Thursday, November 18, 2010

Biblical Slavery was Egalitarian and Humane

Biblical slavery was egalitarian and humane. It was so humane, that many slaves were given the option of remaining slaves – think servants – or taking their freedom when they had the opportunity (Deut. 15:16-17).

However, the skeptics point out that there is a great distinction between being a circumcised Hebrew slave and a foreign slave. Nevertheless, foreigners always had the option of conversion to become an Israelite under the Mosaic covenant and to receive all of the privileges this entailed. However, one skeptic denied that this was an option for slaves and cynically challenged: “Any examples of property being allowed to convert, Daniel?”

In fact, the first command regarding circumcision and inclusion into the covenant specifically mentioned those “bought with money from a foreigner”:

“This is my covenant with you [Abraham] and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner--those who are not your offspring.” (Genesis 17:10-12)

Israel was to be a model of inclusiveness. Abraham had been forbidden from maintaining a class distinction between circumcised and uncircumcised. All could and should come, all were to be under the covenant of God, and none were ever turned away! However, there was one holiday – and only one – in which the foreigner couldn’t partake unless he was first circumcised:

“Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it…An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD'S Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you." (Exodus 12:44-49)

Interestingly, Passover was the only holiday that required those partaking to be circumcised. It was also the only holiday that commemorated a specific past event. The other holidays are strangely peculiar in not having a similar commemorative focus. It has therefore been widely recognized that the other holidays are instead prophetic – pointing to a future time when circumcision would no longer be an issue, and not to the past.

There was no indication of any racial superiority in any of Israel’s legislation. Instead, Israel was always reminded that they had been slaves so that they would be gracious to their slaves and that a single egalitarian set of laws would suffice for all – whether Jewish or not. Instead, Israel was to be a model society for the surrounding nations:

“See, I [Moses] have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deut. 4:5-8)

Sadly, Israel failed to live up to their laws and their righteous God, and perhaps we fail to see the righteousness of these laws because we never objectively examined them.

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