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In Exodus we read:

20 When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. (ESV)

From what I get the traditional interpterion is indeed that verse 21 is for the case that the slave dies but not immediately. According to this, a distinction is drawn based on the question of when the slave has died which I find little odd, but this way is explained by Keil & Delitzsch:

"Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two (i.e., remain alive), it shall not be avenged, for he is his 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.

However, I do remember reading somewhere that what the verse really means here is the case on v.21 is that the slave does not die, but only wounded to the extent he can't work for several days; in this case, the master does not need to pay for his crime. This take is further suggested by some next verses such as 26 that in case a master hits his slave and takes his eye he has to be punished for that and let the slave free. It should be noted that the Hebrew uses the root עמד which allegedly means he survives according to many, but it might very well say stopped; i.e., the slave stopped working for several days due the the injury.

I would like to hear what are the arguments for each side of the discussion.

5 Answers 5

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This goes to motive. If the servant died during the course of the beating, then the intent of death must be assumed, in which case the master was then subject to the discretion of the court. If the servant later dies as a result of the beating, the intent of death could not be assumed and no vengeance was to be taken because the slave was his property and the discipline of that slave was the right of the master. You could beat a slave severely, but you could not kill them for any displeasure. You do not have the right to murder, not even a slave.

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.

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

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

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

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

  5. Slaves were considered property: the indentured servant was not.

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I can see the argument as proof that there was no intent to kill, but it does look like a different meaning was intended.

The original Hebrew word “יַעֲמֹד”(ʿāmaḏ) has various meanings, but they all are based on the primitive root for "to stand". Of the 521 occurrences, the KJV translates 350 of them as "stand", "stood", or "stand up".

  • NLT has "if the slave recovers within a day or two".
  • NIV has "if the slave recovers after a day or two".
  • CSV has "if the slave can stand up after a day or two".
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  • Thanks for that answer. yeah recover makes more sense to me.
    – discipulus
    May 16, 2022 at 17:13
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The question boils down to what is the principle behind the Law. Note the following commentaries:

  • The topic "Beating" in the Insight on the Scriptures

    A Hebrew slave owner was permitted to strike his slave man or slave girl with a stick if the slave was disobedient or rebellious. But if the slave died under the beating, the slave owner was to be punished. If the slave lived for a day or two afterward, however, this would be evidence tending to indicate that the slave owner did not have murder in his heart. He had the right to mete out disciplinary punishment, for the slave was “his money.” A man would be very unlikely to want to destroy completely his own valuable property, thereby suffering a loss. Also, if the slave died after the passage of a day or more, it might not be certain whether death was from the beating or from some other cause. So if the slave continued alive a day or two, the master would not be punished.​—Ex 21:20, 21. [bold mine]

  • Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

    (21) If he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished.—Comp. the proviso with respect to freemen (Exodus 21:19). 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 loss. [bold mine]

  • Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament

    The law was 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 (i.e., under his blows), he was to be punished" (ינּקם נקם: "vengeance shall surely be taken").
    . . .
    How far the lawgiver was from presupposing any such intention here, is evident from the law which follows in Exodus 21:21, "Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two (i.e., remain alive), it shall not be avenged, for he is his 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; [bold mine]

So immediate death of the slave indicated malicious intent on the part of the master. This is why the Law was put in place; to avoid hatred even towards slaves and to foster love.

It is also interesting to note that the Insight on the Scriptures posits the idea that it would be unknown what the actual cause of death would be after "a day or two". It could be possible that the slave died due to infection, disease, or something else and therefore the culpability of death would no longer fall upon the master/owner.

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We may have a better view if we read Exodus 21:20-21 and 21:26-27 (NIV) together.

  • 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.

So if the slave being knocked out a tooth would get compensation of his freedom. Why would he don't get the freedom after a day or two from injury? (verse 21). I bet the translation of the word "recover" is wrong, the slave was eventually dead. The logic here is in verse 20, the owner killed the slave intentionally, whereas the others not, and he received punishment by losing his property, the slave, either live or dead.

Interestingly, these verses do not repeat in Deuteronomy. However, Deuteronomy has a similar situation worth to take a look. It was about the Cities of Refuge, written in Deuteronomy 19:1-13. God asked the Israelite set aside three cities of refuge, anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought, may flee to one of these cities and save his life. But if out of hate someone lies in wait, assaults and kills a neighbor, even he flee to one of these cities, the killer shall be sent for by the town elders, be brought back from the city, and be handed over to the avenger of blood to die.

It can be seen from God judgement, whether a person deserved to die, depends on his malice aforethought. In Exodus 21:20, it conforms the malice aforethought.

Our Society today may have difficulty to accept the slavery laws in Mosaic era. But back in time the slaves didn't have human rights, their lives were always at risk without protection. God had changed that, though not using today's standard, but the path to humanity was set.

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The plain meaning of the text

Some of the less literal translations suggest that the correct meaning of Ex 21.21 is "is the slave recovers after a day or two", relying on one of the senses of 'md being "to stand", but this is incorrect, as the idea of "stand" here is that if the slave can remain for one or two days, not stand after one or two days. This is not how the text is translated in any literal translation, in the targums, or in any academic translation.

Literal translations:

  • KJV: "if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished"
  • LEB: "Yet if he survives a day or two days, he will not be avenged"
  • ESV: "if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged"
  • RSV: "if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished"
  • NASB95: "If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken"

Targums and ancient translations:

  • Targum Neofiti[1]: "but if he survives a day or two, revenge shall not be taken of him"

  • Targum Onqelos[2]: "But if he will survive for a day or two days, he shall not be punished"

  • Douay-Rheims (vulgate): "But if the party remain alive a day or two, he shall not be subject to the punishment".

  • LXX: "But if he survives one day or two, he shall not be penalized"

  • Samaritan Pentateuch: "But if he survives a day or two, he will not be put to death"[4]

Academic translations:

  • Word Biblical Commentary (John Durham): "though if for a day or two days the slave lives, he is not to suffer punishment"[5]

  • Anchor Yale Bible Commentary: (William Propp): "However, if a day or two days he stands, he shall not be avenged"[6]

Therefore the interpretation of the NIV and related looser translations is an innovation that inserts into the text a crucial "after" that is not present. It is not supported by traditional understanding or modern scholarship.

Traditional Rabbinical Interpretations

Having established that the text says the owner of a slave that dies need not be punished if the slave survives for two days, we can look at how this passage was interpreted in the rabbinic tradition:

The rabbis primarily focused on whether this applied to a Hebrew or Canaanite slave, and came to the conclusion that it must refer only to gentile slaves, due to the final clause "for he is his money" - Gentile slaves were permanent property whereas Hebrew slaves might be freed after a period of time.

Rabbi Ishmael:

The Hebrew slave is thus excluded, for although when acquired by inheritance he is completely his, he cannot be acquired as a lasting possession. The slave belonging to partners and one who is half slave and half free are also excluded. For although they can be acquired as a lasting possession, they cannot be inherited so as to be the one heir’s complete possession.[11]

Here is Rashi:

The text speaks of a Canaanite slave. Or perhaps it refers to a Hebrew slave? No, v. 21 calls the slave his “property,” meaning a permanent possession. This case would have been included under v. 12, had not this verse specifically excluded it for the sake of the “day or two” (v. 21) rule, saying that one who kills a slave is not punished unless the slave dies under his hand [7]

Rashbam agrees that this must be a Canaanite slave:

His Canaanite slave. A Hebrew slave is not his “property”: “he shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer” (Lev. 25:40). He is treated as an ordinary Jew in all respects except that his master may provide him with a Canaanite slave-woman as his wife. [8]

Ibn Ezra agrees:

Those who deny rabbinic tradition [M] say that this slave is a Hebrew slave, or a convert. But there is no doubt that Jewish law makes no distinction between a Jew who is a slave and one who is free. So this law must apply only to a slave acquired “from the nations round about” (Lev. 25:44), i.e., a non-Jew. According to Saadia, the verse discusses the case of a man who strikes his slave but not that of a man who strikes his son because a man has tender feelings for his son and could never be suspected of killing him deliberately [9]

Nahmanides also weighs in on this important distinction:

Our Sages deduced from “he is the other’s property” (v. 21) that the slave must be a Canaanite, not an Israelite. And the plain sense of the text really is what they say. For “slave” without any other identification never means a Hebrew slave [10]

Traditional Christian Interpretations

I could only find one reference to this passage among Church Fathers, a Homily by John Chrysostom, taking the optimistic view (as was common among Church fathers), that the true meaning of this verse was that the owner of a slave would not want to kill him because the slave is his property, and then making the analogy that believers are God's slaves, and therefore His property, so that we shouldn't despise his discipline. This type of difference in emphasis between rabbinical and church fathers in their approach to the law is quite common.

John Chrysostom:

This is the part of well-disposed servants, not only in His mercies, but in His corrections, and in punishments wholly to submit to Him. For how is it not absurd,3 if we bear with masters beating their servants, knowing that they will spare them, because they are their own;4 and yet suppose that God in punishing will not spare? This also Paul has intimated, saying, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom. 14:8.) A man, we say, wishes not his property to be diminished, he knows how he punishes, he is punishing his own servants. But surely no one of us spares more than He Who brought us into being out of nothing, Who maketh the sun to rise, Who causeth rain; Who breathed our life into us, Who gave His own Son for us. [12]

Modern Interpretations

Critical commentaries tend to be skeptical of the rabbinical view that the passage applies only to gentile slaves:

Lange:

On the one hand, the danger of a fatal blow was greater than in other relations, for it was lawful for a master to smite his slave (vid. Prov. 10:13; the rod was also used on children); but on the other hand an intention to kill could not easily be assumed, because the slave had a pecuniary value. Furthermore, the owner is exempted from punishment, if the beaten one survives a day or two; and the punishment then consists in the fact that the slave was his money, i.e. that in injuring the slave he has lost his own money. The Rabbins hold that this applied only to slaves of a foreign race, according to Lev. 25:44. This is not likely, if at the same time, in case of death, execution by the sword was to be prescribed; also according to this view there would have been a great gap in the law as regards Hebrew slaves. It is true, reference is here had only to injuries inflicted by the rod. When one was killed with an iron instrument, an intention to kill was assumed, and then capital punishment was inflicted unconditionally, Num. 35:16, Lev. 24:17, 21, Deut. 19:11 sqq. On the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman legislation, see Knobel, p. 219. [13]

I believe the cleanest and most correct reading of the plain text is by K&D.

Keil and Delitzsch:

Ex. 21:20, 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; 13:24); this right was involved in the paternal authority of the master over the servants in his possession. The law was 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 (i.e., under his blows), he was to be punished” (נָקֹם יִנָּקֵם: “vengeance shall surely be taken”). But in what the נָקֹם was to consist is not explained; certainly not in slaying by the sword, as the Jewish commentators maintain. The lawgiver would have expressed this by מֹות יוּמַת. No doubt it was left to the authorities to determine this according to the circumstances. The law in v. 12 could hardly be applied to a case of this description, although it was afterwards extended to foreigners as well as natives (Lev. 24:21, 22), for the simple reason, that it is hardly conceivable that a master would intentionally kill his slave, who was his possession and money. How far the lawgiver was from presupposing any such intention here, is evident from the law which follows in v. 21, “Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two (i.e., remain alive), it shall not be avenged, for he is his 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. There is no ground whatever for restricting this regulation, as the Rabbins do, to slaves who were not of Hebrew extraction.[14]


[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] The Lexham English Septuagint, Second Edition. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), Ex 21:21.

[4] Benyamim Tsedaka, ed., The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah: First English Translation Compared with the Masoretic Version, trans. Benyamim Tsedaka (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), Ex 21:21.

[5] John I. Durham, Exodus, vol. 3, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1987), 307.

[6] William H. C. Propp, Exodus 19–40: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 2A, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 104.

[7] Michael Carasik, ed., Exodus: Introduction and Commentary, trans. Michael Carasik, First edition., The Commentators’ Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 178.

[8] Michael Carasik, ed., Exodus: Introduction and Commentary, trans. Michael Carasik, First edition., The Commentators’ Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 178.

[9] Michael Carasik, ed., Exodus: Introduction and Commentary, trans. Michael Carasik, First edition., The Commentators’ Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 178.

[10] Michael Carasik, ed., Exodus: Introduction and Commentary, trans. Michael Carasik, First edition., The Commentators’ Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 178.

[11] Jacob Zallel Lauterbach, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, New ed. (Philadelphia, Pa: Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 395.

[12] John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Philemon,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff, vol. 13, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 553.

[13] John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, and Charles M. Mead, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Exodus, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 89–90.

[14] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 408–409.

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