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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

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» Slave, Slavery
Slave, Slavery

State of being subjected to involuntary servitude. It usually included being legally owned as property by another person. Slavery in the biblical world was complex and normally very different than the slavery of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western world.

Slavery in the Ancient Near East. This historical and legal antecedents to slavery in the Old Testament are derived from the nations of the Fertile Crescent, ranging from Babylon to Egypt. The society of the ancient Near Eastern world had three major categories: free, semifree, and slave. All social structures were defined within these categories. Pictorial impressions of war captives suggesting slavery have survived from the fourth millennium b.c. The specific literary evidence, however, is contained in a number of law codes that have survived from Babylonia and Assyria. These documents provide information concerning slavery in the ancient Near East that conditioned the culture in which Israel's ideologies developed. The Ur-Nammu Code (2050 b.c.) is one of the oldest; the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1700 b.c.) is probably the most well known. The earliest Sumerian terms for slaves indicate that enslaved captives of war from foreign countries constituted the initial category of slaves. Slaves were treated in the legal codes as property, not human beings. If a slave was killed by another, the main concern was to settle on the price for the lost property.

The Old Testament. The Old Testament record of Israel's origin and development demonstrates that they functioned within the cultural milieu of their own time. God's self-disclosure and direction to his elect nation often accommodated existing cultural aspects. While such accommodation reflects God's way of dealing with his creation, it does not necessarily imply his ideal will. Slavery is accepted in the Old Testament as part of the world in which Israel functioned. It is not abolished but regulated. The legal codes for that regulation (Exod 21; Lev 25; Deut 15) and the numerous texts that reflect Israel's development in this domain indicate an increasing humanization of slavery in contrast to the rest of the ancient Near East. The Hebrew slave was more protected than those of other nationalities. The Old Testament raised the status of the slave from property to that of a human being who happened to be owned by another person (Exod 21:20, 26-27; Job 31:13-15; Eccl 7:21-22). The fact that Israel was enslaved in Egypt may have influenced this development (Lev 25:39-43; Deut 5:15; 15:13-15; Joel 2:29).

The Old Testament provides numerous opportunities for the manumission of slaves. Freedom could be purchased (Lev 25:48-55). The Hebrew slave was to be released in the Sabbatical and Jubilee year cycles (Exod 21:2-4; Lev 25:40-43). Inhumane treatment by masters was grounds for release (Exod 21:7-11, 26-27; Deut 21:14). Some were released by the direct command of Yahweh (Jer 34:8-10).

The terminology for slavery permeated relational metaphors in Israel. It was adopted as a metaphor to image the believer's relationship to Yahweh and is more appropriately translated servant rather than slave (cf. Jer 2:14). Leaders such as Moses, Joshua, and David were servants of the Lord. All the citizens of Israel were viewed as servants of their earthly king (1 Sam 17:8). Those who were in subordinate positions to others were referred to as servants without implying formal slavery.

The New Testament. The New Testament in contrast with the Old Testament does not record the origin and development of a national entity. Therefore, its references to slaves and slavery are more coincidental and secondary. The Gospels refer to slaves as part of the fabric of society. The personal slave of a centurion (Matt 8:5-13) or of a high priest (Matt 26:51) is a natural part of the narrative. Incidental references to the everyday functions of slaves are numerous. Jesus frequently used slave motifs in his parables because such images were the common stock of his audiences. His mere reference to the social phenomenon neither approved nor condemned its existence.

Paul's epistle to Philemon and his treatment of household codes directly addresses the issue of owner and slave relationships. Paul reflects the dual worlds for which Christians are responsible. He recognizes the legal ownership of Philemon by returning the runaway slave Onesimus (vv. 12-14). He also emphasizes the human relational changes that are the result of believing in Christ. Onesimus now has the status of a brother (v. 16) and thereby deserves to be viewed as such. Paul's statement in verse 16a, "no longer as a slave, " does not abolish the legal issue but highlights the new spiritual relationship. The tone of Paul's appeal for Onesimus may well imply his desire that Philemon give Onesimus his freedom, but Paul comes short of demanding this response. It is Philemon's decision.

The household codes that address slaves call for Christian integrity within existing structures, even when these structures have what can be perceived as negative consequences (cf. Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; cf. 1 Peter 2:13-3:7). Paul's instructions to slaves calls for them to fulfill their obligations to human masters as if they were rendering service to Christ. The motive for providing honest and dedicated service is that the Christian witness may be advanced. These texts reflect the missionary mandate Christ gave to the apostles for his church (Matt 28:18-20). While early Christian teaching contained humanitarian emphases (cf. Matt 24:45-51; Luke 15:22; 17:7) and has often resulted in social change, there is no social mandate to abolish slavery in these texts. The revolutionary nature of the early church is contained in the concept of being "in Christ." The result of being "in Christ" is, on the one hand, spiritual egalitarianism (Gal 3:23-25), and on the other, responsible behavior within existing structures.

Christ plays on the concept of servant to image his own mission (Mark 10:45; Luke 22:27). The epistolary literature focuses on the figurative usage of slave. These books frequently use the primary term for slave, doulos [δοῦλοσ  , δοῦλοσ ], as a metaphor of being a servant to God (Rom 1:1; Php 1:1; 2 Tim 2:24; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 1 Peter 2:16; 2 Peter 1:1), to fellow believers (2 Cor 4:5), and even to sin (Rom 6:20). This is a most striking metaphor because a Greek person linked personal dignity and freedom together. Freedom was power and something about which to be proud. The use of doulos [δοῦλοσ  , δοῦλοσ ] to image relationship to God and fellow believers sent a message of commitment and abandonment of autonomy (1 Cor 7:22; Eph 6:6; Col 4:12).

Gary T. Meadors

Bibliography. R. Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons; I. Mendelsohn, IDB, 4:383-91; N. R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World; J. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts; E. SchŸrer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ; J. E. Stambaugh and D. L. Balch, The New Testament in Its Social Environment; W. L. Westermann, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity.


Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Slave, Slavery'". "Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology".
<>. 1897.


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