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Isn’t there Slave Brutality in the Old Testament?

I got an email from a student asking about something his humanities professor said. Apparently, this professor told his class that the Bible says you can beat your slave within an inch of his life and remain innocent as long as he doesn’t die within 48 hours. The student was rather troubled by this statement, and rightfully so.

I suspect the professor was referencing Exodus 21:20-21: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a club and the slave dies as a result, the owner must be punished. But if the slave recovers within a day or two, then the owner shall not be punished, since the slave is his property.”

As I address this important issue, I’m going to start by helping us understand slavery a little more in Old Testament times. This may sound like I am endorsing certain “tame” forms of slavery. I am not. I just want to make sure we aren’t overstepping ourselves when we talk about slavery in Biblical contexts. Just hang with me until the end, and we will get at the heart of the issue.

To be clear, the text does not say “you can beat your slave to within an inch of his life.” It says “If a man beats his male or female slave…” So to say that the text endorses slave brutality is a very selective way to look at it. We must be careful not to nuance this passage in a way that was never intended.

What’s particularly odd about Exodus 21:20-21 is that many Old testament commands about slaves are quite benevolent for their time. Take Deuteronomy 15:12–18 for example:

“If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same. It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.”

Verses like these can be useful to help us understand the culture of slavery back then. It’s remarkably different from how many of us have come to understand it in the West. People understood the concept quite differently. It wasn’t fueled by racism or cruelty. In fact, the word for “slave” in Hebrew is the same word for “servant.” It’s even translated as “royal official” in 1 Kings 1:9 NIV and ESV.

But even with a more optimistic outlook on slavery, let’s not kid ourselves: Owning somebody is wrong. And even with passages like the one above, we cannot use it as a red herring for Exodus 21:20-21. So let us tackle this challenging verse head-on.

Here’s the thing: the Law of Moses is not always a description of morality or even what God views as morally right.

So even if Exodus 21:20-21 gives laws about slave brutality, it does not mean that God endorses slave brutality. This is so important to understand. Jesus explains it this way: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8.) This is why it seems as though Jesus is “correcting” Old Testament statements in Matthew 5. The Law was designed in order to be something attainable for the Israelites who were so accustomed to the evil culture they were raised in (Dt. 30:11). But the fact of the matter is that no one can reach God’s perfect standards, and we need to accept Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.