The Servant Dying Under Chastisement
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.

This law has frequently been seized on as a blot on the Mosaic legislation - as inculcating the odious doctrine which lies at the root of modern slave-systems, viz. that the slave is a mere "chattel," and as such, has no personal rights - is entitled to no protection of life or limb. The interpretation put on this particular clause is the more unfair, that it must be admitted to be opposed to the spirit and enactments of the law as a whole, taking, as this does, so exceptionally humane a view of the slave''s position (see above); and is, moreover, directly in the teeth of such clauses as those in the immediate context - "If a man smite the eye of a servant," etc. (vers. 26, 27). The enactment will appear in its right light if we view it with regard to the following considerations: -

1. The law deals with slavery, not from the point of view of abstract right - from which point of view it could only be condemned - but as a recognised part of the then existing constitution of society. It takes its existence for granted. It deals with it as statesmen have constantly to deal with institutions and customs which they do not wholly approve of, but which they cannot summarily abolish without entailing on society worse evils than those from which escape is sought. But if the right to hold property in slaves - to however limited an extent - be granted, the corollaries of this possession must be granted also. A slave cannot be treated in the eye of the law quite as a free man. His position is relatively a degraded one. The owner of slaves has pecuniary and proprietary rights in his bondservants, which the law must take account of. The slave is the owner''s "money."

2. The aim of the law is not to place the slave at the master''s mercy, but to restrict the master''s power over him. Ancient law recognised no restriction. The Mosaic law does. It goes at least thus far, that if the slave dies under the rod, the master shall be punished. The drift and bent of the law is for the slave''s benefit.

3. It is important to remember that the case is treated here, not in its moral aspects, but solely as a question in criminal jurisprudence. The moral law has its own say in the matter, and. pronounces its own judgment, irrespectively of whether the individual is proceeded against under criminal law or not. The master who, by the undue exercise of the large right of chastisement which the usage of the time allowed him, occasioned his slave''s death, was responsible to God for the excess of passion which led to this catastrophe. The law of Moses gave no sanction to the master to endanger his servant''s life with the rod. But moral offences do not always admit of being dealt with as crimes. To convict of murder, e.g., there is proof required of malice prepense, and this, in the case before us, was precisely what was not forthcoming. The legal tribunals had. authority to punish the master, if the slave died under his hand; if immediate death did not take place, the master was to have the benefit of the doubt, and in view of the heavy money loss sustained in the death of the slave (on the average, "thirty shekels of silver," ver. 32), was not to be further proceeded against.

4. The law in this verse - taken in conjunction with others - was really a powerful deterrent from the misuse of authority on the part of the master.

(1) It relates only to chastisement with the rod. If the master assaulted his slave with any lethal weapon, the case came under other laws, and might involve his being tried for murder.

(2) The case supposed is that of a slave dying under bona fide chastisement. If murderous intent could be proved against the master - whether the slave lingered a day or two or not - there is no reason to doubt but that the law of ver. 14 would have been applied, and the master would have been put to death.

(3) Involving, as the death of the slave did, criminal proceedings, and, on conviction, severe punishment, the mere danger of a fatal result ensuing would be a powerful deterrent from exceptional violence. The punishment appears to have been left to the discretion of the judges, and probably ranged from the death penalty (if deliberate murder could be proved), to a simple money fine. The mere risk of incurring such a penalty would inspire salutary caution.

(4) The master also knew that if, by his temporary violence, the slave should suffer serious bodily injury, he would be entitled, if he did not die, to claim his freedom (vers, 26, 27). The fear of losing a valuable property, whether by death, or, if the slave did not die, in the way last mentioned, would infallibly co-operate with other motives in the direction of restraint. The case, therefore, stood thus, that failing proof of direct intent to murder, the probabilities were in favour of the theory that the death of the slave to whom severe chastisement had been administered, was a result not designed; and the money loss involved in the death of the slave being regarded as equivalent to a heavy fine, the law, in ordinary cases, did not see it necessary to go further. But if the case was so serious that the slave had actually died under his master''s hand, or within a short space of time, then, whether the death was designed or not, the law took the matter up, and inflicted punishment according to discretion. Criminal law could scarcely have done more. The amelioration of the condition of the slave was to be looked for mainly from moral influences, which, under the Mosaic system, were assuredly not wanting. - J.O.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

WEB: "If a man strikes his servant or his maid with a rod, and he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.

Masters and Servants
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