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Deuteronomy: The Second Law - Speech 6

A commentary on the sixth speech of Moses in Deuteronomy 21-23. The book of Deuteronomy is a series of 12 speeches that Moses gave just before his death at the end of Israel's wilderness journey.

Category - Bible Commentaries

Chapter 19

Re-enslaving Escaped Slaves

Moses instructs Israel in Deuteronomy 23:15 and 16,

15 You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.

This law must be taken in the context of the rest of the law in order to apply it properly. The law calls for mandatory slavery in cases where a man cannot pay the restitution that he owes to his victim. In such cases, the slave is required to work off his debt (Exodus 22:3), at least until the year of Jubilee, when all men are set free. If such a slave runs away, refusing to submit to the court-ordered slavery, then he is in contempt of court and could be executed if the victim demands it (Deut. 17:12).

If a slave is mistreated, he should not try to escape, but ought to appeal to the court. The law says in Exodus 21:26. 27 that a mistreated slave shall be set free. Biblical slavery is limited by God’s law, for God claims eminent domain over all men, including slaves. No master is to mistreat his slave, because in the end all men are owned by God.

Since God’s law regulates slavery, limiting the rights of masters and slaves alike, we must assume that Deut. 23:15, 16 refers mainly to foreign slaves. Other nations gave no rights to slaves, and masters were free to abuse or kill their slaves at will. Because the laws of foreign nations were oppressive and sinful, God forbade an Israelite to return such a slave to his foreign master. Instead, the slave was to be treated as any other man and allowed to take up residence in any town of his choosing.

We are given an example in 1 Samuel 30, when the Amalekites destroyed the city of Ziklag, taking David’s family captive. David and his men pursued the Amalekites and then came across an Egyptian slave who had gotten sick and had been abandoned by his Amalekite master (1 Sam. 30:11-15). The slave told them where the Amalekites had gone, asking only that he not be returned to his master. David agreed, of course, because this was consistent with biblical law.

Slaves to Foreign Gods

In a New Covenant application of this law, we can see how many are enslaved to foreign gods who oppress the people by unjust laws. When such people are able to escape such oppression, we are not to send them back where they came. This may seem self-evident, but some denominations or church leaders enslave men to themselves, rather than work to set them free. The severity of this problem varies with each denomination, of course, for some are better than others. But the law of God is designed to set men free, and it forbids mistreatment of those who have been set free from the slavery of false gods.

The Way of Balaam

This is Peter’s topic when he discusses “the way of Balaam” (2 Peter 2:15). What most concerned Peter about the way of Balaam is stated in verses 18-20,

18 For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, 19 promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. 20 For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.

Peter refers to Balaam’s counsel that they should entice the Israelites to sin, knowing that sin brings divine wrath and judgment. By causing men to be enslaved to sin, they gain advantage over Israel, and God then enslaves Israel to those foreign nations, their gods, and their vices.

Israel had escaped from slavery in Egypt. Balaam counseled the Moabites and Midianites to show them how to take those escaped slaves and make them their own slaves. Hence, verse 22 says, “a dog returns to its own vomit” and “a sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.”

The law of God was designed to prevent the re-enslavement of an escaped slave. The way of Balaam violates this law by working to re-enslave the escaped slaves.