Dealing with the Disadvantaged

Dealing with the Disadvantaged

Deuteronomy 23:15-16

Dr. John P. Davis


Deuteronomy 23:15-16   15 ¶ “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you.  16 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.

This text at first glance may seem foreign to us, because of the change in social climate from the ancient world of Israel to today. However, if we would open our eyes, I believe that we’d begin to realize that there are people all about us who are disadvantaged in a similar way that a runaway slave might be vulnerable. Though slavery in the technical sense does not exist in America, yet in a very practical way slavery is all around us. There are many who due to misfortune in life are bound to adverse circumstances and who are crying for someone to help them. Whether it’s the homeless, the jobless, the poor, the immigrant, the ill, the aged, etc., if we’ll open our eyes we’ll find many that experience a form of slavery.

 How should a Christian relate to those in such a situation? What can we learn from these verses that instruct us on how to deal with the disadvantaged?

First I will make a few introductory remarks about slavery in ancient Israel that help elucidate the meaning of the text and then I will draw three applications to our own setting..

 These two verses are found in the greater unit of thought that begins at 22:13 and ends at 24:22. This unit of thought covers matters affecting the social welfare of the nation. Israelite law, in contrast to the existing contemporary laws of its age, placed a high priority on human life and human rights, grounded in the belief that all men were created in the image of God. Even though the system of Jewish law did not abrogate slavery, it yet allowed its concept of God and humanity to permeate its approach to the issue of slavery.

Permanent involuntary slavery was to be imposed only on Israel’s enemies taken captive in war. Temporary involuntary slavery was at times the experience of fellow Israelites who because of adverse economic conditions were placed in temporary servitude, with their debt being cancelled after six years. Voluntary slavery took place when an Israelite whose debt was cancelled preferred the apparent security of slavery over freedom. He then had his ear pierced with an awl.

This particular text is dealing with foreign slaves who have fled from their masters seeking asylum in Israel. This passage is basically teaching that ” … runaway slaves are entitled to asylum in any Israelite village ”  (Nicholson 1967, 54). Although in the Ancient Near East there existed suzerain treaty provisions for the return of runaway slaves, Israel was exempted from this stipulation, because she was the vassal of Yahweh alone (Clifford 1982, 125). Israel in her experience of freedom was to be the guardian of the freedom of others. Because of her own experience of slavery and present enjoyment of freedom (ca. Exodus 20:2), her society was to be made up of free men (Phillips 1984, 62) and they, as God’s people, were to be ” …the friends of freedom … (Cunliffe Jones 1956, 133).                       

 There are three principles that are to govern our dealings with the disadvantaged:

  I. The People of God should be a place of refuge for the disadvantaged. You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you

 Apparently there was something so attractive about the society of Israel that occasioned such instances as runaway slaves seeking asylum in asylum. Certainly as merchants passed through Israel they and their servants would have noticed the elevated status of slaves and the humaneness with which they were treated. The freedom of this people must have been enviable.

As Yahweh was the refuge of Israel, so Israel, the people of God, was to be a refuge to the world.

 I’m afraid that the church of Jesus Christ has often failed in this respect. Our lack of compassion on the disadvantaged is evidenced in many ways.

How many families want to go to the nursing home to minister?

How many people want to be involved in prison ministry?

How many are interested in working with immigrants and illegal aliens?

Who would think of taking an international student into their home?

Who wants to provide foster care for a refugee?

How many are reaching the homeless or are involved in literacy? (Are not the illiterate a disadvantaged people who are slaves, often involuntarily to their circumstances?)

If the church of Jesus Christ is not a refuge for the disadvantaged of this world and if believers have no personal desire to provide a refuge, where then will the disadvantaged find a refuge in this world?

 Have the disadvantaged of this world been turned away so often that they no longer think of the church as a place of refuge for those who are oppressed?

Have the disadvantaged witnessed in the evangelical church such fear, indifference, and reticence toward them that they have concluded, “they really don’t care.”

Can the disadvantaged of this world possibly come to believe in a merciful, caring, loving God if the people of that God are not merciful enough to provide a refuge?

 II. The people of God should provide an environment that encourages the right of self-determination.

He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him.

 One characteristic which distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation is the right of self-determination. Humans were created to enjoy freedom under God, and apart from the situations mentioned in the introduction and some legal circumstances, this freedom is not to be denied. Ownership of another is essentially a prerogative of God.

 One of the privileges of a free man is the fulfillment of his own desires (wherever it suits him). A slave is one who lives out the desires of another.  It is also to be recognized that one of the privileges of a free man is the exercise of personal choice (in the place that he shall choose).

The disadvantaged are so imprisoned by their circumstances that their desires and dreams remain imprisoned and their ability to choose is non-existent.

 To deny either of these privileges to a man is to abrogate his God-given freedom.

The people of God should be committed to creating the kind of environments where disadvantaged people can enjoy the freedom of self-determination. The church should avoid programs (as many government programs) that only create another kind of dependency, a milder, kinder form of slavery, yet, nevertheless, still slavery.

As in missions, this principle of self-determination encourages the kind of indigeneity that lessens dependency, and when applied to ministry to the oppressed, it moves toward ministry that is more developmentally oriented.

III. The people of God see the immorality of oppressing the disadvantaged in any way.

     “You shall not wrong him

 The older translations catch the nuance of this word (to wrong) by translating it with the word ‘oppress.’ The people of God knew a little about oppression from their years in Egypt. Because of the mercy they received in God’s powerful deliverance of them, they were to extend that same mercy to others.

Exodus 22:21 ¶ “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

The gospel of Christ calls all of those who have been delivered by its power to extend a similar mercy to others.

Luke 6:32-36  32 ¶ “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.  35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Are we who are recipients of mercy guilty of practicing oppression or of tolerating oppression?

How about the migrant farm worker who is paid $ 4.50 an hour for work that others are paid $ 8.00. an hour?    

How about the distressed woman who comes to your employ, who really needs a job, she’s in times of difficulty, so you do her a big favor by paying her less than you would pay others.    

How about the teenager in your employ, who works as hard and as well as a grown man, but he’s a teenager, so you take advantage of him.

We seem to have an unwritten business ethic in America that says, if someone is really hurting in life, squeeze him (oppress him) as tightly as you can.  For too many the bottom line is profit rather than human dignity.

We have seen the business men (and now governments) that watch a company begin to struggle financially, and invariably, will come along in that moment of desperation to make an offer of much less than what its worth, taking advantage of their distress.

How about that yard sale, when you come across a family that’s selling everything they own because hard times have come their way, and you walk in with that enterprising spirit, realizing how desperate they are, and you make an offer you know isn’t fair, but they’re desperate so they have to take it. You have just violated the intent of this text.

To oppress anyone, especially the disadvantaged, is to show the utmost disrespect for human life.

To oppress others, especially the disadvantaged, is to live in blatant violation of the second greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

 To oppress others or to fail to deliver them from oppression is contrary to the call of the gospel. 


A model ethical portrait of the people of God is provided in Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 18:5-9   5 ¶ “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right–  6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity,  7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment,  8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man,  9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully–he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.

 The high calling of this model ethic requires an ongoing, transforming experience of the grace and mercy of God which only comes as the life Christ is manifested in us through the Spirit.




 Clifford, Richard. Deuteronomy. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1982.

Cunliffe Jones, H. Deuteronomy. London: SCM Press, 1956.

Nicholson, E. W. Deuteronomy and Tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

Phillips, Anthony. “The Laws of Slavery: Exodus 21:2Ð11.” JSOT 30 (1984), 51-66.


On September 10, 1970 I came to understand the great love of God for me, a sinner and a rebel. That evening I received God’s forgiveness and a new life through Jesus Christ, who died in my place and rose again to offer forgiveness and new life. I have been senior pastor for over 30 years planting two churches in Buckingham, PA and Queens, NY and serving two other churches in Brooklyn, NY and Roslyn, PA. I am currently the lead pastor at Grace Church of Philly.

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