Exodus 21:20–21 says, “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” Why did the Mosaic Law allow for slave owners to beat their slaves? The obvious answer is that, in the social structure of ancient Israel, physical punishment was considered the appropriate response for acts of disobedience and rebellion. The text does not specifically say that the corporal punishment has to be for some form of disobedience; however, based on the larger Old Testament context, it is safe to assume that slave masters were not allowed carte blanche authority to do whatever they wanted to their slaves. In Exodus 21, slave owners are limited in what they can do: if the master goes too far and the slave dies, the master will be punished. If the Old Testament Law is followed consistently, then the punishment for the slave owner might even include the death penalty for murder. Of course, if a master beats his slave and the slave is unable to work for some time, the master has punished himself by losing the work he might have received from the slave. The implication here is that it is in the master’s best interest not to be too severe.
Exodus 21:20–21 is certainly troubling to people with modern sensitivities. Modern people in the free world have come to view autonomous personal freedom as the highest form of good and anything that curtails personal freedom as the ultimate evil. People may be tempted to read a passage like Exodus 21:20–21 and charge God with moral evil. Such charges need to be challenged, for slavery is not the only area where modern sensitivities and biblical guidelines clash—abortion and homosexuality are two other flashpoints. The danger on this issue is that most Christians would agree that slavery is morally reprehensible.
There are two distinct approaches in formulating an answer to why the Bible allows for slavery, and the outcome will be determined by what a person accepts as the authority. The first approach goes something like this:
Slavery is morally reprehensible in all situations.
The Bible allows slavery.
Therefore the Bible is an unreliable moral guide.
In this case, current moral sensitivities are the authority, and the Bible is measured against those sensibilities.
The second goes something like this:
The Bible is a reliable moral guide.
The Bible allows slavery.
Therefore slavery cannot be morally reprehensible in all situations.
In this case, the Bible is the final authority, and modern thinking about right and wrong has to be adjusted to accommodate what we find in the Bible.
Slavery has been a fact of human existence for almost as long as the human race has been in existence. Physical punishment to enforce compliance has been part of slavery for just as long. Corporal punishment has also been used in situations other than slavery. For example, physical chastisements were commonly employed as punishment for crimes committed and for the enforcing of discipline in the military. We are not so far removed from the time when brutal physical punishment was administered and accepted by almost everyone as legitimate. In the British Navy, flogging for disobedience or insubordination was common until the mid-19th century, and caning was used until the mid-20th century. In some places, such as Singapore, caning is still an official form of punishment for certain crimes.
The Bible does not forbid slavery, nor does it demand that every slave owner who wants to please God must immediately emancipate his slaves. Instead, the Bible at every turn calls for a treatment of slaves that would have been more humane than any found in the culture at large. The very idea that a master could be punished in any way for killing a slave would have been scandalous at the time Moses gave the Law. The culture at large made no attempt to grant slaves any rights. Slaves in Egypt or Moab, for example, were afforded no such protection.
Earlier in the same chapter, kidnapping for the purpose of slavery is condemned and the death penalty enjoined: “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession” (Exodus 21:16). (Ironically, the death penalty is another area where modern people assume their moral sensitivity is superior to God’s!) Furthermore, we must not make the mistake of equating slavery in ancient Israel with antebellum slavery in the United States. If the biblical dictates regarding slavery, including the regulations found in Exodus 21:16, 20–21, had been enforced in Western nations in the 1800s, then slavery in the United States would have been very different.
The regulations regarding slaves in Exodus 21, far from being inhumane, would have been far more humane and protective of the slave in Israel than in any of the surrounding nations.