Wednesday, December 03, 2014

More Laws Regarding Slavery -- Exodus 21:20-21

--> “And if a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”
Here are two verses that are hard for us to identify with if we live in the western hemisphere today. They talk of slavery and ‘striking one’s slave’. For us slavery was indeed abolished, or at least made illegal, many, many years ago.  This is a text therefore where we have to consider two aspects of meaning. First, there is the historical contextual connotation and then the modern-day implication. There is a need for such an approach often in Scripture. The difficulty is in discerning where exactly one has to do that and where not.  Being human, we will not always be right and thus our interpretations sometimes turn into significant theological differences that not only cause great disagreement among believers but also tarnish the name of Christ.
As a layperson I have often followed four steps in determining if I am dealing with one of these passages.  First, it is talking about something that does not exist today in its simplest form? In this case, it is talking about slavery, which has, for all intent and purposes, being abolished.  Secondly, if it is talking about something thing that does not exist today as described, is there something that has taken its place, that is, has evolved as a modern day version of what it is talking about?  If so, we then apply the teaching to that.  Third, if nothing can readily be identified as a modern-day version of the original as written in the text, then is there an application that can be applied that is in keeping with the rest of Scripture? And finally, if the answer is ‘yes’ to this last question – what is it?
So, we turn now to the historical context of these two verses.  Clearly, the Israelites had servants or slaves.  And God had specific rules as to how they were to be treated.  Mistreatment by slave owners was to be punished, but with the understanding that the servant was indeed owned to a point by his/her master.  It is in this context that God reiterated the punishment for taking another person’s life in the context of slavery as well.  That is, God’s esteem for life itself transcended one’s right to do with a slave as he/she wished.
That itself is an important concept for us to keep in mind.  I have often maintained that the world would get along just fine if each of us agreed to and adopted a “hierarchy of principles”.  The chances of that happening are zero for the world, but it is something that I have found useful in my own life and how I view what the world does or does not do.
But what exactly is the modern-day purpose for these two verses?  Well, we can easily move to the arena of today’s “employer-employee” relationship.  And while there are laws in many jurisdictions, there are still places where workers are taken advantage of and misused or mal-treated.  These verses would say to us, “be careful that you are not depriving your workers or servants of the very joy of life and the opportunity for improvement” by what you are paying them, your awareness of their family needs, etc.
Whereas the assumed punishment for historical slave masters killing their slaves is death, in our modern application of this verse, we can only hope for the labor laws to bring judgment upon an employer who mistreats employees.  And this goes on all the time.  As Christians we are to assist those that are in essence slaves in their places of work however we can – be it through improving legislation, representing them, being sensitive to what may be happening that we know is not right, and being brave enough to speak up against it.  Child labor comes to mind, as does poor working conditions, unacceptably low wages, and not enough time off to rest physically, be healed, or be with one’s loved ones.  Many employees turn to unions, if they can, to help them because we have not done the job.
[Note: I am not for a moment suggesting that we all support all labor unions.  On the contrary, I find most labor unions to be self-serving and holding their own members’ as hostages to their goals.  What I am suggesting is that we not close a blind eye to workplace evils.]
Returning to the historical context, we see that if his/her master hits the slave and the slave survives, there is no vengeance or punishment imposed on the master.  The rationale being that sometimes a master has to take strong physical corrective action if a slave is not doing his/her job properly or disobeying.  And if the master had to make a payment, to whom would he/she pay it, as he/she is the owner of the slave?  He/she would end up paying him-/herself.
In a society and time where slavery had been the practice, God is pushing the envelope of change in the Old Testament.  In the New Testament, the more appropriate and loving/caring master-servant relationship is commanded of employers.  (For more on this, read Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Culture Analysis by William J. Webb, Intervarsity Press, 2001.)
Why did God say if the slave survives “a day or two”, then no vengeance is to be taken?  Why such a short range?  What if the slave died three days, or a week, or a month, after being hit?  Does the master get off without punishment?
These are tough questions for which I have no easy answers.  The closest explanations I can find are the following:  First, we can assume that the master did not strike the slave with the intention of killing him or her for that would have meant a great loss of a slave he/she had paid good money for.  Second, if the slave did die after a day or two, the master would indeed have suffered a financial loss that would be significant.  Both are plausible, especially when considered together.
We do not always have the answers to the questions that arise in Scripture.  But if we dig hard enough and ask for understanding, God gives it to us either through others parts of the Bible or through our own thinking that is not contrary to the rest of His Holy Word. 

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