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In the Gates

Runaway Slaves

Runaway Slaves--Remember that slaves could marry and have a family.

The eighth commandment

Deuteronomy 23.15-16

“‘You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.’”

Philemon 8-16

Remember that slaves could marry and have a family. They could accumulate property and wealth. They could even redeem themselves out of slavery, or be redeemed by a member of their family. They were protected from physical violence and, in general, allowed to know a normal human life and to contribute to the overall wellbeing of the community.

That being so, why would anyone flee his master? Obviously, only if that master were abusive and was able to conceal his abusive practices from local authorities. Runaway slaves were not to be returned to their masters. If they managed to reach safety in a new community, they were to be allowed to put down roots and begin to flourish there.

So why did Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon? Because, as he said, he was not sending back a slave, but a “brother” in the Lord. He wanted to give Philemon the privilege of receiving Onesimus as such, which, we assume, he did.

This series of In the Gates we present a detailed explanation of the Law of God, beginning with the Ten Commandments, and working through the statutes and rules that accompany each commandment. For a practical guide to the role of God’s Law in the practice of ethics, get The Ground for Christian Ethics by going to and click on our Book Store.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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