I need help with this verse: "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." (Exo 21:20-21; NIV). Ben, I don't understand how this is okay or moral at all. Slavery? Human Property? Abuse? These are the kind of verses that make me question God. Please respond.
Thank you for your question! Let me begin by saying that I understand the kind of trouble verses like this can be to the faith of a sincere believer in today's world. Due to the multiple evils of slavery in our country’s past, along with the many racial horrors which have betided America since, it’s not hard to see why these verses (along with others) have caused many people (and in particular, millennials) to “ditch” their faith. However, as I contemplate the broader issues, I think such responses truly represent a failure to understand the biblical texts. Let me explain in the following four points.
Firstly, it is important to note that no single verse of scripture can be used to condone the practice of slavery, anymore than the practice of polygamy (i.e. the marrying of multiple wives) could be viewed as scripturally condonable. Rather, these verses simply represent some of the first attempts in history to actually mitigate against the horrors of human slavery.
Secondly, the passage you have noted also holds that a slave owner could be punished (and perhaps, even put to death) for killing a slave—a law which would have been seen as truly novel in comparison to other great works of ancient near eastern jurisprudence. Furthermore, the same legal code (i.e. the Mosaic law) teaches that if the slave were to survive such abuses, they could be granted immediate release from their owner, thereby dissolving any previous arrangement guarding the slave owner's interests (cf. Ex 21:26-27).
Moving along then, thirdly, other conventions of the same code teach that if a man were to marry a slave who was a foreigner, he had to treat her with all the respect, love and dignity he would have for a wife (cf. Ex 21:8-11).
Finally, those who would indenture a fellow Israelite as a slave had to release their servant after six years with an expensive gift (Dt. 15:13-14)—a convention hardly indicative of the kind of harsh treatment normally associated with the practices of ancient slave owners.
But all of this of course immediately raises the question: If God did not see fit to countenance slavery with a sort of calm sense of “self-possession” and equanimity, why didn’t he simply command the abolition of the practice to begin with?
A good way to answer this question is to recognize how the strategies of modern pro-life advocates appear to mirror the intent of the Mosaic law. For rather than seeking to singly abolish all abortion in one swoop, modern life exponents recognize value in attacking and defeating things like partial-birth abortion. (Henry Hyde, for example, comes to mind.) I therefore am prone to think that we are seeing a similar approach in the holy scriptures to such evils; one which will eventually call for an all-out dissolving of the institution of slavery. Thus, by the time the NT church is birthed, Paul writes to Philemon calling him to treat Onesimus as a "brother rather than a slave" (vs. 16).
Therefore, in conclusion, I do not agree that such passages as the one you have raised can be reasonably used to impugn the moral character of God. Instead, I believe that they represent the beginning of the end of the religious sanction of such evil practices. Hope that helps! And thanks for the question! Godspeed sister! And feel free to visit back anytime!
Ben Fischer <><