When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. … When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.

Exodus 21:20-27

So the Bible condones slave-beating?

If that’s your takeaway after reading this passage you need to consider the possibility that you have a hostile bias that’s causing you to completely miss the author’s intention. The clear purpose of this text is to protect slaves from their masters. What’s shocking about this text is not that it assumes the Israelite society will have slaves or that the masters will be disciplining their slaves. What’s shocking is that contrary to the way slavery has been practiced in all times and places, in Israel there will be limits on what a master is permitted to do. What’s shocking is that under the Mosaic law slaves have rights. Whatever other questions we ask, one of them should be, “Why is this legal code from 1200-1500 BC more enlightened than laws that existed in the US less than 200 years ago?”

According to the Spirit

In order to understand this passage as it was intended, we need to remember the principle, discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, that the Law was meant to be followed according to its spirit from the heart, and not from the flesh according to its letter. When you remember that, a couple considerations naturally emerge.

Limits are not goals

I think those of us with a Western mentality are used to a legal code that draws a very precise line between what is legal and what is illegal. Everything on the right side of that line is equally legal, and there are no gray areas (ideally). From that perspective, the specific limits set by this passage seem inappropriately permissive. So it’s ok to beat the slave black and blue as long as he doesn’t lose his eye, his tooth or his life? That’s not how this law works, though. It doesn’t function by drawing the exact border between good and evil. (That’s not really possible anyway). The Mosaic Law functions by laying down principles and examples. This particular law lays down the principle that the use of excessive force in disciplining a slave is a sin against the slave and a sin against God. It communicates this principle by giving a few clear examples of excessive force and what the just penalty for those would be. It does not attempt to provide a comprehensive description of every possible abuse, but teaches the God-fearing master that he must respect the natural human dignity of his slave.

Why doesn’t it just ban slavery?

In certain places, the Law regulates practices that do not accord with God’s ideal for humankind. Jesus made that clear when he explained why the Law permits divorce, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (Mark 10:5). The Mosaic Law is not a utopian law with the hopeless goal of legislating the perfect human society. Rather the Law was given to a sinful people, to restrain their natural evil, and to show them how far short they fall of God’s holiness. Of course slavery is not God’s ideal. Neither are sacrifices for sin nor divorce nor war nor leprosy nor many other things addressed by the Law. However, God’s primary concern is not whether a man is slave or free, poor or rich, noble or common. Whatever the structure of society, the universal message of scripture is that the people of this society should love God with their whole heart, soul and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). From God’s perspective a master-slave relationship governed by love is better than employer-employee relationship that is toxic and abusive. As usual, we humans look on the exterior while God is looking at the heart.

Categories: Bible