The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia. It has been provided as part of a partnership with AllOnGeorgia and Creation Ministries International.
By: Lita Cosner
In this feedback article, CMI’s Lita Cosner addresses concerns and objections concerning the slavery and the morality of the Bible.
A friend of mine asked a question concerning Exodus 21, where it states that if a man beats his slave and the slave dies then the master is not held responsible. But if the slave dies then he is. This is quite hard to explain, after reading your take on slavery in the Bible. I have already explained to my friend that slavery in the Hebrew sense was actually servitude, but how do I explain this passage? It seems self defeatist almost. Why would a man be allowed to beat another man even though the man was his slave? Harming anyone physically is wrong, but in same cases such as self defense is it “understandable”.
I would really like some insight on this …
Thanks for writing in. I assume there was a typo in your email, and you meant “if the slave doesn’t die then the master is not held responsible.”
It’s important to note that corporal punishment by beating was allowed as a punishment in multiple spheres of life. Parents were expected to beat their children to ensure behavior, to the extent that the Jews could say a parent who didn’t beat his children hated them (Proverbs 13:24). Adult Jews could be beaten by the city elders or synagogue officials for various offenses.
In this particular case, the slave is probably an indentured servant serving for a particular period of time, for example, to pay off a debt or theft. It is not inconceivable that in these circumstances, someone would sell, say, seven years of their labor, but then slack off until their time was up. It would be just like if someone working on a salary was slacking off at work, just because he gets paid the same whether he works or not. So the law allows the owner a way to make sure he gets his ‘money’s worth’ by permitting an incentive to work.
In this case, I think bad translation is partly to blame for some of the misunderstanding. I think the best translation of the passage is this: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, and the slave dies as a direct result, he shall be avenged. But if the slave gets up after a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since the slave is his property.”
If two free men were fighting and one of them is injured for a few days and is unable to work, the verses directly before this command that the person who injured him pays him for his time. In the case of a slave, the master has already paid for his time, so no further payment is required. But if the slave dies as a direct result of the beating, the master is punished for murder.
I hope these thoughts are helpful.