“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged.”
As uncomfortable as it is for younger generations to consider, ‘spare the rod—spoil the child’ has been conventional wisdom for much of history. Up until about twenty years ago, kids were punished for misdemeanors by parents, teachers, coaches—you name it. Sailors were beaten by captains for stealing food or disobeying orders. Soldiers were beaten for breaking out of their barracks. Criminals were put in stocks in a city center to be struck by anyone passing by as a symbol of communal punishment. And while I truly believe that we’re better off in the Western world for having tried to find different modes of punishment that accomplish the same desired end without the stinging ethical dilemma, the fact is the rod was as common for the loving father as for the abusive one, for the kind master as for the tyrant. So, Exodus 21:20 is not a license for slave-owners to abuse their slaves, but exactly the opposite! God here is placing a limiter on a master’s punitive power, issuing a warning that going too far with the rod will bring the rod back on themselves.
Friend, can you imagine how these words must’ve sounded to the slaves in this mixed multitude? Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Almighty God, through the mightiest man in the world—the man whose very appearance strikes you with fear and awe—speaks for you rather than against you. He effectively thunders from Sinai a warning to all current and would-be slave-owners, “I’ve got these slaves’ backs! If any master abuses one of these image-bearing persons, he’ll pay for it!”
Don’t miss the wonderful irony here. This is the same Moses who once saw a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian soldier and rushed in to avenge him, remember? And here he is again defending the weak from merciless overlords. Only this time he’s got God’s rod in hand to illustrate the message—a rod that turns rivers to blood and parts seas and delivers people from oppression! So there’s no room in this commonwealth for slave abusers. Not under God’s law, and not under Moses’ leadership.