The Question: How can the Bible condone slavery and the abuse of slaves? Exodus 21:20-21 clearly shows the law allowing a man to kill or abuse his slave…
Well this is another case of someone taking a specific verse without any context and twisting it to coincide with their personal agenda. As with most of those however this is an easy one to refute.
Before even looking at verses 20-21, lets go a bit ahead and look at Exodus 21:26-27.
Now wait a minute… Verses 26 and 27 say that if a man strikes his slave in such a way as to permanently injure them, that they are to be set free. But that just doesn’t make sense, if in verses 20 and 21 the law is ‘allowing’ a master to kill their slave, why on earth would they have a law to set them free if they cause them a relatively insignificant (loss of a single tooth) injury?
Well the answer is very simple: it is because Exodus 21:20-21 is not in any way indicating that a master is ‘allowed’ to kill their slave. This site offers a more in-depth analysis, but the punchline there is: nowhere do the verses say it’s acceptable to beat your slave to death. The verses say the exact opposite in fact. They are outlying the punishments for killing your slave, which means they are condemning killing or mistreating slaves, not condoning it.
Some people get fixated on the “…If he continue for a day or two, he shall not be punished…” part of Exodus 21:21 and take this to mean that it’s saying: as long as the master ‘murders’ their slave slowly (taking longer than two days before they die) then it is acceptable according to the law. Again that is absolutely not what is being said here.
This site has a more in-depth look as to what this actually means, but the main point is that this means that a master would have accidentally caused their slave to die, and as such the loss of the slave’s life, which is essentially a high value to the master, is the punishment. Verse 20 states that if the master intentionally kills his slave, that the master is to be punished (some translations say put to death, others punished), verse 21 states if the master accidentally causes the death of their slave, that the loss is punishment enough.
This may seem harsh by our terms and completely barbaric, however that being said, you have to keep in mind that everywhere in the world slavery was prevalent and part of culture and society. It wasn’t very long ago that even the great American society had slaves as an integral part of it’s culture.
On that note, nowhere in the Bible does it ‘condone’ or ‘advocate’ slavery or say it’s ‘good’ to have slaves. Slavery was a part of the world and cultures, and as such it only stands to reason that there would be mention of it in the Bible. I’ll also add that our modern day idea of what ‘slavery’ means/is gives a false view of what the Bible is speaking of when it refers to ‘slaves’. This article explains it well I believe, and that topic itself warrants a separate post so I won’t go into detail in this one.
So what we see in the Bible in relation to slaves is not laws permitting the abuse or murder of slaves, but rather laws advocating the protection and fair treatment of slaves. Keep in mind this is in a time where in most culture’s slaves had no rights or protection of any kind and were treated as animals.
Taking Exodus 21:20-21 and saying that it proves the Bible condones abusing and murdering slaves or condones slavery is very ignorant and foolish and shows an extreme lack of knowledge on the subject matter by the issuer of that statement. Exodus 21:20-27 show quite the opposite in fact.
It shows that in a world filled with cultures that abused and mistreated slaves, followers of God who had slaves were instructed to treat them with respect and were to be held accountable for their actions towards them.
The Bible talks further in the New Testament about how to treat servants and slaves (or anyone under authority or supervision for that matter) in Colossians 4:1 and Ephesians 6:9. This further shows how God really wants us to act towards those under our authority and advocates the true spirit of God, which is one of mercy and love.