“If a person beats his male or female slave with a stick so severely that he dies, he is to be punished; except that if the slave lives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his property.-Exodus 21:20
Exodus 21:20 deals with the matter of a master beating his slave to death.
I get the feeling that atheists and raging critics of the Bible will point to verses like this as surefire evidence that the Bible is nothing but a primitive and backward book, a piece of ancient literature whose only relevance to us today is to serve as a piece of historical curiosity.
The charge the critics bring forth is how can it be fair and Godly justice that a master can beat his slave to death and get away with just being “punished”?
‘This is tantamount to murder!’ they will say.
And then they will conclude in the thickest, most sarcastic tone with “And you call this God’s Word?”
Well, they are right.
A master beating his slave to death is tantamount to murder.
And the Bible makes it clear that the appropriate punishment for murder is to administer the death penalty.
So what gives here?
Do we have a Bible contradiction?
Well, the problem lies with how this verse is rendered in most Bible translations.
I checked the Complete Jewish Bible, the NIV, and the King James Version for this verse and they all say that if a master beats his slave to death, he should be “punished”.
This is I believe at best misleading and at worst a translation error.
Whenever I want to read a Bible translation whose English from the Hebrew is rendered in the precisest of manners, I can recommend going no further than Robert Alter’s “The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary”.
Here is Exodus 21:20 as this great Bible scholar has translated it.
“And should a man strike his male slave or his slavegirl with a rod and they die under his hand, they shall surely be avenged. But if a day or two they should survive, they are not to be avenged for they are his money.”-Exodus 21:20
So compare the word “punished” with the word “avenged”.
Quite a huge nuance difference I would say.
The truth is contrary to what many may think, these verses are actually showing how much God values life.
What these verses really say is that if a master beats his slave to death, as just retribution, he can and should be put under the death penalty.
That would be the real and proper meaning of the word “avenged” in this context.
Also notice the importance of how one’s INTENTION plays into the consequences.
If the slave lasted a couple of days and then died, this was considered to be evidence that the master had NOT intended the death but had merely overdone the beating.
The slave’s life was not to be avenged in this case because from the Master’s perspective losing the slave was sufficient punishment in and of itself.
In other words, the slave owner would simply be throwing his own money down the drain by killing a slave for which he had probably paid good money.
But, and this is a BIG BUT, if the slave died on the spot, this would be surefire proof that the master had meant to kill him and thus we’re talking about voluntary manslaughter or murder here.
No doubt, the sad implication of this stipulation is that the vigorous beating of slaves must have been an acceptable practice.
In the Bible’s defense, I repeat what I said at the outset of our study of this chapter.
What we have here is God for the first time confronting a fallen mankind infected with the cancer of sin and slowly but surely taking steady and effective measures to eradicate this cancer.
And I find it quite interesting and inspiring that the Lord’s justice system began with the rights of slaves-those people who were at the very bottom of society.
Notice verses 26-27.
“If a person hits his male or female slave’s eye and destroys it,
he must let him go free in compensation for his eye.
If he knocks out his male or female slave’s tooth,
he must let him go free in compensation for his tooth.”
Here God is saying that if a slave is treated harshly, even if his tooth gets knocked out during a beating, immediate freedom is to be granted to that slave, whether male or female.
This also was revolutionary.
Far from being a primitive, backward document, here we have the Lord providing rules that served as protective hedges guarding the slave from abuse.