“The practice of slavery in the Ancient Near East is
well attested from about the 3rd millennium BC until
the 19th Century AD in the United Kingdom”
Leviticus 25:39-40 allowed Israelites to own foreigners as slaves
(The Sumerian word for slave was derived from the word for
‘foreigner’), but they were not permitted to make slaves of their
own people. Israelites in debt were however allowed to sell
themselves into slavery to pay off their debts, although the
period of slavery was not to extend to a seventh year
(Deuteronomy 15:11-17). Interestingly, Deuteronomy sets this
legislation within the framework of the neediness of a poor
brother who may need to sell himself into slavery as a
bondsman, and who must be released from that bond on the
commencement of the seventh year.
Sadly, (Biblical) Israel did not
manage to free itself from the
practice which, with certain
conditions and exceptions, is
upheld in many biblical texts. In
the Hebrew Old Testament, the
word for slave is ʿebed, derived
from the word for ‘work’.
It appears that Deuteronomy sees a link
between non-stop labour and exploitation: ‘It
is possible to suggest that an unrestrained
commitment to productivity has its
counterpart in unrestrained violence and
exploitation in which there is no fabric of
respect or restraint’. It is not known how well
or otherwise slaves were treated in Israel.
There is almost no mention of slavery outside
of the law codes of the Bible, which may
suggest that its incidence was not great, but it
is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the
concept of slavery is contrary to the very basis
of the covenant.
Moses reminded the people of their
former status as slaves in Egypt: “You
shall remember that you were a servant
[better: ‘slave’]in the land of Egypt, and
the LORD your God brought you out
thence with a mighty hand and an
outstretched arm; therefore the LORD
your God commanded you to keep the
sabbath day” (Deut 5:15).
Jesus told several parables which makes use
of the relationship between slave and master,
e.g. Matthew 18:23-35, a parable about
limitless forgiveness where the characters are
a king, who cancels a slave’s huge debt, and a
second slave in debt to the first for a much
smaller sum, but who receives no mercy
whatever. The parable illustrates that God’s
releasing of his children from the debt of sin is
always present, but that those seeking God’s
mercy must also extend the principle to
others. Interesting too is the detail that the
first slave’s family are sold into bondage until
he is able to pay the (impossibly) high debt!
Surprisingly New Testament writings give
extremely mixed messages on slavery. On
the one hand, Jesus and Paul appear to take
the existence of slavery as a given, and
neither are recorded as condemning the
practice outright!
In Luke 17:7-10, Jesus uses the example of
slaves to make the point that disciples should
not complain about what they are asked to
do: ‘when you have done all that is
commanded you, say, `We are unworthy
servants; we have only done what was our
duty (v. 10)’. The point is that no disciple can
ever claim that he/she has done enough to
earn God’s grace. This appears to be directed
more to the concept of an allegiance in
service to only one master, God, which must
be worked out in action as well as in words, as
in Luke 6:46, ‘Why do you call me `Lord, Lord,'
and not do what I tell you?’
Surprisingly New Testament writings give
extremely mixed messages on slavery. On
the one hand, Jesus and Paul appear to take
the existence of slavery as a given, and
neither are recorded as condemning the
practice outright!
Biblical (including early Christian) texts show a
surprising level of tolerance toward the
institution and practice of slavery, but it is also
true that “early Christian ideology undermined
the institution of slavery, declaring an equality of
all people in Christ”. Paul’s asserts in Galatians
3:28 that in Christ, there is no distinction
between slave or free. It took a long time for the
consequences of Paul’s assertion to be acted out
in the lives of Christians, but there is still much
truth in the assertion that ‘historically,
Christianity has been the only effective destroyer
of slavery’.
• Reflective reading of Biblical texts must draw our attention to Jesus’ insistence that
the Son of Man ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom
for many’ (Mark 10:45); that, ‘if any one would be first, he [or she] must be last of
all and servant of all’ (Mark 9:35), and more pointedly, that if anyone ‘would come
after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34).
• These quotations clearly stand in opposition to that concept of slavery in the
opening quotation: ‘Slavery is the institution whereby one person can hold
ownership rights over another’. Many other suitable texts could be cited in a similar
• Two Biblical themes in particular will be examined now to offer a biblical foundation
for reflection on and opposition to slavery as it is found in today’s world.
There are 5 sayings in the Sermon on the Mount usually known as ‘the antitheses’
(Matthew 5:21-48), so-called because they each begin with a phrase like “You have heard
how it was said…but I say to you…” The first antithesis illustrates the point. Jesus begins
‘You have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills
shall be liable to judgment' (Matthew 5:21). He counters this with, ‘But I say to you that
everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment’ (v. 22). This is
followed by stern warnings to those who would insult a brother or sister, or call a
brother/sister ‘fool’. In a wonderful display of exaggeration, Jesus claims that the last in
this list will be liable to hell-fire! Jesus may well have been joking when he threatened
hell fire for an insult, but his point is certainly serious. A commandment not to kill is much
more powerful when in it expressed in terms of an instruction to respect and defend the
value and the sanctity of human life, which can be diminished in ways which do not
involve physical taking of life: insults, lack of respect for another, ridicule – and in the
context of this discussion, anything that enslaves another human being.
The TEN COMMANMENTS, foundation for Law to the Jewish people, van be
turned around to a
10 Commandments (Ex 20:1-17, Deut 5:6-21)
1. I am the LORD…do not have gods before me;
2. Do not take the LORD God’s name in vain;
3. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy;
4. Honour your father and your mother;
5. Do not kill;
6. Do not commit adultery;
7. Do not steal;
8. Do not bear false witness;
9. Do not covet your neighbour’s wife;
10. Do not covet your neighbour's goods;
Everyone has the right
1. to offer homage to the one Absolute God;
2. to respect for their God;
3. to worship of God and have rest;
4. to respect for family: parents & children due respect;
5. to life; to respect for their human dignity;
6. to the protection of their relationships;
7. Respect for what is theirs;
8. to be told the truth;
9. to respect as an individual person/not treated as object;
10. to ownership of and respect for their property/goods.
REPENT = Change…but WHAT?
…and FROM what TO what?
• Repentance (metanoia;) usually understood as ‘change of heart’.
But metanoia and related words literally mean ‘change of mind’
i.e. change of (way of) thinking.
• Hebrew words translated as repent are nāḥam and šwb. But
they are not interchangeable.
• šwb = ‘turn’; i.e. ‘turn back to God’; Greek = epistrephō.
• nāḥam = ‘change thinking’; i.e. metanoia in Greek.
• nāḥam is used in Exodus 31:14; 2 Kings 13:2; Job 6:29; Psalm
80:14; Jeremiah 26:3; Joel, 2:13-14; Amos 2:6; Jonah 3:9, when
God relents, or ‘changes his mind’.
• What Hebrew attributes to the heart (lebab), Greek
attributes to the intellect, the mind, I.e. the centre of the
person. Therefore the Hebrew change of heart = Greek
change of mind.
• The Gospels transmit Hebrew (Aramaic) concepts in
Greek words: we need to re-express them.
• Change of heart (mind) = the move from:
• ORIENTATION: the recognised order of things, to
• DISORIENTATION: disengagement, and on to
• REORIENTATION: acceptance of a whole new order.
(Walter Brueggemann uses this terminology with respect to
the Exile, and the change of thinking undergone by Israel
as a result).

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