Deuteronomy 23:15-16: The Biblical Fugitive Slave Clause

In the first three-fifths of the nineteenth century, there was a lot of debate that the Fugitive Slave Clause of the United States Constitution was contrary to the Bible.  And those who contented that it was were correct, for although slaveowners appreciated picking the Bible’s acceptance of slavery as a social system, albeit a less than preferred one [1], they often neglected the specific legal corpus in the Bible that protected the rights of slaves and limited the behaviors that would be acceptable to slaveowners.  There are many such laws that can be found, some of them specifying freedom to slaves and indentured servants who had been physical injured by masters, some limiting the amount of times someone could be whipped, some of them prohibiting the sale of concubines, but today I would like to discuss a very brief law that prohibited the rendition of slaves to neighboring countries, a law that would have immense consequences if enforced, and one that has a lot to say about our own history in the United States and Western Europe, as well as the contemporary Muslim world.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 reads:  “You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you.  He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him.”  This law seems straightforward enough on the surface.  It says, outright, that if an escaped slave comes to Israel that they are not to return it to the slaveowner, and that the runaway slave is to be treated as free and not to be exploited or mistreated in Israel.  It is somewhat striking that such a law would be the subject of any controversy at all, given the fact that there are few laws as blunt and straightforward as this one.  There are no exceptions given to this law, no equivocation at all in its clauses, just a straightforward prohibition on the rendition of fugitive slaves to others and a requirement to treat escaped slaves with just treatment under law.  Unlike much of what I like talking about and writing about, it’s not that complicated.

Nevertheless, some people refuse to take this passage at face value.  For example, John Gill hedges this verse about with restrictions [2] talking about temporary holding in freedom before a trial, as if this was equating running away from bondage to manslaughter, and comments that others limit this provision to proselytes and not a general freedom principle to apply to everyone.  Here we see that provisions established by God as a way of setting a general example of freedom and turning it into a special privilege for Jews and not something that reflected God’s purpose for humanity.  Whether this was a failure of empathy or of moral imagination is hard to say.  After all, we find in the Gospels the absolutely incredible statement by Jews that they had never been slaves in John 8:33, something that staggers the imagination given the history of Israel in slavery in Egypt, as well as the frequent oppression the Israelites and Jews were under, including their contemporary slavery to Rome.

There is little doubt, given the context of the Torah as a whole, that this passage was meant to encourage a sense of empathy with fugitive slaves.  Given that the version of the Sabbath in Deuteronomy 5, for example, comments on the importance of the Sabbath in bringing to mind the deliverance of Israel from slavery, freedom from slavery was supposed to be something on the mind of Israelites.  The memory of slavery and oppression was to make them empathetic with the plight of others who sought to be free, and would also be a brake on their own tendencies to be harsh masters, or even to desire a slaveowning system in Israel itself.  With somewhat Euclidian logic, after all, Abraham Lincoln once stated that as he would not be a slave, so he would not be a master.  God had in mind something similar for ancient Israel, a recognition of the golden rule through a development of compassion for the underdog and a refusal to engage in oppressive exploitation towards others.

When one applies this law to history, one sees a certain lack of empathy and a lack of moral understanding on the part of the early American Republic.  It was not uncommon for the founding generation to complain about the slavery and oppression they felt under British imperial rule, with the whole taxation without representation problem, something of particular sensitivity given the general corruption of the British political order at the time with its rotten boroughs and its large and populous cities without any representation whatsoever, or large classes of people without any representation.  Nevertheless, despite their own sensitivity to a loss of status or a denial of rights, the founding generation of the United States was not particularly sensitive to the denial of rights to women, indigenous populations, or their own slaves.  Not surprisingly, they have come under a great deal of criticism for their lack of empathy and understanding, and their lack of general application to the self-evident principles they appealed to in their own desire for freedom, dignity, and respect.  Yet we should not be too hard on them, seeing as we all struggle with empathy, and with understanding the repercussions of God’s actions in our own lives with regards to our treatment of others.  Let him (or her) who is without sin cast the first stone.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/slavery-in-the-bible/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/the-fractured-fairy-tale-of-israels-departure-from-egypt/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/11/13/book-review-divine-rest-for-human-restlessness/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/the-acceptable-year-of-the-lord/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/the-contemporary-relevance-of-biblical-slave-codes/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/the-implications-of-philemon-on-the-process-of-cultural-change/

[2] http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/deuteronomy-23-15.html

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Deuteronomy 23:15-16: The Biblical Fugitive Slave Clause

  1. Adrian says:

    Everyone and everything in the universe understands the law of God; the golden rule, but only as it applies to other people or other beings, and not themselves. For example, in animals, it is evident that a dog eating food from his own bowl despises it if another random dog comes and eats from it too. That’s stealing to them, but that same original dog, if hungry enough will eat from another dogs’ bowl of food at the first opportunity and not care.

    People are no different. We hate being lied to, but we will lie if the opportunity is right and it serves us no matter what. The slavery issue here is exactly the same thing. It is hypocrisy because we are blind to the fact that we are evil and don’t bother to rule ourselves by the same law we require of others.

    Had the founders remembered that they were once slaves in England or any country, we wouldn’t be having discussions today about open borders, and fears of Muslim people coming to the United States (Israel), because people would understand how the system works and remember that every law, including Deuteronomy 23:15-16 is just a sub-division of THE golden rule and the TWO great commandments which further subdivided into the TEN commandments Jesus talked about in all four gospels.

    Practice the law of 1-2-10 and there will be peace among men. (I made that up as I wrote this) 🙂

    • Indeed, this particular law is a subset of the golden rule, and the failure of Israelites as well as Americans to relate to and understand and properly apply this is an aspect of common fallen human nature (and not only human nature) as you pointed out.

  2. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Gateway To Freedom | Edge Induced Cohesion

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