A Rod For The Backs of Slaves

You could use the rod on a slave? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Now we’re getting into some stuff that people really consider problematic in the Old Testament Law. We’re looking at Exodus 21:18-21. Let’s see what it says.

“If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, 19 the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.

20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”

The first scenario we might not have much problem with. If you support the death penalty, it makes sense. Two men fight and one hits the other so hard that it kills him? Then that first one dies since he took another person’s life. This is also consistent with Genesis 9 where an attack on man is an attack on the image of God and the life of the attacker is to be given back to God.

What if he doesn’t die? Well the man is unable to provide for his family then. Many of us today have missed work and know how hard it can be when that happens. Imagine how much harder it is in a society where your daily bread did depend on working. You didn’t have refrigerators to store the food in. Now imagine losing that income. Who will provide?

Furthermore, what if you were the one who had to pay up for losing your temper? Where will your income come from? That which you’ve worked to earn has to go to someone else to pay for your lack of self-control. You can be sure the Mrs. would not forget about that and neither would you. It would be a costly reminder of sin.

All well and good. Now we come to this.


Let’s start with something as we’ve said. The slavery was not exploitation. No doubt, sometimes it was used that way, but that was not the view of Israel here. Slavery was done so people could provide for their family. Some readers might think the idea of selling your labor to someone else to provide for your family sounds ridiculous.

This is said right before you go to work for your boss who takes you on so you can do a service for him, to which he’ll pay you so you can provide for your family.

Are the two identical? No. You don’t usually make contracts with your boss, he usually doesn’t give you a place to live, and there are not likely to be situations where you will be beaten.

However, there are still enough similarities that we can grasp what is going on and understand some of how the system worked. The idea was the poor would go to the rich for a job so they could provide and when hired, they were expected to do the job.

In the time of Israel, physical discipline was a common form of punishment. We still use it today. Some do debate it and there is no doubt that it can turn into abuse, but some readers of this blog will likely be people who were recipients of physical discipline when they were growing up and sometimes, they’ll admit they deserved it and are the better for it.

But notice that if the slave dies as a direct result of beating, the master must be punished. Considering this came right after punishment for the taking of another life above having the death penalty as the punishment, there’s no reason to think that there is suddenly some other punishment. Note then that this means murder was treated exactly the same whether the person was a slave or not.

Okay. So what explains the other difference? What if the slave gets up after a day or two? Why is the owner not punished?

Note above the punishment was paid money for the loss of services. In this case, the master himself is losing the service of the slave and is suffering as a result. He will not be punished, but he will get no monetary relief for his actions. When he sees how badly his income suffers in comparison to his competitors, that should be enough.

What happens if the slave dies a few days later which would be an indirect result? This is where we get the principle of the benefit of the doubt. The idea is to assume the slaveowner meant to discipline but unfortunately, something went wrong. It was not his intention to kill. In other words, it’s accidental death much the same for any other event of accidental death.

In other words, the penalty would be exactly the same regardless of who was killed.

Once again, none of this is meant to be an ideal utopian society. What it is meant to be is a society in reformation. It is God working with the culture as it is planting little seeds of reform. When it comes to the eventual abolition of slavery, one will see that this is also what happened there.

At this point, the skeptic must simply show that ancient slavery in Israel was like modern slavery in America. That will be difficult, but he is welcome to try.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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