The Problem of Masters and Slaves

February 22, 2013

For the skeptic, the subject of masters and slaves in the Bible is a moral failing. For the beginning Bible reader in the West, it is something very foreign to our lives (unfortunately, slavery still exists in the 21st century). The problem for us is bridging the context with two different ancient cultures.

Slavery in the Old Testament was debt servitude somewhat like indentured service in U.S. history. The Mosaic law attempted to protect the poor in many ways, but servitude was the answer to extreme poverty in the ancient near east. The law regulated and humanized this practice. Paul Copeland argues that if the principles of the Old Testament had been practiced, slavery would not have existed in the United States.1 What were those principles?

  • The law limited the time of servitude to six years. In the seventh year, the slave was to go free. Exodus 21:1
  • The law prohibited kidnapping, so slave traders were illegal and subject to the death penalty. Servitude in Israel was something an individual entered into voluntarily because of debts. Deuteronomy 24:7
  • The law protected the slave from harm. If harm came to the slave (e.g., a broken tooth), the slave was set free. Exodus 21:26-27
  • The law prohibited the return of a runaway slave. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 This stresses the voluntary nature of the financial arrangement. If conditions were too harsh and the slave could escape, he or she would not be returned.

The New Testament context was different from that of the Law of Moses. Yet even here, the context was different from the American experience. Slavery was not based on race. Most slaves gained their freedom. Some slaves held important positions like doctors, teachers, and government workers. Yes, conditions could also be harsh. Slavery is never a good situation (unless the master is God).

Christianity ultimately brought an end to slavery. The New Testament prohibited kidnapping or slave trading (1 Timothy 1:10 ). It taught the human dignity and equal spiritual status of all people including slaves. It encouraged slaves to gain their freedom whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:20-22). The end of slavery in the West came because Christianity transformed society morally from the inside rather than by political rebellion in the first century. And when slavery has occurred in history since, it has often had Christian leaders at the forefront to end it.

Once we have bridged the cultural contexts, I believe we will have answers for skeptics as well as lessons for today. From Paul’s letters (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1), we can learn about Christian ethics in the workplace. From Peter’s letter (1 Peter 2:18-25), we learn how to respond to unjust treatment. But as readers we must enter into a very different world with understanding.


1Paul Copeland, Is God a Moral Monster?, p. 132

For further reading, see the relevant chapters in: Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copeland and Reason for God by Timothy Keller.

How Do You Know God?

February 15, 2013

K.C. Moser in his book, Attributes of God, has a chapter on knowing God. He lists three ways of knowing God: (1) through creation, (2) through revelation, and (3) through Christian experience.

Knowledge of God through Creation. Knowledge of God through
creation is discussed in several passages:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1, ESV)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. Romans 1:19-20, ESV

When we consider creation, we can learn something about God. We still need revelation in order to come to a saving knowledge of God, but there is something for us to learn from creation.

Knowledge of God through Revelation. Knowledge of God through revelation is critical. Without scripture, we would not know of our spiritual condition or God’s solution.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV

Knowledge of God through Christian Experience. Our knowledge from experience must be based on our knowledge from revelation. Yet, we must also see that knowledge of Bible content must be put into practice. This daily living adds a deeper dimension to our knowledge of God. One could know all the facts about Jesus’ sacrifice for us, but Paul also writes “…and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us”
(Romans 5:5, NASB). This speaks of a love that the Christian comes to experience and feel, because of what Christ has done. The love of God and neighbors are concepts to be learned (Matthew 22:35-40) but also experienced in our service to God and ministry to others.

May we all come to know God from creation, revelation, and experience. When our knowledge of God from creation and revelation goes on to the knowledge of experience, it has moved from facts about faith to a life of faith. That is what Christian maturity is about. How do you know God?

A Seriously Funny Story

February 8, 2013

It was a serious story told with a sense of humor. For the serious part, Peter was held in prison about to be executed by Herod Agrippa I. Security was tight. Herod had four squads of four soldiers each to take turns guarding Peter around the clock. Peter was in prison bound with chains sleeping between two guards, when an angel appeared. The chains fell from his hands. The angel instructed him to get dressed, put on his sandals, and follow him.

Peter thought he was seeing a vision. They passed by the first guard, then the second guard, and finally they were to the iron gate leading to the city. The gate opened for them automatically. When the angel left him, Peter realized that he had really been through a most unusual prison break. It was a humorous realization, but a serious situation to be on the run from Herod Agrippa and his soldiers.

Remaining free was also serous business, but the story continues with some humor. Peter went to the house of Mary. The servant girl, Rhoda, was so excited by Peter’s arrival, she left him standing in the street! So much for trying to remain out of the sight of the authorities. The people inside praying for Peter’s release were convinced that Rhoda had it wrong. “It is his angel,” they said. While all of this was going on, Peter continued to knock. When Peter was finally admitted to the prayer gathering, “they saw him and were amazed.”

We read the account and wonder: why didn’t they believe what they had been praying for had come true? They knew the reality of prayer is that we don’t always receive what we pray for. God is not a cosmic vending machine: insert earnest prayer and the requested answer immediately dispensed. The Apostle James had already been executed by Herod Agrippa. No doubt this same group had earnestly prayed for him. God doesn’t always answer prayers in the way we would choose.

Their faith is seen in praying even up to the eleventh hour. (God’s rescue of Peter was just in time delivery.) They did not doubt the importance of prayer even if they had an initial surprise of Peter actually being at the door. They did not doubt the importance of prayer even if previous prayers had not been answered in the way they wished.

We must pray in the same way. God has invited us to ask and to intercede for others. But this is a relationship, not magic. We trust that the heavenly Father knows how to give good gifts. We trust even when the answer is what we don’t want. God will grant the strength to cope. Luke could tell this story with good humor, because he trusted the God who is in ultimate control of history.

The One Talent Servant

February 1, 2013

Hearing the parable of the talents is difficult (see Matthew 25:14-30). We are distanced from the cultural setting of the story. It was a world of masters and slaves. A wealthy master departing on a journey entrusts his possessions to his three slaves. He gives to each according to their ability. The relationship itself says that the possessions are not their own, and they will have to give an account.

The word, talent, is also easily misunderstood. Today, the word, talent, normally means a special ability, and I have heard quite a few sermons about using our talents (i.e., abilities). In the ancient world, the talent had originally been a measurement of weight varying between 57 to 80 pounds and then a unit of coinage. Verse 27 specifically mentions silver, although most English translations just say “money” in this verse, and the NCV inexplicably talks of gold. It’s difficult to translate into dollar amounts, but comparisons help. One talent is about twenty years of wages for a common laborer, so 5 talents, 3 talents, and 1 talent would be 100 years of wages, 60 years of wages, and 20 years of wages. The “poor” one talent man received nearly a million dollars in our currency.
Imagine burying 20 years worth of wages in silver in your field. What were the original hearers thinking as the story was told? Maybe some thought, “If I had that much money, I’d know what to do with it. I wouldn’t just bury it.”

The servants didn’t receive just a few dollars. Even the Message’s $5,000, $3,000, and $1,000 is paltry in comparison with the text. The servants received major investment capital, and economic terms describe their master’s return. He wants to “settle accounts.” The one talent man describes his master as being a “hard man.” The word refers to “being unyielding in behavior or attitude” and in this context, “demanding”. It makes hiding his talent even more difficult to understand, although I suspect we are tempted to do the same. The master calls the one talent man “wicked and slothful” or “worthless and lazy.”

What are we to learn? We have a master – God Himself, the creator of the universe. Everything we have is a matter of stewardship – our money, possessions, time, abilities, and opportunities. We take nothing out of this world except for what we “treasure in heaven.” There are no U-hauls attached to hearses. The greatest treasure we have been given is the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:7). Is not the gospel worth a million dollars to us? Will we bury it or use it to achieve gain for our master?

The question is never how much has been entrusted to us. That will in fact vary. The question is whether we are faithful. From our master’s point of view, are we “worthless and lazy” or are we “good and trustworthy”? The bottom line is stewardship.