We may expect that the idea of one person owning another would be strongly censured in the Bible. What we find instead is a general acknowledgment of the existence of slavery, the use of slavery as a metaphor, and a theological trajectory that moved society in the direction of abolition without formally demanding it.

By definition, a slave is a person who lacks full personal and social autonomy and whose daily work and energy are invested toward improving the well-being of his or her owner. The undesirable life of a slave was imposed when victorious armies took war captives and made them slaves. And as in the case of the Israelites, a strong state could enslave and entire race for centuries (Exod 1:11; Josh 9:22-23; Judg 1:28; 1 kings 9:20-22; Esther 7:4). Financial problems could also rob a person of his or her freedom. Free people who faced insolvency due to debt could sell themselves or members of their family into servitude, using their value as a servant or slave to pay their debts (Lev 25:39; 2 Kings 4:1; Neh 5:1-5; Isa 50:1).

The descriptions of slavery in the Bible paint a somber scene. Slavery began with the indignity that came with living on the lowest end of the social continuum, treated as property that was purchased and inherited (Gen 9:25-27; Exod 21:21; Lev 25:45-46; 2 Sam 6:20; Lam 1:1). The most dirty, difficult, and undesirable jobs fell to the slaves. But what may have been most defeating of all was that only death could provide and sustained relief from the master’s demands (Exod 2:23; 3:7; Josh 9:23; Job 3:18-21). The calloused hands and aching muscles did nothing to change the reality that the very next day it had to be done again; control of their day and destiny resided in the hands of their owner (Gen 16:6).

The biblical authors resided among people who accepted slavery as the status quo. While they make no formal statement demanding the abolition of slavery, there is clearly a theological trajectory that presses their readers in that direction. The law code of Israel addressed abuses like kidnapping, maiming, sexual abuse, and corporal punishment (Exod 21:16, 20, 26-27; Lev 19:20; Deut 24:7; 1 Tim 1:10). END OF PART 1.

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