Humanizing Slaves

Exodus 21:26-27 requires a slave-owner to release a slave if he destroys his or her eye or tooth. Shalom Paul (Studies in the Book of the Covenant, 78) claims that this is unprecedented in ancient law codes.

He admits that “a slave is not considered the peer of a freeman,” yet “in an unparalleled example of concern for the interest of a slave, the law here provides for his release if the master should destroy his eye or knock out his tooth. The master himself must manumit the slave. The slave who formerly was not the equal of his master is now emancipated and achieves the status of a freedman.”

He observes that “the various bodily assaults upon the person of a slave are not listed together. This law-which does not mention an instrument of discipline as does vs. 20, where the beating of a slave is legally permitted for disciplinary reasons, and where the owner in such a case is acquitted (if the slave does not die immediately).”

He concludes that the two cases are separated “in order to indicate that these blows were delivered maliciously and willfully with intent to cause bodily harm and thus were not part of any lawful disciplinary chastisement. The owner then is held accountable and is punished by the release of his slave. The law once again takes into account the intention of the offender: a master may correct his slave, but he may not treat him as mere chattel to be maimed at his own caprice.”

The overriding message of the law is dramatic: “The slave is a person in his own right and must be treated with proper restraint. Cuneiform corpora, on the other hand, never mention bodily damages caused by the master to his own slave. Since an economic consideration (i.e., monetary compensation) is the overriding factor in these laws, the release of the slave is never contemplated. The owner would merely have to bear the loss that his blow caused the slave.”

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