The consistency of God’s instruction is revealed when all of the information is reviewed carefully.
One of the challenges that are brought up in regard to the veracity of the teachings of Paul is the tiny epistle written to Philemon. In this letter, Paul is urging his friend Philemon to receive back his former slave, Onesimus, who has since become a believer in Messiah Yeshua. The contention typically brought up is that if Paul is urging Onesimus to return to his former master, then Paul is breaking Torah, because of the command in Deuteronomy 23:15-16:
“You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.”
First of all, it must be said that we don’t know all the details of why Onesimus was apart from Philemon in the first place, and many assumptions have to be made to arrive at any conclusions. All we know for sure is that they were separated, at some point Onesimus encountered Paul and became a believer in Messiah Yeshua, and he is now standing once again before his former master holding this letter penned by Paul.
The letter of the Torah command says not to “hand over to his master a slave who has escaped.” We don’t know for sure that Onesimus escaped. The text only indicates they were apart or separated for some reason. In verse 15 Paul states, “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while.” Either Paul is being extremely diplomatic in his choice of words to soften the remembrance of Onesimus’ escape, or there may have been other circumstances that caused Onesimus to be away; the text doesn’t actually say.
What is apparent from the text, however, is that Onesimus had become unprofitable to Philemon either during or after his departure. For a slave owner, a slave would be a financial investment for a manner of work that was required to be done. Either Onesimus was not a very good worker, or his departure caused a financial loss and hardship to Philemon, as Paul writes, “[he] formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.” The situation may be as simple as Philemon sold Onesimus because he was unprofitable to him.
That Onesimus had been a potentially useless slave is also indicated by the fact that Paul indicates he is willing to make up for any shortcoming Onesimus may be responsible for:
18 – “But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account…”
If Onesimus had not resourcefully fulfilled his obligations as a slave, then this would be another strong indication of Philemon’s justifiable unwillingness to receive Onesimus back. If this is truly the case of Onesimus prior to his departure, then there is a reasonable justification as to Philemon’s resistance at receiving Onesimus back, in any capacity, and why Paul is so emphatically and passionately pleading for him.
So if Paul is returning Onesimus, a former slave, to his previous owner, how is it that this is still not a violation of the Torah command in Deuteronomy 23?
Well, for one thing, as mentioned above, we cannot be sure Onesimus actually escaped, which is the crux of the command. Additionally, there is no indication that Onesimus is not choosing to return, only that Philemon may be hesitant to receive him back after past grievances. But lastly, and most importantly, is how Paul states it in verses 15-16:
“For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
The key reason Torah is not violated is by Paul’s phrasing here that Onesimus is “no longer as a slave.” Paul is not returning a slave to his master to return just to his slave status but is reintroducing a known individual in a new relationship as a brother in Messiah Yeshua. In Onesimus’ absence from Philemon, he became a Messiah believer, and had been helping Paul in his ministry needs while he was imprisoned. Philemon was also a Messiah believer, as Paul names him a beloved fellow worker who had an assembly of believers meeting in his home. Two brothers in Messiah, regardless of social status, should be able to overcome past difficulties through the forgiveness both have received from God.
If this applies even to the most extreme status conflict of that between a former slave and his former master, then how much more can we overcome our difficult relationships through the forgiveness that God desires us to share with others?
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