery. It was established to protect the rights of the victims to be recompensed for their losses.

This law was also established to protect the rights of the thief. His restitution was set according to the value of what he stole--not from whom he stole the item. In those days if a man stole cattle from the temple or palace, he had to restore 30 times its value; but if he stole from a poor man, he had to restore only 10 times its value. (See Paragraph 8 of the Law of Hammurabi, i.e., Nimrod, or "Amraphel" of Gen. 14:1.) If the thief stole certain items directly from the palace or temple, he was to be put to death (Par. 6).

God's law is different, implying that the common law of the day was both unjust to the thief and unequal in its application. In the sight of God, theft is the same, whether we steal from a king or from a common person. In the Bible there is equal justice under the law.

Biblical slavery is a blessing, not a curse. It was given to ensure that the victims are fully compensated for their losses. It was also given so that the lawbreaker would pay restitution instead of being sent to the gallows or to a debtor's prison.

The Purpose of Biblical Slavery

Court-imposed servitude is indeed slavery, but the purpose of biblical slavery is to restore the lawful order. This is accomplished in three primary goals:

(1) to compensate the victim,

(2) to teach the lawbreaker righteousness (Is. 26:9), and

(3) to obtain forgiveness (grace) for the lawbreaker when the debt is fully paid.

The entire spirit of the divine law shows us that slavery must always come to an end. Page 90 of James B. Jordan's book, The Law of the Covenant, states that "slavery is a remedy for sin, and the goal of slavery is its own self-elimination." Biblical slavery was never meant to be perpetual. The Year of Jubilee always brought freedom, even if a portion of the debt remained unpaid.

A slave always had the right to redeem himself if he could do so by paying the remainder of the debt. In other words, a slave might be able to receive an inheritance or save money. Under man's laws, slaves seldom enjoyed such rights of ownership, except in cases where Christians knew God well enough to grant those rights to slaves.

Teaching the Lawbreaker Righteousness

It is assumed in the Bible that a thief has not learned the basic principle of respecting other men's property rights. Christian prisoners have told me of this problem, where many who are in prison really believe that they have the right to take other men's belongings. The hearts of many prisoners are full of anger and bitterness, and they perceive that the only way for them to survive in the world is to take from others all that they can.

This is what the world has taught them, because they have never had opportunity to see the love of God in action. There are too few Christians who really know God well enough to manifest His character in their own lives. Christians also tend to demand more punishment for criminals, stiffer penalties, longer sentences in prison, less love, and more laws. I once thought the same before I began to understand the mind of God in His law.

James Jordan's book has a very good section dealing with slavery, which I believe is well worth quoting here. Though I do not know the author, and the book is out of print, I received a photo-copy of the book from a friend who is a Christian attorney. This was the textbook used in a course on Biblical Law while he was in law school. (It was a course which very few students took.) We read from pages 87-89:

"Since God approves of the institution of household slavery for fallen men, it clearly is in some ways a blessing. First of all, it is a blessing in that it restrains the natural laziness and anti-dominical tendencies of sinful men. Ideally, the wicked are forced by the righteous to work whether they want to or not; indeed, this is set forth as a future blessing for God's people in Isaiah 14:2 and 61:5.

"Second, it is a blessing in that it trains men to work; and it does so in the best possible environment, that of the family or household. In that the slave is attached to the household, is not paid for his labor, and is beaten for disobedience, the slave is really an adult child, and is receiving in his adult years the same kind of formative education that children receive. The Bible contemplates that there will come an end of this pedagogy, at least for the faithful converted slave, after which he takes his place as a late-blooming but now mature citizen.

"Third, it is a blessing in that it places sinners and unbelievers in the best possible environment for evangelization: the Christian home.

"Thus, household slavery is a healing institution. Man's relationship to God has been distorted by the rebellion of man. Household slavery restores order by forcing the unbeliever under the rule of God, in the persons of the Godly; and places him in the way of the gospel.

"Man's relationship to the cosmos has been perverted by sin. Household slavery restores sinners to a right relation to the cosmos, by forcing them to work, and by directing their labors in a proper, 'Jerusalem' direction.

"Man's relationship to his fellowman has been warped by man's fall. Household slavery restores order by breaking down statism, and by placing natural subjects under their proper rulers.

"Slavery, then, is a byproduct of the rebellion of man, but in the proper form and administered by covenantally faithful people, it is a means for restraining and even rolling back the effects of the Fall and of the curse, by 'common grace' discipline and by 'special grace' evangelization. . . .

"Slavery was not designed to be paradise, however. . . Slaves may be beaten to extract their labor, for unlike free men, they have no economic incentive to work, and those who are not believers cannot be appealed to by evangelical motives or ecclesiastical discipline. What remains is the rod, and Solomon recommended strictness (Prov. 29:19, 21; cf. 13:24). Common sense dictates that the proper part of the human body to which the rod is to be applied is the buttocks, which is well padded. Some masters might exceed this common-sense restriction, and if they do any irreparable damage to the slave, he is to go free on that account. Exodus 21:26, 27 specify the loss of eye or tooth, but any permanent damage would be equivalent.

"If the slave is beaten to death, the master is to be "punished" (Ex. 21:20). The punishment is spelled out in Leviticus 24:17, 22 as death. Murder is murder. If, however, the slave lingers a day or two before dying, the law assumes that the master did not intend to kill him, and the loss of the financial benefit of the slave is regarded as sufficient punishment (Ex. 21:21). . . .

"To be a slave was to run something of a risk: the risk of being beaten to death, of losing an eye or a tooth, of being exposed to goring oxen. Are these laws unjust? Obviously not, being God's laws. To understand this situation it is only necessary to keep in mind that slavery is a remedy for sin, and the goal of slavery is its own self-elimination. If slavery were a socialistic dream paradise, many people would be attracted to it as an escape from responsible living. The condition of slavery is made sufficiently hard that men will be discouraged from entering it, and encouraged to seek to earn their freedom."

Evangelism by Slavery?

Now there's a revolutionary thought! Jordan's premise, as stated toward the beginning, is that "the slave is really an adult child, and is receiving in his adult years the same kind of formative education that children receive." Even as children must learn righteousness by discipline, so also must the "adult child" who has thus come under the law because of his sin. When our children are disobedient, they must be corrected. If necessary, they must be forced to be obedient until such time as the law is written on their hearts and they do what is right by nature.

The problem is that by the time men reach adulthood, it is often more difficult to train them in righteousness. In past years many troubled teens who broke the law were given the choice of a jail sentence or joining the military. This is not really a biblical solution, of course, but judges have recognized the need for discipline to change their behavior patterns and make them mature citizens.

In my opinion it would take a mature and loving Spirit-led Christian to really apply the law in such a way that the morally immature adult child would learn righteousness. As with our children, the important thing is not the form of punishment itself, but that the parent obtain the child's respect and attention. A parent's word must mean something, and the child must know that it could be backed up with whatever force is necessary. Once this is firmly established, force is seldom necessary and should be used with some reluctance.

Secondly, all force must be administered, not out of anger, jealousy, bitterness, or any other sin-motive. It must be administered as God would administer it. It must reflect true and consistent justice, not whimsical beatings based upon how the child (or adult-child) has inconvenienced us or interrupted our attention to the ball game on television.

The parent-child relationship is very similar to a master-slave relationship, when we view it biblically. In Galatians 4:1-3 Paul says that the child differs in no way from a slave:

1 Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave [Greek: doulos] although he is owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. 3 So also we, while we were children, were held inbondage . . . .

Paul compares unbelievers to children in bondage to the elements of the world. Even immature believers--while in the Passover or Pentecostal level of growth, are like children yet in bondage to the parent until he is grown. However, from the parental point of view, this little "slave child" is a future heir and must be trained by loving discipline in the principles of true justice and mercy. That way the child will grow up knowing and understanding the character of God. There will be an easy transfer of authority from parent to God when the child leaves home.

If done correctly, and all goes well, the child will have no resentment being under the authority of either God or men. They will be productive and cheerful employees who are anxious to please their employers. And if they become employers themselves, they will know how to do so with a proper spirit and attitude.

This brings us to the fact that biblical authority is actually responsibility to train and bring people into their full potential. Parents are responsible to train their children and bring them into full maturity as productive citizens. Employers have less authority over their employees, particularly over their personal lives, so they have less responsibility in this matter; but even so, employers have some responsibility to train employees.

Government, in direct proportion to its authority, is likewise responsible for its citizens. The main problem here is that most political governments tend to increase their authority over their citizens, and the people become more and more immature in their character. It is as though the people are like children who begin life at 18 and then gradually grow down to age 2. Government policies tend to take increase their responsibility and authority over the citizens, increasing their slavery. True biblical government works toward making the citizens (or children) mature, free, and productive.

If the citizens of any nation were actually to mature in their moral character, the legislature would feel no need to pass more and more laws to cover newly invented crimes that somehow were not covered by the previous laws. The problem is that men (and lawyers) keep searching for new ways around the laws that have already been passed. Men search for new ways to steal without being prosecuted. Lawyers search for ways around the law to keep their clients from being prosecuted successfully.

The Final Age of Slavery

The final age is characterized by the "lake of fire" (Rev. 20:14, 15. This "fire" is the judgment of the law upon sinners. The law was made for lawbreakers (1 Tim. 1:9). God gave the "fiery law" to Moses (Deut. 33:2). Daniel saw this fire coming out of the throne of fire (Dan. 7:9, 10) where it was pictured as a fiery stream. John pictures it as a lake of fire, but the symbolism is the same.

Ezekiel 47 and Rev. 22:2 picture it as a river of life coming from the throne. Fire pictures the law. Water focuses upon its life-giving quality as the Word of God. Both cleanse and rejuvenate. The fire burns out the dross; the water washes it away. The laver is the "molten sea" in 1 Kings 7:23 and also the sea of glass and fire (Rev. 15:2).

The point is this: at the Great White Throne Judgment, all men are raised for judgment by the divine law. The unbelievers will be sentenced to be slaves of believers, who inherit the earth. The earth, I believe, will be divided among the believers, and the unbelievers will serve them as slaves. For what purpose? To evangelize them--to teach them righteousness in the best possible setting. They will be able to see the loving character of Christ manifested in their masters. The sin of the sinners will be reckoned as a debt, but because they have nothing with which to pay their debt, they will be sold into biblical slavery.

Isaiah 26:9 says that they will then learn righteousness. The law will be imposed, maybe even severely at first, but once they have learned to respect the law (word) of their master, less and less force will be needed. The sinners will be obedient, and their character will begin to change. Ultimately, there will be no need for law, for all will know Him from the least to the greatest. This is the ultimate secret of the law: its goal is its own self-elimination.