In this post, I will examine how the first century Jewish exegete Philo of Alexandria, in Special Laws III, addressed two difficult passages in the Torah. One concerns the rape of a betrothed woman, and the other concerns slavery.
A. The law about the rape of a betrothed woman is in Deuteronomy 22:23-27:
23 If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;
24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.
25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die:
26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter:
27 For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her. (KJV)
In this law, there is a betrothed woman: she is engaged to be married. A man who is not her will-be husband sleeps with her. If this occurs in the city, then both the woman and the man are to be stoned. In the city, the woman could have cried out for help, and there would be people around to help her because cities have lots of people. The fact that she did not cry out for help indicates that the sexual act was consensual, not rape. It is adultery, and thus punishable by death. If this act occurs in the field, by contrast, then only the man is to be stoned. The woman may have cried out for help in the field, but there was no one around to rescue her.
My atheist friend had an objection to this passage. "What if that woman in the city is mute?", he asked. "Should she be stoned for not calling out for help, when she was unable to call out for help?"
Philo has a similar question. In Special Laws III:72-78, he summarizes the law in Deuteronomy 22:23-27 and explains why the location of the act is significant: a woman can cry out for help and be rescued in the city, whereas she cannot receive help in the country, even if she does cry out. Philo then goes on to stress, however, that a judge should not limit his consideration of the case to the location of the act but should consider other factors as well. What these other factors are, Philo does not specify (at least not here). He may have in mind such questions as whether the man and the woman had a relationship in the past.
Philo recognizes that the location of the act is not a fully reliable indicator as to whether the act was consensual or rape. The act could have been in the field and still been consensual. And it could have occurred in the city and still been a rape. As Philo says, suppose the man is stronger than the betrothed woman, and he ties her up or gags her so that she cannot cry out. Even if this took place in the city, or in a house where there are other people, the woman is practically in a wilderness: she is in the same situation as a woman raped in a field, unable to cry out.
Philo, of course, supports the laws of the Torah and believes that they reveal God's will. But he has practical questions about the law in Deuteronomy 22:23-27. Overall, he affirms the law, while qualifying it. He thinks that Deuteronomy 22:23-27 mentions a relevant factor (namely, the location of the act), but that other factors should be considered as well.
B. Exodus 21:20-21 states regarding a master smiting his slave:
20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money. (KJV)
This passage was prominent in the 2013 movie Twelve Years a Slave. The brutal master Edwin Epps reads this passage to a gathering of his slaves to show them that God approves of their servitude. In an especially disturbing scene, Epps is viciously lashing a female slave, and another slave, Solomon, warns Epps that God will judge him for this. Epps casually asks why God would judge him: the slave is Epps' property!
In Special Laws III:139-143, Philo addresses Exodus 21:20-21. Philo himself has no problem with slavery: he has said that it is a useful institution. At the same time, Philo also believes that a slave and a slave's master are equal, according to their nature, not their fortune or condition. Consequently, Philo is against masters being cruel or insolent with their slaves. Not only does this violate natural equality, but it also demonstrates that the master's soul is unhealthy: a person who mistreats and is harsh to those under his power is in a wrong place, and who knows what he will do if he gains more power?
Philo believes that Exodus 21:20-21 limits a master's dominion over his slave. For Philo, the law says that, if a master intentionally murders his slave, then the master is to be punished by the tribunal. Exodus 21:20 does not specify what this punishment is, but Philo says that it is the death penalty: a master who kills his slave deliberately is to be put to death.
If a slave does something worthy of death, Philo says, the master should take that slave to the judges and prove that the slave committed the offense. The master should not take the law into his own hands by killing the slave.
Philo says that, even if the master who fatally smites his slave protests that he was merely trying to correct the slave, not kill him, justice will still catch up with the slavemaster.
Suppose that the slave lives for a day or two after the beating and then dies? Philo, in accordance with Exodus 21:21, gives the master the benefit of a doubt. For Philo, if the slave lives on for a few days, that shows that the master was not trying to kill the slave when beating him. The master may have even tried to keep the slave alive as long as he could after the beating. Philo states that a master would be hurting himself were he to kill a slave: the master paid good money for that slave, and now he is deprived of that slave's service. Philo doubts that a master would deliberately do this.
Philo is rather contradictory: he realizes there are cruel masters who would love to demonstrate their power over the life and death of their slaves, yet he doubts that masters would deliberately kill their slaves.
One can ask if the law in Exodus 21:20-21, or Philo's interpretation of it, is free of problems. When Epps was lashing the female slave in Twelve Years a Slave, she'd probably live after the beating. Does that mean God is okay with what Epps did? Philo would probably say no, since Philo would see Epps as a person who is spiritually and morally sick, explaining why Epps is brutal. Like Solomon in the movie, Philo may even have believed that people like Epps would be judged for their brutality. But Philo seems to be constrained by a law in the Torah that says something different: if a man beats his slave and the slave survives for a few days, the master is not to be punished. The law in Exodus 21:20-21 provides fodder for Philo's humanitarian impulses, for the law presumes that a master lacks absolute authority over a slave's life; but the law arguably leaves the door open for abuse.