Salvation in the Ancient World

Salvation in the Bible isn’t some pie-in-the-sky “heaven.” Rather, it is practical and real to those who are living in oppression. Salvation is real, in-this-world, freedom from oppression.

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Freedom from Oppression in Isaiah

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. Isaiah 61:1-2

One of the main hopes that Isaiah gives us is freedom from this oppression.  Over time, when oppression became such a permanent part of the landscape, church officials spiritualized the hope of Advent, the hope of the Bible, so people wouldn’t despair of the lack of progress.  So we would hope for a “salvation” which is usually intended to be a non-physical manifestation of freedom. But that is never the case in the Bible. Freedom specifically had to do with a physical, social release from being in that place where we would be punished for not succeeding according to our societal standards.

It is helpful, sometimes, to look in the ancient world and see what oppression meant to them, and see how it is different today.

For instance, in the ancient world, a person wasn’t put into prison for a crime.  The majority of the time, they were placed into prison for debts. If they owed a lot of money, first they would take possessions, like articles of clothing, and hold them until they were paid.  If they still didn’t pay, they would get security guards and place them into jail until their family and friends bailed them out with the full amount of money that was owed. Either that, or the debtor and his family would be sold into slavery to regain some of the debt owed.

Slavery was also a form of oppression.  Slavery was rarely for life in the ancient world.  It was forced labor with little or no pay for room and board.  But slaves in the ancient world could often work for others who were not their masters, so they could earn money to pay for their release.  In Roman society, an average period of time of slavery was six years. In Hebrew society, all debt slaves had to be released every seventh year, so the maximum a person would be enslaved would be six years, according to the law.  But it is still an oppression, a period of time in which one may not work for themselves and they might very well lose their families in this process.

Another form of oppression in the ancient world is not having land.  Every family is supposed to have their own land, their own place to make their living and their home.  If a family is forced to sell their land, or lose their land because someone steals it, the government is supposed to step in, according to the law, and restore that land back to the family every 50th year.  They had a timeline in which the oppression would end.

And, of course, there is illness, disease, disability and mental illness.  These were seen as forms of oppression, a spiritual oppression, forced on people by evil spirits. And we can clearly see how that would limit someone.  If someone cannot see the basket or has no arms to throw, how can they make the basket, meet the social obligation? If they are raving or enraged all the time, how can they meet their own needs or the needs of others?

Advent is about the freedom from oppression.  Frankly, the whole bible is about freedom from oppression.  That is what “salvation” or “deliverance” means— not a spiritual release, but a release from various oppressions that come upon people.  When we spiritualized oppression, when we say it is only about “sin”, then we are blaming people for things that they had no control over, we are then oppressors.  When we keep people in situations where they cannot meet their own needs, or take their resources that they use to meet their own needs, then we are oppressors.

What does freedom from oppression look like? Not a promise that our sins are forgiven.
It looks like release from illness, by having decent healthcare.
It looks like fair wages for one’s work, that one can live on.
It looks like freedom from debt.
It looks like land that one can live on.

The hope of the ancients looked like this. Nothing has changed.

Steve Kimes