The Commandment Not to Return a Runaway Slave to His Master
The Pentateuch limits the Israelites’ rights to enslave one another, casting the practice as temporary indentured servitude (Exod 21:2–11; Deut 15:12–18). As for enslaving non-Israelites, Leviticus states that unlike Israelite indentured servants, enslaved non-Israelites can be worked harshly:
ויקרא כה:מד וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיוּ לָךְ מֵאֵת הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיכֶם מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ עֶבֶד וְאָמָה... כה:מו וְהִתְנַחֲלְתֶּם אֹתָם לִבְנֵיכֶם אַחֲרֵיכֶם לָרֶשֶׁת אֲחֻזָּה לְעֹלָם בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ וּבְאַחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו לֹא תִרְדֶּה בוֹ בְּפָרֶךְ.
Lev 25:44 Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves… 25:46 you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.
Exodus places some limits on how they may be treated. Thus, if a master beats his slave to death, he is to receive an unspecified punishment, but only if the slave dies immediately (Exod 21:20–21). Also, if the master knocks out an eye or a tooth, the slave is to be set free (Exod 21:26–27).
Against the backdrop of these laws, Deuteronomy’s prohibition to return a runaway slave to his master stands out:
דברים כג:טז לֹא תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד אֶל אֲדֹנָיו אֲשֶׁר יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיךָ מֵעִם אֲדֹנָיו. כג:יז עִמְּךָ יֵשֵׁב בְּקִרְבְּךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בַּטּוֹב לוֹ לֹא תּוֹנֶנּוּ.
Deut 23:16 You shall not turn to his master a slave who seeks refuge from his master. 23:17 He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.
Three classical interpretations, drawn from diverse historical periods and religious affiliations, offer contrasting justifications of the law.
Ibn Ezra: Protecting God’s Honor
Abraham Ibn Ezra (c. 1089–1164), a genuine polyglot and an astounding poet, grammarian, philosopher, astronomer and Bible commentator, understands the runaway slave as coming from an enemy camp (Deut 23:16):
בלכתם למלחמה יתכן שיברח למחניהם עבד ואיננו ישראלי:
As they go to war, a slave might run away to their camp, and he is not an Israelite.
This does fit with the context, considering that this law appears immediately after the instructions regulating military camps (Deut 23:10–15). Ibn Ezra imagines that the slave seeks refuge with Israel because they claim to be God’s people:
גם הוא איננו ישראל כי הוא בא לכבוד השם הנקרא על ישראל ואם העבד יסגירנו ישראל אל אדוניו הנה זה חלול השם על כן לא תוננו:
Even though he is not an Israelite since he [the slave] came because of the honor of God, after whom Israel is named, and if the Israelite were to turn the slave to his master, this would constitute a desecration of God’s name. Therefore, “you should not ill-treat him.”
The point is, abuse of the slave reflects poorly on the nature of God, desecrating the divine name. According to Ibn Ezra’s explanation, the prohibition on returning the slave to his (legal) master is not grounded in the moral norms of the society from which the slave ran away (where the slave is just a criminal fugitive), nor is it clear what Israelite norm requires assisting the fugitive slave (since slavery was legal among the Israelites). It is just “God’s honor” that commends sheltering the slave from his prosecutors and providing him an asylum.
Maimonides: Concern for Society’s Weakest Members
Moses Maimonides’ (1138–1204), a halakhist as well as a philosopher, explains in his Guide of the Perplexed:
ואמרו: ״לא תסגיר עבד אל אדוניו״ עם היותו רחמנות יש בזאת המצוה תועלת גדולה, והיא שנתנהג בזאת המידה הנכבדת, והוא – שנעזור מי שיעזר בנו ונשמרהו ולא נסגירהו ביד מי שברח ממני.
The commandment given in His saying, “You shall not turn to his master a slave who seeks refuge from his master” [Deut 23:16], besides manifesting pity, contains a great utility—namely, it makes us acquire this noble moral quality [that is, pity]; namely, it makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled.
Thus, according to Maimonides, the purpose of the law is to cultivate a moral and psychological trait of standing on the side of the weak and the abused. He continues that the law also helps support the slave and release him from an unjust abuse:
ולא די שתעזור מי שיעזר בך אלא שאתה חייב לעיין בתיקוניו ותיטיב לו ולא תכאיב לבבו בדברים – והוא אמרו ית׳: ״עמך ישב בקרבך... באחד שעריך בטוב לו לא תוננו.״
It is not even enough to protect those who seek your protection, for you are under another obligation toward him: you must consider his interests, be beneficent toward him, and not pain his heart by speech. This is the meaning of His dictum, may He be exalted: “He shall live with you…among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him” [Deut 23:17].
Maimonides does not seem bothered by the fugitive slave breaking the laws of his society. Rather, he contrasts the obligation to provide a shelter to the weak slave with the commandment not to provide a refuge for a wrongdoer:
ונגד זה הענין – שהעובר המעול כשיעזר בנו לא יעזר ולא ירוחם ולא יחסרו ממנו דין כלל – ואפילו בא להעזר בנכבד שבדברים והגדול שבהם – והוא אמרו: ״מעם מזבחי תקחנו למות.״
On the contrary, the wrongdoer and the worker of injustice should not be protected when he seeks our protection and should not be pitied, nor should his rightful punishment be abolished in any way, even if he seeks the protection of the greatest individual and the one having the highest rank. This is the meaning of its dictum: “Thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die”. [Exod 21:14].
By contrasting these two kinds of “persecution”—providing a shelter for the abused slave as a religious duty versus sheltering a corrupt politician or cleric as a sin—Maimonides challenges a human tendency to go with the powerful, a tendency that still dominates our modern society.
Calvin: Protecting Slaves Who Seek God
Jean Calvin (1509–1564), the prominent Christian reformer, theologian and legal scholar, was born and educated in France, although the majority of his most significant religious and literary activities were carried out in Geneva and other Swiss towns. In a sermon delivered on January 27, 1556, Calvin notes the evils of the institution of slavery:
[S]ervants were at that time in the same plight and state that a man’s ox or horse is now. Men employed them to marvelous painful and burdensome things, and their masters had power over them both of life and death; so as among the Paynims a master went not to make his complaint unto the Justice when he would put his servant in prison or set him on the rack, or put him to death.
Yet he is clearly bothered by the law’s infringement on the rights of the slave-owners:
So then, if it had not been lawful to withhold from a man any part of his goods, but it had been very ill dealing to have done so: why was it lawful to keep back his servant? It might seem that man does him wrong and injury to defraud him in this wise of that which is his right, and men might persuade themselves that God dispensed here with his people to play thieves after some indirect manner.
Calvin therefore states that the law in Deuteronomy 23 does not apply to cases in which the slave’s motives for running away are not religious:
If a servant should run away upon deceit, or upon malice, or upon any other such cause, it was a sin in him, and that thievery were not good, nor allowed by God.
For Calvin, Deuteronomy 23:16 addresses the special case a slave who was accustomed to idol-worship. God would grant the fugitive slave a privilege—a unique and special right—if the slave’s aim was to serve God:
But the meaning of the law is that it was God’s will that there should be some privilege for such servant as willing to yield themselves unto his servitude. And that because as they lived under the Paynims, they were not their own men, nor had such liberty, and therefore when they turned into the better way, God granted them this exemption by way of privilege.
Moreover, claims Calvin, the slave’s experience has better prepared him to serve God: “For we see that when we are at heart’s ease and have our delights, we are so drunken with them, that God is nobody with us.” Thus, Calvin concludes: “That is the very thing where at this law aims.”
Deuteronomy in Context
All of these interpretations assume that Deuteronomy is speaking of escapees from non-Israelite masters. Indeed, as Jeffrey Tigay points out, the phrase “he shall live with you… among the settlements in your midst” implies that the person was leaving somewhere that was not in Israel’s midst, i.e., a foreign land, and thus “[v]irtually all commentators hold that this law refers to slaves who flee from foreign countries to Israel.” 
In its historical context, Deuteronomy’s law stands in contrast to those of other ancient Near Eastern legal collections, which frequently include prohibitions against harboring fugitive slaves. For example, the Laws of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 B.C.E) declare:
LH §16 If a man should harbor a fugitive slave or slave woman of either the palace or of a commoner in his house and not bring him out at the herald’s public proclamation, that householder shall be killed.
Many ancient Near Eastern treaties specifically contained provisions requiring the return of runaway slaves. For example, a 15th century B.C.E. treaty between Alalakh and Tunip in northwestern Syria states:
If a fugitive slave, male or female, of my land flees to your land, you must seize and return him to me, (or), if someone else seizes him and takes him to you, [you must keep him] in your prison, and whenever his owner comes forward, you must hand him over to [him].
If the common ancient Near Eastern practice was to return a slave to his master, then Deuteronomy’s requirement is an outlier. Unlike Aristotle, for whom slavery was a completely natural institution, Deuteronomy was more open to seeing the humanity of the enslaved person.
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Prof. Yitzhak Y. Melamed is the Charlotte Bloomberg Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and Member of the Steering Committee of the Stulman Jewish studies Program. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University and an MA in philosophy and the history of science and logic from Tel Aviv University. Melamed is the author of Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Substance and Thought.
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