Saturday, November 28, 2009

Chattel Slavery (1)

A seriously misunderstood passage is Exodus 21:20-21.

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
The passage is often cited as proof that the Bible supported chattel slavery. This is not true, but this idea has been encouraged by bad translation.

The first problem is with the word “slave”. This is a serious mistranslation of the Hebrew. The word translated male slave is “Ebed”. The word translated female slave is “Amah”. The NIV translates these words in different ways in different parts of Exodus 21; as slave in verses 20 and 32, and as servant in verses 26 and 27. There is no reason for the difference, and servant is a better translation.

They boy Samuel called himself the Ebed of God. Gehazzi was the Ebed of Elijah. The suffering servant of Isaiah was an “ebed”. An Ebed might be bonded to his master for a time, because he has fallen into debt, but he would not be a slave in the modern sense of the word. The NIV is quite mischievous in the way it sometimes uses the word slave for this word. The NKJV is more consistent and always uses the word servant. The Israelites were not allowed to enslave their countrymen (Lev 25:39).

The passage refers to servants, not slaves.

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