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