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.
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(20) And if a man smite his servant.—The homicide hitherto considered has been that of freemen; but the Mosaic Law was not content to stop at this point. Unlike most other codes, it proceeded to forbid the homicide of slaves. Hitherto, throughout the East, and also in many parts of the West, slaves had been regarded as so absolutely their master’s property that he was entitled to do as he pleased with them. Now, for the first time—so far as we know—was the life of the slave protected. The exact extent of the protection is uncertain. According to the Talmud, the master who killed his slave was put to death; according to some modern Jews, as Kalisch, he had merely to pay a fine. In any case, the killing was an offence of which the law took cognisance. Later on it appears that even assaults on slaves, if they reached a certain intensity, were unlawful, and involved the slave’s compulsory emancipation (Exodus 21:26-27).

With a rod.—The usual instrument of punishment. It would follow, as a matter of course, that if a more dangerous implement was used the master was punished with equal, or greater, severity.

Exodus 21:20. With a rod — The usual instrument of correction, whereby is implied, that if he killed the person with a sword or any such weapon he was to be put to death; and he die under his hand — While the master is correcting him; he shall be punished — As the magistrate or judge shall think fit, according to the circumstances.

21:12-21 God, who by his providence gives and maintains life, by his law protects it. A wilful murderer shall be taken even from God's altar. But God provided cities of refuge to protect those whose unhappiness it was, and not their fault, to cause the death of another; for such as by accident, when a man is doing a lawful act, without intent of hurt, happens to kill another. Let children hear the sentence of God's word upon the ungrateful and disobedient; and remember that God will certainly requite it, if they have ever cursed their parents, even in their hearts, or have lifted up their hands against them, except they repent, and flee for refuge to the Saviour. And let parents hence learn to be very careful in training up their children, setting them a good example, especially in the government of their passions, and in praying for them; taking heed not to provoke them to wrath. Through poverty the Israelites sometimes sold themselves or their children; magistrates sold some persons for their crimes, and creditors were in some cases allowed to sell their debtors who could not pay. But man-stealing, the object of which is to force another into slavery, is ranked in the New Testament with the greatest crimes. Care is here taken, that satisfaction be made for hurt done to a person, though death do not follow. The gospel teaches masters to forbear, and to moderate threatenings, Eph 6:9, considering with Job, What shall I do, when God riseth up? Job 31:13,14.The Jewish authorities appear to be right in referring this law, like those in Exodus 21:26-27, Exodus 21:32, to foreign slaves (see Leviticus 25:44-46). The protection here afforded to the life of a slave may seem to us but a slight one; but it is the very earliest trace of such protection in legislation, and it stands in strong and favorable contrast with the old laws of Greece, Rome, and other nations. If the slave survived the castigation a day or two, the master did not become amenable to the law, because the loss of the slave was accounted, under the circumstances, as a punishment. Ex 21:7-36. Laws for Maidservants.

7-11. if a man sell his daughter—Hebrew girls might be redeemed for a reasonable sum. But in the event of her parents or friends being unable to pay the redemption money, her owner was not at liberty to sell her elsewhere. Should she have been betrothed to him or his son, and either change their minds, a maintenance must be provided for her suitable to her condition as his intended wife, or her freedom instantly granted.

His servant, namely, a stranger; for an Israelite was to be better used. See Leviticus 25:39,40, &c.

With a rod; a fit and usual instrument for correction, whereby it is implied, that if he killed him with a sword, or any such weapon, he was to die for it.

Under his hand, i.e. whilst the master is correcting him.

He shall be surely punished; not with death, for then it would have been said so, as it is before and after; but as the magistrate or judge shall think fit, according to the diversity of circumstances; and therefore no particular punishment is set down.

And if a man smite his servant or his maid with a rod,.... A Canaanitish servant or maid, as the Targum of Jonathan, and so Jarchi; and that only with a rod for the correction of them, and not with a sword or any such destroying weapon, which would seem as though he intended to kill, yet nevertheless:

and he die under his hand; immediately, while he is smiting or beating him or her, on the same day, as the above Targum interprets it:

he shall be surely punished; or condemned to the punishment of being slain with the sword, as the said Targum and Jarchi explain it: this law was made to deter masters from using severity and cruelty towards their servants.

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
20. his servant, or his maid] i.e. (cf. marg.) his male or female slave.

a rod] The usual implement of punishment (Proverbs 10:13; Proverbs 13:24).

punished] lit. avenged; so v. 21. In what the punishment consisted, is not stated. The Jews (Mechilta, Ps.-Jon., &c.) understood death (viz. by the sword) to be intended: but in that case ‘he shall surely be put to death’ would certainly have been said, as in other cases (vv. 12, 15, 16, & c.); besides, vv. 21 (cf. 19 f.), 26 f. (cf. 23 ff.), 32 (cf. 28 ff.) shew that a marked difference was made between a slave and a free man. No doubt the determination of the penalty was left to the discretion of the judge (Di.), or it was a fine payable to the sanctuary (Bä.), the amount of which varied with the means of the slave’s master.

20, 21. Beating a slave so that he dies. Vv. 26 f., 32, also deal with injuries to slaves. The penalties prescribed shew that less was thought of the life of a slave than of that of a free man,—in v. 21 he is called simply his master’s ‘money’; at the same time he has rights, and cannot be treated with entire impunity. The position of slaves in Israel must thus have been considerably better than that of slaves in Rome, at least in the time of the Republic, when their masters could kill them with impunity (Dion. Halic. vii. 68, Plutarch, Cato 21,—cited by Kn.).

Verses 20, 21. - Homicide of slaves. In most ancient states the slave was the absolute property of his master, and might be ill-used to any extent, even killed, without the law in any way interfering. It is said that the state of things was different in Egypt (Kalisch); but we have scarcely sufficient evidence on the point to be certain that the slave enjoyed there any real and efficient protection. At Athens, beyond a doubt, the law protected the life of the slave; and a very moderate amount of ill-treatment entitled a slave to bring an action. At Rome, on the contrary, "the master could treat the slave as he pleased, could sell him, punish him, and put him to death" (Dict. of Greek & Roman Antiq. p. 1036). And this was the ordinary state of the law, particularly in Oriental countries. The Mosaic legislation must be regarded as having greatly ameliorated the condition of the native slave population. Hebrew bondmen it placed nearly upon a par with hired servants (Leviticus 25:40); foreign slaves, whether prisoners taken in war, or persons bought in the market, it protected to a very great extent. By the law given in verses 26, 27, it largely controlled the brutality of masters, who had to emancipate their slaves if they did them any serious injury. By the law laid down in verse 20, it gave their lives the same protection, or nearly the same, as the lives of freemen. "Smiting "was allowed as a discipline, without which slavery cannot exist; but such smiting as resulted in death was, as a general rule, punishable like any other homicide. The only exception was, if the slave did not die for some days (ver. 21). In that case the master was considered not to have intended the slave' s death, and to be sufficiently punished by the loss of his property. Verse 20. - If a man smite his servant, or his maid. "Maids" would commonly be chastised by their mistress, or by an upper servant acting under the mistress' s authority. "A man" here means "any one." With a rod. The rods wherewith Egyptian slaves were chastised appear upon the monuments. They were long canes, like those used by our schoolmasters. Under his hand. Criminals in the East are said often to die under the bastinado; and even in our own country there have been cases of soldiers dying under the lash. A special delicacy of the nervous system will make a punishment of the kind fatal to some, which would have been easily borne by others. Exodus 21:20The case was different with regard to a slave. The master had always the right to punish or "chasten" him with a stick (Proverbs 10:13; Proverbs 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" (ינּקם נקם: "vengeance shall surely be taken"). But in what the נקם 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 יוּמת מות. No doubt it was left to the authorities to determine this according to the circumstances. The law in Exodus 21:12 could hardly be applied to a case of this description, although it was afterwards extended to foreigners as well as natives (Leviticus 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 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; 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.
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