Does the Bible teach that slaves can be beaten and mistreated? I have seen this written on the internet. Let’s break this down:
· Does the Bible teach – we should never be so broad in examining ancient texts. Let’s focus. The question is narrower than the whole Bible. It’s narrower even than the Old Testament. If we narrow it down to the Pentateuch (the five books from Genesis to Numbers) we are getting warmer and need to start paying more attention. If we narrow down further to the Torah (Moses’ law) we are zooming in and adjusting our focus better still. If we narrow it down to the book of Exodus, we are getting very warm. If we narrow it down to a few chapters, that will be about right for our most detailed work. If we zoom in on only a couple of verses, or a few words, that’s too close – we wouldn’t be able to see the wood for the trees. We need to get to about the right distance to read the verses in context, but ready also to turn an eye to anything especially relevant from broader contexts. I’ll do that: focus on context in Exodus, with relevant broader stuff referred to.
· that slaves – always define terms. In the case of Israelite “slaves,” these are really indentured servants, not chattel slaves. In the case of non-Israelite slaves, these are more like chattel slaves, but not like the industrialised slavery of the Roman Empire or the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The world of Moses’ law is more ancient, more inward-looking, more about what goes on within one’s own clan and one’s own wider family. If for example, an Israelite sends his son or daughter into indentured servitude, they won’t be shipped off and cut off from the protection of their kinsfolk. They are probably not far from their family networks, where concerned relatives can keep an eye out for them.
· can be beaten – that’s what this article is about.
· and mistreated – the Bible never says “mistreat.” Whatever we might think according to our values, those who preserved Moses’ law didn’t think it was a charter for mistreatment. They believed it was fair, so we need to understand what was going on in their reasoning.
So vague statements like “the Bible says slaves can be beaten and mistreated” are misleading on multiple levels, and we need a more scientific discourse than that. That’s what I am aiming to do here. And the first thing is to look at what verses say in context, and in more than one translation, and with an eye on meanings found in the original languages. (Hebrew in this case.) Why assume we have the right to give poorly informed opinions and conclusions?
I said we were getting warmer when we narrow down to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The first pages of it (in Genesis) set an agenda for everything that follows. They have a vision of God’s perfect world: the garden of Eden. It’s so foundational that when we get to the end of the New Testament, they are talking about spiritually getting back to Eden, a garden-like new earth and a new heaven. If these are God’s ideas of perfection, then ask yourself what would God allow in Eden? What would God allow in the New Heavens and the New Earth? Eden is a place where people are not at first fallen from perfection. There would be no assaults there anyway, but could Israelites imagine assault in Eden without punishment? Hardly. They maintained a dream of perfection free from violence, amidst the chaos of the world.
In Genesis, after Eden, people are fallen from perfection, and so when it comes, Moses’ law is a law for the fallen. You can't discover all God's ideals from laws for the fallen. Judge God's ideals by his ideals where clearly pictured, such as Eden. Don't defend what God would not ideally have wanted. When I see that Christians have tried to defend slavery because they have thought it is part of God’s perfect law, I feel like tearing my hair out. Moses’ law is not God’s perfect law. It is a law for a fallen world. There was a higher standard than Moses’ law according to Jesus, and it was the perfect world of Eden. After the fall comes Moses’ law, and for this I turn to slave laws in Exodus. Moses’ law was a guidebook, a legal manual for ancient Israel’s legal experts and priests. It’s more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It’s a lesson in how to think justly for Israel’s legal experts.
I said we are getting into the right area when we zoom in on Exodus. Does Exodus 21:20 really mean that if a master strikes his slave with a rod and they die the master will be punished, but if they don't die the master won't be punished for beating his slave? Actually, no, Exodus 21 isn’t saying that at all.
What it is: an example of how these are illustrations for the jurist - the legal expert - in how to determine proportionate justice for a crime of assault. It doesn’t say beating with rods isn’t assault. It says non-fatal beating with rods won’t incur the death penalty but a different punishment. The judge is meant to think about illustrations such as this to teach him how to decide on real cases of assault and murder. Thus, we need to understand why it says that if the injured slave doesn't die within a day or two the injured slave is not to be “avenged” – i.e. the master is not to be executed.
In the hypothetical case, the judge already knows it was assault (and is allowed to punish the slave master proportionately). The explanatory context is found in Exodus 20 and following. Fundamental and well known are these prior verses: Exodus 20:13 "thou shalt not murder"; and Exodus 21:23-24 "you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth". These are illustrations of proportionate justice for training judges. That doesn't literally mean that an eye-gouging villain’s own eye always has to be gouged out too. It means the judge should come up with a punishment proportionate to an offence. It’s a lesson, not a fixed statute. It does give a jurist permission to apply it literally to a guilty eye-gouger, but the jurist is allowed to think for himself and handle it proportionately in other ways too. That’s the point.
The proportionate penalty for murder is execution: "a life for a life." The idea is to affirm the value of a life. Nothing less than a life is equivalent in value to a life. So the death penalty applies for murder. If a master murders a slave, the punishment is death for the master (Exodus 21:20).
The master will be executed. The slave's life is a life like anyone else's. We may or not agree with the death penalty, but we should agree with Exodus that the slave's life is a life worth no less than any other.
Remember, these chapters are training for judges in learning to reason about justice, not an exact set of laws to be followed rigidly without thinking.
Back to justice for beaten slaves. As we will see, a correct reading of Exodus 21:21-27 is that the slave-beating master either forfeits his life or else forfeits certain “property”, depending on whether the slave survives or not. It’s punishment either way.
Punishment for assault generally is guided by the principle "an eye for an eye." If a master assaults a slave and the slave loses an eye, the law suggests to the judge to think like this: the master isn't to lose his eye, he is to lose his property, that is, lose ownership of his slave. The slave master is punished for beating his slave in that way (Exodus 21:26-27).
Thus verse 26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye."
In that case, instead of “a master’s eye for a slave’s eye”, it’s “a slave’s freedom for his eye.” This is seen as proportionate and more remedial in this illustration.
Thus, the slave master actually is still supposed to be punished if his beaten slave recovers. There is a switch from verse 21 to verse 26, but it is concealed by bad translations.
· A common translation of verse 21: "they [slave owners] are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property." (Note that “not punished” is the bad translation and I’ll come back to that.)
· Verse 26: “An owner [slave-owner] who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.”
These two verses would contradict each other if “not punished” were the right translation. "Not punished" is obviously a bad translation. This is clear because there is punishment for the master and it is set out in v. 26 - the master loses his property, the slave goes free.
So what would be a better translation of v. 20-21? "Avenged" is a better translation. If a slave dies, the dead slave is avenged, a life for a life. The murdering slave master will be executed. If the slave recovers, he is alive obviously, so a life is not to be avenged. Rather the punishment is that property is forfeited. The slave master loses his property. For his crime of assault he is punished, but a life is not “avenged.” This is why the translation “not avenged” makes sense and the translation “not punished” simply does not.
The point is this. The judge is taught to punish the slave-beating master where it hurts him - in his pocket – and in a way that gives the slave a just remedy. The slave was property. Now the slave is free. Loss of human property is the master's punishment for assaulting his slave.
This is how the judge is being taught to think. It doesn't need a literal eye to be lost or a literal tooth to fall out. These are illustrations. It just needs proportionate justice for an offence. Assault your slave causing bodily harm and your slave ceases to be your property. A good remedy for the injured slave.
Following this illustration, a jurist could also consider that such would be a proportionate remedy for a beaten slave who had witnesses but no injuries to show for it.
Therefore, it is important to understand how the law of Moses was intended to function in its ancient context. Another illustration to help get our minds around this comes in the mistaken mis-reading of Moses’ law that assumes a raped woman must marry her rapist. The ancient background which this mis-reading completely overlooks is that when a woman married a man, this was seen as two whole families being married together. The woman’s father was not obliged to have his family married to a rapist’s family. He could say “no,” and the raped woman could ask her father to say “no.” I mention this example to emphasise that this was a world different to ours and we may have difficulty understanding it. I highly recommend this article – on that particular question - which helps us to understand that ancient world better: https://hebraicthought.org/deuteronomic-law-women-marry-rapists/