slavery

Set Apart By God

10 “He found him in a desert land,
    and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11 Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
    that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
    bearing them on its pinions,
12 the Lord alone guided him,
    no foreign god was with him.
13 He made him ride on the high places of the land,
    and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
    and oil out of the flinty rock.
14 Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
    with fat of lambs,
rams of Bashan and goats,
    with the very finest of the wheat—
    and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.

15 “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
    you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
    and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
    with abominations they provoked him to anger.
17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
    to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
    whom your fathers had never dreaded.
18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
    and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” – Deuteronomy 32:10-18 ESV

The Lord’s song continues. It recounts how God discovered Jacob and his family, the nation of Israel, in Egypt, a desert land. God rescued the descendants of Jacob from their captivity in Egypt, where they had served as the slaves of Pharaoh for hundreds of years. God had heard their cries of despair and had sent Moses to be their deliverer. 

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. – Exodus 2:23-25 NLT

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saw the plight of His chosen people and responded with compassion. He protected them like a mother eagle would its chicks. Using Jacob as a synonym for Israel, the poem describes how God cared for His own.

“he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye” – Deuteronomy 32:19 ESV

Centuries of captivity in a foreign land had not changed God’s feelings about Jacob and his descendants. The circumstances surrounding their years in Egypt were not to be seen as proof of God’s abandonment of them. The promise He had made to Abraham still held. In fact, it was during their stay in Egypt that the family of Jacob increased in number from just over 70 people to a great nation numbering in the millions.

But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV

And this meteoric growth was exactly what God had promised Abraham so many years earlier when He had called out of Haran.

I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 NLT

God had kept His promise. But His ways are not man’s ways. His methods don’t always make sense to us. The nation of Israel was born out of adversity. It grew up in the context of slavery and servitude. It was a nation in bondage, enslaved by the enemy and incapable of delivering itself from its predicament.

And it was in the midst of their darkest moment that God stepped in and did for them what they could not do for themselves. He delivered them from bondage. He set them free from captivity. And their rescue is indicative of what God has done for all those whom He has rescued from slavery to sin.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 5:6 NLT

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

Paul describes us as having been “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20). And Jesus said, “everyone who sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34 NLT). But He has set us free. And “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT).

The Israelites were set free from slavery in Egypt. God guided them out of their captivity, having delivered from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. And when they left the land of Egypt, they did so with God alone as their guide and companion, having left the false gods of the Egyptians behind them. And God led them, fed them, and protected them all the way through the wilderness. But more than that, He taught them about obedience and faithfulness, using trials and difficulties to increase their trust in Him.

“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good.” – Deuteronomy 8:2-5 NLT

God was gracious and good to the people of Israel, providing them with an abundance of blessings in the form of tangible and practical resources intended to prolong and improve life.

…produce of the fields
…honey for from the cliffs
…olive oil from the hardest of rocks
…butter from the herd
…milk from the flock
…the fat of lambs
…rams and goats of Bashan
…the best of the kernels of wheat
…the juice of grapes

Even in the wilderness, they enjoyed the blessings of God. They ate well and were well-cared for by God. Even their wilderness experience was better than the years they had spent in captivity in Egypt. Walking with God in the wilderness is always better than living in slavery without Him.

God had set apart Israel as His own precious possession. They had done nothing to earn or deserve His gracious deliverance of them. And Moses had made this point quite clear earlier in the book of Deuteronomy.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

The blessings of God were undeserved. His love for them was not based on any inherent worth in them. And He would continue to love them, in spite of them.

But this song was intended to bring witness against the Israelites, convicting them of their unfaithfulness to God. And to do so, it accentuates the unmerited favor of God. When they had been helpless slaves, God heard their cries and rescued them. He set them free from their oppression and misery, making them His own chosen possession, “the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10 ESV). But would they remain so? Were the Israelites going to honor the one who set them free by keeping His commands and living in obedience to His will for them?

Even as they stood on the edge of the promised land, preparing to cross over and claim it as their own, God was revealing the sad truth about their fate. They would become slaves yet again. The people whom God had set free would once again find themselves living in bondage and surrounded by false gods and foreign overlords. They had been set apart by God but would choose not to live that way. They had been made His precious possession but would end up as little more than the property of their enemies. And the next verses of the song will explain how this dramatic change in circumstances will happen.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Regulations For Real Life

15 “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.

17 “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute. 18 You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.

19 “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. 20 You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

21 “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. 22 But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. 23 You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth.

24 “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. 25 If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.” – Deuteronomy 23:15-25 ESV

Moses now moves his point of emphasis from times of war to the everyday affairs of life. There would be periods of peace in Israel and during these times the men of war would return home to the normal circumstances of life. These occasions would call for an additional set of regulations to govern  a wide range of situations, and Moses left nothing up to chance.

The first scenario involves an escaped slave. The context seems to indicate that this fugitive slave has arrived in Israel from a distant land. This does not appear to be a reference to an indentured servant. There were slaves in Israel, but many of these individuals were fellow Israelites whose financial circumstances had obligated them to take on the role of a household servant in order to pay a debt they owed. And there were very strict rules regarding the treatment of these fellow Israelites, including the Year of Jubilee, when theses servants were to be set free and their debt wiped clean.

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. – Exodus 21:2 NLT

The reference to an escaped slave found in verses 15-16 would appear to be dealing with a foreign slave who has shown up in Israel seeking refuge. In this case, there would be no obligation to return the slave to his master, because the master would be considered a pagan. Any rules concerning Hebrew slaves  would not apply in this case. But if an escaped slave showed up in Israel seeking asylum, they were to be treated with compassion and given the right to settle anywhere within the borders of Israel. These individuals were not be oppressed or treated like property. Instead, they were to be extended every courtesy and considered as a guest of the nation.

The very fact that the Bible deals with the topic of slavery yet never explicitly demands its abolition, leaves many modern-day Christians confused. Non-Christians have used the Bible’s seeming silence regarding the issue of slavery as a reason for rejecting the faith. But it is important to remember that the Bible is to be read and observed in its entirety. As a book, it covers a great stretch of time and deals with a wide range of social issues. The Bible neither condemns or condones slavery. Slavery, like so many other social aberrations, was the direct result of the fall. When sin entered the scene, not only was man’s relationship with God damaged, but the interpersonal dynamic between individuals changed for the worse. Not long after Adam and Eve rebelled against God, one of their own sons murdered his brother. And it goes downhill from there. The Bible is not about God telling man how to restore everything back to the way it was before the fall. It is about God revealing just how bad man’s spiritual condition had become because of the fall.

All of these laws given to the Israelites were designed to reveal man’s inherent sinfulness. The apostle Paul answers the age-old question, “Why, then, was the law given?” by stating,  “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins” (Galatians 19 NLT). He wrote the very same thing to the believers in Rome.

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

The Mosaic Law was not intended to rectify all of man’s sinful inclinations. But it was meant to regulate behavior. Without the law, men would not even be aware that what they were doing was sin. Again, Paul provides us with a clarification on the purpose of the law.

I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." – Romans 7:7 NIV

Murder, slavery, adultery, lust, rape, incest – all of these things are the sad and inevitable outcomes of the fall. Everything has been perverted. The entire creation has been marred by sin. And the Scriptures provides an overview of mankind’s relationship with God ever since the entrance of sin into His creation. The answer to the problem of slavery is not its abolition, but the redemption of mankind from slavery to sin. Telling sinful human beings not to enslave one another would be no more effective then demanding that they not lust after one another. The underlying problem is the heart.

So, all of these scenarios deal with what were everyday issues confronting the Israelites. Slavery was an everyday part of life because mankind was plagued by sin. And the second scenario deals with an other common problem during that day: Cult prostitution. We don’t react to this quite like we could slavery, but it was just as egregious a problem. The pagan nations surrounding Israel had incorporated sexual immorality into the worship of their false gods. But God prohibited Israel from emulating these pagan practices. They were forbidden from allowing their sons and daughters to serve as cult prostitutes. This kind of immoral practice was off-limits for the Israelites. And they were not allowed to use any money earned through this activity as a form of tithe or offering. In essense, Moses was preventing the Israelites from rationalizing their immoral behavior through apparent acts of righteousness.

The final set of regulations seem disconnected and dissimilar. But they all have to do with the interpersonal relationships between members of the covenant community of Israel. God placed a high priority on these relationships, providing the Israelites with very specific regulations regarding their actions toward one another. They were not allowed to charge one another interest. They could loan one another money, but they were not to do so in order to make a profit. This was really intended as a kind of social welfare system, designed to ensure that no Israelite was ever in need. But God allowed the charging of interest to non-Jews.

If an Israelite made a vow, he was expected to keep it. Vowing to do something in God’s name was to be taken seriously. It was a promise that was guaranteed by the holiness and integrity of God. To fail to keep that commitment was a grave sin. So, it was better not to vow at all, since the making of a vow was totally voluntary. Failing to keep your commitments was to be seen as unacceptable behavior among the Israelites. Jesus provided an important clarification on this matter in His Sermon on the Mount.

“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows!…

“Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-34, 37 NLT

The final verses in this section deal with the sharing of one’s resources. If an Israelite was passing through another man’s vineyard or field of grain, he was free to gather enough food to sustain him on his journey. In other words, he could meet his immediate need for food, but he was not allowed to harvest the crops belonging to another man. To do so would be theft. But as long as he was taking just enough grapes to satisfy his hunger, he was free to do so. The Israelites were expected to care for the needs of one another, but they were also respect one another’s rights.

All of these regulations were intended to govern the everyday lives of the people of Israel. They cover with a wide range of topics, but they all deal with the daily interactions between the people of God. The nation of Israel had been set apart by God and were expected to glorify His name through the way they lived their lives. While the nations around them were operating according to their sin natures, Israel had been provided with the Mosaic Law, a gracious gift from God designed to expose their own sinful dispositions and remind them of the holiness of their God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Free to Live As Slaves

9 Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. – Titus 2:9-10 ESV

In our modern-day, 21st-Century context, reading two verses addressed by an apostle of Jesus Christ to slaves within the body of Christ is always a bit disconcerting. They appear out of place and, rather than condemning the practice of slavery, actually, appear to condone it. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago in our own historical context when verses like these were used to justify slavery as acceptable and biblical. But Paul’s mention of slaves in his letter should in no way be taken as his seal of approval on the institution itself. Slavery was a normal part of 1st-Century life. It was stitched into the corporate fabric of daily existence. And while Paul’s failure to condemn it as unjust and untenable has been interpreted by some as tacet approval, this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

Like Jesus, Paul had a much more expansive and consequential mission in mind than the transformation of society through political and cultural innovations. Like his fellow apostles, Paul was following the lead of their teacher, the Messiah, and promoting a revolutionary new way of life that was focused on life change that emanated from the inside out. The gospel of Jesus Christ was about the renovation of the sinful heart of man and the restoration of the relationship between the Creator God and His creation.

Jesus Christ had come into a world where every human being was a slave – a slave to sin. Their status in society had no bearing on the state of their enslavement. From the rich young ruler and the Samaritan woman at the well to Nicodemus the Pharisee and Zacchaeus, the tax collector, they were all held captive by sin. And the only means of finding escape from their captivity was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Which is why Jesus told His fellow Jews, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 6:34-36 NLT).

Paul had a commission from Jesus Christ Himself to take to the Gentile world the good news regarding release from the captivity of sin. Like his Messiah, Paul was not out to foment cultural revolution or to eradicate social injustices. He was out to restore sinful humanity to a right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ the Son.

What is interesting to note is that Paul addressed slaves at all. And he did so quite frequently. The very fact that Paul saw slaves as deserving of his attention and clearly believed them to be worthy recipients of the gospel speaks volumes. Paul did not view them as second-class citizens, but as fellow citizens in the Kindom of Heaven. It is clear from his letters that slaves were part of the early church. They were coming to faith and becoming a part of the local congregations springing up around the world. And, in some cases, slaves and their masters found themselves as members of the same local fellowships. Paul wrote an entire letter to a man named Philemon, regarding a runaway slave named Onesimus. It seems that Onesimus had come to faith in Christ and had become a companion to the apostle, ministering to his needs while he was in prison. But Paul, knowing that Onesimus was a fugitive, encouraged him to return home and make things right between him and his master. And Paul sent a letter to Philemon encouraging him to see Onesimus in a new light.

It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT

Legally, Onesimus was still a slave. According to the culture of his day, he remained the property of his master. But Paul saw their relationship as permanently altered because of their mutual relationship with Jesus Christ.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul addressed them regarding their newfound status as followers of Christ. It seems that some were thinking that the freedom they had found in Christ was an opportunity to escape their current conditions. Women who came to faith were wondering if they should leave their unbelieving husbands. Jewish males who accepted Christ were questioning whether their circumcision somehow invalidated their status as Christians. Gentile males were confused as to whether they should be circumcised like their Jewish brothers. And Paul’s counsel to them all was the same: “Each of you should remain as you were when God called you” (1 Corinthians 7:20 NLT). And he had a specific word of advice for slaves.

Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. – 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 NLT

So, in Titus 2, verses 9-10, Paul turns his attention to the men and women within the local congregations on Crete who were slaves. These individuals were just as important to Paul as the wealthy and influential. Their status as slaves in no way influenced Paul’s attitude towards them. He singled them out because they were slaves, knowing that their particular circumstance was unlike anyone else's in the church. And he doesn’t encourage them to escape the injustice of their slavery. He doesn’t demand that their masters set them free.  No, he calls on them to live godly lives amid their unjust and unpleasant circumstances.

While many have tried to soften the edges of these verses by making them a call for employees to serve their employers well, we can’t escape the fact that this is the apostle Paul addressing a group of believers who were living as unwilling slaves, not paid employees who had the right to quit at any moment. Notice that he calls on them to obey their masters and to do what pleases them. As slaves, they really had no other choice. Refusal to obey meant punishment. Failure to please could bring down their master’s wrath. But Paul is providing them with new motivation for their behavior.

No longer were they to be driven and controlled by fear. And they were not to allow their old sinful natures to drive them to retaliation or rebellion. The sin-fueled desire to lie, steal, and disobey was to be replaced with a Spirit-empowered desire to live lives that exhibited “all good faith.” In other words, their faith in Christ was to show up in their status as slaves, “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” 

The way they responded to their life circumstances would enhance the gospel message. Their response to injustice and ill-treatment would be a living testimony to the life-transformative power of the gospel. And what a lesson these individuals would be to the rest of the church as they practiced their faith in far-from-ideal conditions. Peter gave similar advice to believing slaves in the church to which he wrote.

You who are slaves must accept the authority of your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. For God is pleased with you when you do what you know is right and patiently endure unfair treatment. Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.

For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:18-21 NLT

If Paul could have waved a magic wand and set free every individual suffering from physical slavery, he would have probably done so. But his job was to set free all those who were enslaved by sin and death. Paul knew that, had Onesimus run away from Philemon but had never found faith in Christ, he would have been nothing more than a former slave enslaved by sin. As far as Paul was concerned, every individual within the body of Christ had an obligation to let their faith in Christ manifest itself in whatever circumstance they found themselves. Old or young, male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that each and every one of them had been set free from slavery to sin by Jesus Christ. And Paul drove home that point on a regular basis.

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28 NLT

In this new life, it doesn't matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT

Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:13 NLT

We tend to believe that a change in our circumstances is the key to joy, fulfillment, and contentment. But Paul would have us understand that it is the change in our relationship with God, made possible through faith in Christ, that brings us true contentment. And he knew first-hand the power of contentment that comes from faith in Christ.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Providential Plan of God.

Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” Then they took Joseph's robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son's robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son's robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard. – Genesis 37:25-36 ESV

After having thrown Joseph into an empty cistern, his brothers sit down and share a meal together. They weren’t exactly distraught over their actions or showing any signs of remorse. The only one to speak up and interrupt their meal was Judah, who offered an alternative plan that entailed selling their brother to Ishmaelite traders, rather than leaving him to die in an empty cistern. They could be rid of their brother, make some money, and not have his blood on their hands. It was a win-win proposition. So all the brothers agreed, except for Reuben, who had earlier convinced them to throw Joseph into the pit so he could sneak in and rescue him later. For whatever reason, he was not there when this decision was made. But everyone else was fully complicit and on board with this latest plan.

So they sold their younger brother to Ishmaelite traders for 20 shekels of silver. The Ishmaelites were descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah. When Sarah realized that she was unable to provide a son to Abraham, she convinced him to impregnate her maidservant so that they might fulfill the promise of God. But once the child was born, Sarah changed her mind and demanded that Abraham get rid of the boy and his mother. And God told Abraham to do as Sarah commanded, saying, “ I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:13 ESV). So Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, providing them with water, but little else. When the water ran out, Hagar laid her son under a bush to die and then she cried out to God. Moses records, “…and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt” (Genesis 21:17-21 ESV).

This is an important detail in the story of Joseph, because of the connection between Ishmael and Egypt. His wife would be Egyptian and while his descendants would become Bedouins, they would develop an ongoing trading relationship with the Egyptians. So when the brothers of Joseph decided to sell him, they chose to do business with Ishmaelites, who just so happen to take Joseph to Egypt.

When Reuben returned and found Joseph no longer in the pit, he panicked. His brothers shared with him what they had done and took the news poorly. But yet another decision was made to concoct a story to tell to their father, Jacob. They took Joseph’s multicolored tunic, tore it and covered it in goat’s blood. And then they carried it the 70 miles back home and told their father that his favorite son had been killed by a wild beast. This news was devastating to Jacob. He was distraught and refused to be comforted. Perhaps he couldn’t stop thinking about Joseph’s dreams and wondering that had happened. Had the dreams not been of God? Had God’s plan somehow been thwarted by a random act of violence perpetrated by a wild animal? His favored son was dead and the dreams of Joseph had died along with him.

But there is something Jacob does not know. While his world had seemingly caved in on him, Moses reminds us that the story of Joseph is far from over.  “Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard” (Genesis 37:36 ESV). Joseph was not dead. Neither were his dreams. Because God was not done. The brothers of Joseph thought they had gotten rid of him once and for all. Any chance of them ever having to bow down to their younger brother had been completely eliminated. Or so they thought. Little did they know that they had actually facilitated the very thing they dreaded. They had helped set in motion a chain of events that would result in the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams and the realization of their worst nightmare. Years earlier, when Sarah decided to give her handmaiden to Abraham, she had no way of knowing the outcome. She had initially hoped that Hagar would give birth to a son who would become the father of a great nation, and that is exactly what had happened. But not according to Sarah’s original plan. God had another plan in mind. The descendants of Ishmael would play a role in the future of the people of Israel. They would facilitate the sale of Joseph into slavery in Egypt. None of this was blind luck or the result of fate. The sovereign, providential hand of God was at work behind the scenes, orchestrating His plan and preparing the descendants of Abraham to receive the fulfillment of the promises He had made to him years earlier. He was going to make of them a great nation. The question was, “How?” And the answer was, “According to His providential plan.

 

And Yet, God.

But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.Ezra 9:8-9 ESV

Ezra 9:6-15

Ezra was in mourning over the sorry state of the people of Judah. They had been returned the land by God after 70 years in captivity due to their own sinfulness, and here they were, still living in rebellion against Him. Ezra, having just returned to Judah from the land of Babylon, was appalled and devastated by what he saw. So he took it upon himself to confess the corporate sins of the people to God. Ezra was personally ashamed for their conduct. As a scribe, an expert in the Mosaic law, he was well aware that what they were doing was in direct violation of God's commands. And he knew that God would not take their disobedience lightly. The most amazing thing to Ezra was that the people were doing all of this in spite of God's amazing grace and mercy. He had shown them favor. He had taken a remnant of them and arranged for them to return to the land to rebuild the temple and to restore the city of Jerusalem. God had not forsaken them, but had fulfilled His promise to restore them to the land after their 70 years of captivity were complete. They hadn't deserved it or in any way earned it. Even their time as slaves in Babylon had been marked by continuing rebellion against God. They had regularly worshiped false gods. They had continued to reject and rebel against the one true God. And yet, He had kept His word. He had fulfilled His promise.

Ezra did not take God's grace lightly. He was shocked that the people who had experienced that grace could so easily snub their noses at God and blatantly live in open rebellion to His commands. Their lives were marked by compromise. Rather than separate themselves from the other nations that had taken up residence in the land during their absence, they gladly coexisted with them, marrying off their sons and daughters to them. Not only that, they compromised their allegiance to God by taking on the false gods of their neighbors, diluting their faith and offending the very One who had rescued them from captivity.

In a very real way, this parallels the experience of so many of us as believers. God has redeemed us from slavery to sin. He has made it possible for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him, and yet we find ourselves comingling with the world around us. Rather than remaining separate and set apart, we determine to blend in and, in the process, end up compromising our convictions. Many of us, having been set free by God, find ourselves enslaved to the world. We seek our self-worth and satisfaction from what the world can offer. We long to be accepted by the world. Rather than stand out for our faith, we prefer to blend in. And slowly, steadily, we begin to make compromises and concessions. We find ourselves rationalizing our behavior and excusing our actions. We refuse to accept Jesus' warning that we would be hated by the world. Instead of living as strangers and sojourners in this land, recognizing that we are citizens of another kingdom, we choose to get to cozy and comfortable with this world. We gladly adopt their ways and accept their standards as our own. The convictions of the culture around us slowly begin to influence and infect us, and we begin to lose our distinctiveness. Chosen and set apart by God, we find ourselves looking more and more like the world around us. Our distinction as Christians becomes more a label than a lifestyle. That was the problem Ezra encountered when he arrived in Judah. The saints had lost their saltiness. The intensity of their light had diminished and they were close to being overwhelmed by the surrounding darkness.

And yet, God was still showing them favor. He was still extending to them mercy. He had sent back Ezra with the sole task of reestablishing His law in the land. He had allowed them to rebuild the temple. He would eventually send back Nehemiah with another wave of exiles to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem and reoccupy the city. God was not done. And He is not done today. In spite of all we see happening around us and the distinct feeling that the darkness is overwhelming us, God is on His throne. He is still in charge. But He is looking for a remnant of His people who will boldly stand apart from the crowd and speak up for the truth. He is calling His people to come back to Him, to reject the ways of this world and renew their commitment to live lives of holiness. For the believer, compromise is deadly. And the temptation to do so is greater than it has ever been. The world wants to silence our voices, stifle our faith, compromise our convictions, and distract us from our devotion to God. But we must never forget that God has redeemed us from the world. We can live in it and yet not become part of it. We have been called to make a difference, not blend in. We have been saved so that we might tell others of the truth regarding man's sin and God's plan of salvation. Some of us have compromised our faith. Others of us have allowed ourselves to succumb to defeat and despair. We live as if all hope is lost and the enemy is winning. But our God reigns. He wins in the end. His victory is assured. We must live like we believe it. All is not lost. But it is time for the called out to stand up and to live out their faith.