Slavery from a Biblical Perspective
This weeks Torah portion includes the largest number of commandments of any other weekly portion. Beginning with Chapter 21 verse 10 and proceeding through Chapter 25, verse after verse is filled with situations and the rules of practice that are applicable.
As I read through the verses, one struck me in particular. “Do not deliver to his master the servant who is escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of your gates where it is good for him. Do not oppress him.” (Deuteronomy 23:16-17*).
As I read this I was immediately reminded of the terrible blight of slavery that was so much a part of American society for so many years. As a child growing up in the US, I learned a great deal about the Civil War and about the condition of slavery that precipitated it. I loved reading books about the abolitionists and my favorite stories were those about slaves who escaped their masters and about the famous underground railroad, a system of volunteers who helped smuggle slaves north to freedom, ultimately to Canada.
I read documents of the time and a common statement of the slave-owners was that slavery was mentioned in the Bible, that it was condoned by G-d. As I read these verses, I realized, so clearly, that Biblical slavery was really not about slavery as we understand it all.
The Bible refers to slavery as an existing institution in Biblical times which it was. But through this verse we see the fundamental difference between Biblical slavery and American slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Bible makes it very clear that the master’s responsibility is to make his servant comfortable. He must feel at home and he must be treated well. In reality, a Biblical slave is essentially a servant. He is certainly not a possession.
When slaves escaped their masters in the US, they were returned to their masters even if they had escaped to parts of the country where slavery was illegal. This was because a slave was considered property and one had an obligation to restore stolen or lost property.
The Bible makes it very clear. A slave is not property. He is a human being with dignity. And if he is not happy and escapes, he may find refuge with someone else. No one can ever force him to go where he does not want to go.
But there remains the more fundamental moral question – how is it that the Bible seems to condone slavery when it seems so morally repugnant to us? I believe that many of the rules and regulations in the Bible relating to social issues take into account existing circumstances and then impose some sort of moral restriction upon them. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that slavery is a good thing. Yet, there are rules and regulations that apply to slavery, so clearly it is a tolerated phenomenon. But the rules do reflect a moral guideline to treat the slave well, to enable him to have a day of rest, etc. Clearly, it would have been impossible to eradicate an institution so deeply imbedded in society at that time, but by restricting it, the moral compass is there. And, over the centuries, man developed enough of a moral compass to recognize that slavery is wrong and abolish it.
Similarly, the verses at the beginning of the portion referring to a soldier taking a woman for himself from among the captives, involve moral guidelines imposed upon a dubious behavior norm. While to our modern sensibilities, this seems like legalized rape, in context, it is a very moral set of scriptures. Rather than allowing a man to follow the norms of the day and literally grab and rape any woman he pleases from among enemy captives, a man must marry the woman, not rape her. And he must treat her well and allow her to mourn her family who fell in the war. He must see her in her mourning attire, not looking her attractive self and then decide he still wants to marry her. He must see something about her character that is attractive, not just her looks.
The Bible is an eternal book, applicable to those of us living thousands of years after it was first written. But it is also a book that applied to its time and it is in that context that it must also be read.
Director, Israel Office
*Deuteronomy 23:15-16 is Deuteronomy 23:16-17 in the Jewish Bible
7 thoughts on “Ki Tezeh (If You Should Go Out) – Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19”
I look forward to reading your comments on Torah. Thank you for sharing. Also, this is a new email for me. I formerly received emails to email@example.com. Blessings, Jimmie
Hello my sister in Christ,
After today’s reading I am saddened that after so many years in the U.S. many people of color still feel the inequality with which they are treated. Our current administration does nothing to resolve this problem nor does so many of our evangelical leaders even speak to this issue. I find myself in prayer crying for YWH to help, for my sisters and brothers in Christ to raise their voices against this political atrocity and to not be satisfied with their greed. Our country has forgotten that the Father commands us to take care of the poor, the less fortunate and I’m sure He frowns upon the prejudice that comes from our highest government office. Please pray for the U.S.
In His love, a sister in Christ
The American slavery was abolished because of the European Aristocrats who were competing for the same markets as the southern states of USA. Their slaves worked in farms in Africa and Asia to produce the same crops. The European aristocrats supplied the money for Abraham Lincoln and the Southern Rebels for guns. After the Southern rebels ran out of money they bottled up the Mississippi River and all subsequent trade. This caused supply difficulties to Southern Union Forces and they were defeated. After this the European aristocrats grew their crops and sold to all of Europe without competition from the Southern Union of America.
Yes, slavery appears repugnant, and I have for a long time wondered how this fits into the Biblical record. This teaching highlights some important points regarding humanitarian issues that are conspicuously absent from those owning slaves even in very recent history. However, it is my belief that any ‘political’ system can work for the good of those who live within it, whether of the political left, right or looneys(!). The issue is not the system as it is of the human heart. GK Chesterton stated that ‘the heart of the human problem is the human heart.’ That says it all.
“He has shown you, oh man, what is good and what does the Lord require of you. But to do justly, to love mercy (loving kindness) and to walk humbly with your God.” (prophet Micah chapter 6 – verse 8)
I want to thank you for your words on the subject of slavery; the concept of slavery is a wide subject if it is fully examined. it is writen that “a workman is worthy of his hire” and it must also be said that “the hire needs to be worthy of the workman” which gives us both side of the coin.
Todays society is creating a new form of slavery and that is the financial enslavement that is being driven by the financial instutions including other multi-national organisations and over-reach of government into the personal lives of their citizens. These imposts must needs be pushed back so that the people have freedom to manage their own lives under the blessings of God.
The Bible directs a responsible, moral and balanced approach to servants and slaves.
This is a very good teaching on slavery as described in Deuteronomy. However, I question one statement: I wonder, now, whether the human race has improved its ‘moral compass’. I would like to think so, but, within this hopeful statement is a large sense of ‘self kidology’! Child trafficking increases; oppression of the poor increases; politicians make platitude statements about it to keep their jobs but do little to deal with the evil problem; there is still condoned terrorism within the UN against the state of Israel, and there is catastrophic injustice against minorities the world over. Our so-called ‘improved’ moral compass is greatly more apparent than real. This is why we need |Bible teaching on where we are actually located; not on where we might think we ought to be.