Meditations in Exodus: 3. Can God bless you in slavery
Ex 1:12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread;
We have already commented that obviously the Lord felt He had to leave Israel to grow in Egypt and would have known that their growth would be perceived as a threat to the latest Pharaoh, resulting in slavery. It raises the question, why doesn’t God intervene in the affairs of His children to save them. Well, the answer is that He does – sometimes. While he allowed James the brother of John to be put to death by Herod (Acts 12:2) he had Peter delivered from prison by angelic means (Acts 12:6-10) Now the bigger truth is that of the eleven remaining apostles only one of them, we are told, did not die violently for his faith, the apostle John who died of old age.
Slavery also played a part in the life of Joseph in Genesis. He was taken by his brothers and was sold into slavery (Gen 37:28) where he was subsequently sold on (Gen 37:36) but then we find a remarkable testimony: “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. So he left in Joseph’s care everything he had; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.” (Gen 39:2-6) This is a most amazing testimony. Joseph prospers – in slavery – because God is with him.
Now we come to Israel in Egypt and it seems every day life gets harder and harder as Pharaoh seeks to put pressure on them and subdue them as slaves and yet the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; They are ‘prospering’ because they are God’s people so it doesn’t matter whether they are in slavery or not, He will bless them because He has plans for them.
Now what does the Bible teach about slavery? First of all slavery seems to have existed in this fallen world from early on. Abraham encountered a local king who had slave girls (Gen 20:17). The truth is that Abram also had slaves, because that was what Hagar was considered (Gen 21:10). It is quite clear therefore, that in those early years slavery was a well established world practice. It was an expression of oppression by powerful people over less-powerful people, an expression of sin in the world, and a well-established practice that sinful men were not likely to give up easily (and this needs to be born in mind in the light of comments about the Bible not saying anything about abolition).
When we later come to the Law of Moses, it is as if God recognises that there will be slaves and so rather than seeking to abolish them (for the world as a whole was not yet ready for that) He sets down guide lines to care of them! For example over zealous slave owners were to be punished (Ex 21:20, the slave was to be granted a day’s rest on the Sabbath (Ex 23:12), a slave girl was to be protected from powerful men (Lev 19:20). The biggest challenge was that Israelites were not to work as slaves but as hired workers, and were eventually to be released back home, and not sold as slaves (Lev 25:39-43). Moreover Israel could become a refuge for fleeing slaves, who could join Israel and become one with them. (Deut 23:15,16) Thus if we look carefully, we find that the Law given to Moses regulated what was an existing practice in the world and forbade Israelites to be slaves, allowed them to accept slaves from other countries but to treat them well. A slave fleeing to them was to be given refuge. Contrary to much that is spoken about slavery in the Old Testament, there is a caring and concerned element in the Law that helped slaves coming from the world. In the New Testament this same caring was continued (see Col 4:1 and Eph 6:8,9)
Why was the Law not seeking to abolish slavery? I suggest the Lord knew that there would be, at a specific time later in history, a time when world slavery (because it was common) would rise up in some of the leading nations in the world where there was a Christian influence, and after a period of acceptance (yes, even by many Christians), there would rise up among a number of those Christians a conscience that would work and work until slavery was abolished. Tragically, although that is the accepted law across most nations, we are told that the truth is that there is as much slavery across the world today as there was at the time when slaves were being shipped across the Atlantic to America. If you are looking for a Christian organisation to support, we can only recommend you look out for those who are working against this terrible abuse of mankind.
Why, we might ask, did the Lord not act earlier than He did in respect of saving Israel? Well, one of the main things that has stood out to me as I have studied these early books of the Bible that cover the bringing about of this people as a nation, is that they were incredibly self-willed and time and time again during the process of deliverance they grumbled against God. This is not to say they were any the worse that any other people for I believe they simply reveal, as under a microscope, the sinfulness of mankind and, if you like, the reality of Sin in the human being. Bearing in mind that the Lord wanted to use them to discipline Egypt and then Canaan, it is highly unlikely that in their early years in Egypt they would have participated with and accepted Him. I suspect they had to get to a point of desperation before they would go along with Moses as their deliverer.
Not it is an uncomfortable principle or lesson but the truth is that a) we always opt for the comfortable and easy way and b) we are all of us notoriously slow at understanding God’s will and seeing the big picture and our part in it and so c) it so often takes adverse circumstances to change us and deal with that old self-centred and godless way within us that reveals the presence of Sin in us. As Christians we are no longer under the power of Sin but it nevertheless is still a force to be resisted and overcome and without doubt God does use adverse circumstances that just occur in this fallen world to humble us and deal with that self-centred propensity that is expressed as godlessness. As we will see in days ahead, these ‘adverse circumstances’ are only for a season and so God, who would prefer we did not have to suffer them, will move as soon as He sees we are ready to change. We should also remind ourselves of what we saw earlier, that even in adverse circumstances God is there to bless His children.