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Scriptural Concepts


Hebrew Word

The imagery of serving God as a bondslave is present in both the Tenach and the Apostolic Writings. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:20 we read:

You shall fear Adonai your God. You shall serve Him and hold fast to Him...

In the Tenach, the Hebrew word eved is used, which literally means "laborer". This word is used for any kind of laborer, whether an oppressed slave, someone working in the Tabernacle, or someone who has chosen the life of a household servant.

In the Apostolic Writings, the Greek word doulos is used, which means "slave". Yet more often the verb form, douleuo ("to be a slave to") is used to describe either voluntary or required service.

Meaning in Ancient Israel

Genesis 29:15 (involving Jacob and Lavan) makes clear a laborer is not necessarily a slave lacking wages. In fact, the most important use of eved in ancient Israel had nothing to do with slavery, but was the solution to bankruptcy described first in Exodus 21.

The Bankrupt Relative

If an ancient Israelite went bankrupt, he would live as a servant in a relative's house for six years or until the next Jubilee year, whichever came first. During this time he would hopefully learn from example how to more responsibly run a household.

If the bankrupt man decided he did not want to attempt financial independence again he could declare his love for his master and his master's family and remain in that household. To discourage this, Exodus 21:5-6 and Deuteronomy 15:16-17 describe an odd ritual with an awl and the door (or doorpost) of the house which physically marked him as part of the relative's household.

The bankrupt relative in Leviticus 25:39-40 is not to be treated as a "laboring laborer" (slave) but a "hireling" (servant).

Deuteronomy 15:12-18 adds that he would leave with a enough money to serve as a "nest egg" for re-establishing his own household. Because he is family and is being treated well, an expectation is made that the eved be twice as helpful as a hired servant during his years of service. These verses clarify that the cycle of years of remitting debts does not apply: only the Jubilee year. Finally, these verses add that this eved can be female: a previously unmentioned case of a bankrupt financially independent Hebrew woman (i.e., a poor widow).

Two Tangents About Bankrupcy

While discussing bankruptcy in ancient Israel, we might as well mention other details normally made needlessly confusing by English translations of scripture.

A Hebrew young woman was not financially independent. What would happen to her if her family was too poor to support her? The rules for the eved do not apply; something else must be done. Exodus 21:7-11 says she becomes a purchased Hebrew female handmaid, an almah. After six years she may be sold to another Hebrew master if she is still single. But it is expected that either her master or one of her master's sons would marry her, and after the marriage she stops being an amah. She has full marital rights, including a dowry if not married to her master. This situation is not selling a child into slavery, but a poor family offering an arranged marriage for a daughter, who has six years to prove herself a potentially good wife for either this man or one of his sons.

Notice that in both cases, eved and amah, the goal is to have the slave either become one of the family/household or go free.

Also often confusing is Exodus 21:4, about a male Hebrew slave being temporarily given a woman. According to Exodus 23:31-33, a Hebrew man should only marry a Hebrew woman. Exodus 21:4 is about non-Hebrew women captured in war. The master of a married Hebrew male slave is allowed to give him a Canaanite concubine who remains a slave even when the Hebrew male slave is freed. Thus the master, who is financially supporting the male slave's Hebrew family, is compensated by using the male slave to help the Canaanite woman have children who will be slaves until the Jubilee year. The Canaanite female gains children who are half-Hebrew and will, after the Jubilee year, be able to live in the land as citizens. Thus assimilation happens, but takes a generation.

Meaning in the First Century

Apparently the institution of the eved to deal with bankruptcy had stopped being used by the first-century. We have not found any historical record of its use at that time. (Similarly, the institution of almah had also apparently ended.)

In the Apostolic Writings we read instead about serving God as a douleuo bondslave. This type of serving is done to Adonai (Romans 12:11, Colossians 3:24) with humility, and sometimes with tears and temptations (Acts 20:19). We serve Adonai in this way "in newness of spirit" (Romans 7:6), in "innocence, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17-18).

This is a type of serving Adonai that has competition from serving money (Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13) or gluttony (Romans 16:18, Titus 3:3). Yeshua taught that people not freed from slavery to sin serve sin in this way (John 8:33-34) and Paul repeats this (Romans 6:6).

Meaning for Yeshua's followers in Modern Times

Our Spiritual Bankruptcy

The spiritual situation of a new believer is parallel to the economic situation of Exodus 21:2-6.

To become a follower of Yeshua is to declare, "I have had enough of being in charge of my life. When I am the lord of my life it only leads to spiritual bankruptcy compared to the spiritual riches of the Household of God. Let me become an eved in that Household! I am willing to surrender my right to myself and become a permanent member of the Household of God because I know the Father in that household is a loving, caring, master. I love that master and his family! (Hey, he even adopts his slaves as adult heirs!)"

Indeed, loving God and serving God in an eved manner go hand in hand (Deuteronomy 10:12, 11:13).

Notice that since spiritual propserity requires a constant connection to Yeshua (John 15:5) our service to Yeshua cannot be temporary. Departing the Household of God after six years is not a valid option: we cannot mimic life in that household after departing; we must stay permanently.

This is the context of a new believer's immersion. Perhaps the early followers of Yeshua could have begun a tradition of gaining a new earring while joining the Household of God, to mimic the ear-piercing ceremony. But earrings were not culturally symbolic and immersion was. Furthermore, the seal of having entered the Household of God was receiving God's Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), for which many scriptural metaphors of washing and pouring were well known.

So Yeshua taught his followers to use immersion as a replacement ceremony. People were giving credit to Yeshua's claim that they could become more set apart for God by declaring spiritual bankruptcy, entering the Household of God, and receiving God's Spirit, all by identifying with Yeshua's own surrender to the Father's will, as exemplified in his death and resurrection.

The Benefits of Serving as a Slave

Proverbs 15:33 says "The fear of Adonai teaches wisdom. Before honor is humility." We need our status as slaves to acquire proper fear and humility, which in turn provide wisdom and honor. Adonai also treats us as children and as friends, but in these other roles we learn less about fear and humility.

In Job 35:9-12, we read how God provides explanations to those who belong to him, not to those who love him or cry out to him.

As a slave in the Household of God we do not need to fear that our Lord will treat us cruelly; he is a caring master. But we might fear what he could ask us to do. Read Ezekiel 4:1-8, for example, in which the prophet is told to lie on one side for fourteen months! Or learn the stories of people whom God has asked to travel to harsh locales to share the Good News. Serving a kind master means he will treat us well, but does not guarantee he will avoid asking us to do unpleasant work when it needs to be done. Friends would not ask each other to do such unpleasant work, but a master can ask it of a slave.

Yet with the chance of being assigned unpleasant work also comes the more significant benefit of authority. In the eighth chapter of Matthew we read of how authority works, with a Roman army officer who understands authority:

"Sir, my orderly is lying at home paralyzed and is suffering terribly!"

Yeshua said, "I will go and heal him."

But the officer answered. "Sir, I am unfit to have you come into my home. Rather, if you will only give the command, my orderly will recover. For I too am a man under authority. I have soldiers under me, and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes; to another, 'Come!' and he comes; to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it."

On hearing this Yeshua was amazed and said to the people following him, "Yes, I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such trust!"

The soldier has authority because he too is under authority. As a slave in the Household of God (let alone as an adopted adult heir) we have more spiritual authority than before, when we thought we were free but were actually slaves of our evil inclinations.

Our status as people given authority by God gives us power (also see First Corinthians 4:20).

So God might ask us to play army men with a brick, in public, without moving, for a year, and that's frightening (Ezekiel 4). But it's much more likely he'll ask us to a give a certain person healing, or spiritual freedom, or eternal joy, and that's exciting! God needs fewer people to build toy earthworks now that he has equipped us to move mountains.

Serving Adonai

Almost every verse in the Apostolic Writings that mentions douleuo refers to serving God. It is tricky to write about serving Adonai in a douleuo manner because Adonai calls each of us to serve him in different ways. Be faithful to listen to what God has to say to you in times of private prayer, and then be obedient to what God asks you to do!

In Matthew 24:45-51 and 25:14-30, Yeshua teaches us to be a "faithful slave" in using the "talents" God gives us, as well as to have that mindset with how we treat each other.

Just because we can serve Adonai does not mean we can "spiritualize" all of our tasks. A mistranslation of Colossians 3:23-24 has caused part of modern Christian culture to believe doing anything with the emotional intent of honoring God is "worship" or "serving God".

And whatever you do, labor heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you slave for (douleuo, not latreuo) the Lord Messiah.

In this passage Paul is reminding Yeshua's followers of the eternal inheritance they will be given from God, which is so wonderful that it allows bearing with a human boss who underpays. Paul is not claiming our occupational labor itself serves God. A constant focus on God and readiness to serve him is what makes daily life worshipful.

Serving Each Other

In only one passage we are called to use the freedom we have as followers of Yeshua to serve each other in a douleuo manner; we do this by loving our neighbors as ourselves (Galatians 5:13-14, citing Leviticus 19:18). As with serving God in Deuteronomy 10:12 and 11:13, love is explicitly emphasized as the motivation and attitude of this service.

Yeshua is clear in Matthew 20:26-27 that serving each other in a douleuo manner is very possible, and a worthy goal, yet also exceptional.

...On the contrary, whoever among you wants to be a leader must become your attendant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave!

We should all want to be "first" among God's people in serving, as God wants us to be. If we truly want to participate in his Kingdom, we need to look carefully at the way in which we understand the meaning of the words "servant" and "slave" in the Apostolic Writings, for these terms are used differently (or avoided and not used) in many cultures.

To begin, refer back to Galatians 5:13-14. How do we serve each other in a doeleuo manner? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves?

Notice how in Acts the believers both met in houses (i.e., people still owned them) and would sell houses to provide for the needy among them. The example for a typical believer is not a commune lifestyle, but being willing to devote resources to the brethren as readily as to yourself. This is a financial example of caring for a neighbor in the same way we care four ourselves.

Relationally, we best care for our neighbors when we are part of a community in which people are genuine and vulnerable. We should spend time together, being serious about both attending congregational activities and requesting activities that help us. A congregation should do some resting together, as well as worshipping and working together.

In times of problems we should take care of each other's personal and household needs, caring for each other with as much love and labor as we care for ourselves. This care should be both physical and spiritual: of both "stuff" and prayer. We should pray for each other routinely as well as in times of crisis. And in times of crisis we should visit the people facing the cricis to pray with them!

Loving neighbors as ourselves is everyone's job, and is not "assigned" to leadership.

Caring for each other in a douleuo manner raises an interesting question. The commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" perhaps means that people who are not able to love themselves much are then largely exempt from this job of serving their neighbors, to give themselves opportunity to heal. Every follower of Yeshua needs to love one other as Yeshua loved us. But we do not need to be stretched in every direction simultaneously.

Similarly, to some extent a congregation can be sensitive of people's character in how congregants serve one another. For example, people who themselves prefer to be alone when ill might not be the best people to serve by visiting the sick if there are other congregants better suited.

Serving with Standards

To help us understand what it takes to be a good servant, consider Joseph, who was an exemplary servant to both Potiphar and the chief jailer (Genesis 39).

Why did Joseph repeatedly rise to positions of influence, even while a servant? In both places this happened over a period of years, so it must have been about Joseph's character and not because of something special he did. Consider how much Potiphar and the chief jailer both trusted Joseph!

Thus he left all that he had in Joseph's hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate... And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing. The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under his [Joseph's] hand, because Adonai was with him; and that which he did, Adonai made it to prosper. - Genesis 39:6, 22-23

Notice how this passage ends (and also in verse 39:3). Adonai is the one who enables us to be good servants; when we faithfully serve, Adonai causes our service to prosper!

What must Joseph have been like in his character? What personality traits would be necessary in a person someone would willing place in charge of all of his or her affairs? It's worth trying to make a list. Here are ideas brainstormed from several discussions about serving as Joseph did:

A list such as this one helps us imagine the behavior of a good servant, and also a healthy personal relationship between a good servant and the person he is serving.

Now consider the people you serve in your life: your family, boss at work, congregational leaders, etc. Do you demonstrate characteristics such as those just listed? What would the people you serve say about your service according to such standards? If you fall short, remember that it is Adonai who enabled Joseph to be such a good servant and pray to become a better servant with Adonai's help and blessing.