Although slavery was abolished about 150 years ago in the United States and many other countries, the number of slaves today remains as high as 12 million to 27 million. Most are debt slaves, largely in South Asia, who are under debt bondage incurred by lenders, sometimes even for generations. Human trafficking is primarily for prostituting women and children into sex industries. It is the fastest growing criminal industry and is predicted to eventually outgrow drug trafficking.
Although no one points to the Bible as the progenitor of slavery, many point to it as its perpetrator.
Does the Bible support slavery? And if it does, can we trust that Christianity wouldn’t perpetuate another heinous travesty?
Please join us in today’s Bible conversation to find out.
INSIGHTS AND EXPLANATIONS
Lamentations 1:1-2:22. Lamentations is a book of laments written by Jeremiah the prophet after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The book is a series of five poems. The first, second, fourth, and fifth chapters all contain 22 verses, reflecting the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The third lament (chapter 3) is composed of 22 three-line units—and each line begins with the corresponding Hebrew letter.
In an odd way, this is one of my favorite books in the Bible because it gives us a window into the heart of Jeremiah and God. But in the midst of the laments, we’re also given a ray of hope—which we’ll look at tomorrow.
Philemon 1:1-25. Philemon was a wealthy slave owner and a believer who lived in Colosse. He owned a slave named Onesimus who ran off and found Paul in a prison in Rome. Runaway slaves were a big deal in the Roman Empire. If they escaped and were returned, they could be beaten mercilessly or even killed. But through Paul, Onesimus met Jesus. After investing his life in his protégé, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon…with a letter of explanation. Scholars believe he wrote this letter at the same time as Colossians and then sent it with the same travelers.
So why was Philemon included in the Bible?
Years after Paul founded the influential church of Ephesus, John became the bishop. But after him, Ignatius (c.35AD–c.107AD), an early church father, refers to a man named Onesimus who also served as the bishop of Ephesus. Many biblical scholars believe this bishop was one and the same with Philemon’s former slave. What a story of redemption!
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THE WORD MADE FRESH
Many slaves were named Onesimus—which means “useful—in Paul’s day for obvious reasons. Paul, in fact, includes a word play on Onesimus’ name in Philemon 11: “Formerly [Onesimus] was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”
Many readers are shocked that Paul encouraged the return of Onesimus to his master. Critics and skeptics point to this fact as proof that the Bible supported slavery. Two hundred years ago people who supported slavery cited this book as proof.
The temptation is to evaluate previous cultures on the basis of current values. But really, that doesn’t seem fair. We behave according to what we know at the time. While the Bible may be criticized as pro-slavery and anti-women, compared to the surrounding cultures at that time, it granted them unprecedented freedoms.
Biblical scholar William Webb offers a unique perspective on the slavery issue. He interprets Scripture from the perspective of what he calls “God’s redemptive movement.” I call it “trajectories.” He says that in comparison to the surrounding cultures, Scripture was quite loose regarding slavery. In fact, the movement—the trajectory—of Scripture gravitates toward freedom for slaves. Consider this: In Moses’ day, the surrounding nations relied on slavery to support their economy. God, however, commanded the Israelites to hold a slave no more than six years before granting their release in the seventh year.
Paul returned Onesimus to his owner, yes, but he did so with the encouragement that Philemon treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (verse 16). This was a definite redirection from the culture of his time.
Elsewhere, Paul explained that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).
Respected Biblical scholar Craig Blomberg comments that “Paul sowed seeds for a revolutionary alternative in Christ which in time could only but threaten social institutions of oppression [such as slavery]” (quoted in 1 Corinthians, NIV Application Commentary, 148).
What does this mean to us?
God values human life. Although the surrounding culture of Jesus’ day devalued human life, God affirms it, regardless of skin color, financial condition, or even religious practice. Because we’re all created in the image of the infinite God, we have value. And so do the people around you.
- What spoke to you in today’s reading?
- What does valuing human life look like to you?
- Does modern-day slavery and human trafficking bother you? Why or why not?
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Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church with Eugene Scott in Littleton, Colorado.