For the week of May 14, 2011 / 10 Iyar 5771
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly. (Vayikra / Leviticus 25:44-46; ESV)
For many people, one of the most troubling issues in the Bible is slavery. How could God view slavery in the way it appears to be presented in the Scriptures? The passage I just read from this week's parsha (Torah portion) seems to be clear that the people of Israel were permitted to own slaves.
Looking back from our day to ancient times, we expect the Bible to share our perspective on slavery. Most of us are deeply offended at the thought of owning other human beings and treating them like property, and therefore find it very disturbing that the same God through whom we learn an otherwise high standard of morality would condone such an evil institution.
But does God truly condone slavery? I cannot deny that our passage give this impression, but a more thorough reading of the entire Bible suggests otherwise. It is true that we do not find in the pages of Scripture the abolitionist language of modern times. Yet what we do find is a clear undermining of this oppressive man-made institution.
God's actual view of slavery is dramatically illustrated in his deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. He had no qualms about disrupting Egypt's economy by removing their forced labor system.
That slavery is a negative condition is also evident by the distinctions in our passage. While foreigners could be owned as slaves, fellow Israelites could not be. There was something about how nations viewed one another that allowed for the toleration of slavery. But since Israel was to view their own people as family, they were not to enslave each other.
But what if we viewed all people as brothers and sisters? What would happen to slavery then? This is what we see in the New Covenant letter of Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy man and slave owner, who had come to know the Messiah through Paul the sheliach (English: apostle or emissary). One of Philemon's slaves by the name of Onesimus had run away, but eventually also turned to Yeshua, through Paul's teaching. Respecting Roman law, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon along with the letter bearing his name. On the basis of the new brotherly relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul shrewdly undermines the institution of slavery. He writes:
As more and more masters and slaves became followers of the God of Israel through the Messiah and thus brothers through the same heavenly Father, slavery was doomed.
It would be the dissemination of biblical teaching that would challenge the world's understanding of how we should treat our fellow human beings. It would take centuries for the worldwide human community to recognize our commonality across national and ethnic boundaries - a commonality that would make the condoning of slavery impossible.
You might be surprised to learn that slavery still exists. In fact there are more slaves in the world now than any other time in history. The UN estimates that there are over 27 million slaves today. According to "Slavery in the Twenty-First Century" by Howard Dodson (http://www.smfcdn.com/assets/pubs/un_chronicle.pdf), "All racial groups are objects of the trade. Though women and children are its principal victims, those who are bought, sold and enslaved come from almost every continent and are sold into slavery in virtually every country." You may be surprised to learn how we benefit from the continued existence of this oppression.
As we seek to grasp a comprehensive understanding of the Bible's view of slavery, may God open our eyes to the reality of modern slavery and guide us in his mandate to set the captives free.
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