On the eve of the Civil War, the problem of escaped slaves who were apprehended after fleeing to the North aggravated the tensions between the free states and the South. While the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act required that free states return escapees to their masters, Deuteronomy states unequivocally, “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.” Yitzhak Melamed examines how Christian and Jewish exegetes explained this law:
Abraham Ibn Ezra (ca. 1089–1164), a polyglot and an astounding poet, grammarian, philosopher, astronomer, and Bible commentator [argued that] abuse of the slave reflects poorly on the nature of God, desecrating the divine name. According to Ibn Ezra’s explanation, the prohibition on returning the slave to his (legal) master is not grounded in the moral norms of the society from which the slave ran away (where the slave is just a criminal fugitive), nor is it clear what Israelite norm requires assisting the fugitive slave (since slavery was legal among the Israelites). It is just “God’s honor” that commends sheltering the slave . . . and providing him an asylum.
Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), [by contrast, believed that] the purpose of the law is to cultivate a moral and psychological trait of standing on the side of the weak and the abused.
In its historical context, Deuteronomy’s law stands in contrast to those of other ancient Near Eastern legal collections, which frequently include prohibitions against harboring fugitive slaves.