The following letter is from this week's Dear Rabby, an advice column in our weekly publication, Shulchan Shelanu. This blog offers a slightly expanded response to the question posed in the letter.
I am a high school student from a bi-racial family. My Dad is black, and my Mom is a white Ashkenazi Jew, so that makes me a Jew too. These are interesting identities to juggle!
For the past year and a half, my Mom has been involved in one of the Messianic Jewish congregations in our area. She has me reading the Bible, and lately, I have run into passages about slavery that really upset me, Frankly, at best, the Bible seems very loose about slavery. At worst, the Bible seems to accept it. I am especially upset because these passages would really weird out my father for whom slavery is a matter of family history (for me too).
What do you say?
You are asking a big question that cannot be comprehensively treated here. But let me give what help I can now.
Slavery in the Bible and slavery in pre-Civil War America were different in many ways.
Slavery is a global reality even now. Estimates of the number of people in slavery ranging from the tens of millions to over 40 million. However, it is important to note that determining the precise extent of modern slavery is a complex task, and the numerical estimates given by various organizations vary.
According to the Global Slavery Index in a 2021 report, an estimated 40.3 million people were living in conditions of modern slavery. However, other organizations offfer different estimates; for example, the International Labour Organization estimates that there are 24.9 million people in forced labor worldwide. In either case, we will agree the numbers are staggering.
But what of sex slavery, also known as sex trafficking?
Modern sex slavery, also known as sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation, is a form of modern slavery that involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, and exploitation of people, primarily women and girls, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Millions of people are affected by sex trafficking and exploitation worldwide, but it is difficult to determine an exact number due to the hidden and underground nature of the crime.
However, the Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation worldwide, although others report the actual number of victims is much higher.
I close with a comment by Mookgo Solomon Kgatle, a Black South African, writing about how being a disciple of Jesus involves being both a servant (Greek, diakonos) and a slave. (Greek, doulos). He chooses a teaching of Jesus, “whoever among you wants to be a leader must be your servant; and whoever wants to be first among you must become everyone’s slave!” (Mark 10:43-44).
Doulos is a call to become a slave of the master, Jesus. Both Diakonos and Doulos in Mk 10:43 are a call for a disciple to follow on the footsteps of Jesus and live a life of enduring hardships and suffering. This life is exemplified by Jesus himself because he did not come to be served but to serve others.Mookgo Solomon Kgatle, “Diakonos and Doulos as Concepts of True Discipleship in Mark 10.43–44,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 28, no. 1 (March 20, 2019): 71–83, https://doi.org/10.1163/17455251-02801006.
As a Black South African, Dr. Kgatle certainly knows about racist brutalization and abuse. But as a Christian and a scholar, he also discovered that the terms “servant” and “slave” are not terms of contempt and oppression when the Master is Yeshua, our Lord and Redeemer.
Peace to you, Karen, and to all your family.
Photo by Richard Ashia at https://scop.io/
If the concern of this young woman is that the notion of slavery appears at all in the Torah or in the apostolic writings, perhaps it would be worth noting that it is never presented as a good thing to do or a good state to be in. It simply provides rules to be followed if someone is a slave -- rules which required that a master honor the humanity of a slave throughout the period of his or her indenture. Slaves in the Torah were not reduced to the conditions of animals, and generally their slavery was temporary. Nor was it permitted to kidnap people to enslave them. That crime was punishable by death. The one rule which allowed for a slave to volunteer for a permanent status as such was strongly discouraged and never the result of coercion. Hence, what is called slavery in the Torah was really not chattel slavery or ownership of human beings. It was rather a kind of employment contract -- though not one that would be employed in modern times.
Slaves in Greek culture had it worse, being viewed as animated tools. But even so, the goal for disciples of Rav Yeshua was to be set free if possible, and patient and diligent in service if freedom was not possible -- much like the responsibility of a soldier who has been drafted involuntarily. Those who were masters over slaves before they became disciples were required to treat them well, even if societal and economic conditions would not permit setting them free immediately.
Setting captives free has always been a Torah value, even for non-Jewish disciples. Enslaving them has never been encouraged, even when circumstances outside the discipleship community imposed it. Thankfully, nowadays in the USA there is no involuntary military conscription and there has been no sanctioned slavery for more than 150 years. But there are nowadays criminals who kidnap and enslave human beings as illegal immigrant workers and sex-traffic victims. The values of the Torah and the apostolic writings demand of Rav Yeshua's disciples that they seek to end such trafficking whenever they may encounter it.