Slaves Set Free (Jeremiah 34)
One of the final new commands from God in Jeremiah is the renunciation of slavery (Jer. 34:9). The Law of Moses required Hebrew slaves to be set free after six years of service (Exodus 21:2-4, Deuteronomy 15:12). Adults could sell themselves, and parents could sell their children, into servitude for six years. After that they must be released (Leviticus 25:39-46). In theory, it was a more humane system than the serfdom or chattel slavery known in the modern era. But it was abused by masters who simply ignored the requirement to set slaves free at the end of the term, or who continually re-enrolled slaves into a lifetime of consecutive six-year terms (Jer. 34:16-17).
Jeremiah 34:9 is remarkable because it called for an immediate release of all Hebrew slaves, without regard to how long they had been enrolled. And more dramatically, it provided that “No one should hold another Judean in slavery…. so that they would not be enslaved again” (Jer. 34:9-10). In other words, it was the abolition of slavery, at least with respect to Jews having Jewish slaves. It is not clear whether this was meant to be a permanent abolition, or whether it was a response to the extreme circumstances of impending military defeat and exile. In any case, it was not enforced for long, and the masters soon re-enslaved their former slaves. But it is a breathtaking economic advance — or it would have been if it had stuck.
From the beginning, God had prohibited life-long, involuntary slavery among Jews because “you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you” (Deuteronomy 15:15). If God stretched out his mighty arm to set a people free, how could he abide them being enslaved again, even by others of the same people? But in Jeremiah 34, God added a new factor: “granting a release to your neighbors and friends” (Jer. 34:17). That is, the humanity of the slaves — referred to by terming them “neighbors and friends” — demanded that they be released. They deserved freedom because they were — or should have been — beloved members of the community. This went beyond religious or racial classification, for people of different religions and races could be friends and neighbors to one another. It had nothing to do with being descendants of the particular nation — Israel — that God set free out of Egypt. Slaves should be set free simply because they were humans, just like their masters and the communities around them.
This underlying principle still applies. The millions of people still enslaved in the world urgently need to be released simply because of their humanity. Moreover all workers — not just those bound to their work in slavery — should be treated as “neighbors and friends.” This principle applies as strongly against inhumane working conditions, violation of workers’ civil rights, unjust discrimination, sexual harassment, and the host of lesser ills as much as it does against slavery, per se. Anything we wouldn’t subject our neighbors to, anything we wouldn’t tolerate happening to our closest friends, we shouldn’t tolerate in our companies, organizations, communities and societies, either. To the degree Christians shape the environment in our workplaces, we are under the same mandate as the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time.