Does the Bible Say Beating a Slave Is Okay?


With the Black Lives Matter movement and the subject of black oppression capturing the attention of the world, some atheists did not want to be left out of the conversation and some of their arguments have resurfaced. I stumbled across one such blog post written by “The Poised Atheist” giving thought to Exodus 21:20-21. It was a brief commentary on why he rejects the Bible based on what he deems as a racist passage. I briefly rummaged through his other blog posts and discovered that the main objective of most of his blog posts are finding passages of Scripture he finds objectionable in ordered to justify his atheistic claims and to dismiss and belittle the Bible.

Below is his commentary on Exodus 21:20-21 in its entirety.


“This week’s crazy Bible verse(s) comes from the Book of Exodus.

“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.” – Exodus 21:20-21

Let’s begin analyzing this verse by ignoring the fact the Bible condones slavery.  Some Bible apologists argue the Bible doesn’t really mean slavery but means it as indentured servitude.  In my view indentured servitude is not much better, but I digress.

The first part of the sentence makes perfect sense.  If you beat your slave, you will be punished.  A crime was committed and a punishment was given.  All is good…if the sentence ended there.  Instead, the Bible goes on to say that if the slave recovers within a day or two, the criminal is not punished.  What…the…hell?!?!?!

The Bible, written by man, but supposedly inspired by God, tells us it is okay to beat your slave as long as you don’t kill your slave.  If you were beaten and in the hospital for two days, that’s a serious beating.  The Bible condones this beating!!!  Many Christians argue you can’t be moral without God.  God says it is okay to beat people as long as you don’t kill them.  That’s the moral you live by?  That’s the moral you want to pass along to your children?  WOW!!!”

The poised atheist concludes his short commentary with self-affirming pat on the back and says,

“I think it’s safe for me to say that I am a much MORE moral person for NOT following the Bible.”

Is it “safe” for this “poised atheist” to consider himself “MORE moral person for NOT following the Bible”?

The atheist’s smug and disingenuous attitude obviously demonstrates his contempt for the Bible. And it is often the case where many skeptics’ erroneous interpretations of Scripture can lead to their hostility towards it.

I would say there are 2 types of skeptics: Honest ones and dishonest one.

An honest skeptic isn’t sure, but is willing to objectively investigate a matter. When given a logical or rational reasoning, he or she accepts it. A dishonest skeptic, on the other hand, doesn’t want to know the truth. He is “willingly ignorant” (2Pet 3:5). He doesn’t want to seek for truth, instead, not unlike our poised atheist, will only search to mock and scoff.

Sadly, far too many dishonest skeptics exist. Many have toiled away for hours and hours building websites, writing blogs, etc. to try to mock and blaspheme a Holy God. They despise the Word of God. Their main thrust isn’t to discover the truth, but to get as many jabs in on Christianity as they can.

This poised atheist’s apparent feelings of moral superiority over those who perhaps follow the Bible, rests on the belief that there exists a qualifying standard of morality outside of the Bible and that this standard of morality is apparently superior to the biblical teaching. Then it begs the question: If there is a moral standard that does exist outside of Scripture, who sets that standard? Is it the society? What is the guiding principle that allows such standard to exist? At best it becomes morality by consensus. That being the case, is it safe to trust the majority consensus? If the answer is yes then we would have to be reminded that the society’s morality continues to shift constantly. Thus society is not an objective standard of morality but quite subjective and is subject to change. Moreover, who is to say that the prevailing sentiments of a given society in a particular moment in time should be the correct gauge of morality when what is now considered morally reprehensible was once considered widely acceptable (owning a slave).

For example, our country had the fugitive slave laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of enslaved people who escaped from one state into another state or territory. The Fugitive Slave Clause states that freedom seeking slaves “shall be delivered up or you would be prosecuted for harboring a fugitive. This by the way was morally acceptable back then along with treating the slaves as one’s property.

Whereas, the Bible says,

Thou shalt NOT deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee:” Deuteronomy 23:15

Which is more humane? In fact this very passage served as a biblical mandate to the early abolitionists (who held to the biblical principles) to partake in civil disobedience, for they recognized that the law of the land violated the law of God and that the the law of God was supreme over and against the law of the land.

So what moral standard is left? The atheist’s own? If so, then what rationale argument can be made as to why anyone else should agree to his personal code of morality? What our challenger appears to have done, probably without knowing it, is basically set himself up as his own god who sits above the Bible because he disagrees with Exodus 21:20, 21.

Also, our poised atheist, taking issue with this particular passage, implies that if you adhere to this sort of teaching, you not only condone slavery but you also condone beating of slaves. Accordingly, the fact that the poised atheist condemns such treatment of another human being, and given the prevailing sentiments about slavery, most should actually agree with him. That is if the passage is indeed teaching what the poised atheist is proposing.
Let’s take a look.

Well, Does the Bible Support Slavery?

The issue of slavery in the biblical history is a complex one. The practices and the regulations regarding this long-standing institution in scripture has been the subject of many criticisms based on the grounds of morality. The criticism is primarily raised by the skeptics but it also confounds those who actually adheres to the biblical religion. That said, we would do well not to superimpose the modern ideas of slavery to override the more accurate historical or societal context of the time, including the exigencies and the equity that existed in the biblical narrative.

First, the Bible does record instances of slavery, but not in the cruel way in which we think of today. In today’s age, the idea of slavery conjures up images of a black man with whip marks on his back and bleeding blisters on his hands, working tirelessly day and night to please his ruthless white “master.” This is not the idea of slavery according to the scriptures. In the scriptures, slavery was not based on skin color. A Hebrew could even become a slave of a fellow Hebrew (Exodus 21:2).

Instead, slavery was more like a form of indentured servitude, or like a live-in maid or butler. Some compare it to a social class, and with good reason: A person who was financially broke could become a “slave” for a set period of time, and work to pay off debt, or to have guaranteed housing and care. This was actually a good thing, and it did wonders to keep the “homeless” population under control. If you were broke, no problem–just go be a “slave” for a while.

“If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.” Exodus 21:2

In the year of this jubile ye shall return every man unto his possession. [14] And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest ought of thy neighbour’s hand, ye shall not oppress one another:” Leviticus 25:13-14

 I am the Lord your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God. [39] And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: [40] But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubile. Leviticus 25:39, 40

Furthermore, slaves usually had a set limit of time they served. In Exodus 21, Hebrew slaves could work no longer than 6 years, and in the seventh year (year of jubile), had to be released from their contract for nothing. Some people actually became slaves forever (by choice), simply because they would have bonded with their “master,” and would have preferred to stay with them. They didn’t want to be freed in some cases. In the following passage, the Bible gives instructions for such a case:

“And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: [6] Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.” Exodus 21:5-6

Surely this verse proves that slavery was not an evil activity like how we think of the brutal slavery of African Americans in the United States. Rather, this type of slavery was different.  They worked for you in exchange for bread, a roof, and the payments of their debts. They could walk away once the terms of their agreement was fulfilled, but many probably stayed on as  hired hands.

The Bible also certainly instructed masters on how to behave in a Godly manner many times in the scripture. Here is just one:

“Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” Colossians 4:1

So it becomes clear that slavery in the Bible was not meant to be some cruel activity of oppressing a group of people against their will. It was more of a mutually agreed upon arrangement whereby people in unfortunate situations can gain support in their otherwise challenging life circumstance. In fact when slaves have grown to love their “master,” they chose to stay. They had it good enough to love it and stay by choice. Furthermore, some even shared in an inheritance when their owner’s passed away. That says a lot about the culture of the time.

I’m not going to go into more detail at this time on everything the Bible has to say about slavery (I’ll save that for another article), but rather, let’s shift our attention to a specific verse that our poised atheist is objecting to.

Does the Bible Say Beating a Slave Is Okay?

As noted earlier following verse about beating a slave is found in Exodus:

“And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished [21] Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.” Exodus 21:20-21

At first glance, it would appear as if God is condoning the beating of the slave, but let’s read this carefully.

First, we see that this verse in no way CONDONES beating a slave. God doesn’t command the Israelites to beat their slaves, and God surely doesn’t want anyone to be harsh or mistreat slaves. That is not what the verse is saying at all, so let’s pay close attention. We’ve already looked at this verse above, but let’s look at a couple more to give some sense of how God feels about master and slave relationship:

“Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” Colossians 4:1

“Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. [9] And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.” Ephesians 6:8, 9

The verses above, taken from the New Testament, show us how God expects those with slaves under their care to act. They are to be just and equal-treat them right, without partiality and not be harsh with them. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Next, we must also remember that this very law came after God delivered the Israelites from harsh slavery. Here is what God had to say about that:

“Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them.
[10] Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt. Exodus 3:9-10 (emphasis mine)

Couple that with this following passage:

“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. [22] Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. [23] If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry;” Exodus 22:21-23

As you can see, God is so against the oppressive form of slavery, that He delivered the Israelites from it in Egypt. In Egypt, the Israelites toiled long and hard, usually 7 days a week, making bricks, slaving away under the Egyptian task masters. Suffice it to say, God is against abusing people–slave or free. Moreover, it is this very experience of oppression that God is reminding the Israelites in treating others; they should know better, having been oppressed, not to treat others the same:

“But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. [15] And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.” Deuteronomy 5:14-15

While there may be some passages in the Bible, primarily in the Old Testament, that if erroneously applied, depicts God as an unloving and vengeful God. But if we rightly understand the Bible, the character of God is consistent through out. While God is just, merciful and long suffering he will “by no means clear the guilty” (Exo 34:7) and that He does want his people to treat others justly; even our enemies:

 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” Matthew 5:44

That brings us back to our main text under consideration (Exodus 21:20-21). If you carefully examine the passage, it nowhere approves of hitting people or abusing them, but again, the ENTIRE Bible is consistent on how we should treat people. Any skeptic who tries to isolate this verse to “prove” that God condones beating a slave just reveals their own sheer desperation. The Israelites who had slaves would have known God’s holy laws, and they knew better than to mistreat people.

God Is Instructing What Penalties Should Take Place After the Fact

Let’s look at the passage again,

“And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished [21] Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.” Exodus 21:20-21

Contrary to what our poised atheist proposes, what is really going on in this chapter is that God is giving penalties based on certain crimes. God isn’t saying whether or not the action is moral–it’s already understood that it is not. From the context of the chapter, it’s clear these are all immoral activities (striking your parents, killing people, etc.).

It’s worth noting that Exodus 21:1 begins with, “Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.” What are judgments? They are set of rules in order to render a judgement (as in a court of law) when there is a civil or criminal dispute. This is needed in any civil society. The salient point here is that just because the Judgment describes a particular behavior does not necessitate that it is also endorsing such a behavior.

For instance, in our country we have a law that forbids people from committing theft. If someone therefore is caught stealing , he will be prosecuted accordingly. So, the “judgment” might read, “If someone steals and gets caught, he will have to return the stolen item; may also have to pay fine or even have to serve so many days in jail.” Now, would it be correct to say then that the judgment is condoning theft? Of course not! It is merely describing a scenario whereby the correct remedy or punishment may be rendered.

So don’t get confused and think God accepts beating your slave. This section is not making statements as to the moral nature of the crime, but rather, what the punishment should be for such a crime. Again, it is similar to our laws of today, where we may have law books that state the punishment for various crimes (ie, domestic abuse is XX days in prison and a XX fine; or murder in the 1st degree is death penalty).

So what happens if a master hits a slave, and he dies? Or what if he is injured, and doesn’t die? The law addressed the penalty in this verse:

In other words, if a master was to get in an argument or mistreat his slave by striking him, and the slave died, he must be put to death. This I would say is a just punishment. Just because you are the master, you do not get away with murder. We would be hard pressed to find such punishment anywhere in our country’s history during the slavery years. However, If the slave survived after a day or two, the master would not suffer the punishement.

Why Would the Master Not Be Put To Death If the Slave Survived?

If the slave died, the master would be put to death, but not if the slave survived (or, at least for a few days). Why? First, if the slave survived, it shows the master’s intent was not to kill or seriously harm the slave. Maybe they just got into a physical altercation. Or maybe the master had to defend himself. Either way, it was a simple case of domestic violence, not pre-meditated murder, and one should be able to distinguish the two.

Next, the Bible clears up the meaning when it says this, “he shall not be punished: for he is his money.” What does that mean? That slaves are cheap property and worthless? No, not at all. The Bible makes clear that we are all of tremendous value to God our Father, whether we are lowly slaves or wealthy kings:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galations 3:28

In fact, God delights in using those who are poor, weak, and so forth. He loves all of His children.

The text isn’t saying slaves are worthless property. What the text is saying is this: He was under contract to the master (his “employer”), and as such, had a financial obligation to him. Therefore, the master will owe nothing.

Here’s a way to illustrate it in more modern setting to help you under
stand. Let’s suppose someone owes me a business debt of $200,000. They can’t pay, and I offer that they can work for me exclusively (ie, be my “slave” under contract), and live with me and tend to my property. At the end of 6 years, they are free to leave and do what they want. Their debt will be paid at that time. They agree.

Well, one day, the worker I  hired (“the slave”), gets into a fight with me. I reach over and whack him over the head with a baseball bat in the heat of the argument. If he died, I’d be put to death for murder. But let’s say he lives. So he goes to the hospital, but he survives. Afterwords, both of us must appear before the court over the incident.

In court, the judge looks at the plaintiff’s medical bills, pain, and his suffering. The judge then orders that I pay $150,000 to cover such expenses (“the penalty”). I then point out that I had purchased his labor (in the form of indentured servitude labor ) and the remaining sum is $150,000. So the judge says, okay, you pay nothing then.  You should pay him $150,000 in damages but since the slave owes you money ($150,000, your compensation for that debt), you don’t owe anything. It’s a wash.

Other Details to Keep In Mind About This Verse

As mentioned before, this verse is merely laying out punishments for crimes. It isn’t saying the crime is okay, but just stipulating the punishments if or when such situation happen. You have to keep in mind that the Israelites had just been freed from Egypt. They were wandering around in the desert on their journey to the promised land. They had no prisons to incarcerate criminals. They had no electric chairs. They had no autopsy reports, etc. to go by.

So if someone did something wrong, they had 3 options: They could be fined and have to pay financial compensation to the injured party, they could be flogged by the “courts” for a wrong (which was sometimes used), or they could be killed (death penalty). Those were basically their only options. In this text, a master would be killed for pre-meditated murder of his servant, but he would not be killed if he or she survived. In this case, the master would not have to pay compensation, since the servant already had a debt owed to the master. The debts would “cancel one another” so to speak.

Now, the text makes no mention of what else may happen. Why? Obviously, the judges in Israel would have to identify the details of each unique instance that something like this occurred. The law itself was a general guide to go by. They still had the freedom of judging each case individually.

I’m sure if there was a case of brutal beatings of a slave, that slave would have the option of leaving. The text doesn’t go into any further detail at this point, but look what the Bible says just a few verses later:

“And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. [27] And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.” Exodus 21:26-27

So now we can see that God does not tolerate abuse towards a slave, and even lets them free over a tooth or eye injury. This verse should clear up any doubt as to how the judges over Israel would have handled the situation. Slaves were NOT to be beaten, mistreated, or killed.

Conclusion: The Bible Does Not Condone Abusive Slavery

Given the above scriptures and points, this entire article can be summarized below:

  • While the Bible did support slavery, it was not cruel or brutal slavery we know of today. God’s word instructs, time and time again, on the fair treatment of slaves, being kind to people, loving your enemy, and more. You’d have to be ignorant to argue that God condones beating or mistreating people in a cruel way. In fact, God led Moses to free the Israelites because they were being mistreated as slaves!

  • Slaves had rights, were allowed to leave after 6 years, and many of them even loved their masters, and preferred to stay with them. This is the culture you should keep in mind. It isn’t much different than working for a wonderful family as a live-in maid or servant in today’s time. Many slaves ended up more prosperous than non-slaves.

  • The Bible NEVER condones beating a slave, hitting a slave, and never suggests to treat them in a cruel way. The verse in question is dealing with the penalty of such activity, not condoning it or making moral statements about it. Much like how we have laws against rape, domestic violence, and the penalties for such crimes. The chapter itself implies that the activity is wrong within its own context.

  • The penalty for beating a slave was death if the slave died. If the slave survived, then there was no penalty, simply because the financial debts basically cancelled each other out.

There you have it. Once again, God’s holy word stands rock solid against the manipulations of skeptics.

I hope this article has helped you to understand that God’s word is indeed trustworthy and can stand the most intense scrutiny.