Archive for the ‘Exodus 21:16’ Category

Puritans, Slavery, and Exodus 21:16

April 1, 2013

A dear reader (name removed to protect the innocent) wrote (slightly edited below):

Exodus 21:16 (KJV) And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.

a) It’s common knowledge that numerous Puritans owned slaves, and at times were even chaplains on slave ships.
b) Were Puritans generally theonomist?
c) Do you know whether they ever considered that verse? It says “or if he be found in his hand”. Man-stealing, and also owning the stolen “good” were worthy of capital punishment on the OT Law.

At most this would show that the Puritans were in the wrong and were inconsistent.

I answer:
a) Which puritans exactly owned slaves and/or were slave ship chaplains? I can’t recall that being the case for Owens, Burroughs, Manton, Boston or even Baxter, but perhaps I’m missing something. Even in the Americas, Puritanism was primarily a Northern thing – which was generally not associated with American slavery. The supposed “common knowledge” sounds like the lyrics to that “Precious Puritans” rap song by the aptly named artist “Propaganda”, but I cannot recall it actually reflecting the situation of any of the notable Puritan writers.

b) I don’t know how you define “theonomist.” It would be anachronistic to call the Puritans reconstructionists. But if you mean “theonomist” so as to include Calvin – most of them tended to be theonomist, within a range of variation. Radical separation of church and state was for the Anabaptists during the height of Puritanism.

c) Exodus 21:16 prohibits kidnap of a man (“steals a man”), whether to sell him into slavery or not (“and sells him” or “if he is found in his hand”) on pain of death. Within the context of the Torah, this did not apply to prisoners of war or men who were purchased as slaves. Strictly speaking, the verse does not apply to people who buy slaves who were enslaved by a man-stealer.

Henry Ainsworth (technically a non-comformist) (1571-1622) in annotating the verse just mentions that the “man” here refers specifically to an Israelite, but doesn’t provide other commentary on it. The reason for this argument is the parallel account in Deuteronomy 24:7.

John Lightfoot (1602-1675) had some gleanings on Exodus, but those gleanings don’t mention this particular law, that I noticed.

Andrew Willett (1562-1621) had a rather detailed work on Exodus, including some discussion of this law, but I (sadly) cannot locate a copy of it.

Symon Patrick (1626-1707) was probably too late to be a Puritan (great ejection was 1662) but he is a 17th century Anglican to comment on it – and he doesn’t find any general prohibition of slavery. He seems willing to read “man” more broadly than Ainsworth to include foreigners and foreign slaves.

John Calvin’s Harmony does not explicitly comment on Exodus 21:16, but at Deuteonomy 24:7 he states:

The same punishment is here deservedly denounced against man-stealers as against murderers; for, so wretched was the condition of slaves, that liberty was more than half of life; and hence to deprive a man of such a great blessing, was almost to destroy him. Besides, it is not man-stealing only which is here condemned, but the accompanying evils of cruelty and fraud, i.e., if he, who had stolen a man, had likewise sold him. Now, such a sale could hardly be made among the people themselves, without the crime being immediately detected; and nothing could be more hateful than that God’s children should be alienated from the Church, and delivered over to heathen nations.

Matthew Henry (Presbyterian, 1662 – 1714) comments on Exodus 21:16:

III. Here is a law against man-stealing (v. 16): He that steals a man (that is, a person, man, woman, or child), with design to sell him to the Gentiles (for no Israelite would buy him), was adjudged to death by this statute, which is ratified by the apostle (1 Tim. 1:10 ), where men-stealers are reckoned among those wicked ones against whom laws must be made by Christian princes.

At Deuteronomy 24:7, Henry states:

II. A law against man-stealing, v. 7. It was not death by the law of Moses to steal cattle or goods; but to steal a child, or a weak and simple man, or one that a man had in his power, and to make merchandize of him, this was a capital crime, and could not be expiated, as other thefts, by restitution—so much is a man better than a sheep, Mt. 12:12 . It was a very heinous offence, for, 1. It was robbing the public of one of its members. It was taking away a man’s liberty, the liberty of a free-born Israelite, which was next in value to his life. 3. It was driving a man out from the inheritance of the land, to the privileges of which he was entitled, and bidding him go serve other gods, as David complains against Saul, 1 Sa. 26:19

John Gill (Reformed Baptist, 1697–1771)at Exodus 21:16 states:

And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him
One of the children of Israel, as the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan, and so the Septuagint version: but though this law was given to the Israelites primarily, yet was made for men stealers in general, as the apostle observes, who plainly has reference to it, ( 1 Timothy 1:9-10 ) :

or if he be found in his hand;
before the selling of him, as Jarchi notes, since he stole him in order to sell him, he was guilty of death, as follows:

he shall surely be put to death;
with strangling, as the same Jewish writer remarks, as on the preceding verse; and Jarchi sets it down as a rule, that all death in the law, simply expressed, is strangling.

Likewise, John Gill at Deuteronomy 24:7 states:

If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel 
Whether grown up or little, male or female, an Israelite or a proselyte, or a freed servant; all, as Maimonides F6 says, are included in this general word “brethren”; though Aben Ezra observes, that it is added, “of the children of Israel”, for explanation, since an Edomite is called a “brother”. Now, a man must be “found” committing this fact; that is, it must plainly appear, there must be full proof of it by witnesses, as Jarchi explains this word:

and maketh merchandise of him;
or rather uses him as a servant, and employs him in any service to the least profit and advantage by him, even to the value of a farthing; yea, if he does but lean upon him, and he supports him, though he is an old man that is stolen; this is serving a man’s self by him, as Maimonides F7, which is what is forbidden as distinct from selling him, as follows:

or selleth him:
to others; and both these, according to the above writer F8, using him for service, and selling him, are necessary to make him guilty of death; not the one without the other; but reading them disjunctively, as we do, gives the better sense of the words:

then that thief shall die;
by strangling with a napkin, as the Targum of Jonathan; and so Maimonides F9 says, his death is by strangling:

and thou shall put evil away from among you;
both him that does evil, as the Targum of Jonathan, and the guilt of it by inflicting due punishment for it; and so deter from such practices, and prevent evil coming upon the body of the people, should such a sin be connived at; see ( Exodus 21:16 ) .


F6 Hichot Genibah, c. 9. sect. 6.
F7 Ib. sect. 2.
F8 Ib. sect. 3.
F9 Hilchot Genibah, c. 9. sect. 1. So R. Sol. Urbin. Ohel Moed, fol. 67. 1. interprets it of service.

Matthew Poole (Noncomformist, 1624–1679) at Exodus 21:16 states:

i.e. in the manstealer’s hand; q. d. though he he keep him in his own hands for his own use; for still it is a theft, and he is made that man’s slave, and it is in his power to sell him to another when he pleaseth, and therefore deserves death.

(Poole refers the reader back to Exodus 21:16 at Deuteronomy 24:7).

The Geneva Bible (1560 edition is the only one I checked) did not have any comments on either verse.

Frankly, I’m not aware of any pre-19th century author that treats “man stealing” in itself as equivalent to slavery absolutely. Rather, I think uniformly it would be viewed as condemning an illicit way of obtaining slaves.  I don’t want to address how slaves might licitly be obtained, but two ways seem obvious: voluntarily and as prisoners of war.  Moreover, in view of the regulation of slavery under the Mosaic law, it would seem nonsensical to interpret Exodus 21:16 or Deuteronomy 24:7 as providing for civilly administered capital punishment for all slave owners.

That said, as far as I can tell the colonial laws of Massachusetts (which I’ve picked because of their obvious connection to the New England Puritans) did have a law specifically against man-stealing, and it was a capital offense, and the explicit justification was Exodus 21:26.

So, no – I don’t think the charge of inconsistency can rightly be laid at the feet of the Puritans, both because the Bible does not absolutely forbid slavery (it merely regulates it) and because the Puritans (at least the American ones) did punish man-stealing with death (on the books – I did not check whether or how often this was enforced).

One other thing to consider: being the chaplain of a ship is a role that speaks to a concern for the spiritual needs of those on the boat.  It is not, as far as I know, an endorsement of the particular enslavement of the particular people on the ship nor an endorsement of slavery in general.  After all, wouldn’t you gladly be a prison chaplain to a bunch of prisoners who were wrongly imprisoned?

I believe that the well-named rapper, Propaganda, alleges that the Puritans took the position that there were two images of God (one for slaves and one for free men).  I would love to see his documentation as to which of the Puritans ever taught such a thing.


P.S. I realize that I mentioned the word “slavery,” which is a hot-button topic for some people.  If this is you, remember that the topic of this post is narrowly limited to the question of what the Puritans believed and whether the Puritans were consistent in their application of Old Testament law to the civil laws they enacted.

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