The treatment of slaves (Sir 33:24-33:29)

“Fodder is for a donkey.

A stick is for a donkey.

A burden is for a donkey.

Bread is for a slave.

Discipline is for a slave.

Work is for a slave.

Set your slave to work.

You will find rest.

If you leave his hands idle,

He will seek liberty.

A yoke will bow his neck.

A thong will bow his neck.

A wicked servant should have

Rack and tortures.

Put him to work.

Thus he may not be idle.

Idleness teaches much evil.

Set him to work,

As is fitting for him.

If he does not obey,

Make his fetters heavy.

Do not be overbearing

Toward anybody.

Do nothing unjust.”

Sirach accepts slavery as a fact of life, not to be disputed. This was a common biblical theme, so that the slave owners who cited the Bible could not be faulted. Slaves were slaves, so what? There was no sense of the idea of an equal fellow human being. In fact, it was clear that they should work hard as there was a comparison of a slave to a donkey. Just as the donkey was fed, whipped, and burdened, so too the slave should be fed with bread, disciplined, and worked hard. If your slave worked hard, you could get some restful idleness time for yourself. You should put a yoke and thong around your slave’s neck. If he was bad, you could beat him up. The slave should never be idle because that would lead to evil and his possible escape. If the slave did not obey, he should be punished. However, there was a limit to this brutality. You should not be overbearing or unjust. Of course, it was your decision to evaluate the situation.

The righteous Joseph (Wis 10:13-10:14)

“When a righteous man was sold,

Wisdom did not desert him.

She delivered him from sin.

She descended with him

Into the dungeon.

When he was in prison,

She did not leave him,

Until she brought him

The scepter of a kingdom.

He had authority over his masters.

Those who accused him

She showed to be false.

She gave him everlasting honor.”

Without mentioning his name, this section talks about the righteous Joseph, based on the stories in Genesis, chapters 37-41. Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery. However, wisdom did not abandon this righteous man (δίκαιον). She stayed with him when he was imprisoned in Egypt. However, due to his explanation of dreams, he received a special role in the Egyptian government. Thus he has an everlasting honor or eternal glory (δόξαν αἰώνιον). Of course, all this was accomplished because of wisdom.

Joseph (Ps 105:16-105:22)

“When he summoned a famine against the land,

He broke every staff of bread.

He had sent a man ahead of them,


He was sold as a slave.

His feet were hurt with fetters.

His neck was put in a collar of iron.

His oracle came to pass.

As the word of Yahweh tested him.

The king then sent for him.

The king released him.

The ruler of the peoples

Set him free.

He made him

Lord of his house.

The king made him

Ruler of all his possessions.

Jospeh was to instruct

His officials at his pleasure.

He was to teach his elders wisdom.”

Here we find the story of Joseph as told in Genesis, chapters 37-50, but without the details of how he was betrayed by his brothers. Yahweh brought the famine that led Jacob and his sons to go to Egypt. Joseph hd gone ahead, but not voluntarily. He was sold as a slave or more precisely turned over by his brothers into slavery. While in Egypt, he was in jail. His dreams came through so he was released when they were found to be true. He was tested by Yahweh. Finally the king or pharaoh released him and put him in charge of his household and all his possessions. Jospeh then instructed the other officials in Egypt as he taught them wisdom. He made the correct preparations for the famine to come.

Job never mistreated his slaves (Job 31:13-31:15)

“If I have rejected the cause

Of my male or female slaves,

When they brought a complaint against me,

What then shall I do when God rises up?

When he makes inquiry?

What shall I answer him?

Did not he who made me in the womb make them?

Did not one fashion us in the womb?”

In an odd sort of way, Job maintained that he was respectful to his male and female slaves. There never was a question of the right or wrong of slavery itself. This is about the idea, that slave or free persons, they were all God’s children. One should be a benevolent slave owner. Even in the height of American segregation in the USA in the 1960s, people like George Wallace always maintained that the Negro was a child of God, just a different kind of child. Did Job listen to his slave complaints? He said that God could look into it and find that he tried his best. He treated them like fellow humans who came from the womb like himself.

The decision to wipe out the Jews (2 Macc 8:8-8:11)

“Philip saw that the Judas was gaining ground little by little. He saw that he was pushing ahead with more frequent successes. Thus he wrote to Ptolemy, the governor of Coele-syria and Phoenicia, to come to the aid of the king’s government. Ptolemy promptly appointed Nicanor son of Patroclus, one of the king’s chief friends. He sent Nicanor in command of no fewer than twenty thousand gentiles of all nations to wipe out the whole race of Judea. He associated with him Gorgias, a general and a man of experience in military service. Nicanor determined to make up for the king the tribute due to the Romans, two thousand talents, by selling the captured Jews into slavery. He immediately sent to the towns on the seacoast, inviting them to buy Jewish slaves. He promised to hand over ninety slaves for a talent, not expecting the judgment from the Almighty that was about to overtake him.”

This Philip was in charge of Jerusalem. He wrote to Ptolemy, who was the governor of Coele-syria, along the Phoenician coast, for aid. Ptolemy sent him Nicanor and Gorgias, a general. This is slightly different from 1 Maccabees, chapter 3. There it was Lysias, the governor from Antioch who sent Ptolemy with Nicanor and Gorgias to Judea with 40,000 troops, not 20,000 as here. There was no mention of taking Jewish slaves and selling them in 1 Maccabees. Here Nicanor believes that he can get 1 talent for 90 Jewish slaves, so that they can pay the Roman tribute. It is not clear if this is a gold or silver talent. Obviously, he was not expecting divine revenge.

King Antiochus IV despoils the Temple (2 Macc 5:11-5:16)

“When news of what had happened reached the king, he took it to mean that Judea was in revolt. So, raging inwardly, he left Egypt. He took the city by storm. He commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly every one they met. They were to kill those who went into the houses. Then there was a massacre of young and old, destruction of boys, women, and children, with the slaughter of young girls and infants. Within the total of three days eighty thousand were destroyed, forty thousand in hand-to-hand fighting. Almost as many were sold into slavery as were killed. Not content with this, King Antiochus dared to enter the most holy temple in the whole world, guided by Menelaus, who had become a traitor both to the laws and to his country. He took the holy vessels with his polluted hands. He swept away with profane hands the votive offerings that other kings had made to enhance the glory and honor of the place.”

Up until now this author has spent a lot of time explaining what was happening with the high priests in Jerusalem. Now he picks up the part of the story that can be found in 1 Maccabees, chapter 1. King Antiochus IV heard about the uprising of the former high priest Jason against the present high priest Menelaus. He believed that this was a revolt against him. He left Egypt because the Romans told him to do so. There was no mention of the massive slaughter of the people in Jerusalem in 1 Maccabees. Here 80,000 people were killed, 40,000 in hand to hand fighting. Nearly 40,000 were sold into slavery. The emphasis in 1 Maccabees was on the despoiling of the Temple, not the destruction of the people since they simply said that he shed blood and spoke with arrogance in 169 BCE. Here the king pollutes the Temple with his profane hands also. There is no mention of the specifics of what he took as in 1 Maccabees.

The prayer of Ezra (Ezra 9:5-9:9)

“At the evening sacrifice I got up from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle torn. I fell upon my knees. I spread out my hands to Yahweh my God, saying.

O my God,

I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you,

My God,

Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads,

Our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.

From the days of our ancestors to this day

We have been deep in guilt.

Because of our iniquities,

We, our kings, and our priests

Have been handed over to the kings of the lands,

To the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame,

As is now the case.

But now for a brief moment

Favor has been shown by Yahweh our God,

He has left us a remnant,

He has given us a stake in his holy place,

So that he may brighten our eyes

And grant us a little sustenance in our slavery.

We are slaves.

Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery.

But he has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia,

To give us new life

To set up the house of our God,

To repair its ruins,

To give us a wall in Judea and Jerusalem.’”

This is the beautiful prayer of Ezra in the first person, singular and plural. He accepted the guilt for his fellow returning captives for their actions. Ezra is so ashamed that he cannot lift up his head. The guilt of his people from the beginning to today has mounted up to the heavens. Due to their guilt, they have been handed over to others, killed, captured, and plundered. However, in the midst of this slavery, there is a bright spot. Yahweh has led the kings of Persia to let a small remnant return to a new life, to repair the Temple, and build a wall around Jerusalem. This later part was the point of a big dispute earlier in this work.

The widow and the ever flowing oil (2 Kings 4:1-4:7)

“The wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha. ‘Your servant my husband is dead. You know that your servant feared Yahweh, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.’ Elisha said to her. ‘What shall I do for you? Tell me. What do you have in the house?’ She answered. ‘Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.’ He said. ‘Go outside. Borrow vessels of all your neighbors. Empty these vessels and not just a few. Then go in. Shut the door behind you and your children. Start pouring into all these vessels. When each one is full, set it aside.’ So she left him. She shut the door behind her and her children. They kept bringing vessels to her. She kept pouring. When the vessels were full, she said to her son. ‘Bring me another vessel.’ But he said to her. ‘There are no more.’ Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God. He said. ‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your children can live on the rest.’”

Elisha was not a lone wolf prophet. He always seemed to be with a group of prophets. As you can see from this story, miss use of credit was a problem some 2,500 years ago. The taking of children as slaves for bad debts was not unknown. Elisha seems to have this rude personality, since he says, what can I do for you? He tells her that she should get all the vessels she can borrow from her friends. She then began to fill up every vessel with the oil from the one jar of oil that she had. Of course, the oil from the one jar never ran out. When they were all full, she went back to Elisha. He told her to sell the oil, pay off her debts, and live on the rest. This never ending supply of the oil jar is like the jug of oil of Elijah in 1 Kings, chapter 17.