30 Mar 2021

Sabbath: Setting the Slaves Free, Remembering the Slaves

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Black History, Christian hope, Contemporary Ethics, Deuteronomy, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Mission, Politics, Race Relations, Sabbath, Slavery
Remembering the Slaves

The Sabbath.

Ask many disciples about the Sabbath and the only thing they really know about it is that there were “weird” rules about work. What is missed however, is that the “rules” meant we have a day off from the drudgery of work. The rule ensured, in fact, that we never became a slave!

What Christians often do not understand about the Sabbath is, WHY the Sabbath. Foundational to Shabbat (the Sabbath) is the divine act of grace: liberation from slavery (Deut 5.12-15). The Sabbath preaches the Gospel of freedom from slavery. The Sabbath is in reality the foundation of Jesus’s own ministry (Isaiah 61.1-2; Lk 4.18-19). I would say that makes it pretty important for any Christ follower.

In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to keep the Sabbath in order to “Remember that you were slaves” (Deut 5.15). A bunch of folks dislike this notion of remembering. The Sabbath constantly reminded Israel of where the came from and that they had been set free. Remembering automatically gave Israel a connection with every slave in the world, remembering causes us to identify with the captives, with the disinherited, with the aliens. And that God, our God, the God of Israel is the liberating, slave redeeming, God. In fact, Moses tells the Israelites they are to “have the heart of alien” (Exodus 23.9).

The weekly Sabbath was like a mini-Passover celebration. Israel took a day to remember they were enslaved aliens in a land simply known as “the land of slavery.” Israel took a day and remembered that Yahweh heard their cry and sent a redeemer and brought them out of slavery with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. The God of Israel saved the slaves. What a profound message of love and grace remembered every Sabbath day and in the annual Passover. And that is why Israel every week gave a day off for “you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, your ox, your donkey, your livestock and the aliens in your town so they may rest as well as you” (Deut. 5.14, when we read this text is essential to remember that “slaves” in Israel were more like indentured servants. Chattel, race based, slavery did not exist in Israel nor in the Ancient Near East in general).

The Pharisees were not, btw, the last people that could take something so beautiful, so loving, so grace filled and transform it into a burden for God’s people. I meet people who that all the time.

Remembering the Slaves

So in honor of Moses command, and Jesus’s mission, I want to remember a few things about slavery. Maybe things you did not know.

First. Remember that in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, there were three categories on the US Census data sheet for color:


Do we remember the Black and Mulatto were counted as three-fifths of a human being in what was called the “Slave Power.” Blacks and Mulattoes had no rights yet it was essential to Slave holders to have them counted in the census because this translated into how many seats the South could have in the House of Representatives. Further do we remember that you could be as “white” as me and not be “white” at all. Forty percent (40%) of the “free Negroes” in the South were Mulattoes but the vast majority of Mulattoes remained in slavery. The very existence of Mulattoes testifies to the extent of the power of the oppressor over the oppressed.

Second. Remember in 1860 only 10% of the slave population was older than 50. We need to reflect on this number. Old slaves were rare! Slaves were worked to death. Then they were tossed into the ground in unmarked graves.

Three. Remember the Middle Passage, the death passage between Africa and America that directly resulted in the deaths of around four million people all in the service of making money.

But we must remember the Second Middle Passage. After the trans-Atlantic slave trade was banned in theory (it would continue till Abraham Lincoln declared war on it), slave trade flourished internally in the USA. Over a million slaves would be moved from the “upper” South to the “lower” South via the domestic slave trade.

Four. Remember that Thirty-three percent (33%) of the slave labor force in 1860 was children. We cannot forget that one out of every three slaves was a child. Hundreds of thousands of these were the offspring of white “owners” who then sold off their own children (after all they were only three-fifths of a human). They were the Mulattoes.

Five. Remember what slavery really was. One of the most persistent myths, perpetuated by movies like Gone with the Wind, is that slaves were happy and simply worked cotton or tobacco farms. But in reality many of them did but many did not.

Before 1860, slaves laid nearly 10,000 miles of rail for trains (more gauge than Germany, France and England combined). Slaves were sailors, miners, masons, artisans. Slaves were used as accountants. Slaves built the monumental architecture in Washington DC like the White House and the Capital Building. Slaves worked restaurants in major cities of the South. Most repugnantly of all, slave women (and sometimes men) were used as mistresses and rented out as prostitutes in New Orleans, Lexington, St. Louis, Charleston, Nashville and many other places.

Six. Slavery in the Bible has nothing in common with slavery that existed in the United States. It never ceases to amaze me how many Christians are utterly ignorant of this fact. Slavery in the Bible, indeed the whole ancient world, had nothing to do with race/color. Many scholars compare slavery in Israel to indentured servanthood rather than slavery. Slavery is like divorce in the Bible. The Bible did not create it but it did regulate it and slaves were to be set free.

Remembering with Jesus

When your whole religion is based on “remember that YOU were a slave …” it changes the whole game. God proclaimed FREEDOM/LIBERTY … “forgiveness” … for the captives.

Jesus remembered the Sabbath every week of his earthly life. Jesus loved the Sabbath for the same reason he loved the Passover itself, they both preach the same message of God’s grace towards the disinherited, call us to remember the disinherited ourselves. On one Sabbath day Jesus was in Nazareth. It was his turn to read the Scriptures. He read a passage rich in Sabbath imagery, the Sabbath of Sabbaths – the Year of Jubilee.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring
good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the
Lord’s favor.
(Luke 4.18-19)

Jesus reads from Isaiah 61. It does not take much to see the connection between the Year of the Lord’s favor (Jubilee) and weekly Sabbath. The message is exactly the same. God, Jesus says, is sending once again a Redeemer to set the slaves free. In fact because we read this passage in English rather than Greek many disciples do not realize that Jesus is proclaiming “forgiveness.”

he has sent me to proclaim FORGIVENESS (ἄφεσιν) to the captives …”

Many do not realize that Jesus uses the exact same word that Peter does in Acts 2.38 when he tells people to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness (ἄφεσιν) of sins. Liberty, Freedom, Forgiveness the same word in Greek. When we remember the slaves, especially remembering them through Jesus, we remember that just as Israel was called to have the heart of the alienated slaves, so too those who claim to be disciples of the Redeemer. His very mission was to proclaim liberty, to preach freedom, to bring forgiveness to the slaves. If we are not about this then are we really on board with the mission of Christ?


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