The Law of Liberty for Slaves
The Law of God: Questions and Answers
How shall we understand and apply God’s Law today?
Even the Law of God understood that slavery was not to be the norm.
“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.” Deuteronomy 23:15, 16
Human beings enslaving other human beings was never intended as a norm for human society, at least, not in the eyes of God. In ancient Israel, however, for pagan peoples to be slaves would have been a far different experience from living in slavery under pagan oppressors. In Israel slaves would have enjoyed the protection of the Law of God and the benefits of His blessing upon the nation because, at least in part, of their contribution to that ancient economy.
Still, God understood the hardness of the human heart—which is why He permitted slavery during this time in the first place. He knew that even among His people slave owners might be more prone to treat their slaves with contempt and cruelty than with the grace and forbearance He was showing those who were enslaved by establishing this institution within the framework of His covenant. Thus, the Law of God included warnings to slave owners about the mistreatment of those within their service. Violence against slaves was forbidden, and could bring retribution against those who perpetrated it (Ex. 21:20, 26, 27).
But violence could also provoke slaves to flee such masters, and the Law of God did not discourage any slave’s attempt to “gain your freedom.” The ideal of slavery, as the Law envisions it, is that conditions for slaves would have been so “liberating” by comparison with other nations that they would actually have loved their masters and preferred their status to being set free (Ex. 21:2-6—this applies to those who voluntarily submitted to slavery, but we can assume it was extended to all slaves as well). Slaves could marry, have families, own property, and even become wealthy among the people of ancient Israel. Such being the case, a slave might have been quite content for his arrangement to continue as it was in perpetuity, and may even have been happy to have been passed on as “property” to a benevolent owner’s children (Lev. 25:45, 46).
But the possibility of gaining one’s freedom was always there. And once a slave had managed to get free from his master, it was the duty of all Israelites to honor that, and to make new provision for the former slave. The Law of God is not thus acting against itself; it is, rather, showing us its true nature and intent for human society.
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In the Gates is a devotional series on the Law of God by Rev. T. M. Moore, editor of the Worldview Church. He serves as dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of twenty books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet).
Scripture quotations in this article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (c) copyright 2001, 2007 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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