Exodus 21:20-21 provides provisions to avenge the maltreatment of a slave:

When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. (ESV)

The bolded clause

אַךְ אִם־יוֹם אוֹ יוֹמַיִם יַעֲמֹד
lit. but if a day or two days he stands

is translated differently by HCSB:

However, if the slave can stand up after a day or two...

This creates the opposite meaning: the implication of the ESV is that the slave still dies whereas in the HCSB he recovers. The HCSB makes for an "easier" interpretation since the owner is deemed to have lost adequate kesef (ESV "money", HCSB "property") in a few days' labor, and no additional punishment is required.

Is this translation justified?

  • 5
    I read this a third way (without the benefit of knowing Hebrew grammar). if the slave survives for at least a day or two, the owner is not punished - because the striking was not so obviously severe that he could have foreseen the eventual death of the slave (if indeed he does die after 2 days). Would that make sense? Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 21:19
  • 2
    @DickHarfield I read the ESV like that, though v. 26f indicate that a surviving slave should go free if any permanent damage ensues. That may not count as "vengeance" though.
    – Susan
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 21:52
  • How would you ever get the answer? Do you think you can arrive at it, grammatically?
    – Daisy
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 23:03
  • 5
    @Daisy Yes, I do think there is meaning in the text and that its pursuit is worthwhile. Still, the focus here is on understanding the process whereby we understand the text, be it grammar, context, history, theology (!), or other available means.
    – Susan
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 3:39
  • the presence of the yud prefix in יַעֲמֹ֑ד gives "he will stand". So, the clear intent is that the slave must recover. If the recovery takes longer than a couple of days then the expense is borne by the one who beat his servant. This law was clearly intended for the protection of servants. Tie it together with Exodus 21:26-27 and Deuteronomy 23:15-16 and it should have been impossible for masters to abuse and/or oppress their servants. Righteous judges would have seen to it that they were.
    – enegue
    Commented May 2, 2016 at 12:15

7 Answers 7


From Keil-Delitzsch, "Commentary on the Old Testament" Vol. 1. p. 134.



Ex. 20:20-21 - ...The case was different with regard to a slave. The master had always the right to punish or "chasten" him with a stick (Prov. 10:13, 13:4)... The law therefore confined to the abuse of this authority in outbursts of passion, in which case, "if the servant or the maid should die under his hand, he was to be punished"....

...that it is hardly conceivable that a master would intentionally kill his slave, who was his possession and money.

...By the continuance of his life, if only for a day or two, it would become perfectly evident that the master did not wish to kill his servant; and if nevertheless he died after this, the loss of the slave was punishment enough for the master.

End of excerpts.


Is Exodus 21:21 about a dead slave or one who survives? Its about Both.

the first part "when a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rode and the slave dies under his had, he shall be avenged. This was meant as, If a person beats a servant to death they should be sentenced to death The second part "But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money." (ESV)

In the time this was given/ written/ spoken medicine was not the best. Infection was easily contracted. Now most have the medication and care that if one have an open wound it can be treated and nothing much happens (antibiotics, rubbing alcohol, etc.). Then an open wound would cause issues, especially for a slave, who often did not get the best living situations. They worked all day, with no Air Condition, so sweat happened, slaves often were used for field work or to clean; so, any wound would probably have what they worked in it as well. This increased chances of issues.

This law was meant to keep masters from purposefully killing their slaves, but the required punishments were often harsh in that time and as stated above that caused things to happen that might not have been the intent to happen. So it gives an 'allowance' that the death was not the intent. And since the slaves were bought and paid for the master should have been more careful, but not at fault.

It's like: if A gets in a fight with B, if B dies from the pummeling A goes to jail. or A gets into a fight with B, B goes to the hospital and later dies from complications.

It was not A's intent to kill B and so is acquitted. Fines are levied and paid. Though if it happens often the ruling in a court would be different.

To restate, the rule applies to both situations


Amad, in the Hiphil form, is a matter of standing, or a matter of being appointed. It is a question of status. My own understanding is that if a bondman is still standing after a day or two, then vengeance is not appropriate.

To beat a bondman so badly that he is incapacitated is a stupid thing to do, and counter-productive, for it is just not profitable. But the bondman belongs to the man and if he is that way inclined, nobody can do much about it. Similar to wife maltreatment.

Thereafter, it cannot be proven that a death resulted, necessarily, from the previous incident. This is the case in modern courts. It is difficult to absolutely prove what a death resulted from. Or to prove whether employment did, or did not, cause the cancer which killed the patient.


Your verse [Exo 21:21] where a slave does NOT die at the hands of their master (contrasted to [Exo 21:20] where they do) means that compensation for death is not warranted. That is not to say no compensation is due the slave, merely that compensation for wrongful death is not warranted [Num 35:30-31][Lev 24:17-22].

Consider the implications of [Lev 25:40] and [Exo 21:20] on the general principle of treatment of slaves described in these and surrounding verses, especially with respect to treatments listed later (law of compensation) [Exo 21:26-27].

Property or not, [Lev 25:40] clearly sets the slave, whether Hebrew bondmen, foreign slaves (prisoners taken in war), or persons bought in the market, on par with hired servants AND [Exo 21:20] shows that even death and injurious treatment resulted in compensation for the slave.

The principle in [Gen 9:6] applied even to slaves who were afforded protection, to a very great extent, by the law of compensation given in vss [Exo 21:20,26,27]. The brutality of masters, who had to emancipate their slaves if they did them any serious injury, was held in check, by these verses: and stood in stark contrast to the legal rights of masters in all the other contemporary historical cultures.

In all but the Hebrew case, masters could treat slaves as they pleased: they could sell them; punish them; and put them to death but in Hebrew society slaves were entitled to compensation.

The issue of:

אַךְ אִם־יוֹם אוֹ יוֹמַיִם יַעֲמֹד lit. but if a day or two days he stands

.. is only ambiguous in translation, so in the English but not in the Hebrew.

  • 1
    This is the point I was making in my comment to the OP. (+1) for giving a complete answer.
    – enegue
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 2:51
  • The Hebrew has the exact same ambiguity of the English translation up to this point in the verse. It is only the continuation of the verse, לא יוקם parallel to the נקום ינקם of verse 20 that makes it clear that the slave dies after a day or two, otherwise why would verse 21 use יוקם, "to be avenged"?
    – user17080
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 23:44
  • Both in English and Hebrew Exo 21:20 and Exo 21:21 are clearly contrasted with one another. Plus other verses were cited that showed the same logic. The law of compensation was the standard. A punished slave and a murdered slave were two different things. Only on dogmatic grounds can the plain meaning of the text be accused of being ambiguous; and in that case no amount of reason and argument will change one's mind.
    – user34445
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 23:52
  • Can you cite a verse in which נקם is used other than when a death was caused?
    – user17080
    Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 0:05
  • Sure. How about לֹֽא־תִקֹּם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר אֶת־בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמֹוךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֽה I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean death in Lev 19:18. Also מִפִּי עוֹלְלִים וְיֹ**נְקִים* יִסַּדְתָּ עֹז לְמַעַן צוֹרְרֶי לְהַשְׁבִּית אוֹיֵב וּמִתְנַקֵּם* in Psa 8:2? Of course Eze 25:12 is referring Edom's refusal to grant passage to the Israelites through their territory Numbers 20:18-21, so כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה יַעַן עֲשׂוֹת אֱדוֹם בִּנְקֹם נָקָם לְבֵית יְהוּדָה וַיֶּאְשְׁמוּ אָשׁוֹם וְנִקְּמוּ בָהֶם isn't about death. Need more?
    – user34445
    Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 3:49

The previous verses helps to answer this question:

וְכִֽי־יַכֶּה֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדֹּ֜ו אֹ֤ו אֶת־אֲמָתֹו֙ בַּשֵּׁ֔בֶט וּמֵ֖ת תַּ֣חַת יָדֹ֑ו נָקֹ֖ם יִנָּקֵֽם

"And when a man strikes his servant or his maidservant and he dies under his hand, vengeance shall surely be taken" (Ex. 21:20).

The term "dies under his hand" seems to indicate perishing directly as a result of a beating, as opposed to one who can stand up after one or two days (recovers). I therefore must disagree with the other answers that attempt to interpret this verse as saying, "if he doesn't die after one or two days, the master is innocent." I believe it is saying, if he can stand on the first day or second day after the beating, no vengeance shall be taken. However, if the beating results in a protracted, serious condition, or death, I don't believe this verse is indicating innocence merely because of a few days passing. The blows do have to directly result in death, however ("under his hand"), and therefore if he can walk on the first day, or second day, death or sickness after that is not to be taken to be as a direct result of the blows, and the master is innocent, i.e. not liable to the "rising up [in judgment]". However, if he still cannot walk on the third day, and subsequently dies in his bed, or remains sick, I believe this verse indicates legal vengeance is STILL to be taken.

In fact Ex. 21:19 teaches us the same principle:

אִם־יָק֞וּם וְהִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ בַּח֛וּץ עַל־מִשְׁעַנְתֹּ֖ו וְנִקָּ֣ה הַמַּכֶּ֑ה רַ֥ק שִׁבְתֹּ֛ו יִתֵּ֖ן וְרַפֹּ֥א יְרַפֵּֽא

"If he rises and walks outside on his staff, then the smiter is innocent, except for the [cost of] his rest he will give to him, and cause him to be fully healed."

This further teaches us that if the servant rises, even after the second day, and walks outside on his staff [or stands up at all, v. 21], the master shall no longer be held liable (to "vengeance" [in judgement] for monetary compensation/blood money) should the servant die in his sickbed. It also teaches us that even a servant is to be compensated for his sick time by his master who beat him by fully healing him (and continuing his wages/compensation).

Our most problematic verse is לֹ֣א יֻקַּ֔ם כִּ֥י כַסְפֹּ֖ו הֽוּא "Don't rise up against him [in judgment], for he is his silver." For me, this proves that the verse is not speaking of the vengeance of the death penalty, but of paying the man's family the price of having severely wounded or killed a servant (accidentally). Because the person is able to stand up after a day or two, he or his family is not entitled to further compensation. Just to clarify, I am interpreting this to be an accidental death, not falling under the category of murder.

Further, when death by stoning is prescribed, the term, "he shall surely die" or "they shall surely be stoned" is used emphatically. Here, the less severe term of "vengeance shall surely be taken" is used. Clearly we are referring here to less severe forms of punishment than death. Clearly its a different type of situation than murder, involving the destroyed value of a man (here called "his silver") that may be compensated for accordingly. However, the fierce anger of a blood-avenger was seemingly condoned in Scripture in manslaughter cases should a civil solution fail, or should the blood avenger get ahold of the man before he could flee to a city of refuge.


According the Ellicott, if the slave survives a day or two, then it wasn't the intent of the owner to kill him.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

The notion is, that unless the death follows speedily it must be presumed not to have been intended; and this might be especially presumed in the case of a man killing his slave, since thereby he inflicted on himself a pecuniary [monetary] loss.

Pulpit Commentary is similar:

Verse 21. - If he continue a day or two - i.e., "If the slave does not die till a day or two afterwards." Compare the provision in ver. 19, with respect to persons who were not slaves. No special callousness to the sufferings of slaves is implied. He is his money. The slave had been purchased for a stun of money, or was at any rate money' s worth; and the master would suffer a pecuniary loss by his death.

If the slave survived, there was a chance that he might go free:

Exodus 21:27 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.


It is not justified, nor is the passage hard to translate:

אִם־י֛וֹם א֥וֹ יוֹמַ֖יִם יַעֲמֹ֑ד

ʾim-yôm ʾô yômayim yaʿămōḏ

if day or [dual-form]days [he] persists

You should not fixate on the sense of "stand" for 'md, as this is a Hebrew idiom that is rarely meant literally -- e.g. to be in a state of standing -- and is usually meant in the sense of "hold on", "persist", "remain", "endure", "abide", "continue", and less frequently "present oneself" (e.g. stand before the Lord).

Proverbs 27:4b (KJV 1900) But who is able to stand before envy?

Basically the main sense is to not succumb to whatever the contextual challenge is, which in this case means to not die.

If the text would have meant "to stand up" or "arise", then it would have been קום.

When 'md is meant in the physical sense, it is never about accomplishing the act of standing up, but rather to be in a state of standing, to continue in a state of standing (imperfect) or to accomplish the state of standing in the sense of to stop moving - e.g. to stop if there is no direct object and to set someone or something if there is. E.g Nu 5.18 "The Priest shall set the woman before the Lord". There is no verb tense that can make it mean "to stand up" in the physical sense of getting out of a sick bed.

Only in the metaphoric sense can it be translated with an english target as "stand up", and in this case it means "to establish", as in the sense of standing up an army. Similarly with an english target, 'md can be translated into "stand with, stand against, stand in the place of" but all in a metaphorical sense.

But let's go ahead and translate it as "stand". Then still, there is no Hebrew verbal form that can convert "stand day or [dual] days" into "stand after one or two days" or "be healed within one or two days". That interpretation requires doing violence to the text as it inserts a preposition or similar marker not present. E.g. to say "in" two days needs a ב or "at the end of two days" would need a מקץ. Point is, there is no verbal form that can insert those markers for you.

Let's take a look at the ancient translations, starting with the targums, which were the "official" translations into Aramaic, together with explanatory material, that can often be used to clear up the meaning of the hebrew at least as understood by the rabbis. They all use the verb qym, meaning "to survive", because they understand the idiom "to stand" in this case means to not die.

  • Neofiti[1]: but if he survives a day or two
  • Onqelos[2]: But if he will survive for a day or two days

Now the LXX[4]:

  • ἐὰν δὲ διαβιώσῃ ἡμέραν μίαν ἢ δύο (But if he survives one day or two)

Clementine Vulgate[5]:

  • Sin autem uno die vel duobus supervixerit [but if he survives a day or two]

The 1985 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh[3]:

  • But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged

Lexham English Bible:

  • Yet if he survives a day or two days


  • But if the slave survives a day or two

NRSV (1989):

  • But if the slave survives a day or two


  • if the injured servant survives one or two days


  • Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two,

Douay-Rheims (based on Vulgate):

  • But if the party remain alive a day or two

It's really hard to think of a less difficult passage to translate, or one in which there has historically been more unanimity.

Until very recently -- when a small number of (obscure) translations started to trickle out late in the 20th Century, which apparently found the Hebrew ambiguous or even cryptic. They argued that there was either a missing "after" or a missing "within", and so the text should read "if the slave stands after one or two days" or a slave [literally] stands up within one or two days, and all of a sudden an offensive scripture was made more palatable to modern tastes. But this is not good hermeneutics, and is not justified by the text.

[1] Kevin Cathcart, Michael Maher, and Martin McNamara, eds., The Aramaic Bible: Targum Neofiti 1: Exodus and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Exodus, trans. Martin McNamara, Michael Maher, and Robert Hayward, vol. 2 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994), Ex 21:21.

[2] Kevin Cathcart, Michael Maher, and Martin McNamara, eds., The Aramaic Bible: The Targum of Onqelos to Exodus, trans. Bernard Grossfeld, vol. 7 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), Ex 21:21.

[3] Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), Ex 21:21.

[4] Randall Tan and David A. deSilva, Logos Bible Software, The Lexham Greek-English Interlinear Septuagint: Rahlfs Edition (Logos Bible Software, 2009),

[5] Biblia Sacra Juxta Vulgatam Clementinam., Ed. electronica. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005), Ex 21:21.

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