“Respect your Neighbour’s Freedom (Deut 23,15-16)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 1 July 1973; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 17 August 1975

“When a slave has escaped from his master, you may not turn him over to his master. Allow the slave to live among your people, in any town that he chooses in one of your communities as being advantageous to him. You may not maltreat him.” ( Deuteronomy 23, 15-16)

This is one of the most revolutionary laws of the Old Testament. It was absolutely unique in its own time. In no other code of law do we find such e. clear and explicit defence of the slave against his master.

According to the generel practice prevailing in the Old Testament times, run-away slaves had to be returned to their master by anyone who happened to come upon them. As crimes punished by law in Mesopotamia are mentioned: giving refuge in one’s home to the slave belonging to another citizen; allowing a slave to escape through the gates of the city; hiding a. slave who has been apprehended outside the city; smuggling a newborn child of a slave-girl outside the house of his master.

In all these casses protecting the slave and failing to hand him over was punished very severely, even with the death penalty.. In treaties between kings of neighbouring countries, the duty of turning over slaves escaped from one another’s country is frequently mentioned. In brief, it was everywhere considered an obligation to catch a slave and return him to his master.

Compassion for Slaves

Against this generally accepted background. the contrast of this law is obvious. The Jews are told that they are not allowed to return a run-away slave to his master. Instead, they have to allow him to take up his residence as a free citizen among their own people, in any town that he himself may choose. And they are not allowed to exploit his difficult situation. They may not maltreat him in any form, such as by forcing him to do work that he would not like to do. In other words, the law prescribes that escaped slaves be received with open arms and be treated as freemen in the society of the Jews.

One reason for this aUitude is undoubtedly the fact that the Jews always remembered that they themselves had been slaves in Egypt. Often the lawgivers remind Israel of this fact (see Dt, 5. 15; 6, 21 ; 15,15; 16,12; 24,18, ete.) Also the Jews had traditionally been a nomadic people and the rules of nomadic hospitality would often disregard the laws of urbanized societies. The crime of Joseph’s brothers was precisely so great because they imposed on Joseph a treatment which they would not have meted out to a runaway slave!

Another fundamental reason is the new attitude towards one’s follow men and women propagated under God’s revelation already in the Old Testament. Even though slavery was tolerated to some extent, in prlnciple it was opposed to the dignity of a human person. A slave who ran away from his master obviously had been maltreated or had felt unhappy. It would be wrong to force him to go back to his state of suffering and humiliation. The law was in this case heralding what St. Paul was to say more clearly later on: that we should not be slaves of others and that everyone, if given the chance of being free, should accept it (1 Cor. 7,21).

Our hardness of heart

Studying the history of Christianity. it is surprising to see how hard of heart Christians have always been. Even though the Old Testament itself, leaving aside the prescriptions of the Gospel, clearly indicated that slaves should be protected and helped to become free, it look 18 centuries before slavery was officilly abolished. In the Middle Ages for example, not only was the condition of slavery maintained, Christians did not even live up to the minimum requirememt of this law. Christians would certainly return a runaway slave to his master. It is sad to see how even a serious eommentator as Menochius declares that the law does not impose any further obligation than that one should not return a slave to his master as long as the master is in a bad mood. One should return the slave after the master has regained his equanimity.

Isn’t this ofien the way we read Scripture? However clear and explicit the word of God may be, we often interpret it in such a way that we do not need to change our opinions and attitudes. We water down the real message of God’s word. Meditation on this text and the way in which it was obscured in later theological thinking should bring us to the humble prayer that God may save us from all blindness so that at an times we may understand God’s message tbe way he intended it and not the way we ourselves like it best.