Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Personal Injuries (Exodus 21:20-21)

The following quote is taken from evilbible.com:

"What does the Bible say about beating slaves?  It says you can beat both male and female slaves with a rod so hard that as long as they don't die right away you are cleared of any wrong doing."

"When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property."  (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

A great deal of Exodus chapter 21 concerns the treatment of slaves.  You can read the entire chapter here:

            Like most other passages in this section, these verses must be taken in a cultural and historical context.  In the Ancient Near East and many other ancient cultures for thousands of years, slavery was standard practice.  So too was corporal punishment.  Even up until a few generations ago, corporal punishment was a major method of discipline, especially for parents disciplining their children.  The Bible clearly states that in some instances, physical punishment is the only proper mode of discipline, particularly with a child who has repeatedly and deliberately disobeyed (2 Samuel 7:14, Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14).  However, this does not give the parent or master free reign to abuse their child or slave.  There are clear restrictions in place.  "Parents, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4, NIV).
            Exodus 21:20-21 concerns a situation in which a slave dies as a direct result of a beating received.  The NAB translation of verse 21 given above makes it seem as if the slave died a day or two after being beaten.  However, the actual translation makes it clear that in the instance of the second half of the passage in question, the slave survived the beating and recovered after a day or two:

"...but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property." (Exodus 21:21, NIV translation)

"But if the slave recovers within a day or two, then the owner shall not be punished, since the slave is his property." (Exodus 21:21, NLT translation)

            Killing a slave was considered as serious a crime as killing a free person, and it was forbidden.  Slaves are made in the image of God, just as free people are: "Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind" (Genesis 9:6, NIV).  If a slave died as a direct result of a beating, whether instantly or days later, the slave owner had to be punished for murder.
            This brings us to the main question: Why was the slave owner not punished for beating the slave, and why was the slave referred to as property?  Again, we must remember that the slave owner was not punished for beating the slave because physical punishment was a standard mode of discipline in the Ancient Near East, and universally practiced.  However, if the slave owner caused the slave permanent injury, by law the slave had to be set free as compensation (Exodus 21:26-27).
            In terms of the slave being referred to as "property", the Hebrew root word used here is keceph, which literally translates as "money".  In the verse just previous to this one, if a free person injured another free person, the guilty party had to pay the injured person for any loss of time.  In this instance, since the loss of time involved in the slave's injury and recovery was costing the slave's owner money due to loss of productivity, there was no exchange of money involved.  In this passage, then, the slave is not actually considered "property" by God.  The slave's services are what made the slave owner money, and a loss of a slave's services for a time meant a loss of money for the slave owner.
            Slavery was - and is - not an ideal condition, nor is it commended by God.  This is why most of the passages in the Bible referring to slavery are laws regarding their treatment.  Slaves were human beings created in the image of God just as free people were, and their mistreatment was forbidden. 

See also:

"Exodus 21: Does God approve of slavery?"