Wednesday, September 23, 2009

slaves to one another

The Hebrew and Greek words that are usually translated as "slave" in English, have a much broader range of meaning. This does not mean that a slave was not a slave in those days. In fact, slaves were owned and beaten and fucked. (Sorry, I can't think of a better word at this moment.) It wasn't a pleasant thing.

Of course, some slaves had very high status, and one of my favourite slaves was Tiro, after whom the Tironian notes shorthand system was named.

But back to the Hebrew word abad, and the Greek word doulos. The Hebrew word abad is used in Gen. 2:15. Adam was to "work" the garden and keep it. We believe that work is a good thing, but to be a slave is a bad thing. The Greek word doulos and its verb douleo are also used in negative and positive ways.

The first way that one can serve is as an involuntary or owned slave. The second is as a voluntary slave of a good and kind master. The third way one can serve is in a mutual relationship, to be slaves of each other. This way is found in Galatians,
    For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. Gal. 5:13 NRSV
Sometimes the scriptures instruct people to submit to unjust slavery and oppression, sometimes they teach that one should submit to a loving master but we also see that the ideal of mutual service is taught.

In 1 Peter, we find that Christ submitted to death, slaves submitted to being beaten unjustly and wives submitted to patriarchal husbands.

Serving others is a healthy thing and working is a privilege, but slavery is worse than death. In a similar way, marriage is healthy and the commitments of family are a privilege, but being locked into an involuntary situation where you are mistreated by your spouse, husband or wife, is a misery.

We need to have a healthy view of human hierarchy as a pragmatic and fluid arrangement in which mutual service is expressed in participatory leadership and shared responsibility and accountability and where lines of authority are limited, skill based and task oriented. The scriptures are not obscure on this matter, but repeat it in several places.

The commandment of Christ is to love one another, to love your next one as yourself, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to be the slaves of one another, to submit to one another, to hold others in esteem.

It would be a funny Bible that said "some submit to others." "some love others," "some hold others in esteem," and "some of you become slaves to others." That would be a strange beast of a Bible.

It is interesting that most Bibles do not translate Galatians 5:13 literally. I find that the NRSV is better in this case with demonstrating the concordance that is found in the Greek. Cheers to the NRSV for a literal translation of this verse.


G said...

“Man is an ass either God or the devil rides him” Martin Luther, ‘Bondage of the Will’ So why should anyone think too much of themselves, since we are all just a bunch of slaves, or jackasses under our master. To do anything but submit to each other would be brazen arrogance.

Anonymous said...


Good insights!

Thanks, Don

Jane said...

This is a really excellent post - much food for thought. It reminded me of Bärbel von Wartenburg Potter's book "we shall not hang our harps on the willows" in which she says we should allow ourselve to be served as little as possible.