The essence of slavery is buying, selling and using human beings as expendable commodities.

Jewish experience of slavery

Slavery in Egypt

The Old Testament describes how Jacob's sons go to Egypt to buy corn during a famine. To their surprise, they realise that the Egyptian official in charge is their long lost brother, Joseph (son of Jacob), whom they had sold into slavery years before. After the reconciliation of the brothers, they move to Egypt with their whole family to settle there (Genesis 47:1-6).

Some four centuries later, the growing numbers of Israelites or Hebrews began to be seen as a threat by the Egyptians. They were thus enslaved and made to labour on building projects with cruel overseers (Exodus 1:6-14). (See Big ideas: Patriarchs.)

Moses and freedom from slavery

In order to counter-act the perceived threat posed by the growing size of the Hebrew population, the Pharaoh ordered that every male Hebrew baby be thrown into the Nile. A boy called Moses, however, was saved and brought up by Pharaoh's daughter.

As an adult, Moses killed an Egyptian whom he saw beating a Hebrew slave, and consequently had to flee (Exodus 2:11-15). He later returned, at God's command, to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. He then led the people out of Egypt and into the desert, with the goal of reaching the ‘Promised Land'. (See Big ideas: Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrims and sojourners; Passover; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism; Ten Commandments)

Slavery in the Persian Empire

Later in their history, the Jews were deported into exile in the Persian Empire, once more enduring slavery, though some, like Nehemiah and Daniel, rose to prominence. Some Jews eventually returned to their own land. (See Big ideas: Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel; Exile)

Slavery and the New Testament

In New Testament times, slavery was the norm in the Roman Empire. As Christianity spread, it was embraced by slaves to whom the message gave hope and self esteem. Paul in his letters defends the equality of all Christians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28). Yet, he does not explicitly condemn the practice of slavery, but rather sets instructions for both slaves and their masters:

‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven' (Colossians 3:22-25; Colossians 4:1).

In one instance, a runaway slave called Onesimus, who encounters Paul and decides to become a Christian, is sent back to his master, also a convert of Paul's, with the request that he be received, ‘no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother' Philemon 1:16).

Paul uses the imagery of slavery in his teaching about the relationship of believers to Christ: ‘You are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir' (Galatians 4:7).

The African slave trade

African slavesThe experiences of the Hebrew slaves resonated with Africans enslaved and carried away to work on the cotton and sugar plantations in the southern states of America and the West Indies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of their ‘Negro Spirituals' echo the words of the biblical account of the liberation of Israel: ‘Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land, Tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go!'

In the 18th century, much of Britain's wealth was built upon the Slave Trade. As the poet William Cowper satirically observed:

The long-lasting activism and campaigning of Christians was a major factor that contributed to the abolition of legal slavery in the UK. Among the campaigners was a former slave-trading sea captain called John Newton, author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace', who was converted to Christianity after a terrible storm at sea. William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament, made the abolition of slavery his life's cause. Slave trading in British colonies was finally abolished in 1807, although slavery only ceased throughout the Caribbean when full emancipation was granted in 1838.

Slavery today

Slavery is, unfortunately, still widespread in our modern world, despite being banned in most of the countries where it is practised. Contemporary slavery takes various forms and affects a multitude of people regardless of age, sex and race.

Slavery as a metaphor in literature

Enslavement is a powerful metaphor, in life and in literature, for example:

Related topics

Big ideas: Patriarchs; Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel; Exile; Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrims and sojourners; Passover; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism; Ten Commandments

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's Hamlet

Donne's Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Cowper's Pity for poor Africans

‘Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men'

(Donne, Death be not proud)

‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!'

(Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.ii.555)

I own I am shock'd by the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
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