Let’s begin by reading the passage:
Exodus 21:20 “And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.”
Exodus 21:21 “Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.”
Does God allow brutal treatment of servants in this text?
The question seems to be brought about because of the statement “he (the master) shall NOT BE PUNISHED” (verse 21) if the smitten servant survives for one day before dying.
To understand why a master is not punishable for the death of a servant who survives for a day after being beaten, we must understand what punishment is due to a person who kills another. Exodus 21:12 says, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies is surely to be put to death.” Notice that the punishment for killing a person is death for the killer. However, we should also understand that killings can either be unintentional (Exodus 21:13) or intentional (Exodus 21:14). Intentional killing is punishable by death (today, we can call this murder) while unintentional killing is not (today, this can be considered as excusable homicide).
In the case of Exodus 21:21, the fact that the servant survives for a day or two proves that the master has no intention of killing the servant. The master is therefore not punishable by death. The master may have smitten the servant for corrective purposes but not unto death. If the servant still dies after a day, the master is not punished by death because the loss of a servant is already considered sufficient punishment for the master. Exodus 21:21 says that the servant “is his (that is, the master’s) money.” Meaning, the master lost his money in losing his servant.
PUNISHMENTS FOR BRUTALITY
Does God permit brutality in the old testament? If God permits brutality, there should be no punishment for brutality, is there? If a master injures his servant, does he have any accountability? Let’s examine the texts in the same chapter. Exodus 21:18, 19, reading from the ISV, says:
“If people quarrel and one strikes the other with a rock or his fist, and he does not die but ends up in bed, and the injured person then gets up and walks around outside with the help of his staff, the one who struck him is not liable, except that he is to compensate him for his loss of time and take care of his complete recovery.”
Notice that if a person causes great injury to another person, he should pay both the hospital bills of the injured and the time lost by the injured. The law provides further security to servants by stating that If a master causes permanent injury to his servant, such as the loss of sight (verse 26) and even the loss of a tooth (verse 27), the servant should be set free.
In summary here are the punishments that a master can receive depending on how he treats his servants:
If a master intentionally kills his servant, he should be punished with death.
If a master causes injury to his servant, he should pay the treatment bills and the time lost.
If a master causes permanent injury to his servant, he should free his servant.
PRIMITIVE BUT PRECIOUS
When we compare this primitive wilderness law set upon the people of Israel with the laws of the Greeks and even of the Romans, we can see that there is a great contrast.
Greek and Roman culture consider bondmen as mere objects, not as a valuable human being. Greek and Roman law does not provide any security for servants, a master can go without even worrying about punishments if he kills his servant. On the contrary, God wants Israel to treat people as people. Even if a master paid for the servant and therefore literally owns the servant, the life and even the health of the servant remain valuable and should be cared for.
Did God allow brutal treatment of servants in Exodus 21:20, 21? A careful contextual study of the text proves that God does not allow the brutal treatment of servants, not even the slightest permission. Instead of allowing brutality, God even provided legal provisions for the security of a servant against the abuse of his master.