Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki-Tetze 5769/ August 29, 20

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



A Slave who Seeks Refuge


Dr. David Elgavish


Department of Bible

1.  Turning over fugitive slaves

The command, “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge” (Deut. 23:16), marks a departure from the laws of the ancient Near East.  In that culture, a fugitive slave was defenseless.  His owners had the right to appeal to the ruling authorities for help in capturing him, and the authorities obliged; also, anyone could capture and interrogate a fugitive slave. [1]   Ancient Near Eastern law codes established procedures in this regard:  a person who returned a fugitive slave would receive payment from the slave’s owners; [2]   a person who harbored a fugitive slave had to give payment of a slave in exchange for the slave who had fled; [3] the death sentence was imposed on any person who enabled a slave of the royal palace to flee through the city gates and on any person who harbored a fugitive slave from the palace or stole a fugitive slave. [4]   However Hittite law also stipulated that if a slave fled to an enemy land, his owners lost their rights to him and any person could then appropriate the slave to himself. [5]

The biblical law set forth in this week’s reading deviates not only from Mesopotamian law but also from the norm in the Bible itself.  It is unparalleled in the slave laws set forth in the Torah and also does not fit in with the practices in ancient Israel:  the angel of the Lord said to Hagar, “Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment” (Gen. 16:9); Nabal protested:  “There are many slaves nowadays who run away from their masters” (I Sam. 25:10);   an Egyptian slave asked David to swear to him that he would not turn him over to his master (I Sam. 30:15);   Shimei’s slaves ran away to Gath, and Shimei went after them to King Achish of Gath to ask for their return (I Kings 2:40).   Shimei’s appeal to the king of Gath indicates that there may have been an extradition treaty between the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Gath.

Raymond Westbrook maintains that the law forbidding turning over a fugitive slave to his master does not pertain to the narrow context of relations between a slave and his master, but rather to the international context.  In his opinion, the law forbids the rulers in ancient Israel to include an extradition article in their treaties with foreign powers. [6]   However the Torah does not contain commands pertaining to specific paragraphs in international treaties, therefore it is difficult to ascribe such a meaning to the verse at hand; further, the kingdom of Israel, as opposed to Judah, made treaties with foreign states and, as far as we can tell, included extradition provisions in them. [7]   Hence it seems better to advocate the explanation that the law deals with a Hebrew slave who has fled from a gentile master in a foreign country. [8]   A parallel to this can be found in the Code of Hammurabi (article 280), which says:  “If a person bought a male or female slave abroad, and in the course of journeying in his own country the owner of the slave identifies his slave, if the slave is a native of that land then his or her release is guaranteed free of charge.” [9]   Alternatively, this law of the Torah, which stems from a love of mankind but violates the laws of property, has been explained as an instance of “halakhah that is not enforced” and is only a moral imperative. [10]   The protection granted the fugitive slave here fits in with the prevailing trend of Deuteronomy to care for the weaker strata of society. [11]

2.  Turning over deserters

The question of turning over deserters holds an important place in international relations in the ancient Near East, insofar as political fugitives provided important information to those who gave them refuge and provided just cause for taking over the country from which they fled.   Hence a declaration by the deserters that they were turning themselves over to the camp to which they deserted sufficed for them to be granted status and rights even from their erstwhile enemies.

Extradition is the most ancient of institutions in international criminal law.  In the ancient Near East law codes made it obligatory to turn over slaves who fled from their masters but not political deserters, since these laws did not deal with international justice. [12]   Governments were interested in the fastest possible return of deserters primarily because the deserters could relay up-to-date information about the country from which they had fled, including military secrets. [13]   The obligation to turn over deserters was based on their belonging to their rulers, just as a slave belonged to his master. [14]   Therefore, rulers included the duty to turn over deserters in many international treaties.

Scripture mentions rulers who took in deserters, potential heirs to the throne, with open arms and made pacts with them, thus enabling them to harass the country from which the deserters had fled.   David deserted to King Achish of Gath, and the latter took him in and granted him the city of Ziklag (I Sam. 27:5-6).  Nevertheless, Philistine rulers were apprehensive about David joining them in their battle against Israel (I Sam. 19:4) on the grounds that “once a traitor, always a traitor.” [15]   The hope of Achish that David would ascend the throne in Israel did indeed come to pass, and David ruled in Judah under Philistine protection; but this did not last long, since David rebelled against the Philistines and toppled them from their position of hegemony.  Egypt employed a similar strategy when it granted refuge to the Edomite, Hadad, and the Israelite, Jeroboam son of Nebat (I Kings 11:18, 40).  In so doing Egypt followed the Hittite policy of divide et empera.   Hadad was of royal lineage in his land and therefore received a wife from the Egyptian royal family. However we do not know what became of him. Jeroboam, on the other hand, did ascend the throne in Israel but did not live up to Egypt’s expectations, and therefore Shishak’s campaign was directed against Israel more than against Judah, as we learn from the Shishak inscription.

Aside from mentioning rulers who took in deserters, Scripture also tells of extradition of deserters in the context of international relations.  Towards the end of the monarchy the prophet Uriah fled to Egypt, and the king of Judah sent emissaries to bring him back, as we read in Scripture (Jer. 26:22-23):

But King Jehoiakim sent men to Egypt, Elnathan son of Achbor and men with him to Egypt. They took Uriah out of Egypt

Although there is no explicit mention of the emissaries turning to Pharaoh, it is hard to assume that such a complex mission could have succeeded without the consent of the Egyptian authorities and without their aid.  The king of Egypt assisted his Jewish satellite state not only because of the pacts between them – for it was Pharaoh who put Jehoiakim on the throne and conferred upon him his royal name (II Kings 23:34) – but also in order to fight the stand taken by such prophets as Uriah, who was viewed as being pro-Babylonian.   Aside from extraditing political refugees, allies were also requested to extradite fugitive slaves; for example, see the request made by Shimei ben Gera to King Achish of Gath (I Kings 2:40).

The ambassador appealing for extradition would go to the ruler himself, and sometimes there would be a confrontation on the subject of extradition.  When the person to whom the appeal was lodged denied that the fugitive was present within his territory he would have to swear to it, but if the deserter claimed he was not a fugitive, the person seeking his return would have to swear that he indeed was a fugitive.  This can be seen in the words of Obadiah, who was in charge of the House of Ahab, regarding the search by King Ahab of Israel for the prophet Elijah (I Kings 18:10): [16]

As the Lord your G-d lives, there is no nation or kingdom to which my lord has not sent to look for you; and when they said, “He is not here,” he made that kingdom or nation swear that you could not be found.

The wording of the pacts also teaches us about the punishments that lay in store for someone who harbored a fugitive and the punishment in store for the fugitive himself after he was extradited.   Failure to extradite a deserter was considered casus belli.

Alongside this unequivocal position, one also finds in Scripture a certain reservation about handing over fugitives, such as what we read about Moabite refugees in Edom:   “Conceal the outcasts, betray not the fugitives.  Let Moab’s outcasts find asylum in you; be a shelter for them against the despoiler” (Isa. 16:3-4), in the spirit of the law with which we began our discussion:   “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge.”    

[1] Isaac Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East:   A Comparative Study of Slavery in Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, and Palestine from the Middle of the Third Millennium to the End of the Third Millennium (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 59.

[2] Ur- Nammu law code, in Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (2nd ed.; Society of Biblical Literature Writings from the Ancient World, 6; Atlanta:  Scholars Press, 1995), p. 19:17.

[3] Code of Lipit-Ishtar, loc. sit., 28.12.

[4] Code of Hammurabi, loc. sit. 84-85.15-16, 19.

[5] Hittite law code, loc. sit. 220.23a.

[6] R. Westbrook, “Slave and Master in Ancient Near Easter Law,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 70, 4 (1995), p. 1673.

[7] See below.

[8] Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel:  Its Life and Institutions (trans. By John McHugh;  New York:   McGraw-Hill, 1961), p. 87; Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East (note 1, above), p. 63.

[9] Martha T. Roth, Law Collections (note 2, above), p. 132.

[10] Isaac Mendelsohn and Shmuel Ahituv, “Eved, Avdut,” Encyclopedia Mikrait 6 (1972), p. 8; Hanoch Raviv, “Avadav ha-Nimlatim shel Shimei ben Gera u- Va‘ayat Hasgaratam,” in Galut ahar Golah:  Mehkarim be-Toledot Yisrael, Jerusalem 1988, p. 35.

[11] Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford:   Clarendon Press, 1972), pp. 290-295; de Vaux, Ancient Israel (note 8, above), p. 149.

[12] For a discussion of various sorts of refugees and the circumstances of their fleeing in the ancient Near East, see E. Ebeling, “ Flüchling,” Reallexikon der Assyriologie (vol. 3; Berlin:  De Gruyter, 1957-1971), pp. 88-90.

[13] Yisrael Ef‘al, “El ha- Kasdim Ata Nofel,” Eretz Yisrael, 24 (1994), p. 18.

[14] R. Westbrook, “International Law,” in:  Raymond Cohen and Raymond Westbrook (eds.), Amarna Diplomacy:  The Beginnings of International Relations (Baltimore, MD:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 29.

[15] For a comparison of David’s status in the court of the king of Achish with the status of convicted political refugees, see P. Kalluvettil, Declaration and Covenant:  A Comprehensive Review of Covenant Formulae from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East (Rome, 1982), pp. 165-196.

[16] On the work of ambassadors to obtain extradition of fugitives, see David Elgavish, Ha-Sheirut ha- Diplomati ba-Mikra u- ve-Teudot min ha- Mizrah ha-Kadum, Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1998, pp. 101-104.