The Bible and Slavery: in the ancient Near East everybody was subject to somebody (but NOT like the African slaves of the West)

Though not popular in highly individualistic cultures like those in the West, in the ancient Near East (ANE) everyone pretty much understood they were subordinate to someone or something.  A mindset of total freedom from outside authority was unthinkable in those days.  Here’s some historical info related to this:

Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for “slave” in all the region’s languages illustrates. “Slave” could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his “slaves,” even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the “slave” of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were “slaves” of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as “your slave.” There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge.”  [A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, R. Westbrook (ed). 2003. As cited by Glenn Miller in online paper]

This shows how different the ANE idea of “slave” was to that which most usually comes to the mind of typical Americans or westerners.  In the ANE there were so many variations and relationships of subordination. But our minds usually go to only one model or meaning for the word slavery:  the African slave trade of the New World (17-19th centuries).

New World slavery was a distinct combination of features.  Its use of slaves was clearly specialized as unfree labor, producing commodities such as cotton and sugar, for a world market.  By 1850 nearly two-thirds of slaves in the South were engaged in the production of cotton.  This free labor in the South generated profits comparable to those from other investments and was only ended as a result of the Civil War.

In the ANE (and OT), this was NOT the case. The most commonly occurring motivation was economic relief of poverty, often as a result of famine or other hardship. That is, the servitude was initiated NOT by the owner but by the neediness of slave.  And this was usually for domestic (household) type duties.

The definitive work on ANE law today is the 2 volume work History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. This work (by 22 scholars) summarizes numerous legal documents from various periods (a span of 3,000 years!) in the ANE and includes sections on slavery. If you are seriously interested, here’s a link to a review of the massive work written by the author, Dr. Westbrook himself. Here is a sampling of quotes (special thanks to Glenn Miller’s great summary) that helps us see that most instances of slavery were for the purpose of addressing the debts of the poor:

  • Most slaves owned by Assyrians in Assur and in Anatolia seem to have been (originally) debt slaves–free persons sold into slavery by a parent, a husband, an elder sister, or by themselves.” (1.449)
  • “Sales of wives, children, relatives, or oneself, due to financial duress, are a recurrent feature of the Nuzi socio-economic scene…A somewhat different case is that of male and female foreigners, called hapiru (immigrants) who gave themselves in slavery to private individuals or the palace administration. Poverty was the cause of these agreements…” (1.585)
  • Most of the recorded cases of entry of free persons into slavery [in Emar] are by reason of debt or famine or both…A common practice was for a financier to pay off the various creditors in return for the debtor becoming his slave.” (1.664f)
  • “On the other hand, mention is made of free people who are sold into slavery as a result of the famine conditions and the critical economic situation of the populations [Canaan]. Sons and daughters are sold for provisions…” (1.741)
  • “The most frequently mentioned method of enslavement [Neo-Sumerian, UR III] was sale of children by their parents. Most are women, evidently widows, selling a daughter; in one instance a mother and grandmother sell a boy…There are also examples of self sale. All these cases clearly arose from poverty; it is not stated, however, whether debt was specifically at issue.” (1.199)

To sum up: over and over in the OT we read references to someone being someone else’s servant or slave. This occurs in literally hundreds of places. Kings are referred to as slaves, wealthy and powerful people as slaves, military commanders as slaves, as well as Hebrews, foreigners, impoverished folk, etc. And it almost NEVER is referring to the type of slaves or slavery that occurred in the pre-civil war American south. Comparing OT slavery with the Antebellum form, is simply not a fair or accurate thing to do.

I don’t think it is possible to overstate the importance of this fact.  More next time.

The Bible and Slavery: Care and Concern for the Poor

Image result for Refugees in America

As we begin this series, I want to start with a vital foundation.  Regardless of how a person builds a house, if he/she builds on a faulty foundation, it will sooner or later crumble upon itself.  People who argue so vehemently that Hebrew slavery was immoral and cruel, have failed to see the foundation of the Hebrew society’s conduct toward the weak and poor.  Here’s what I think is the bedrock for our understanding of slavery and the Old Testament:

For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe.

He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.

So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

The God of Israel is not only a true and living God, but His character is totally unlike the false gods of the nations.  He is above any so-called god or lord.  He is great and mighty because His character and conduct is incomparably superior to all. Being faithful and fair He cannot be bribed or manipulated. He cares for the weakest members of society: the orphans, widows, and the displaced and impoverished.

And God wants (and commands) His people to be and do JUST LIKE HIM.  Hebrews were to demonstrate their love for the aliens, providing food and covering for them.

Over and over again in the Old Testament we find not only compassion but strict and clear commandments pertaining to how God’s people were to generously help and provide for the poor, weak, and strangers around them. Consider how God clearly commanded His people to do their harvesting:

Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, or shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God…When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10,33-34)

Or again,

When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow in order that the Lord you God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-20)

It is impossible to rightly understand the concept of “slavery” in the Old Testament until you first have understood the compassion and concern of the Lord for the poor in the land. Understand also that the land was a clearly defined inheritance of the tribes, clans, and families of Israel. The land belonged to the Hebrews. Strangers could not own land.  They could sometimes own property inside walled cities. But they could not be long-term land holders. So when God refers to the stranger who “resides with you in your land”, one must understand the close proximity involved.  The strangers were basically living immediately under the benevolence, watch and care of the Hebrew landowners.  But there is more.

Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your gates, for he has no portion or inheritance among you. At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your gates. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your gates, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do. (Deuteronomy 14:27-29)

Every third year, the “tithe” of all the produce of the fields was to be brought into the gates of the nearest town, and distributed to those who had no land: the Levites, the poor, and the aliens.  Here is an amazing unspoken comparison.  The Levites were the special priestly tribe of the Hebrews, who were said to have the Lord as their inheritance.  Here God is compassionately elevating the status of widows, orphans, and aliens to that comparable of Levites!  And note that this third year “tithe” was not only a commandment but a promise: “that the Lord God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”

This is evidence of God’s great love for the “least of these”.  But there’s also something very practical happening here.  This is a national benevolence program calculated not only to help the poor but also to reduce the likelihood that the poor would have to sell themselves or their sons or daughters into debtor’s slavery. This is why after giving these laws pertaining to the weak and poor, that we see God saying, “…remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” or, “For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from Egypt.”

This is what I call the Magna Carta in the discussion of Old Testament slavery.  Before we talk about God’s instructions regarding slavery, we must first see all that God commanded to protect the poor and aliens from such an institution.  Many people, even sincere Christians, have never realized the uniqueness of the Hebrew nation in antiquity in terms of its obligation and service to the poor. Perhaps there’s no nation in history that comes close to this level of compassion for the weak, poor, and alien.  This is because the God of the Hebrews exemplifies these virtues and tells His people to be like Him. This must be understood at the outset.

If this an example of “Bronze-age ethics”, as many Bible critics love to say about the laws of Moses, then perhaps our society is not as “progressive” as some think!  Yes, we have a massive system of welfare in the US. But it arguably creates more dependents than it saves.  In contrast, the Hebrew benevolence laws not only protected the dignity but also encouraged the industry of the poor.

More next time.

The Bible and Slavery: an Introduction

Image result for bibleSlavery is a subject that creates a world of opposition and criticism of the Bible.  I know that I am inviting abuse by wading into these waters. Some who land on this page probably came looking for a fight!  Many atheists and Bible-haters love to lampoon and rail against belief in the God of the Bible for reasons like the slavery that seems to appear in it.

But there’s a problem.  What we see written we proudly assume we see clearly. It’s possible that there are few subjects so misunderstood as slavery in the Bible. We read what the ancients wrote and then assume it means what we mean when we use those words and concepts today. But often this is simply not correct.

I’m not mainly trying to win over atheists with this series of posts. And I don’t really expect to change the mind of those who come here looking to demean and argue. But I do want to help sincere readers and learners, especially those who read the Bible and love the God of the Bible.  Many of you are probably very much like me.  You think, believe, and even feel that you have a real relationship with a very real and living God. And you believe that the Bible is not only God-blessed and God-inspired, but is true and carries ultimate authority for what we are to believe as Christians.

But you have sometimes stumbled over some difficult portions in the Bible.  You may have been tempted to even conclude that the Bible gets some things wrong. Slavery in the Bible (and especially in the Old Testament) is one of those stumbling stones for many sincere people. My main reason for doing this series is to help you see some things that our culture and history tend to obscure from us.  Namely, rather than a stumbling block, the larger context and message related to this issue in the Bible can become something that actually increases your awe and respect for the Bible and it’s message. I hope (and expect) that what you will learn will actually fuel your worship of God and increase your confidence in the truth and dependability of the Bible.

Let me begin with several admissions.  Though I have an earned Master’s degree from a respected (and accredited) Bible College, I am NOT a Hebrew scholar.  I don’t pretend to be.  I may share some details about various Hebrew words and customs as we go along, but understand that I depend upon the hard work done by real scholars and historians.  I use the help of Bible dictionaries, Lexicons, atlases, commentaries, etc..

Secondly, I am biased when it comes to God, His nature, and the Bible.  I am already deeply persuaded that He has faithfully revealed Himself in the Holy Bible and in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ.  I have seen enough, learned enough, and experienced enough, to have become fully convinced that God is as He has revealed Himself in the Bible and in Jesus to be.  And He is gloriously holy and good.  God is no longer on trial in my life or in my thoughts.

I do not make the last point to shame anyone who is still trying to figure all this out. Or to deny that there might come a point later in my life that through unexpected circumstances I might find myself questioning God about something.  Rather, I say it to simply admit that there are many things in my life that I am no longer objective about.  There are people, places, and things that I have come to deeply know and love and accept.  Though I regularly find more reasons to feel this way about them, I don’t “need” more reasons.  I have more than enough data to have made up my mind.

Well, you may still have God on trial in your life, or more specifically the Bible.  Through these posts I hope to relieve you of the burden of unanswered questions about the slavery we see in the Bible.  God is not a cruel tyrant, but is more generous and holy than anyone can imagine.

In the next post we will begin dealing with the biblical data: Care and Concern for the Poor in Old Testament Israel. Stay tuned.

God remembers His covenant with you!

“And it shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you…”—Genesis 9:14-15.

ARK the form of the promise. God does not say, “And when ye shall look upon the bow, and ye shall remember My covenant, then I will not destroy the earth,” but it is gloriously put, not upon our memory, which is fickle and frail, but upon God’s memory, which is infinite and immutable. “The bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant.”

Oh! it is not my remembering God, it is God’s remembering me which is the ground of my safety; it is not my laying hold of His covenant, but His covenant’s laying hold on me. Glory be to God! the whole of the bulwarks of salvation are secured by divine power, and even the minor towers, which we may imagine might have been left to man, are guarded by almighty strength. Even the remembrance of the covenant is not left to our memories, for we might forget, but our Lord cannot forget the saints whom He has graven on the palms of His hands.

It is with us as with Israel in Egypt; the blood was upon the lintel and the two side-posts, but the Lord did not say, “When you see the blood I will pass over you,” but “When I see the blood I will pass over you.”

My looking to Jesus brings me joy and peace, but it is God’s looking to Jesus which secures my salvation and that of all His elect, since it is impossible for our God to look at Christ, our bleeding Surety, and then to be angry with us for sins already punished in Him.

No, it is not left with us even to be saved by remembering the covenant. There is no linsey-wolsey here—not a single thread of the creature mars the fabric. It is not of man, neither by man, but of the Lord alone. We should remember the covenant, and we shall do it, through divine grace; but the hinge of our safety does not hang there—it is God’s remembering us, not our remembering Him; and hence the covenant is an everlasting covenant.

(Taken from Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening, Aug. 13 pm)

When being biased is essential

glassesYour true heart-felt values and core convictions interpret the world that’s happening all around you. I think this is an infallible principle of human nature. We are all biased…according to our deeply held heart beliefs. I think Paul was referring to this reality when he wrote:

To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. (Titus 1:15)

Our biases can either sabotage or serve us well.  By “bias” I am not necessarily referring to error or evil, though we can certainly be held by error.  Here are some examples of how having a proper, God-ordered bias can powerfully keep you in the center of His will for your life and future.

God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.  Another way of stating all of this is: “God is sovereign.”  Therefore I need not faint at anything that happens today – whether in my life or in the world.  Nothing can happen without God’s knowledge, permission or decree.  How I respond to providence is another matter.  I must seek to know Him and His will in every situation.  I need to hear from God and be saturated with His word, so that I can respond in keeping with the opportunities His providence has brought before me.  If I deeply value the reality of God’s sovereignty, circumstances will never control me. I will never again think of myself as a victim. I am a child of a Father who is the blessed controller of all things. Nothing ever catches Him by surprise or is too big (or small) for Him to use for my good both now and in eternity. God is not nervous, so neither am I.

God is merciful and loving.  Yes, God is capable of great wrath as well. And both Old and New Testaments give examples of God’s wrath on display in our world.  But wrath is a response to things in God’s universe that refuse to willingly yield to His merciful will.  God’s love (and mercy), however, is not a response. It is the spontaneous, “disinterested” (an old Puritan term) outflowing of His essential being.  The Bible never says, “God is wrath.” But it does say, “God is love,” and that, “God is merciful.”  God does not love me because I am good. (Though obedience certainly pleases Him.)  God is not merciful to me because I am holy.  In fact, mercy presupposes moral failure. God in mercy does NOT give me was I deserve. Instead His love meets me in my mess and changes me. This was ultimately proven at the Cross, where wrath was visited upon the only One who never deserved it, so that mercy and love could forever be the inheritance of those who never deserved it.  If a man or woman is deeply convinced of this, do you see how it changes the way she/he views everything?  Literally everything that happens in my life must first pass the muster of God’s sovereign love. Oh this is an amazing reality, beloved. Please become absolutely “biased” by it!

God is on a redemptive mission.  Another way of stating this is that God is in the business of redemption. Not only does He desire people to be saved, He created the plan and provision for this salvation before the world was even created – which is indicative of His sovereign, holy love.  If I truly believe that in the present age God is mightily at work through His people in bringing men, women, boys, girls, communities and nations to the saving knowledge of Jesus, then it will change the way I view the world around me. I will begin to more and more see the world and its developments and crises, through a missional lens.

Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel… (Philippians 1:12)

And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions…Therefore those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. (Acts 8:1-5)

I am sure there has never been a more important time in my life than today to be controlled by and gripped by a Gospel-centered bias. The speed at which Biblical morality and values are being rejected by our culture is unprecedented.  Though there are still millions of sincere Christians in our land, there are many more people who reject our faith and values.  This is becoming more evident day by day.

What we do next reveals our deepest values and core convictions.

The way we respond to culture’s light-speed departure from God reveals as much of what we believe about God as what we believe about the condition of our country. Sadly, many Christians are acting like judges and legislatures can actually block God’s activity in our land. For instance, the way some Christians are reacting about the current mess in presidential politics is a good indicator that many professing Christians are really just nominal in their faith. Their core values are humanistic and NOT gospel-centered. They are trusting in the arm of the flesh and NOT the arm of God’s sovereign love.

I do believe that some time out in the future our nation will experience some serious corrective judgments from God.  But until then I think God is mercifully shaking the church.  He’s working to separate us unto Himself, so that we live, act and believe like His people again.  Beloved, a true Spirit-filled Christ-follower should interpret all of these things through Gospel-centered paradigms.

My missions mentor, Kamalakar, preached, “We gather to scatter and scatter to gather.” He was captivated by the mission of God.

If circumstances, culture, or persecution should hinder or scatter us, like Philip in Samaria, or Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail, we will find a missional opportunity in front of us!

Is your essential identity linked with the Cross?

The gospel is not simply the story of “Christ, and Him crucified”; it is also the story of my own crucifixion. (Milton Vincent in A Gospel Primer for Christians)

For real Christ-followers, those people who truly have a life-altering relationship with Jesus Christ, there must increasingly be an identification with the Cross of Jesus.

This reality is perhaps better understood in a question:  Is it possible to think properly about Jesus, to truly know who He most essentially is as a Person, without the Cross being in the center of that knowledge?

No.

Here’s the thought that exploded in my heart this morning: as a Christian my life has been swallowed up by His – my identity has been joined with and united with His.  In the Gospel we learn that we were crucified with Christ, raised with Him, and are now seated with Him in heavenly places.

Paul made it so very clear in Galatians 2:20:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  And the life I live in this body, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

Those are the words of a man who no longer had an identity separate from the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  This is a man who cannot think of himself independently of the Cross of Jesus.

It is impossible to think rightly about Jesus…and thus about the nature of God…without a deep consideration of the implications of the Cross.  Without the Cross we don’t truly know who God is and what He is like.

And the same is true about real Christ-followers:

Without a deep consideration of the implications of the Cross in and upon our own lives, even hour-by-hour, we are not truly living in the faith of the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us.

In the next post we will consider some of these implications.

 

State Trooper fired for proselyting on duty

Don’t know if you saw the story.  Click here to read about it at Foxnews

To me this is an example of zeal without knowledge.  The Trooper has evidently been warned, even in writing, that he’s to stop handing out gospel tracts and to stop questioning people about their faith. He has been doing this during his routine traffic stops.

This to me is a no-brainer.

The guy works for the State of Indiana.  He’s being paid to uphold the law and to deal with lawbreakers. He’s not being paid to evangelize while on Indiana’s dime.  His response is that God told him to and that he has to obey God and not man.

While I encourage everyone to humbly obey what God is clearly telling them to do, I also  reserve the right to decide for myself if what you say God is telling you to do…is really from God!

So here’s how I size this one up.

The Bible tells servants (slaves) to work and behave in such a way that they give no offense to their employers:

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.(Titus 2:9-10)

In other words, be the best employee you can be so that when people see your work and the way you treat people, they will want to know what makes you different. They will be attracted to your faith. But if you do your church work while on the State’s dime, well, you’re stealing from the State.  Yep.  Plain and simple.

By the way, some people have wrongly read into the Bible passage above a “pro slavery” message. This is far from the truth.  The Apostle is not pro-slavery. Rather, he is pro-Jesus and pro-wisdom!  He wants us to know that regardless of the situation regarding the kind of work you have to do, there is a way to do it that really makes the Jesus you love look good.  Living and working in such a way that people are attracted to Jesus is much more important than your own personal “rights”.

If the Indiana trooper tries to sue the state over this situation, I feel he is truly offending the spirit of this biblical passage.  He is doing the exact opposite of what the Bible says.

Years ago while working for the State of Texas I was convicted by the Holy Spirit that I was using State time to do personal faith business. I wasn’t being paid to call people up and initiate ministry on the phone while I was on the clock.  Nor was I called to proselyte the people I was working with while I was on the clock. I repented and asked God’s forgiveness.  And I found appropriate ways to share my faith while I was “off the clock.”

This didn’t mean that I became a “closet” Christian, though.  I felt that if I was on my coffee break in the morning, that those 15 minutes were “free time”. Chatting with coworkers about our personal or private lives (including church and faith) was something everybody did.  And of course my lunchtime was my own time as well. I could also do this after work during social times of hanging out with clients or coworkers. There were plenty of creative ways to let my light shine without infringing on my work hours.

But sometimes a client or coworker directly initiated a spiritual conversation or asked me personal questions about my faith during work hours.  In those cases I felt the freedom to briefly respond, without going into lengthy answers.  I often would then invite them to coffee or to lunch so that we could “follow up” on our conversation at a more “appropriate” time.

By God’s grace, I led several people to Christ during those years. And received awards for being an outstanding employee as well.

Friends, the culture has changed.  This is NOT a culture that deeply shares your Christian values anymore.  So get over it.  Daniel in Babylon is our example now. Daniel was a model employee of the state. But he didn’t expect the king to allow him to preach his faith on the government’s dime. He did however continue to practice his faith in appropriate times and places. And yes it ended up getting him in trouble anyway. But it worked out to be a great example of humility and patience and of God’s deliverance. The whole nation ended up hearing about it. And now in the 21st century we are still talking about Daniel’s faith. But it wasn’t because he took advantage of his position of authority over people.

And that is what the Indiana trooper was doing: pulling people over in their cars, in the name of the law, and then making them endure his religious questions and preaching.

Don’t do that.