4. Torah and Slavery: What Happened When Masters Punished Their Slaves?

Scriptures: Exod. 21:20-21, 26-27; Lev. 25:43, 46. There were two cultural (and unpleasant) facts in the ancient Near East, long before the Torah existed: (1) Masters hit their slaves to punish them, and (2) slaves had secondary status. How does the Torah intervene and regulate those two pre-existing facts? (I also include cases of a servant girl dying allegedly from a beating and a servant boy who was flogged for theft, in colonial Philadelphia.)

If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.

Let’s begin.


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. […]

26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. (Exod. 21:20-21, 26-27, NIV)


I like to number my points for clarity and conciseness.

(1) As to be expected, those four verses assume that (A) masters hit their slaves to punish them (B) and slaves had secondary status. This is standard belief and practice in the ancient Near East. Now how does the Torah regulate this wrong? Does it give more authority to the owner or restrictions?

Here I mostly follow Walter C. Kaiser in his Exodus: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, (Zondervan, 1990), pp. 433-34.

(2) However, the master was wrong to hit his slaves abusively, but some level of punishment for a crime, like theft, was possible. Yet the punishment must not be extreme, as seen in the verse: “You must not rule over them [slaves] ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:43, 46). Yes, those verses are talking about Israelites, but the rule can apply to all slaves (see Plaut, under the sixth point).

Here is how all people were to live, rejoicing together during a sacrifice:

12 And there rejoice before the Lord your God—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites from your towns who have no allotment or inheritance of their own. (Deut. 12:12, NIV; see v. 18; and 16:11, 14)

The mutual celebration was the ideal, but unfortunately people, whether slave or free, did not live up to it. So punishment could be inflicted, when a crime was committed.

(3) The instrument was a rod–not a lethal weapon. This is not a utopian cultural scenario, but at least there were limits.

(4) If things went too far, then after the servant recovered, the master was given the benefit of the doubt because he did not have homicidal intent. Not a perfect cultural scenario, but an investigation was initiated and concluded that the master was not to be tried for attempted murder. Douglas K. Stuart on the punishment imposed on the owner: “Note that there is no difference between “slave and free” in this case, in contrast to the explicit class differentiation made by all other extant OT-era law codes” (Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, the New American Commentary, Holman, 2006, comment on vv. 20-21, note 132).

In other words, restrictions on the master’s authority has been imposed. The master has no absolute control over his slaves. This was an improvement on the slave laws of the ancient Neat East. Progress in the Torah.

(5) In v. 21, the NIV translates the Hebrew words ki hasbô hû as “since the slave is their property,” but it literally reads “because he is his money.” That is, “the point is not that men are mere chattel (which the NIV rendering tends to suggest), but that the owner has an investment in his slave that he stands to lose either by death (not to mention capital punishment as well) or by emancipation (vv. 27-28)” (Kaiser, p. 435).

The NET translators write: “He suffers the loss.” They write this comment:

This last clause is a free paraphrase of the Hebrew, “for he is his money” (so KJV, ASV); NASB “his property.” It seems that if the slave survives a couple of days, it is probable that the master was punishing him and not intending to kill him. If he then dies, there is no penalty other than that the owner loses the slave who is his property—he suffers the loss.

(6) As for vv. 26-27, if the slave suffered permanent damage, then he was to go free immediately. “Thus the slave was not to be treated with caprice as if he were mere chattel. The economic sanctions against the owner were designed so that the owner would be given plenty of reason to resist any abusive tactics for the sake of financial investment even if he totally disregarded the slaves dignity and worth as a human being” (Kaiser, p. 434).

In other words, the Torah imposes restrictions on the owner, such as economic sanctions. The owner has an economic motive to resist abusing his slaves.

Jewish commentator W. Gunther Plaut quotes the great sage Maimonides (1138-1204) on slave laws:

It is allowed to work the slave hard, but, while this is the law, ethics and prudence suggest that a master should be just and merciful, not to impose too heavy a burden on his slave and not press him too hard, and he should give him of all (his own) food and drink [….] Slaves may not be maltreated or offended: the law destined them for service, not for humiliation. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, p. 574).

Plaut says that Maimonides’s opinion summarizes the attitude of the Sages.

Once again, the Torah restricts the power and authority of the owner and raised the dignity and humanity of the slaves. Ethics over law; justice and mercy motivated by prudence is the bottom line.

On vv. 26-27, Stuart clarifies the issues:

The “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth” penalty in this case is understood, typically, nonliteralistically. Rather than any actual physical harm being done to the abusive employer to punish him for his crime, the employer simply lost the labor of his servant for the rest of the six-year tenure. Capable Israelite judges would have known how to extrapolate from the terms of this law to all the relevant situations to which it speaks. For example, if an employer permanently damaged the eye of a servant one day before the servant was to leave his service anyway, a judge might well declare that some other servant with a longer time remaining on his service contract should also go free, or that the servant’s wife and/or children could go free with him, notwithstanding the usual terms for release of families already articulated in 21:3–4. Conversely, if an employer caused a permanent injury to a servant that was not debilitating (e.g., broke the servant’s toe so that it healed crooked), a judge might require only that the servant would go free a week earlier than the date specified in his contract. This law is typically paradigmatic rather than exhaustive in its description of crime and punishment. (comment on vv. 26-27)

What Stuart says here is that first, we are not to interpret the “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth” literally. A judge worked out equality of compensation. Here the slave was to be set free immediately, when a bodily member was injured. Second, a judge is assumed in these cases. There was to be no community squabbles and mob justice. Third, principles of justice were worked out by judges.

Compared to the injustice that dominated in the ancient Near East, with or without their own law codes, the Torah raised the dignity of the slaves and diminished the authority of the owner.

What does the NT say?

Paul orders masters not threaten slaves. He is commanding the slaves in these verses:

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

Now Paul switches to telling the masters how to treat their slaves:

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:7-9)

The last clause says that God rises above the two classes, and he will judge the master the same way as the slave, when final judgment comes or when discipline comes in this life. God is watching both slave and master, so the slave must serve respectfully, and the master must treat the slave with respect. Masters must not threaten their slaves. If they are not allowed to threaten them, then they are not allowed to beat them.

First Comparative Case: Murder of a Servant Girl in Colonial Philadelphia?

Mary King was a white indentured servant, so the case is not exactly parallel to the ancient Near Eastern slave laws, but let’s see what we can learn from this case.

In 1685, in Chester County, outside Philadelphia, Henry Reynolds was accused of murder. Sheriff Thomas Usher arrested him on the charge of one man, Eustace (Justa) Anderson. Reynolds supposedly had murdered his servant maid named Mary King by hitting her with a broomstick.

Henry Reynolds v. Justa (Eustace) Anderson, in an action (charge or trial) of scandal and defamation, on the seventh day of the second month, 1685 (April 7, 1685). (Remember, the Quakers did not go by the pagan names of the months, so they numbered them. And the first month of the year was March for Great Britain and the colonies, Quaker or not.)

This trial takes place in the Chester County Court.

Here is a summary of the testimony in the trial:

James Saunderlaine testifies that Justa Anderson was in his company at Chester and he said he saw Henry Reynolds beat his servant and the next night she died.

Thomas Persons testifies that he was at Henry Reynolds’ and saw him lift his tongs and threaten his maid with them for not eating the victuals provided for her.

William Hawkes testifies that he was at Reynolds’ house and heard Justa Anderson say Reynolds beat and struck his maid and then carried her into another room.

Wm Cornell testifies that Henry Reynolds beat his maid with a broom staff and afterwards kicked her as she was by the fire “and further saith not.”

Wooley Rosen [Rawson] testifies that as he was coming to Henry Reynold’s house, Reynold’s maid asked him for some milk, and Reynolds struck her one blow with the broom staff and asked her if there was not enough victuals in the house.

Anneka Saunderlaine testifies that she did hear Justa Anderson ask Wooley Rosen whether he did not see Reynolds strike his maid and he said he did, and “further saith not.”

Prudence Clayton [married to William Clayton and Henry’s mother-in-law] testifies that after Henry Reynolds’s maid was dead, she was sent for, to lay her out, but did not see any manner of hurts upon her body “and further saith not.”

William Hawkes, coming home from work in the evening, saw Reynolds’s maid by his fireside and afterward had her to bed and sat by her all night “and further saith not.”

Robert Moulder testifies that the night the maid died, he saw her by the fireplace and some time afterwards she went to bed, after which a relation came to him and told him the maid had died.

James Browne [William Clayton’s son-in-law and Reynolds’ brother-in-law] testifies that he and George Stroud met at Wooley Rosen’s house where Justa Anderson was and Stroud asked him why he had scandalized Henry Reynolds, who then replied that he saw Reynolds beat and kick his maid, and he saw her alive no more.

Verdict: for the defendant, with costs and charge of suit and six pence damage

However, Henry Reynolds was not finished. He petitions the Provincial Council in Philadelphia, the highest governing body in the province (not state, because we were not the United States in 1685).

On the 23rd day, 7th month, 1685 (September 23, 1685), the record reads (with updated spelling and mechanics):

The petition of Henry against Thomas Usher, justice of the peace for the county of Chester, complaining that the said Tho. Usher had imprisoned him by his warrant to the sheriff only upon the bare word of his accuser.

Ordered that the copy of the petition be sent to Thomas Usher and that he make speedy answer to it.

On the 24th day, 7th month, 1685, the next day, this entry was written in the Council’s journal:

Modernized transcription begins:

Henry Reynolds, being bound at the last Provincial Circular Court held at Chester, in four hundred pound penalty, to make his personal appearance before the next Provincial Circular Court held at Chester, if any be, or at next Provincial Court at Philadelphia to answer to an indictment to be exhibited against him by Wm. Rawson, for wounding, beating, and killing Mary King, his late servant maid, as appeared before the Council by a copy of the records from the aforesaid court; the aforesaid Henry Reynolds made his personal appearance before the President [Thomas Lloyd] and Council [William Clayton was no longer serving on it], in order to discharge his aforesaid obligation, where no person prosecuted, petition or brought any complaint against him.

Transcription ends.

So it looks like Reynolds was not charged at the Circular Court.

Apparently there was not enough evidence to convict him (or even charge him) for murder, and not enough evidence to win his defamation trial.

The Council minutes dated the 5th day of the 9th month, 1685 (November 5) say that Thomas Usher and Henry Reynolds were to have a hearing during the next sitting of the Council. It met the next day, but no mention is made of their hearing on that day or at later Council meetings. Perhaps they settled out of court.

Can we at least draw the conclusion that Reynolds had a violent temper, or is that going too far?

Most importantly, how did Mary King die?

We may never know.

Second Comparative Case: Punishing a Servant in Colonial Philadelphia

John Martin was also a white indentured servant, so the case is not exactly parallel to the slave laws of the ancient Near East, but let’s learn how people lived all those centuries ago in colonial America.

James Brown’s servant John Martin stole money in one year and then deerskin another year. For stealing money, he had lashes laid on his bare back. For the deerskin theft he was sold to another province, probably Maryland, in 1690. His master James Brown had to pay back the victims.

But then this deed abstract says:

Francis Chadsey passed a deed to John Martin, laborer, for one hundred and twenty-five acres of land and premises, it being in the township of Concord, the deed bearing date the seventh day of September Anno Domi. 1696.

In other words, John Martin graduated from being an indentured servant to becoming a laborer and came back to his home area. Then Francis Chadsey believed in him and sold him 125 acres in nearby Concord, in 1696. So he settled down, experienced practical redemption, and became a land owner.

Colonial Philadelphia regulated the lives of indentured servants. The Torah does the same. After they served their six years, the servant would have his status restored to be a free man.

Positive Lessons from Indentured Servants in Colonial America

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

We all know by now, however, that black slaves were not treated well when they committed a crime in pre-Thirteenth Amendment America (before 1865). They could be beaten without reason, in fact. If the slave was injured, he was not offered his liberty by law. Economic costs did, however, make the owner think twice about debilitating the slave so that he could not work for a while, during his recovery.

So the Torah offered a benefit that American slavery did not: automatic liberty if bodily injury was inflicted on the slave.

How to Punish Slaves for Burglary in Colonial Philadelphia

How to Punish a Servant-Thief in Colonial Philadelphia

How to Punish a Servant for Slander in Virginia

How does our knowledge of the Bible in its own context of the ancient Near East grow?

As I have written in other posts: The institution of slavery was entrenched in the ancient Near East. It is only natural that the Torah would reflect the laws of its own culture (not ours today). We should not demand of this ancient text, which did not fall down from the sky in its present form, to be so odd and outlandish that it must reveal an unrealistic utopia.

However, the Torah did step in and regulate the owners’ practices. It also improves on its culture in some of the details, as follows:

Let’s quote Kaiser at length on his analysis of vv. 20-21, with his quick comment on vv. 26-27:

This law is unprecedented in the ancient world where a master could treat his slave as he pleased. When the law is considered alongside the law in vv. 26-27, which acted to control the brutality against slaves at the point where it hurts the mater. viz., [namely] his pocketbook […] a whole new statement of the value and worth of the personhood of the slave is introduced. Thus if the master struck a slave severely enough only to injure one of his members, he lost his total investment immediately in that the slave won total freedom; or if he struck severely enough to kill the slave immediately, he was tried for capital punishment (vv. 18-19). The aim of this law was not to place the slave at his master’s mercy but to restrict the master’s power over him (cf. similar laws in the Code of Hammurabi 196-197, 200) (p. 433)

Earlier we saw that the slaves in the ancient Near East had secondary status (cf. Exod. 21:32). That’s true. A slave ≠ a free person. No mystery or surprise there. However, the Torah raised his status, not to be a totally free person during his servitude, unless he was injured in one of his members, and then he was to go free. Yet the Torah accords the slave during his servitude a dignity and humanity that gave him rights and restricted the master’s authority. So the Torah rose above and improved on the common customs of the day.

Of course these slave laws are not for today. But let’s not exhibit chronological snobbery and look down on the ancient Near East and the Torah, which was part of it (yet improved on its slave laws). Maybe instead criticizing and sneering at the Torah, we can fight slavery even today.


1. Torah and Slavery: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

3. Torah and Slavery: Impoverished Father Sells His Daughter to Be a ‘Secondary Wife’

4. Torah and Slavery: What Happened When Masters Punished Their Slaves?

5. Torah and Slavery: Protecting Slave Women from Injustice

6. Torah and Slavery: Foreign Slaves

7. Torah and Slavery: Marrying Captives of War


Slavery and Freedom in the Bible (an overview for the big picture)

The Skeptical Sneering Age

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

5 Slavery in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

As for the link to Islam and the Quran, even though the Quran was written 600 years after Jesus and the better New Covenant, the Quran still follows a misreading of the Old Testament and permits slavery. Let’s not go backwards.


Works Cited


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