(Ex. 21:21) Are slaves persons or property?

CLAIM: Exodus explains: “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21 If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property” (Ex. 21:20-21). Does the Bible teach that slaves are the “property” of slave masters?

RESPONSE: Because the slave was working off debt, Exodus refers to them as “property” (Hebrew keceph). Literally, this Hebrew word means “money.” Of course, the person wasn’t “money.” However, because the person was paying off their debt (or “money”), they were equivocated with money, because they financially owed their employer. Moreover, far from denigrating the value of the slave, this passage raises the moral value of the slave. In fact, Exodus 21:20 teaches that slave masters should be punished for killing their slaves. In the ancient world, slave masters were not harmed at all for hurting slaves, because they were considered subhuman. Kaiser writes, “This law is unprecedented in the ancient world where a master could treat his slave as he pleased.”[1] Later in the passage, the slave masters were punished for brutality (see vv. 26-27), which was also unheard of in ancient Near Eastern society. For a thorough defense of OT slavery, see my earlier article.

[1] Kaiser, W. C., Jr. Exodus. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 433.