The central story-line of the larger of the two testaments
revolves around the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt. The New
Testament does not lose interest in this theme, but paints it on a
larger canvas: "There is no
more basic word in the Bible than redemption. The Geek word for
redemption means to loose. Redemption means to be released from bondage.
The very heart of our understanding what salvation is all about is
release from bondage. The Israelites are a picture of us. They were
in bondage." (D. A. Carson, editor, The Scriptures Testify about Me:
Jesus and the Gospel in the Old Testament, Kindle location 518). In
light of the crucial importance of Israel's history, it is perplexing
that some people have managed to talk themselves into believing the
Bible is a pro-slavery tract. If slavery is a good thing, why was
leading the Israelites out from slavery also a good thing?
Though they entered Egypt as invited guests, by the time of the
exodus the Jews had fallen into harsh and bitter bondage:
"And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them."
God heard their cries with indignation:
"And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant.
Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments: And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians."
This is not a side narrative branching off from the main story-line
of the Bible, it is the main story-line: "Our deliverance from under the
yoke of sin is strikingly typified in the going up of Israel from Egypt
and so also was the victory of our Lord over the powers of death and
hell. The Exodus should therefore be earnestly remembered by Christian
hearts. . .is it not written of the hosts above that they sing the song
of Moses the servant of God, and of the Lamb?" (Charles Spurgeon,
Treasury of David, Psalm 114, Kindle location 62225). The children of
Israel in Egypt groaned under the weight of unjust oppression. It is
hard to see how even a Douglas Wilson could recast the Exodus story into
a tale of honorable Egyptian slave-owners unfairly despoiled of their
lawful possessions. At its heart, the Bible is anti-slavery; when it
gets down to cases, it is written from the slaves' perspective, not the
It did not escape the notice of the African slaves in America that the Old Testament is the story of a slave population
liberated by God. For some reason this inescapable fact still escapes the
notice of the atheists. Upon their departure, the Israelites spoiled the
"And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty:
but every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians."
What was this, opportunistic plunder? No, fair compensation for unpaid wages:
"It happened again that the Egyptians summoned Israel
before Alexander of Macedonia, demanding from them the gold and
silver which they had borrowed from them at the time of their
exodus. As it reads [Ex. xii. 36]: 'And the Lord hath given the
people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, so that they gave unto
them what they required; and they emptied out Egypt.' And Gbiah b.
Psisa requested from the sages permission to be the advocate of the
defendant Israel, with the same reason mentioned above. He got this
permission, and did so. Then he said to them: What is your evidence?
And their answer was: From your Torah. Then said he: I in defense will also bring my evidence from the same, which reads [ibid. 40]:
'Now the time of the residence of the children of Israel, which they
dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.' Hence I demand
of you the wages for the labor of six hundred thousand men whom your
parents compelled to work for them all the time they were in Egypt."
(The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume XVI,
Chapter XI, Tract Sanhedrin, Chapter, Kindle location 64432).
The atheists are opposed in principle to restitution: ". .
.nevertheless it is true that we have commands called divine, which,
like that to the Israelites on their departure out of Egypt to purloin
vessels of gold, are scarcely less revolting to an enlightened moral
feeling, than the thefts of the Grecian Hermes." (David Friedrich
Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Introduction, Chapter
14, p. 74). In God's view, it's only fair.
Other Bible narratives include the story of Joseph, sold into
slavery by his treacherous brothers. If the Bible were a book
written from the slave-owner's perspective, filled with stories of
righteous owners putting slaves in their place, the racist and
atheist case could be understood, but it is not. The Bible's
perspective on slavery is that of the slave, not that of his master.
The Essenes were a Jewish sect not in receipt of the New Testament or
the good news of God in Christ. Though lacking any scripture but the Old
Testament, they reportedly rejected slavery:
"And they do not use the ministrations of slaves, looking upon the possession
of servants or slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature,
for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness
of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of all evil, having subdued
some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker."
(Philo Judaeus, On the Contemplative Life, Chapter
"Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or breastplates, or shields; no makers of arms or of military engines; no one, in short, attending to any employment whatever connected with war, or even to any of those occupations even in peace which are easily perverted to wicked purposes; for they are utterly ignorant of all traffic, and of all commercial dealings, and of all navigation, but they repudiate and keep aloof from everything which can possibly afford any inducement to covetousness; and there is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, aiding one another with a reciprocal interchange of good offices; and they condemn masters, not only as unjust, inasmuch as they corrupt the very principle of equality, but likewise as impious, because they destroy the ordinances of nature, which generated them all equally, and brought them up like a mother, as if they were all legitimate brethren, not in name only, but in reality and truth."
(Philo Judaeus, Every Good Man is Free, Chapter XII).
There is a book of the New Testament devoted to smoothing over the situation of a run-away slave
who came to know the Lord. Paul sends Onesimus, the slave, back to his
Christian master Philemon:
"I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides."
Taken literally the "no longer as a slave" of verse 16
would suggest that Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free, however
he may not mean it literally. Verse 16 does make clear that Paul
perceives an incongruity between being a "slave" and being a
"brother," and he expects Philemon to
receive Onesimus as "a brother beloved." If he perceived no
incongruity, why not say, 'receive him back as a slave and as a
brother'? Instead he says, "no longer as a slave."
Unlike the Supreme Court justices who rendered the monstrous Dred Scott decision, Paul is not
scandalized that a slave fled from his master; he does not want
Philemon to punish him for it, though Philemon had the right in law
and custom to do so: "But there was a certain Campanian in the army, a
runaway Roman slave named Spendius, a man of extraordinary physical
strength and reckless courage in the field. Alarmed lest his master
should recover possession of him, and he should be put to death with
torture, in accordance with the laws of Rome, this man exerted himself
to the utmost in word and deed to break off the arrangement with the
Carthaginians." (Polybius, The Histories, Book I, Chapter 69, Kindle
location 2080). This is not what Paul wants. Paul wants Philemon to receive the returning
run-away "as myself." He expects Philemon to do even more than this:
"Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that
you will do even more than I say." (Philemon 1:21). What is this
"more"? Some readers perceive a hint: "Paul expresses confidence
that Philemon will do even more than Paul asks, perhaps a hint that
Philemon should grant Onesimus his freedom (vv. 20-21). (Introducing the
New Testament, D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Kindle location 2070).
Moses' law did not require the community to return an escaped
slave: “You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him."
(Exodus 23:15-16). Whether Paul respected civil enactments
comparable to that upheld by the Dred Scott decision or not, he did
ultimately speed Onesimus on his way back to his master.
Nevertheless he does not send him back as a slave but as a brother.
The New Testament does not contain any direct command for
Christians slave-owners to free all their slaves, or for Christian
citizens to work for the abolition of slavery. Those who ponder what
it means for Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother may yet
feel led in those directions. The general provisions of
Christian morality: the command to do unto others as you would have
them do unto you,— leave no room for this cruel
institution, which no one chooses for himself. No one in classical antiquity
was under any illusion on this score; Plato gives an analogy of a
slave-owner transported to the wilderness with his slaves. What will
he expect them to do? Kill him, of course:
"What is your illustration?
"The case of rich individuals in cities who possess many slaves.
. .You know that they live securely and have nothing to apprehend from their servants?
"What should they fear?
"Nothing. But do you observe the reason of this?
"Yes; the reason is, that the whole city is leagued together for the protection of each individual.
"Very true, I said. But imagine one of these owners, the master say of some fifty slaves, together with his family and property and slaves, carried off by a god into the wilderness, where there are no freemen to help him—will he not be in an agony of fear lest he and his wife and children should be put to death by his slaves?"
(Plato, Republic, Book IX).
Slave-owners have always feared from their slaves what John
Brown delivered. If their security arrangements fail them, the
slave-owner cannot expect gratitude and good-will. This is not an
institution that can be defended by the Golden Rule. As the author asks in
one of the anti-slavery tracts I've uploaded,
"If we fulfill the injunction of our religion, to do to others as we would wish them to do unto us — if we love our neighbor as ourselves, can we consign him and his posterity to hopeless and interminable slavery?"
(Evan Lewis, 'An Address to
Christians of All Denominations, On the Inconsistency of Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membership.')
To ask that question is also to answer it; it can be answered only one way.
Even the pagans of classical antiquity felt it was a civic and philanthropic duty
to free slaves: "'Do we not free our slaves chiefly for the express
purpose of making out of them as many citizens as possible?'" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LVI, Chapter 7.6).
John Chrysostom points out that slavery is by definition a departure
from the law of love: "Wherefore, having said, “The first and great
commandment is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” he added, “and the
second — (He leaves it not in silence, but sets it down also) — is like
unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”. . .Yea, and if this
were duly observed, there would be neither slave nor free, neither ruler
nor ruled, neither rich nor poor, neither small nor great; nor would
any devil then ever have been known: I say not, Satan only, but whatever other such spirit there be, nay, rather were
there a hundred or ten thousand such, they would have no power, while
love existed." (John Chrysostom, Homily 32 on 1 Corinthians 12:27,
Chapter 11, ECF 1_12, p. 435).
Ambrose speaks of captives whom the church had redeemed, people
bought back from slavery:
"The highest kind of liberality is, to redeem captives,
to save them from the hands of their enemies, to snatch men from
death, and, most of all, women from shame, to restore children to
their parents, parents to their children, and, to give back a
citizen to his country. This was recognized when Thrace and Illyria
were so terribly devastated. How many captives were then for sale
all over the world! Could one but call them together, their number
would have surpassed that of a whole province. Yet there were some
who would have sent back into slavery those whom the Church had
redeemed. . .It is then a special quality of liberality to redeem
captives, especially from barbarian enemies who are moved by no
spark of human feeling to show mercy, except so far as avarice has
preserved it with a view to redemption." (Ambrose, On the Duties of
the Clergy, Book 2, Chapter 15, Sections 70-71).
Apparently this instance was controversial, but it was done and
it was understood to be a good thing. The atheists' case that the New Testament is pro-slavery demands much of the
reader's indulgence: when Paul tells Philemon to receive back his run-away slave "no longer as a slave,"
of course he does not mean that the way it sounds. But if he did not mean what he said,
what did he mean?