Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Biblical Anti-Fugitive Slave Act



Some southerners before the Civil War famously cited the Bible’s apparent acceptance of the institution of slavery to support their contention that the peculiar institution was morally acceptable.

I was interested, therefore, to stumble across the following passage from Deuteronomy prohibiting the return of fugitive slaves:
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.
Deuteronomy 23:16-17.

The commentary to the passage in The Jewish Study Bible (OUP 2004) emphasizes how extraordinary the Biblical prohibition was at that time and place:
The law rejects the almost universal stipulation within ancient Near Eastern law that escaped slaves must be returned to their owner, usually under penalty of death, and that rewards bounty hunters for their return (Laws of Hammurabi secs. 16-20; Hittite Laws secs. 22-24). . . . The extraordinary fivefold repetition of phrases designating the location of residence emphasizes that the entire community must be open to them.
I have never heard that northerners cited or quoted this passage, in or out of Congress, in connection with the debates over the Fugitive Slave Act.  Does anyone have different information?

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