Fugitive Slaves in Ancient Israel

How great it is to incorporate some lessons and issues from the Bible into this blog, even for a short post tying in with something I wrote here earlier. I couldn’t resist bringing this up after studying some of the Laws of Deuteronomy earlier today. In Deuteronomy 23:16-17, Israel is given an obligation concerning the treatment of escaped slaves, reading (from the Tanakh of the Jewish Publication Society):

You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. 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.

What a remarkable departure this is from the norm of the Ancient World. The Code of Hammurabi stipulated that all escaped slaves be returned to their owners, on pain of stiff penalties. The Fugitive Slave Law in America lasted until the end of the War Between the States. In his excellent Pentateuch & Haftorahs, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Joseph H. Hertz, noted in his commentary that despite the noticeable laws surrounding slaves in the Torah, slavery in Ancient Israel & Judah was appears to have been very rare. Throughout Scripture, there are no references to slave markets in the Land, and scant indeed are mentions of slaves among Israelite society.

The obligation to shelter escaped slaves and treat them kindly might explain this situation, along with the commandment to free slaves on the Jubilee year, as well as to release a slave upon his seventh year of service (Exodus chap. 21 and Deuteronomy chap. 15). This relates to the libertarian and humanitarian arguments I mentioned in favor of the Secession of the Confederate States of America. In the libertarian scholar Jeffery Rogers Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War’, the author argues that slavery would not have lasted very long in the Confederacy, given that the United States would no doubt have quickly repealed the widely hated Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This in turn would have created a flood of runaway slaves from the South in the direction of freedom, making slavery more costly to maintain where it existed. Famous abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison actually advocated before and during the war years that the free states secede from the slave states for this to happen. Hummel uses the example of Brazil, where slavery was outlawed in some areas but not in others. Free regions became such a haven for runaways that the costs of runaways on slave-owners became far too much to bear. Slavery was abandoned all over Brazil in 1888, without a shot fired. Human beings forced into slavery simply don’t start acting like cattle or pieces of furniture.

Interestingly, if unexpectedly, it seems that there is good evidence to support the position of Hummel and Garrison from the Bible itself.

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About Cranky Notions
Reactionary. That fella from the Norris scandal.

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