Friday, 8 February 2013

Slave Labour! Or, 2 Kings 22 gets more interesting...

The theme for the last couple of weeks has been "Forced Labour in ancient Israel". There are plenty of verses which suggest that forcing foreigners to labour as captives was a massive part of building the nation's infrastructure. 2 Samuel 12:13, Judges 1:33, 2 Chronicles 8:7-10, 1 Kings 9:15-23, 1 Chronicles 20:1-3 etc etc... Even the construction of the temple of the Lord was achieved by enforced labour. So what was Israel's mandate to persecute those it captured? Deuteronomy 20:10 gives slave labour as a preference to being slain, the reward earned by those who submit to Israel's authority. Was this revenge time for the people who had escaped such hard graft in Egypt?

In Exodus 1:6-14 and 5:6-13 we see the motivation behind Pharaoh's oppression of the Jewish people. It was envisaged as a way of enforcing subjugation, crushing willpower, in effect not so very different from an act of genocide. The passage from Exodus 5 suggests that toil was main purpose of the building projects, not the buildings themselves. Extravagant palaces, tombs and temples were conceived almost entirely to continue to give the Hebrew slaves something to toil at. Removal of the straw for making bricks means that haste and quality of finish was not the Egyptians' prime motivation, just making life harder for those who might think they could challenge Pharaoh.

So how do a people once oppressed end up with such a force of slave labourers? It clearly happened to a great degree since Solomon even had a high-ranking court official in charge of forced labour (1 Kings4:1-6). Maybe the distinction is in the way the labour was handled. Not wanting to excuse oppression of others (Isaiah had a thing or two to say about oppressing workers- Isaiah 58:3), can we mediate a negative view of the practice? The books of law contain numerous references to relationships with foreigners in Israel, and most are positive, although there is a marked distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Exodus 23:9 forbids exploitation of foreigners, yet clearly they were expected to work for the Israelites since the Sabbath command in Exodus 23:12 gives the day as a "rest for the foreigners". In Leviticus 19:10 they are allowed the same gleaning rights as impoverished Hebrews and in Deuteronomy 29:11 their labour is restricted. Exodus 12:48 declares foreigners can become Israeli nationals and Leviticus 25:23 conceives as Israel itself as a "foreigner in the Lord's land". Maybe a nation following these guidelines, with a negative experience of slave labour in its past is able to be a 'good' task master. Maybe serving under Israel wasn't so harsh. Young's Literal Translation of the Bible renders "forced labour" as "tributary to". This suggests a much less oppressive relationship (which still asserts Israel's authority).

In Deuteronomy 26, tithing is a way in which money is accumulated to pay the foreign labourers. This reminds me of the account in 1 Kings 22 where Josiah entrusts labourers with temple funds for its repair. The project was funded by the community and for the community, not just for worship but also to provide employment. The event is alluded to in Jeremiah 22:13-17 where the prophet criticizes Josiah's son Shallum for both using his own countrymen as labourers and for not "defending the cause of the poor and needy" as his father did. This suggests 1) Josiah's entrusted workforce were not Jewish, 2) The trusting employment of people in rebuilding the temple was a way of defending the poor and needy. Foreigners whose land had been taken by Israel would have had their livelihood decimated. In this context providing them with a means to earn their sustenance may have been a mercy, whilst still showing the supremacy of Israel. Harsh treatment was not necessary. What's more, if they were oppressed and wished to escape from their captivity the rules preventing the return of slaves and the practice of gleaning ensured they could continue to survive. Alternatively they could join the Jewish nation and become 'countrymen' who would then have a right to their own property. The reminder that the Jews themselves were foreigners holding a privileged position in a land that was not their own should have kept their humility and perspective in check. Sadly many Bible passages suggest that this conception was not what occurred...

In the light of this, how can we begin to view the generation of employment as the 'ideal employers' taking our model from God's intention for Israel? Or is this a wrong approach? In what ways can we see Jesus as a model of an employer?

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Concluding wages

Some thoughts from the previous posts:

The recurring theme of the responsibility of employers. In a culture where to have to undertake any form of 'employed' work (rather than managing your own livestock and farmland) was a matter of shame the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Deuteronomy 24 and the account of Ruth demonstrate ways in which those in a position to hire others ensure those in hard times are cared for without demeaning them. The opportunity to work for a day's wages when needed preventing a feeling of obligation or seeing employment as a constant. The old testament principle of gleaning allows those who have no food to sustain themselves through (hard) work rather than handouts or dependence. The generosity of the vineyard owner displays a charitable act, but he only employs those still standing in the market place. Those still looking for work, not those who have already found employment elsewhere or those who have given up. He helps the needy, and those who are willing to contribute their own effort. How do we understand the difference between those who cannot work and those who will not?

The rights to the produce of work should be held by those who have laboured for them, and 'wages' (not necessarily financial) are a right, not a gift. That said, the wages are not the pure motivation in themselves, nor are they always a positive thing (are they, perhaps, to be judged upon the manner in which they were earned?). The merit and intention of work should result from a relationship with God. The 'employed' are accountable for how they conduct their work just as the 'employers' are responsible for how they conduct theirs.

How do we understand the request for 'daily bread' in the Lord's prayer given the woes of a hand-to-mouth lifestyle and the question of idleness?

Wages pt2

Jeremiah 25:7-14
In this instance "Work of hands" refers to made idols, but can we see a question here of the worth we give the things we make over that of the one who gives them to us? To whom do we credit our productivity? Our successes? Our earnings? The sound of the mill is noted as a 'joyful sound' to the same degree as marriage festivities. This is not just a necessary 'grind' but a sign of prosperity and hope for the future as are the union of people and promise of children represented in marriage.

Micah 1:6-7
Harlotry associated with infidelity. Does the manner in which 'wages' are earned somehow give characteristics to them? Does dishonest or immoral gain somehow hold the manner in which it was obtained?

Did Jesus know Judas was a thief (assuming he actually was)? If so, why allow him to continue in a position of trust? Is there a possible link with the trust of workmen in 2 Kings 22?
The value of the perfume is recognised as having a value beyond its economic wealth. How can we learn to see things from a non-financial perspective in a culture that is primarily concerned with monetary value?

Revelation 6:5-6
One of the woes of the apocalypse, typically interpreted as famine (weighing scales a sign of rationed food). A denarius a typical wage for one day, here is enough to buy a quart of wheat (enough for a day's food) or three of barley (enough to feed a family for a day). Literally living hand to mouth, a day's work for a day's food. Necessitates either omission of sabbath or a day's fasting and ensures work is a means of continuance, not prosperity. The abundance of wine and oil, good for the wealthy and those whose livelihood is the trade of such commodities, is irrelevant to the poor who have nothing leftover after buying staples.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Back in the rat-run!

New Year's relaunch!

Now more committed to reading and reflecting each morning, hopefully to be followed up by further research and reflections at a later juncture. The theme of  these is "the wages of...", enjoy!

Genesis 29:14-20
What is the customary expectation for relatives in this situation? Are wages in this sense to be understood as in addition to the bare essentials of survival? What work was Jacob undertaking? Does Jacob's request name a want rather than a need? Is this an instance of women treated as commodities or does verse 19 suggest a care for her wellbeing?

Deuteronomy 24:14-15
 Evidence of monetary wage in early Israel?Wage-holding a form of power, open to abuse. Makes hired labour a day-by-day occurrence with the possiblity of refusing a day's work if neccesary or if the work is not needed. No expectation of long-term employment?

Kings 22:3-7
Temple work funded comunally. Distribution the task of the priest and labourers to be trusted without need of account.

Ecclesiastes 2:22-26
Pain of toil hightened by its produce being claimed by another. Importance of seeing work in relation to God to find satisfaction in it. Over what does "his mind... not rest"? Worries over whether production will be enough to sustain? The work of the sinful used to sustain those who please God? How does the theology of Ecclesiastes inform its attitude to work, and what are we to make of the assertion the sinful do not benefit from their labour?

Matthew 20:1-15
A comment on just use of wealth? How typical is a denarius for a day's labour? If God is depicted as the landowner there's an expectation for humanity to work to serve His creation? But... is it God who is being compared or the depiction of the kingdom in generosity and mercy?

Ruth 2:15-23
The practice of gleaning allows the poor to survive by hard work, not by handouts alone. Boaz' intentional leaving of more corn than usual blesses Ruth in a way which does not cause embarrassment or degradation.

Psalm 109:11
Results of labour being removed from a person equated to the loss of children and death. A disastrous evil.

Proverbs 21:25-26
Does not maintain working equates to righteousness but suggests idleness begets want and an inability to act righteously. Maybe it is not the sluggard's will or desire which causes the idleness but that his 'hands will not work'. What is the language and message being used here?

Romans 4:1-8

In contrast, suggestion righteousness is attainable apart from 'works'. However, work and wages seen as inseparable, one earning a right to the other, contrasted with righteousness which is bestowed as a gift.