By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.
“When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod, and the slave dies under his abuse, the owner must be punished. However, if the slave can stand up after a day or two, the owner should not be punished because he is his owner’s property.” -Exodus 21:20-21
You have stuck with this trial thus far. Now we get to the most difficult passages of the Torah concerning the affairs and ethical treatment of slaves as dictated by God to the nation of Ancient Israel.
Surely, the nature of slavery still is at its heart the reality that another person owes their lives and livelihood to another person– no matter how temporary the deal may be. We have so far seen that Biblical slavery is TEMPORARY (limited to six years) and that it is VOLUNTARY (not limited from the Israelites themselves and totally guaranteeing what would amount to “citizenship” for any foreigner bought by an Israelite). We also saw that the slavery in the Torah accommodated the social differences of experience between males and females in ancient society in GENDER EGALITARIANISM. We have even learned that often the distinction between freed and slave was so hard to see (as it was in many ancient societies) that, particularly in Israel, slaves could grow wealthy enough to own their own slaves and to become inheritors of their master’s possessions and even his family in what today would be called ECONOMIC MOBILITY (which was God’s intended purpose from the very start).
Often times we skip over the “boring” parts of the Bible…like the genealogies. But we really shouldn’t skip over those very intricate and lovely morsels of fact as recorded by the Israelites. For instance, did you know that Sheerah (not She-ra the 1980’s cartoon feminist icon…but quite possibly her inspiration) was a woman of such wealth and drive that she founded 3 Israelite cities, naming one of them after herself? You also will find that the Hebrew word for “slave,” which is obed/ebed, was often used as a proper name, meaning that in Israelite society being a slave had no inherently negative connotations (even David’s great-grandfather was named Obed, and he was the son of a very rich man named Boaz…how that came about is its own interesting story detailing the economic laws in Ancient Israel). But also, a Judahite named Sheshan had only daughters and an Egyptian slave named Jarha as descendants. But Sheshan loved Jarha so much that he gave one of his daughters to Jarha and apparently also gave to Jarha his family’s birthright so that Jarha became the head of Sheshan’s family when he passed.
An Egyptian slave made a descendent of a Judahite man…you can already see how God was overturning slavery and making Ancient Israel more righteous than even Ancient Egypt, the best of the best that mankind had to offer.
Yes, these things are in the Bible and they are nestled within its “boring” parts. You may want to go mine there for its riches.
But now we get to a portion of the Torah that seems to passively advocate the beating of a slave. Now, we must ask, Why would anyone beat their slave? And then, to get to the meat of the issue we must ask, Are there any limitations to this treatment? If we are comparing the Torah’s slavery to the chattel slaveries so disdained by our society, then these questions qualifies our judgment.
Could slaves be murdered? That question is answered in Exodus 21:20, wherein the master who murders his slave is to be punished. The Torah specifically only says punished, which means that we must look forward to a comparable law wherein a person murders another person. Thankfully we do not have to look very far: Exodus 21:13-15 clearly delineate the punishment for murder, even for a slave: execution. The slave is still a full human being who God created in His own image and likeness, Genesis 1:26 (which is the first book beginning the Torah).
But big whoop. Even some Southern states in the American South had laws that punished the murder of slaves (see Section 37 in the hyperlinked source). So then, clearly, as seen from the verse introducing this article, if a slave was beaten within an inch of her or his life, then the master was scot-free? Well…
First off, the Torah is full of warnings that Israelites were never to treat their slaves harshly (see here where God even goes so far as to call His system “not slavery”). Of course, what God mandated for the Israelites was slavery as far as the Torah goes, see here for that; reading just a portion of the Torah and running with it is an error that we have carefully avoided.
The Torah was clear cut and dry so that even should an Israelite choose to sell himself to a foreign nation, where slave laws were strikingly harsher, the entire Israelite community bore the responsibility of making sure that their countryman was treated according to the humanitarian standards of the Torah and not the foreign nation’s standards.
Okay. So if the master murdered his slave, then the master would be executed (as seen above). Even if an owned ox gored a slave, that animal would be put to death just like if it had gored anyone else. If the ox was already warned to be in the habit of goring people, and it gored a slave, the above law applied and the doomed man would have to pay a small compensation to the master of the slave killed. The essence of the message of the Torah is clear: humanitarian economic law codes.
So then, let us not pick and choose from the Torah. We see above Exodus 21:20-21 from the same section of Torah from the above paragraph. But what about Exodus 21:18-19 that comes immediately before this passage?
18 “When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or his fist, and the injured man does not die but is confined to bed, 19 if he can later get up and walk around outside leaning on his staff, then the one who struck him will be exempt from punishment. Nevertheless, he must pay for his lost work time and provide for his complete recovery.
Not very much unlike the passage immediately following it, right? Exactly. Taking Exodus 21:20-21 out of context makes the law seem worse than what it really is saying. This law was dealing with disputes, which in the social order of stewardship would gravitate toward favoring the masters, just like it would gravitate toward the parent over their children. In fact, see the verses just before this passage at Exodus 21:12-17. The trend had already been set; it is not a stretch.
But why did the master in this case with the slave not have to be punished if the slave was okay after their quarrel, and he didn’t have to provide pay and insurance for a complete recovery?
The master already owned and provided for the slave who worked for him! By default the slave would be living under his master’s roof (or one that he provided for him and his family) and be benefiting from the master’s wealth and commerce. That was the whole purpose of the law! The Torah assumes correctly that if a person was following it, then he or she would follow all of it. So then, the slave will already be provided for towards a speedy recovery.
But to say that if the slave gets up after a day or two is inhumane must needs include that same “inhumane” accusation for the freeman…because they both had the same recovery time for the same event.
But is there anything in the Torah discouraging such violent interactions between master and slave?
Oh yes there is. Just stay in Exodus 21.
Verses 26 and 27 set the general standard that any injury that results in maiming and permanent injury to the person owned by the master immediately absolves the slave of his or her debt and grants them their freedom. Couple this with the generous laws of the release of slaves in Deuteronomy 15, and you will quickly see that it was surely in the master’s best interest to be very careful while treating her slaves justly, or else she would risk totally missing out on her investment and would risk paying generously for the slave’s release…which in turn could risk her own poverty should she not have those resources…and, whoop dee doo, induce her own willingness to sell herself to another in order to make ends meet. The master could easily become enslaved, and she would certainly walk away with a great loss of money and laborers. In ancient life, that would be vitally dangerous to anyone not already ridiculously rich (which included just about everyone…affluence is never popular).
Of course, the Israelites did not always honor the Torah, and they soon found corrupt ways to skim its egalitarian notions toward the poor and the slave as detailed in several of the books of the prophets, most notably the prophetic book of Amos the sheep breeder.
And God was not sparing in His judgment of them at all. I encourage you to read the judgments in this book for they very scarily mirror the economic plight of the American South (and North) during and after the American Civil War.
I trust that during this time you clicked on the appropriate hyperlinks so that you were able to compare the Torah slave laws thus far to the slave code of antebellum South Carolina. Yeah, there REALLY IS no comparison there.
So no, slaves in God’s eyes through the Torah are very much full human beings with dignity and honor.