Was it OK to beat slaves in the Old Testament?

Hi David,

I was talking to my husband about what we learned tonight, and when i got to the bit about slavery he immediately brought up Exodus 21:20-21. I have to admit, it does paint a rather ugly picture, but I'm hoping you'll have some insight you can share to help me explain it better. I've no doubt this is not the first time someone has come to you with this verse. :)



I’m not sure what bothers him.

These verses come within a larger context of legal code given to the Israelites by Moses. And, since I don’t know what bothers him, I’ll only say a couple things that might be bothering him…but I’m only guessing.

(1)    In nearly every single instance of the OT, a “slave” is really a “debt servant.” These were people who either (a) owed a person so much money that they had to go work for the master to pay him off; (b) were sold into that kind of slavery by a parent or relative to help work off the debt; or (c) were just so very poor that they sold themselves into slavery in order to survive (have something to eat, have shelter, etc.)

(2)    These legal codes are not moral prescriptions. These are not ways that the Israelites “should behave.” So, in this passage, the text is not saying or suggesting that masters should go around beating their servants. This is telling the Israelites that in the case that a master beats his servant, what the punishment would be. It in no way condones beating slaves. Masters were supposed to be good to their servants, but not all of them were.

So, does this help?

Sorry, I should have been more specific.  The part that bothers him is that the master is only to be punished if the servant dies. He understands that the servant is paying off a debt, but doesn't feel that they were expected to be treated well if the master could basically do whatever he wanted to the servant, free of punishment, as long as they survived it.

I was trying to explain to him the various ways that God took care of the servants in the Old Testament, but he brought up these verses, asking why there's no punishment for beating a slave as long as they don't die. Maybe it's the wording, or just the harsh truth. I just don't know how to make it sound less barbaric to him.


No doubt that when you gave yourself up to a master in order to pay off your debt, you lost certain rights. Yet, while slaves were certainly not supposed to be beaten, the debt-slave was the “property” of the master at that point. 

However, there is no reason at all to think that “the master could basically do whatever he wanted to the servant.” In fact, these verses curtail abuse. I think that, in general, if you treated a slave poorly, they were to be set free (as is made explicit in 21:6). This punishment isn’t to encourage them to “go beat your slave.” Instead, this is to curtail the abuse of discipline when the slave did something wrong that demanded some consequences. That is, some debt slaves would do immoral/illegal things and there were negative consequences to pay for it. And, beating them with a rod was common punishment for doing something immoral or illegal. (Remember, there were no jails back then! And, the slaves couldn’t pay a fine to make up for whatever they did wrong since they were in debt slavery.)

Okay, that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification! As you know, nonbelievers tend to pick apart every little verse, and this is one I struggled with explaining. I appreciate your time and insight.