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?

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