· Where the Israelites were allowed to buy slaves from surrounding nations, this has to be seen in a similar light. Israel’s God is still one who hears the cries of slaves for release from their oppression, and multiple Mosaic laws tighten restrictions on what Israelites might think they can get away with in treatment of foreign slaves. The lower treatment of non-Jewish slaves should not pass us by without reflection, and on this a couple of things should be said. The Law of Moses was not read by the rabbis merely in a literal sense, but as part of Israel's story and always needing skilled interpretation, and this is one area where rabbis saw to soften things, but that would be a whole other post.
It's also worth pointing out that without a law change, a release of all slaves would have been illegal, even if anyone called for it. i.e. to release all slaves would be illegal under Roman law. Firstly, they had laws limiting how many slaves could be released; second they had laws that made it illegal to release slaves who were under the age of 30 (with only very specific exceptions). So there was no legal release of all slaves on the table. Which meant advocating release of all slaves would be advocating an illegal release, which would effectively be a declaration of war against the system. Cue Roman crackdown with lethal force. Even calling for a culture change in the empire explicitly towards abolition would still be dangerous - we wouldn't wish the brutal consequences of such talk on anyone.
• I could give many more examples of how Paul turns the status of slaves and free people upside down. Of course, Paul could only promise spiritual freedom; but he couldn’t promise to free other people’s slaves in this life. Paul like Jesus turned everyone’s hopes to the age to come, when all would be put to rights.o This is really significant. It means that the way Paul looked at the world, he knew there was a moral problem with the institution of slavery itself. It’s “masters” that Paul removes from the spiritual equation, meaning that the fundamental moral problem with the institution is people being “masters” over other people. And with that insight, he seeks to work out how to apply it.o Thus, if you are loving your neighbour how you love yourself, then you can't be your neighbour’s slave-master, because you wouldn't like it the other way round. Being the master is disqualified as a form of loving your neighbour in Paul's argument.o This is resistance to the institution of slavery and its fundamental imbalance. Not in the sense of being a tract against the Roman Empire. Rather in Paul's vision for the church, the idea of people being slave-masters over other people just doesn't make sense. The institution of slavery is radically out of kilter with it.o It also upsets people’s ideas of what their freedom is for. (Remember Jesus teaching his disciples about washing each other’s feet as if to make a society without slave-masters. Otherwise, Jesus says, they have no part in him.)o This simple instruction erases the worldly distinctions of slave and master in the Christian community; the slaves and the free must act as “slaves” to one another, because this is Paul's interpretation of what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. He wants his community to live like a master-free zone.
· Paul advised slaves to make use of opportunities to become freedmen. Implicit in this is that Paul expects the co-operation of anyone in the church who had been owning slaves and become Christians, so that nothing obstructs his advice to slaves to become free (1 Cor 7:21).
- 1) Hebrews says Christ’s death met the need for sacrifice, and now the law would be a new covenant “in their hearts” (10:16).
- 2) But to explain why Moses' Law contains what God did not desire, we need to think about the paradise Eden – a place where God’s perfect law is in people’s hearts instead. The written Law of Moses is shown to be a temporary compromise that God is pleased to do away with. So where did the trajectory come from to look at the Law this way? Hebrews indicates that this attitude to the Law came from Christ (10:5). (And we can see an echo of that in Mark 12:32-34.) So, we seriously have to consider that the early church saw revolutionary attitudes to slaves as stemming back to the example and words of Christ.