Atheist Andrew’s Misreading of Exodus 21:20-21 On Beating Slaves

A visiting atheist fanboy of Richard Dawkins named Andrew wrote:

Oh dear – have you not actually read the bible? It clearly says you can beat your slave to death as long as they take longer than three days to die.

Rather than addressing some difficult questions posed to him by Rhology, Andrew jumps immediately into a passage that is typically touted by Internet atheists who want to pretend as though they know the Bible better than most believers by virtue of their having read, say, the Skeptics Bible or visited Evil Bible. Now let’s address Andrew’s misreading of the text.

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.”
Ex 21:20-21 (ESV)

Concerning this passage Andrew writes, “It clearly says you can beat your slave to death.” But it does not. The text does not condone the beating of the slave at all. Rather, the text is describing what the punishment is *for* beating one’s slave to death. That is, the text actually *condemns* beating a slave to death. In the one case, the slave owner is punished by being put to death. In the other case, which is an unintentional death by beating, the slave owner is punished in terms of his own financial loss from having beaten his slave to death. The implication is that he did not intend to kill his slave, but was still wrong in beating the slave. Otherwise there would be no mention of punishment in either case. But as it is, there is a punishment in both cases here for beating a slave to death. In the first case of intentionally beating a slave to death, the slave owner is likewise to be put to death. In the second case of unintentionally beating a slave to death, the slave owner’s own foolish financial loss serves as his punishment.

Perhaps Andrew should try studying the text next time on his own (not an atheist site that references the text), or reading some commentaries, and he won’t make such silly mistakes, reading the text the exact *opposite* way from which it is to be read.

22 thoughts on “Atheist Andrew’s Misreading of Exodus 21:20-21 On Beating Slaves

  1. Let’s look at the point I was addressing:
    “Biblically-endorsed slavery did not condone flogging and mistreatment”

    I need only show that flogging was condoned, not killing your slave. Thus by claiming that killing is punished, you start by attacking a straw man. “Perhaps Andrew should try studying the text next time on his own”. And perhaps you should try studying the text of my posts!

    Now, in that passage, as long as the slave doesn’t die, the bible says is “he is not to be punished”. How much clearer a case of ‘condoning flogging’ can you get than clearly stating ‘he is not to be punished’? “there is a punishment in both cases here for beating a slave to death”. Right, but not for the flogging if it does NOT lead to death.

    Perhaps you should start a new blog post where you actually address my point.

    Whiff indeed!

    • Are you sure you want to dig a deeper hole for yourself?

      The text does not condone flogging and mistreatment. Where on earth are you getting that from in the text? Again, you should spend more time studying the text on your own, and less time reading these ignorant atheist websites. It is clear you do not understand the text.

      It seems that you have conceded my point that the text condemns beating one’s slave to death, and condemns beating one’s slave such that the death of the slave comes about unintentionally, but now you want to argue that the text still “condones” the beating of the slave.

      Your difficulty is that it does not. The only thing the text is speaking to are the punishments for killing a slave by beating him or her, whether intentionally or not. In claiming that the text approves of beating a slave you are arguing from silence. It would be the same thing as me saying that since you did not condemn slavery or rape in your comment above, you condone both. But that is nonsense. You were not addressing your view on slavery or rape.

      Likewise the text in question is not addressing the beating of slaves in general, but setting punishments for beating slaves with death coming about as a result. If you had bothered to read the context, rather than just cherry picking a bad argument from an emotionally driven atheist website, then you would have seen that the passage is not merely addressing the beating of slaves, but the beating or striking of a number of different kinds of people and the respective punishments due for the various results of those beatings or strikings.

      The text is not, in other words, doing anything different from what our current legal code does. Just because the law sets a particular punishment for murder and a lesser one for manslaughter and does not address the means whereby the victim was killed does not mean that there are not also laws and morality that pertain to those means. They just are not explicitly stated in that portion of the code.

      When you claim that there is no punishment for the beating if it does not lead to death, you go beyond what the text is addressing. The text is addressing what happens if the beating *does* lead to death. Again, you are making an argument from silence. Not only is that fallacious, but the implication of the text is that beating a slave is a bad thing; it is something which may cause the death of the slave, and that will be punished. The text thus discourages beating one’s slave. It does not encourage it, and it does not condone it.

  2. Also, it’s baffling how you can class the slaver losing their slave by their own hand as ‘punishment’. Not because I deny that would be a loss, but because it’s nothing on top of what they’ve already done themselves. In other words, if one were looking for any action from a third party to signify punishment for the slaver, shrugging and saying “You’ve suffered enough” is actually LESS than the very bare minimum anyone could bring against him. If fact, the only action that would be MORE condoning would be if the slaver was awarded another slave in compensation! The fact that this is NOT prescribed is the nearest you can get to showing that the death is not condoned,

    Anyway, I notice you asking me to reply to other questions. I’m flattered. If you want to continue any discussion, feel free to return to that thread on Reasonable Doubts. Here you get to pick and choose which posts you allow and when to allow them, being as snotty as you want while warning others not to be snotty in return. As far as this site is concerned, I’ll leave you, Rhology, McConformist and that other guy to entertain each other in your own echo chamber.

    • You’ve proven you are not in the best position to try and understand a generic legal code, much less make proclamations about the justice of a particular portion of the law of God that you were clever enough to copy and paste from a non-academic website with an axe to grind.

      The other questions I noted that you dodged were those presented to you by Rhology. The thread on Reasonable Doubts has nothing to do with the subject matter here nor the current argument. Rhology has not posted his comments there, and you did not begin to respond to Rhology there. Rather, that all happened here, and you dodged his points and questions, choosing rather to throw this silly argument out there while feigning to know the Bible better than him.

      I have let every one of your comments through whenever I get online. So you have no place to complain. Perhaps unlike you, I do have business to take care of that is not on the Internet.

      If you want to bow out now that is your prerogative, but your comments indicate an unwillingness on your part to engage with thoughtful Christians outside of your comfort zone of the atheist locker room in the combox at Reasonable Doubts and elsewhere. Rhology’s points stand, my other argument you commented on at length stands, and my response to your very poor reading of the text quoted above still stands. I’d be bowing out too!

      I pray God will show you the mercy that He showed me while I was a child of wrath just like you. If you come to Jesus Christ He will not cast you out. He is your Lord and Savior with respect to all of your sins, intellectual and otherwise.

  3. “The text does not condone the beating of the slave at all.”

    Surely it’s bad enough that it condones the keeping of slaves in the first place?

    • First, that was not what Andrew was addressing.
      Second, where does this particular text condone the keeping of slaves? It does not. Rather, it sets the punishments for beating a slave to death, whether intentionally or not. Does your government condone rape by setting punishments for rapists?

      • The text, as you say, is outlining the punishments for beating or striking ‘a number of different kinds of people’. If slavery is not condoned, then why bother including slaves as a distinctive kind of people?

        • Because slavery was an integral part of the Ancient Near Eastern society and economy, and hence there were slaves. Let’s not be anachronistic.

          But again, that was not what Andrew was addressing, and the particular text in view does not condone the keeping of slaves anymore than your government condones rape by setting punishments for rapists, assuming that there are such people as rapists, and that there are such people as rape victims.

          • “Because slavery was an integral part of the Ancient Near Eastern society and economy, and hence there were slaves. Let’s not be anachronistic.”

            Are you saying that the morality outlined in the text applies only to ancient near eastern societies? If so, what use is it to us today, aside from as an example of how far we’ve come since those dark days?

            “But again, that was not what Andrew was addressing…”

            That’s not relevant to the fact it seems odd to me that the text condones slavery. Which is where I entered the discussion. It seems odd to be splitting hairs over just how much slave beating is allowed by the Bible, when slavery itself is such a Bad Thing.

            ” and the particular text in view does not condone the keeping of slaves anymore than your government condones rape by setting punishments for rapists, assuming that there are such people as rapists, and that there are such people as rape victims.”

            This analogy appears to be equating slaves with rapists, which would be an unusual approach. The government sets punishment for rapists because rape is a crime. It doesn’t accept that rape is an integral part of modern society and set punishments for rapists dependent on whether or not they rape people who are enslaved or free.

          • The law outlined in the text applied to ancient theocratic Israel.

            You repeated again that this particular text condones slavery, but it does not.

            If you want to talk about texts that appear to condone slavery, then that is fine, but it is irrelevant to the point Andrew failed to make as quoted in the post, and it just brings us back to Rhology’s statement that already addresses the issue of the Bible’s view of slavery. Perhaps your comments would be more at home there.

            Thanks for the comments and civil tone though.

          • “The law outlined in the text applied to ancient theocratic Israel.”

            Where presumably virtue was not convenient.

            “You repeated again that this particular text condones slavery, but it does not.”

            As mentioned previously, if slavery is not being condoned, then there is no need to have special rules that apply only to the treatment of slaves. One simply notes that slavery is unacceptable and moves on.

            “Thanks for the comments and civil tone though.”

            Likewise. On a more general note, beyond the post that caught my attention, I wandered onto this site yesterday whilst following a trail from some other blog and – not having encountered much in the way of presuppositional apologetics previously – it’s certainly a very interesting topic of discussion, even if I don’t find the notion entirely convincing. Thank you for your time.

          • What the text does not condone is particular behaviour towards slaves. Where a specific punishment is defined the activity could then be presumed to not be condoned. Where a particular activity is specified – such as the process of taking one of your female slaves/indentured servants as a wife – other activity in those circumstances would be assumed to be not condoned.
            There is no punishment defined for the keeping of slaves and there is no activity specified for the not keeping of slaves. Plus there is a process for how someone could come into being a slave, this all then implys that not only does that section not condone slavery it is an acceptable activity.

          • “There is no punishment defined for the keeping of slaves and there is no activity specified for the not keeping of slaves.”

            Yes, as I have repeatedly said, the text does not address that. It also does not address NASCAR or bunny rabbits. While the keeping of slaves is a similar topic to that of punishments for murdering slaves, neither the keeping of slaves nor NASCAR nor bunny rabbits are mentioned in the text.

            “Plus there is a process for how someone could come into being a slave, this all then implys that not only does that section not condone slavery it is an acceptable activity.”

            And I am not arguing that Scripture does not, outside of this text, “condone” slavery. It just is not relevant to Andrew’s obvious blunder.

  4. Might you read the text to understand the nature of the slavery therein, or do you just assume you know?

  5. Hey Andrew, I would recommend picking up the Oxford Bible Commentary edited by Barton and Muddiman, you could probably find it used for about 20 bucks or so and contains a wealth of material. Every time I need to deal with a biblical passage, it is one of my first sources and it generally keeps me from making a fool out of myself when I misread a passage in English or bumble my first year Hebrew in the BHS. It’s not the kind of work that would be embraced around here, but it is light years ahead of most websites.

  6. PhaseVelocity

    Wow, mr C.L. Bolt!

    You are morally challenged if you do not understand that Bible text is immoral.
    And I am sorry to say that the way you defend it shows that you are challenged in other areas to.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    • Wow mr PhaseVelocity!

      You are morally challenged if you think that Bible text is immoral.
      And I am sorry to say that the way you defend it shows that you are challenged in other areas to.

      Not to mention that you have awful grammar and spelling.

      • Professor Bolt,

        Were you actually referring to PhraseVelocity’s “awful grammar and spelling” when you said “…you are challenged in other areas to [sic]“?

        • Apparently you did not notice that I copied most of PhraseVelocity’s spelling, grammar, and sentence structure in the first part of my comment. That was intentional.

  7. 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.”
    Ex 21:20-21 (ESV)

    Verse 21 tells us that, if a person who owns a slave beats them and they die ‘under his hand’ (or dies immediately), that he shall be punished. This is contrasted with another statement. In verse 22, the difference is that the slave survives a few days from this initial beating. We are told that, if this is the case, he is not to be punished because the slave was his money, or ‘property’.
 A beating involving a rod that ends in the immediate death of the victim seems to be more blameworthy than one that ends in the eventual death from say, internal bleeding. The difference here seems to be something akin to 1st and 3rd degree murder.
    Setting aside the fact that we are talking about a law system ordained by a being of perfect goodness which allows owning slaves, there is another potentially questionable moral issue at hand. What should we think of a society that allowed 3rd degree murder to go unpunished as long as they were their property? If somebody takes a baseball bat to their own car and accidentally destroys it to the point of it being useless, nobody would see this as needing a punishment – or maybe we would say that his wasteful behavior has been ‘punished’ by the fact that his car is no longer of use to him. Few would think that such an activity was a moral issue and so no further ‘punishment’ would be demanded.



    But, we are not talking about reckless behavior resulting in the loss of an automobile. We are talking about reckless behavior resulting in the severe beating and subsequent death of a person.

 If the bible is true, then it’s true and one’s discomfort with certain verses is irrelevant. But is there anything wrong with Christians saying that completely destroying one’s own property accidentally is not the same as 3rd degree murder and that 3rd degree murder requires more of a punishment that merely not having a slave?

    Technically, I believe Chris is right. In the verse he posted, it does not explicitly condone the beating of slaves.

It merely warns against intentionally….

    a.) Murdering your slave with a rod.

    b.) Beating the slave too hard. (because he might end up dead in a few days and you will be out of a farm-hand.)




    The complete absence of ANY condemnation of masters beating their slaves in principle coupled with a warning against only the severe kinds of beatings that may lead to the death of their slaves leads one to reasonably infer that other kinds of beatings are probably fine as long as they aren’t life-threatening.



    Another issue that further complicates this verse is that this only applies to the translation found in a few translations. 


    The difference is between
    ‘IBut, if he survives for a day or two.”

    Found in NRSV, ESV, NASB, KJB, WEB


    and
…

    “But, if the slave recovers after a day or two.”

    Found in NIV, NLT, God’s Word, 


    Clearly, this is no small difference. The second form is considerably worse as it DOES say beating slaves is fine so long as they get up in a few days. The greater of two evils.

    

I should perhaps presume that the ‘real’ Christians have their ducks all in a row – that they have some external standard for knowing which translation, if any, is the correct translation. Clearly, It is not as though relying on translations made by humans, scholarly ones at that, subjecting God’s word to their totally depraved reasoning abilities is going to be sufficient.

    And yes, I copy/pasted this from the skeptic’s annotated bible.

  8. “The complete absence of ANY condemnation of masters beating their slaves in principle coupled with a warning against only the severe kinds of beatings that may lead to the death of their slaves leads one to reasonably infer that other kinds of beatings are probably fine as long as they aren’t life-threatening.

”

    Again, this is an argument from silence. The quoted text does not address the question of the morality or legality of “other kinds of beatings” at all. Further, there are other places in Scripture which would imply that beating one’s slave in whatever manner you seem to have in mind would not be acceptable. Take, for example, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But there are many more examples.

    http://www.choosinghats.org/2012/03/justin-scheiber-on-bible-translation