Does Scripture See the Poor as Property?

13 Dec

from Google Images

At this time I intend to begin addressing those Scriptures that challenge the point of view that the poor and the servant had value in Israel.[1] The new atheists, often ignoring the positive treatment of the poor / servant under the Mosaic Law, try to show that God (through the Law of Moses) had a dim view of those who were sold into slavery (servitude). The critics try to tell us that servants were treated as property under the Mosaic Law with human rights ignored in favor of exalting the rights of their masters or creditors. What can we say of such things?

Let’s consider one of the main Scriptures that is used to support the Biblical critic’s position:

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money. (Exodus 21:20-21 KJV)

The critic’s position is further enforced by many translations that use the word property for the word money (H3701 – keseph). This word is used over 400 times in the Old Testament. Nearly three quarters of the time it is translated silver and about one quarter of the time it is translated money (KJV). The word property, if it can be used at all, should be used with caution and while considering the context. I believe it can be shown that money is preferred over property in Exodus 21:20-21, and there is a difference, which I hope to show below.

If the servant actually belonged to his master (creditor), the master couldn’t be punished however he treated his property. If I had a new car and chose to junk it or beat it with a hammer, folks might think I’m crazy, but who could ever bring me up on charges in a court of law? The car is mine, after all, to do with as I pleased—in accordance with the law of the land. In Exodus 21:20-21 if a man beat his servant, and that servant died immediately, the man would be tried for homicide under the Mosaic Law. Logic tells us this could never be so, if the servant truly was the man’s property.

Another word that needs to be considered is naqam (H5358) translated punished (twice) in the Scripture above, and, although the word appears about thirty times in the Old Testament, it is so translated only in this Scripture (Exodus 21:20-21). Elsewhere, it means to be avenged in the sense that one takes the life of another. In other words, what Exodus 21:20-21 is saying is, not that the master shouldn’t be punished at all, but that he should not be executed. The rod used in the Scripture above was not a sword. There is reason to believe, therefore, that murder was not the intent, but death occurred by accident, concerning which, another penalty needs to be considered (Joshua 20:1-6). However, if the man who accidentally killed his servant reached a city of refuge, execution of the master / creditor cannot be considered by the judges. Notice that both men, the servant and his master, were treated with human dignity and value in the Law of Moses. Had the servant lost an eye or a tooth while being disciplined instead of his life, he would have been set free, immediately, with his debt cancelled (Exodus 21:26-27).

Yet, viewing the Scripture from the point of view of the critic, it still seems biased against the servant, because it describes him as his master’s money. What can be said about this? First of all, it can be argued that logic would tell us the master had no intention of killing or permanently harming his servant. After all, having servants represent a person’s ability to prosper above what he could do alone (he is his money). Intending to harm or killing his servant makes about as much sense as me intentionally destroying a new car I might have bought. The comparison may be crude in the critic’s eye, but the meaning is clear. Why would a sane man harm or destroy what could help him prosper?

Secondly, it can also be argued that the phrase he is his money should be rendered: it is his money¸ referring to the fee the master / creditor spent on physicians to try to save his servant—indicating the master had no intention of hurting him. This point of view is put forth by ANE scholar, Harry Hoffner, Hittitologist at the University of Chicago.[2] He rejects the common rendering of Exodus 21:20-21 and believes it should be translated in view of its context, namely, in view of Exodus 21:18-19. That is, the master is chargeable for food, clothing, shelter and medical expenses, until such a time when the victim is well enough to care for himself, which includes returning to his job.

Thus, we are able to understand that Exodus 21:20-21 does not look upon the servant as the property of his master / creditor. Moreover, even if the servant is referred to as the master’s money, it is only in the sense that, logically speaking, no one would intentionally harm or destroy that which represents his own prosperity. The phrase, as such, has significance for the judges who must decide whether or not the master murdered or accidentally killed his servant.


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Harry A. Hoffner, Jr. – “Slavery and Slave Laws in Ancient Hatti and Israel.”

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Posted by on December 13, 2015 in apologetics


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