Rav Sha’ul (Apostle Paul) was a very social, approachable and personable Rav and could relate to all people no matter what socio-economic status they may be, from relating to Gentile Greek Philosophers on Mars Hill, to concerned religious leaders, to runaway slaves such as Onesimus here in the letter to Philemon. He practiced and preached:
I Cor. 9:19-23 For though I be free from all [men], yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all [men], that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with [you].
I Cor. 10:32-33 Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: Even as I please all [men] in all [things], not seeking mine own profit, but the [profit] of many, that they may be saved.
This personal letter, the shortest of all of Rav Sha’ul’s known writings was written to a man named Philemon during the Rav’s first imprisonment at Rome (Acts 28:16-31) in 62 CE. Names in this letter are named in Rav Sha’ul’s letter to the Colossians (Philemon vv. 1-2, 10, 23-24 / Colossians 4:9-10, 12, 14, 17), a congregation which he had founded (Acts 20:31) which means Philemon most likely lived in Colossae and that more than likely both letters (Philemon/Colossians) were delivered at the same time by the hand of Tychicus.
Colossians was a city in Asia Minor, Western Turkey, southeast of Laodicea and south of Hierapolis. It was 100 miles was of Ephesus in the Lycus River Valley.
It seems Philemon was a well to do Gentile convert under Rav Sha’ul (v.19) who some believed through Rav Sha’ul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10), who ran a K’hilah (congregation) out of his home. Though we have no record of it, it is likely Rav Sha’ul visited Colossae during his three year stay at Ephesus (Acts 19).
We see by divine providence that Onesimus runs away from Philemon in Colossae and runs into Rav Sha’ul in Rome where he is led to Messiah. Onesimus most likely knew Sha’ul and sought him out rather than simply run into him in a city of approximately 1,500,000 people. It is not know for sure, but it is speculated that the reason for Onesimus’ escape from Philemon was because he may have stolen something from his masters or was accused of doing so and feared repercussions.
Through Rav Sha’ul’s personable letter we see Grace in accordance with strict observance of the Torah (Law) and see why Sha’ul was a Rav due to his masterful handling of this situation regarding Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus. The Torah addresses this in Deut. 23:15-16:
“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.”
The purpose of this personal letter of Philemon was an attempt to bring a peaceful Torah based solution and resolution to this matter. It is apparent that both Philemon and Onesimus were Gentile converts; they were used to the Greek system and understanding of slavery and a slave’s relationship to their owner as opposed to the Hebraic understanding of slavery. Under Roman Law a runaway slave could be punished by death, but seeing as both parties in this conundrum were now believers who were to resolve problem by a Beyt Din (House of Judgment) within their Messianic community and not by a secular authority; Rav Sha’ul, being a master of Torah Law and as founder of the Colossae congregation, was the accepted authority to resolve the situation.
The issue of Scriptural Slavery has been taken out of contest because most people look at it in light of the cruel African, Asian, and Native American slave trades. Slavery in Torah terminology between two Hebrews is best understood in regards to an indentured servant or a hired hand.
May times a Hebrew would find themselves in debt with the threatening prospect of being sold into slavery as a result. So the Torah says it’s best to be indebted to a Jew as opposed to a foreigner because the Torah gives guidelines on the treatment of slaves and it reads like an Employer / Employee hand book. It even makes room for a type of severance pay. Hebrew slaves are treated so well that it can turn into a full time position.
Deut. 15:12-18 And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day. And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine house, because he is well with thee; Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also unto thy maidservant thou shalt do likewise. It shall not seem hard unto thee, when thou sendest him away free from thee; for he hath been worth a double hired servant to thee, in serving thee six years: and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all that thou doest.
Rav Sha’ul knew this concept real well and was proud to call himself a slave, servant, and or bond servant to God, depending on what translation you use (Rom. 1:1, Titus 1:1).
Even non-Hebrew slaves serving a Hebrew had it good. Eleazar, Abraham’s servant would have gotten everything if Ishmael and Isaac didn’t come along. Abraham trusted him to find a wife for his son Isaac (Gen. 15:2).
But the Torah also says:
Deut. 23:15 (16)Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: 16 (17) He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.
We are always to remember where we came from as a people, that we to were once slaves in Egypt.
Rav Sha’ul found himself in a tough rabbinical position. In the letter to Philemon we see that Rav Sha’ul is in prison with a runaway slave named Onesimus. Rav Sha’ul knowing the Torah full well probably had these very verses in mind when dealing with this dilemma. For the verses above tells us that a Jew must not return a runaway slave to his former master. But on the other hand apparently at some point during his stay with the Rav, Onesimus converted to Natsari Judaism (1:14) and was thus no longer just a Gentile slave, but a Hebrew brother in the Messiah. So Rav Sha’ul convinces Onesimus upon his release to return with this letter to Philemon; the letter implores Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother (1:16). Rav Sha’ul even vouches for Philemon that he himself would be held responsible if Philemon stole anything or damaged him in any way (1:18).
I imagine Rav Sha’ul was thinking of the good relationship that Abraham and Eleazar had as a model for Philemon and his Master to follow, which was similar to a father and son relationship rather than a slave / master or even employer / employee relationship.
In our dealings with each other, let us keep in mind that whatever situation we may find ourselves in the body, that we are all mishpocha (family) and need to treat one another as such.
I call this commentary “The Pacifying of Philemon” because Rav Sha’ul’s attempt to pacify a believing slave owner who understandably may have felt angry and betrayed. Rav Sha’ul works to come to a Torah based solution to pacify Philemon.
I use the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted due to its universality and status of public domain which is free to quote without restriction of any copyright.