Human Rights in Deuteronomy: With Special Focus on Slave Laws

Written by Daisy Yulin Tsai Reviewed By Myrto Theocharous

Daisy Yulin Tsai, in her revised PhD dissertation examined in 2011 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, studies Deuteronomic slave laws, compares them with other Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern laws, and argues for two main distinctions between OT laws and other ANE ones: (1) all agents (e.g., slaves, captives, and criminals) are regarded as persons and should be treated accordingly; and (2) all legal subjects are seen as free, dignified, and self-determining human beings. Unfortunately, though, the important concepts of personhood and freedom are not clearly defined.

Chapter 1 explains the importance of slave manumission laws for Israel as owing to her origins from slavery in Egypt. This accounts for the primacy of the slave law in Exodus 21:2–11 and the uniqueness of the fugitive-slave law in Deut 23:16–17 (pp. 1–2). Here also, the author reviews the literature on slave laws, but her interests mainly lie in reading the text synchronically to examine how this legislation relates to the character of YHWH (pp. 9–10). She states that “neither dates nor historical settings of biblical laws are critical for explaining the underlying concept of human rights” (p. 15). Instead, the original function or purpose of the laws is no longer available to us, making attempts at historical reconstructions fruitless (p. 16). This stands at odds with her opening assertion that an exodus background explains the prominent place of slave laws in the Book of the Covenant.

In chapter 2, Tsai examines the Deuteronomic slave laws beginning with their arrangement. To explain why they are separated by seven chapters (15:12–18; 23:16–17), she adopts the “Chiastic Framework Approach” proposed by Frank Crüsemann and Martin Oosthuizen (pp. 25–34). For Tsai the center of the chiasm (19:1–21:9) is the preservation of human life while the corresponding parts (15:1–16:17 and 23:16–25:19) both demonstrate concern for the poor. However, it is unclear how this lengthy discussion on structure pertains to exegesis of the slave laws.

A thorough exegesis of Deut 15:12–18 and a discussion of its motive clauses follow. “Hebrew” in 15:12 is one of the terms Tsai examines and she takes this to refer to an ethnic identity, not a social one, although she does not clarify what she means (pp. 41–46). Is this blood relation? Or rather covenantal? Similarly, the lack of definition for a loaded term such as “freedom” creates confusion, as when she states but leaves unexplained that “in Deuteronomy . . . slavery is in opposition to freedom both sociologically and soteriologically” (p. 47).

Only two and a half pages are given to the exegesis of Deut 23:16–17, and Tsai moves quickly into comparing it with 15:12–18. The former appears to undermine the authority of masters over slaves, seemingly witnessing to contrary views on the justness of slavery (p. 65). Tsai disagrees by arguing that both laws require liberation and stress the dignity of the released person with extravagant honor (pp. 65–67). However, if this law does indeed speak of fugitives from outside Israel, as she accepts (pp. 62–63), then the two passages envisage different situations and for Deuteronomy 23 it would be the authority of foreign masters that is undermined, not Israelites.

Chapter 3 compares the Bible’s various slave-manumission laws. The regulations in Exod 21:2–11 are parallel to Deut 13:12–18 except for the former’s provision for releasing a female slave. Tsai interprets this regulation in Exod 21:2–11 as a separate law that deals with marital transactions. This explains why the woman is not to be released on the seventh year (pp. 79–90).

Deuteronomy 15:12–18 is then compared with the Jubilee in Lev 25:39–55, where the latter appears to regulate a service period of forty-nine years as opposed to six as in other manumission laws. Scholars have generally explained this as a reform of earlier biblical laws or as dealing with different types of slaves (e.g., Bernard M. Levinson, “The Birth of the Lemma: The Restrictive Reinterpretation of the Covenant Code’s Manumission Law by the Holiness Code (Leviticus 25:44–46),” JBL 124 [2005]: 617–39). Tsai, on the contrary, does not find Leviticus at odds with either Deuteronomy or Exodus. She understands the Jubilee as the final recourse in a wider system of social protection, but does not explore why this would exist alongside the seven-year release.

Chapter 4 thoroughly examines the ANE laws relating to slavery (which are neatly compiled in two appendices) with considerable discussion of different terms used, methods of slave acquisition, redemption or termination. She explains each category of slave laws, even brings to the surface more subtle forms of bondage such as the “human pledge,” and argues that these laws demonstrate little concern for the rights of slaves. Tsai concludes that the situations envisaged in each ANE law differ from those of the biblical slavery laws. Though this is the most helpful chapter of Tsai’s analysis, it is surprising that the book’s title does not indicate that the treatment of ANE laws will take up almost half of the book (including the appendices). Tsai also adds a brief survey of slavery in the modern world, but this does not contribute to the dissertation.

Chapter 5 discusses ancient cosmologies and worldviews. One page is then reserved for the “concept of human rights” (p. 180). But given that “human rights” is the subject of the book, one would expect at least a section dedicated to the broader discussion of human rights, its history, and basic definitions in order to avoid thinking anachronistically about it. In closing, Tsai realizes that the destruction of the Canaanites may be a challenge to her thesis, so she mentions it in passing without intending to follow up (p. 181). Chapter 6 concludes the monograph by summarizing Tsai’s work.

Overall, the lack of definitions, the attempt to enter discussions of modern slavery, the failure to engage the disciplines of human rights and ethical theories, and leaving aside the issue of the Canaanites give the impression that Tsai attempts to “bite more than she can chew.” Having said that, I think that Tsai has successfully shown us the various necessary parameters that one should consider when dealing with the complex topic of slavery.

Myrto Theocharous

Myrto Theocharous
Greek Bible College
Athens, Greece

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