What about the law in the Bible about masters beating their slaves?

Q. An atheist has challenged me about a problem in the Bible that I have been trying to resolve.  In Exodus 21:21 it says about a slave who is beaten by his master, “Notwithstanding, if the slave survives for a day or two, the master shall not be punished: for the slave is his money.” How is this consistent with a compassionate God who wants to protect the weak?  Can you help me with this?

Thanks for your question.  This law in Exodus is one that compassionate people of faith really struggle with, as it seems to suggest on first reading that once masters have paid for slaves, they can do anything with them that they want.  But I believe that the proper way to understand this law is by recognizing that it was originally intended to protect slaves from severe beatings.

Someone asked me about that same law on this blog earlier this year, as one of a number of questions about slavery and the Bible. Here’s what I said in response:

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The law in Exodus about beating a slave should not be understood in any way as giving permission to masters to beat their slaves severely, so long as they don’t quite kill them.  For one thing, this law specifies that if a slave dies immediately from a beating, the master must suffer the death penalty, just as in the case of a free person being murdered. The Hebrew says literally, “vengeance shall surely be taken.”  The NIV says that the master “must be punished,” but this is not specific enough; the ESV says that the slave “shall be avenged,” and this is clearer.  The first part of this law provides the same protection for slaves as for free persons, an unusual and perhaps unique piece of legislation among ancient cultures.

The second part of this law says that if the slave does not die immediately, but after a day or two, “he is not to be avenged,” that is, the master does not suffer the death penalty.  The reasoning behind this stipulation is that the slave’s survival for a time suggests that the killing was not intentional. The law of Moses carefully distinguishes between the penalties for murder and manslaughter (that is, for intentional and unintentional killings).  The explanation “for the slave is his money” does not mean that the master has bought and paid for the slave and so can do anything with him that he wants.  Rather, the meaning is that the loss of the price of the slave, a significant sum in the ancient world, punishes the master sufficiently for manslaughter.  The master has, in effect, punished himself.

Even though understanding more about the background and intent of this law can help us recognize that it is designed to protect slaves, not the masters who beat them, it is still a very difficult law for compassionate followers of Jesus to read today in the Bible.

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I hope this helps answer your question.  If you have more concerns, please comment on this post and I’ll try to respond to them.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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