How can I say anything about 1 Kings, about the Temple of Solomon, without talking about slavery? How can I encounter slavery yet again in 2 Chronicles without eyeing up this bitter pill and figuring out what to do with it?
Then Solomon took a census of all the aliens who were residing in the land of Israel, after the census that his father David had taken.
Seventy thousand of them he assigned as laborers,
eighty thousand as stonecutters in the hill country,
and three thousand six hundred as overseers to make the people work.
2 Chron. 2:17-18
This passage and its counterpart in 1 Kings 5 woke me up last night, and I lay awake for some time before finally going downstairs to find peace through reading. And why? Because of my past.
If you’ve spent any time around theonomists (also known as Christian Reconstructionists), you’ll run into someone who argues in favour of slavery. I hope you’ll have just read that last sentence and had a visceral reaction. Christians in favour of slavery? The mere suggestion should make us feel sick. But as we all know, history is littered with examples of pro-slavery people who claim the name of Christ.
When I was young, I recall my “pastor” justifying certain behaviours based on the actions of Old Testament characters. Are you wondering if you should bribe officials to look the other way as you carry Bibles into another country? Well, technically the Bible only says not to receive a bribe. And look here, King Asa offered a bribe to Ben-Hadad, a neighbouring king, so we’re off on a technicality.
Worried you might not be able to pay your other bills after the civil government collects property tax on an unused field next to the church building? Easy. Just claim it’s land you use for church picnics. Yes, the Law says don’t lie. Then again, Rahab lied to protect the spies from Israel, didn’t she? Off on another technicality.
And wondering what to do with your beloved slave-owning American revolutionary heroes or even contemporary politicians who participate in human trafficking? Well, that’s easy too. Solomon used slaves to build the temple, which God said was okay in Leviticus 25. Didn’t he? He did, so it’s fine. Slave-owning heroes intact.
This cruel and destructive set of arguments wasn’t just used by my childhood pastor, as I’m sure you know. The horrible truth is that pro-slavery, pro-apartheid, pro-abuse, anti-women, anti-Christ readings of human relations in the Bible have always come out of Bible-reading, prayerful Christian communities. And they still do.
To this day, Christian leaders that I know personally joke about how nice it would be to have a slave girl around. There is so much ugliness within the visible boundaries of our religion. So it was at the time of Solomon the Wise, the Great. And so it has always been.
What do we do with such ugliness? We can’t hide from it. Nor can we who are free in Christ join our heartless fellow “Christians” in worshipping a god who is unrecognizable in the full story of redemption.
There is hope for those of us who want to read the Bible without turning a blind eye to the most difficult of passages. Yes, even those sections of the Bible that we worry about our friends hearing, should they walk through the doors of any church on a Sunday. You know which passages I’m talking about.
In the face of contentious and risky topics, we start by taking a big dose of humility and then by putting on our Big Picture Eyes. We read these tricky passages just as we read any passage. We read them in light of the story of God’s Redemption of His People. We read them in light of Who God has revealed Himself to be: God of perfect justice, holiness, compassion, and love. We read them through the eyes of Jesus Himself, whose teaching on slavery was metaphorical as well as physical. The slavery God is concerned about is not just earthly slavery but spiritual slavery (Matt. 18:21-35, Matt. 20:20-28, Matt. 24:36-51).
We start therefore with a simple truth:
Any so-called Christian who looks approvingly on the exploitation of human beings does not grasp the Gospel. Such a person denies the freedom from slavery which Christ offers freely to those who acknowledge Him as their Lord and Saviour (Luke 4:18). And how does he offer it? The Maker of the World stooped from heaven to take on the bondage of suffering so that He might liberate us from sin and death.
And with the Lamb as our Lamp, we can return to any part of the Bible with no fear. We read Leviticus 25 but this time through the eyes of Hebrews 10:1-2, through which we see that the Law was “only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things” (see also John 1:17, Rom 13:8-10).
Our eyes gain greater focus as we encounter Acts 15:10. Here we learn that the Law came because of sin, as a test of loyalty to God, as a means to live in a broken world which we ourselves corrupted. And wonder of wonders, we learn that the Law was itself a form of slavery which God’s people could not bear.
23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law,
being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.
24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ,
so that we may be justified by faith.
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
The Law shows us our need of Christ. And now we return to 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles 2. But this time, we read with no illusions about the greatness of earthly men nor of the efficacy of the letter of the Law.
Solomon was among the wisest men who ever lived, but even he bore a yoke too heavy for him. And how quickly he gave up. How quickly did his eye wander to the riches and bondage of Egypt’s Pharaohs, their daughters, their horses, their silver, their slavery. How quickly did he follow the way of his father David, the way of his fathers before him, when he called for a census and began plotting his plan of oppression.
And how quickly do we follow the way of our father Solomon. We live in an evil world, corrupted by our own failure. What hope do we have but in the One who is greater than Solomon. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we learn that slavery cannot and will not last in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ there is no distinction between slave and free (Gal 3:28). There is only the dignity of all people, which Christ models in the freedom and majesty of righteousness which He bestows on His church.
We find a beautiful picture of this in Paul’s account of Philemon and Onesimus, which encompasses and surpasses all earthly freedom. Here, we encounter heaven’s emancipation of both men.
No longer slave. No longer master. Both beloved brothers in Christ.
10 I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment …
15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.
Philemon 1:10, 15-17