Gal. 4:1-7 Paul compares the believers to sons who are treated no better than their family’s slaves when they are children. But when they grow up, they inherit all their father’s wealth. So too, the Gentile believers were “slaves to the useless rules of this world” (Galatians 4:3) until they received the Holy Spirit and inherited God’s blessings as full members of his family.
Figurine from Egypt
of a semitic slave,
Hecht Museum, Haifa
Slavery in Paul’s day
Slavery was taken for granted in Paul’s day. The Jews had themselves been slaves in Egypt (see Exodus 1:8-14). Many wealthy Roman families had foreign slaves who were brought into captivity when their country was conquered. Slaves from Britain and Gaul (France) were sold in the slave markets in Rome.
Jewish families had always kept foreign slaves as the spoils of war (see Numbers 31:9 & 2 Chronicles 28:8) and slaves could readily be purchased from other Jewish owners (see Genesis 17:12 & Leviticus 25:44-46). Some poorer Jewish families only managed to avoid bankcruptcy or starvation by selling their own children as slaves to wealthier Jewish households (see 2 Kings 4:1 & Nehemiah 5:5).
The treatment of Jewish slaves within the Jewish community, however, was relatively good. They were often treated like members of the family (see Exodus 21:9), and, by law, Jewish male slaves were set free after six years (see Exodus 21:2).
The morality of slavery was only seriously questioned by the Christian reformers of the 18th century, led by John Newton, WilliamWilberforce, Henry Thornton, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah More, amongst others. Their opposition to slavery led to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.
William Wilberforce led the opposition to slavery in the 18th century
The issue of slavery in the southern states of the United States caused the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 and the emancipation of black slaves in 1865. Slavery is still common today in parts of Africa (e.g. Mauritania and Mali) and the illegal practice of people trafficking still occurs across Western Europe and other parts of the world.
Freedom from slavery to the Jewish Law
Gal. 4:8-20 Paul expresses his concern for the Galatians. By observing the Jewish religious festivals, they are becoming slaves to the Jewish law. Paul reminds them how happy and carefree they were when they first became believers because of his preaching; yet they are now going against what he taught and are becoming slaves again.
Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795)
Gal. 4:21-31 Paul returns to Abraham, who had two sons – Ishmael by his slave-girl Hagar, and Isaac by his wife Sarah (see Genesis 16:1-4 &15, 18:9-10 & 21:1-3). Paul says the two women represent the old and the new ‘covenant’ agreement with God.
Under the old agreement (the old ‘testament’ or old ‘covenant’) Jews were slaves to the law – as Hagar had been a slave. But under the new agreement (the new ‘testament’ or new ‘covenant’) believers are set free from the Jewish law – like Sarah who was born free.
Gal. 5:1-15 Paul urges the believers to remain free and not to become slaves again. He warns them that, if they allow themselves to be circumcised, they will become slaves to obeying the Jewish law and will return to their old ways.