Question: How does Exodus 21:20-21 work with God's love and mercy? How could he allow people to beat their slaves badly and have the masters only punished if the slave was killed? This verse says that the slave was the persons property or money. I do not doubt God's loving kindness, but I just want to understand how this all works, because the issue of slavery in the Bible is tough for me. I know there are verses that show that the slavery of this time was different then what happened in the US and elsewhere but still, why would God allow it at all? God even commanded the Israelites to take the wives of people they killed for their own, as long as it wasn't from the towns nearby but the towns that were farther away. Isn't that kidnapping and enslaving these women?
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
(Exodus 21:20–21, ESV)
Answer: Slavery is one of those oft-mentioned biblical phenomena that people cite as inferior behavior for humanity and wonder why God did not do more about it—and especially among his own people where he had sway. Your questions are certainly legitimate, because these behaviors can be seen as eclipsing God’s love and mercy. After all, when God begins making laws to accommodate slavery, doesn’t that mean that he approves of it? These are important questions for Christians and non-Christians alike. Our first task then, is to make sure that we understand what the Bible teaches about God’s love and mercy so that we are not comparing God’s biblical behavior with our own extra-biblical notions of those behaviors.
I appreciate your attitude, that you do not doubt God’s loving kindness even in the face of these questions, because God is indeed love (1 John 4:16). This is axiomatic for us Christians. Love is one of his attributes, and as such, underpins every action. But what if I asserted that God is indulgence rather than God is love? I know, that sounds ridiculous. But that is exactly what happens to the phrase God is love when you take away God’s ability to manage a sinful world. Think of parenting for a minute. A good parent establishes a safe environment—but one with challenges that allow the child to learn and grow. Little children need to experience cause-and-effect, and those bumps and tears are part of the process of achieving adulthood. No sane parent removes every obstacle from a child. And no sane parent who is invested in his child’s (and in society’s) future, withholds appropriate discipline. A total withholding of bad experiences, and never punishing for bad behaviors, would be indulgence, not love. Love requires that we allow our children the appropriate experiences to become well-adjusted citizens and not spoiled adults—a phenomenon which vexes both the Body of Christ and our nation.
In like manner, we know that God is merciful (Psa. 86:5). This, too, is one of his attributes. But let me ask you this of mercy: If mercy were applied to every person and every situation, would it still be mercy? Or would that, too, be indulgence—an automatic canceling of the effects of sin? The universal application of mercy is not mercy; it is universalism, and this has no scriptural warrant. Hell is not a popular topic, but it does indeed exist, as surely as heaven. It is only by God’s mercy that any of us are spared this ultimate destruction. But, just as we now have one foot in “heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6), so we have one foot in hellish places (Rom. 8:22-23). Bad things will continue to happen to “good” people until Jesus returns, and this includes humans enslaving other humans. Humanity is still in the playground, learning and growing, and what we see as horrible obstacles (like slavery in the world) are difficult to look at, but they are appropriate to the tone of the world at this time. You see, because Jesus has not yet returned, we understand that sin has not yet fully ripened. Only God knows when its season will end, and only God knows its spiritual limits—and God's limits will be different from society’s stated tolerances.
Let me address your statement, “How could He allow people to…” because why, indeed, didn’t an all-powerful God just reach out and prevent these often horrific behaviors? Simply answered, that would destroy free will—and there is an item that believers and atheists can agree on. We are, and must be, volitional beings. If God reached down to intercept every bad behavior, that would make us puppets, and he the Great Puppeteer. But God did not make us puppets, nor did he make us robots. He made us moral free agents, and if he interfered with our behaviors (in that meddling sort of way), he would be countering his own will as seen in his creation. The result is that evil will continue to propagate on God’s watch (so to speak, he always watches), and many of these evils are even worse than slavery.
You asked particularly about God’s accommodating slavery in his law, highlighting the descriptions of the beatings. Have you ever noticed this about the law of God: It does not target people as it relates to their righteousness; it targets them as it relates to their sins. Whether you are talking about the Decalogue (the moral law), the Levitical laws (the types of atonement) or the subsequent descriptions of the details of the law (such as the one in your question), none would be necessary if there were no sin…and all are necessary because of it. This business about slavery? That’s not on God. That’s on us. Let me show you a parallel example. In fact, let’s let Jesus himself show us how this works.
“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”” (Matthew 19:3–9, ESV)
I’ve heard some people teach that God does not accommodate sin, but I would have to ask them what they mean by this, because, in the above passage, God clearly made an accommodation by allowing for divorce. He had to “manage” the effects of sin upon his people, because his people would have to continue to live with its effects for many years to come, and women would be better served during this season of evil by coming under the protection of the law. Slavery is like that. It is the result of sin—one that we are going to have to live with for a long time. So God stepped in as a protector (acting in love) and made the accommodation. Two things in Jesus’ teaching on divorce parallels God’s actions on slavery: First, in the beginning it was not so. God designed no slaves, nor were any present before the fall. Second, it exists because of the hardness of our hearts. (No commentary needed.) This means that God neither invented slavery nor does he approve of it. He is merely managing an inferior (and temporary) situation...but with a view of its ultimate fix. (Rev. 21:4).
As you mentioned, the Israelites sometimes took human captors as spoils of war. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that when God’s people engaged in war that the rules of warfare should apply? To the victor go the spoils! And the spoils were often human. Here again, God instructed his people how to manage a less-than-perfect situation. When a people were defeated, their women were in peril, and taking them as slaves kept a bad situation from getting worse. War and its outfall (which are also a result of sin) are never pleasant, and many things must be done at the mundane levels which seem contrary to how God should have his people behave. But at times like these, think of the alternatives. People who are not the company of an army were in peril of marauders and starvation.
I see that you understand that biblical slavery is different from its modern counterparts, but I would like to point out more exactly how this is. We in the USA hate slavery. We consider it to be a “high sin.” Perhaps this is because of our own history of enslaving Africans and treating them so cruelly—as sub-humans. That was nothing short a national sin, and we are stuck with a permanent memory of that wrongdoing. But as Americans, we should be cautious not to equate our own horrid slavery with biblical slavery. We know that some slaves were treated cruelly. Indeed, people even treat their “loved ones” cruelly because of sin. But we also know that some were treated as family, and that slavery was an economic element, more like a job choice than an intrinsically oppressive condition. Here, the apostle Paul gives us some perspective.
“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
(1 Corinthians 7:17–24, ESV)
For every person, the question is not, are you a slave? The question is, are you Christ’s? All other conditions are incidental. We attach a special horror to slavery which is just not there in the Bible. Sure, there are cruel slaveries in the world that we must fight against, but the horror-factor in these is not that people are enslaved, but that they are treated so brutally. Yes, the brutality is made possible by the slavery, but the offense itself is beyond the slavery. It is the cruelty, and not the slavery per se, that is the high crime. Don’t get me wrong. I want to fix it all! And Jesus will indeed do so…and I hope soon—but while we are stuck in this sinful world, we cannot let the contemporary human-cruelty factor attach itself to our interpretation of biblical slavery. I am not naïve. Cruelty certainly existed among ancient slaves, but cruelty exists globally among all people, and those in slavery form a mere subset. Therefore, we should not understand biblical slavery to have cruelty as its dominant aspect. This should take some of the sting off God’s allowing it.
Finally, we are a work in progress. Our beginnings were perfect, while our past, present and near future are evil. But rejoice! Our far future will perfect again. God deals with humanity through time, and though the times seem evil, God is justified therein (although this will be more apparent in the end). Furthermore, he will accomplish his plans in spite of the fact that these plans include a rebellious people that continually act out their sin. Yet, even while sin rages below, he will continue to perform his plan with infinite love and mercy. We believers need to keep an eye on his timeline. Our hope is based on the fact that our future is bright, and this brightness should not be sullied by the filth of a fallen world. Experiencing evil is part of our process. What a sad place this is for people who must also experience the evil, but without our unique hope of immanent and ultimate salvation. So, let us learn from the evils of earth and not be discouraged by their presence. We can gaze at the glories of heaven while these dark paths we tread.