Here is my question, Exodus 21 deals with punishments for assaulting and murdering people.

verse 20-21 is hard for me to comprehend:

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.

If the slave doesn’t die within 3 days but lets say after 5 days, will the master be held acountable? Does the slave have the same rights as a non-slave? Will the slave be still his property as the text indicates?

The three day time period and relationship master x slave seems strange because verse 12 says

Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death

But later on it says that the master shall be only punished, but not put to death for murdering his slave

then i have another issue

verse 27 then says

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.

That indicates that the slave who has been injured and did’t die is no more the property of the master?

  • 1
    Before the advent of modern medicine, some two centuries ago, mortality rates were very high. Furthermore, there was no explanation for many deaths occurring before old age. With this in mind, if two men have a fight one day, and the other dies, for no apparent reason, a week later, the two incidents might not be related at all (and putting an innocent person to death makes little sense). But since people are vengeful and some might think that it's better to risk doing the latter than to have a possible murderer walk, a fine is imposed.
    – Lucian
    Oct 13, 2017 at 14:58
  • If the slave doesn’t die within 3 days but lets say after 5 days" Slave survives for the first 1-2 days? Acquitted. Provided that double jeopardy doesn't exist and that the slave survived for the next 2 days max, slave dies on the "final day" of the 5-day beating routine? Penalty because the slave died within the 1-2 day limit. There's no finding loopholes. Remember what happened to Jezebel when she tried to use the "two witnesses at trial" rule for stoning Naboth. Nov 9, 2019 at 2:19

2 Answers 2


Perhaps a definition of terms may be in order here.

A bondsman, a bondservant, or an indentured servant is precisely what the words imply. He was one who stood for surety of a bond or a debt and sold himself into servitude to a creditor. A slave was one who was pressed into service against his will by either purchase or conquest and used as forced labor.

Unlike the indentured servant, slaves were regarded as property and could be bought, sold, and inherited, but not from among the Hebrew population. That was forbidden.

A slave could be held as the property of his master until he died while an indentured servant could not be made to serve for more than six years.

The expectation of treatment for the slave was far different from that of a servant. The difference between the indentured servant and the slave was that the slave could be beaten almost to death for some displeasure to his master, and that was the master’s right. But, if you struck a servant and so much as knocked out his tooth, you just lost your servant. You were not permitted to treat a fellow Hebrew with such indignity. A slave on the other hand, could be more harshly treated but, even the treatment of a slave had its bounds. You could beat a slave severely but, you could not kill him. You do not have the right to murder, not even a slave. Exodus 21:20-21,

“If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”

Why was no vengeance to be taken if the slave died after the fact? Because, this goes to motive. If the servant died during the course of the beating, then the intent of murder must be assumed, in which case the master was then subject to the judgment of the court. If the servant died days later as a result of the beating, then the intent of murder could not be assumed and no vengeance was to be taken because the slave was his property and the discipline of that slave was within his rights.

Whether a passage is talking about a servant or a slave is determined not by the lexical definition of terms but by the description given by the text.

Slaves were regarded as a permanent possession; indentured servants were not.

Slaves could be bought and sold, an indentured servant could not be bought or sold.

Slaves could be inherited as part of an estate, an indentured servant could not.

Slaves could be severely beaten, an indentured servant could not.

Slaves were considered property, an indentured servant was not.


If the slave doesn’t die within 3 days but let's say after 5 days, will the master be held accountable?

No, in Moses' law there appears to be zero accountability (for the charge of murder) unless the slave dies of his wounds within two days of the beating. Note that this statute addresses a specific behavior: striking one's slave or bondservant "with a rod", a wooden stick.

Does the slave have the same rights as a non-slave?

Absolutely not! Slavery statutes in the law of Moses seem repulsive and barbaric in light of New Testament grace and truth and the new egalitarianism Paul preached wherein "there is neither bond nor free" (Gal 3:28), but what do you expect from a body of civil, criminal, political, military and religious code enforced by capital punishment that essentially made nothing perfect, and which was never designed for a righteous person to begin with? To the chagrin of many apologists, austere slavery is enshrined in Moses' law.

Will the slave be still his property as the text indicates?

Yes, there being no stipulation to the contrary that I can see pertaining to the question of beating with a rod as a form of discipline and punishment. Beating certain subordinates with a rod was an idea well ingrained in the Jewish psyche at least through Solomon's day, as witnessed by Proverbs 10:13 ("a rod is for the back of him that is void of understanding"), 20:30 ("the blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly"), and 26:3 ("a whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back").

That [Exodus 21:26-27] indicates that the slave who has been injured and didn’t die is no more the property of the master?

If you're asking this question in a general or conceptual sense, the answer is no. Injuring your slave in the course of beating him only put you at risk of losing ownership in two specific instances: loss of an eye, or loss of a tooth. Otherwise he remained your property, and if he suffered permanent injury in some other part of his body, you would have to absorb the related expenses and losses, hence verse 21 says "if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money."

[this] seems strange because verse 12 says, "Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death..."

To my understanding, the law differentiates between the kind of beatings that ought to be administered (in which mercy rejoices against judgment, as in "if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die," Prov 23:13), the kind of beatings that are lacking in mercy and restraint (resulting in loss of life, tooth, or eye), and the kind of beating that would fit the category of murder.

I should add that in my view Exodus 21:12 and 21:20 are talking about the very same thing: capital punishment for murder, however verse 20 specifically addresses the murder of a slave, making it clear to all that a slave owner will face the same punishment as any other murderer (unless, as verse 21 implies, the slave happens to die sometime after the two-day statute of limitations expires, in which case the owner had no liability).

21:12 He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.

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

All references KJV

  • It means that the Law didn't value slaves. Yet Paul says that "the law is just, holy and good". Psalm 19 says that "The Law of the LORD is perfect". It's confusing.
    – user20490
    Dec 6, 2017 at 18:31
  • The law also tells you to spend your tithes on alcohol (Deut 14:26) and to publicly humiliate your wife whenever you feel a bit jealous (Num 5:5-31). Equally confusing! That's because we see things from a much higher vantage point, being under grace. The law was as perfect as God could make it without removing all room for individual conscience and judgment, compassion and mercy. It was a lamp and a light, but compared to Christ's grace and truth it was darkness and shadows (Heb 10:1, 1 John 2:8). That's why the law's 613 commandments are defunct (Rom 7:6) along with its curses and blessings.
    – Eutychus
    Dec 12, 2017 at 6:21
  • In the Jewish oral tradition, it is not just an eye or a tooth, those are examples. The loss of any limb would gain the slave his freedom. Of course it is possible to beat a man with a rod quite severly without the cost of a limb. Feb 12, 2018 at 17:54
  • But it can reduce the ability to stand up straight, indicating damage of the back/spine. Common sense. Nov 9, 2019 at 2:15

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