Exodus 21 – Laws to Direct Judges
A. Laws regarding servitude.
1. (1) These are the judgments.
“Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them:
a. Now these are the judgments: Exodus chapters 21-23 contain many laws on a wide variety of subjects, including:
· Employment law regarding the treatment of servants.
· Murder, manslaughter, and violent assault.
· Liability for one’s animals and responsibility for the animals of others.
· Theft, responsibility, and restitution.
· Rape, dowry, and the value of a woman’s virginity.
· Idolatry and sorcery.
· Treatment of disadvantaged people in society.
· Money and property lending.
· Justice and equal standing before the law.
i. “THESE different regulations are as remarkable for their justice and prudence as for their humanity. Their great tendency is to show the valuableness of human life, and the necessity of having peace and good understanding in every neighbourhood; and they possess that quality which should be the object of all good and wholesome laws-the prevention of crimes.” (Adam Clarke)
b. Which you shall set before them: The wide-ranging character of these laws show that God gave them both for the laws in themselves, but also for the principles and precedent they would establish for the judges appointed by Moses.
i. “These ‘laws,’ or, better, ‘judgments’ (mispatim), are given as precedents to guide Israel’s civil magistrates in the cases of civil dispute.” (Kaiser)
2. (2-4) The general law concerning Hebrew slaves (indentured servants).
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.”
a. If you buy a Hebrew servant: With ancient Israel, as in the entire ancient world, there were people who worked for others on the principle of servitude. They were slaves in some sense, though not necessarily in the brutal and degraded sense most think of slavery.
i. Some think that the Bible is responsible for slavery. The opposite is true; slavery existed long before Israel or Moses. The Bible is responsible for the elimination of slavery, not its establishment.
ii. “Moses did not institute slavery in any shape; the laws concerning it were made on purpose to repress it, to confine it within very narrow bounds, and ultimately to put an end to it.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “The Torah accepts slavery as an inevitable part of ancient society, much as Paul did, but the new humanitarian approach will ultimately be the death-knell of slavery… In any case, slavery in Israel was rural, domestic and small scale.” (Cole)
iv. It is significant that the first words of this section of law in the Book of Exodus show that God wanted Israel to respect the rights and dignity of servants. “The first words of God from Sinai had declared that He was Jehovah Who brought them out of slavery. And in this remarkable code, the first person whose rights are dealt with is the slave.” (Chadwick)
b. A Hebrew servant: There were four basic ways a Hebrew might become a slave to another Hebrew.
· In extreme poverty, they might sell their liberty (Leviticus 25:39).
· A father might sell a daughter as a servant into a home with the intention that she would eventually marry into that family (Exodus 21:7).
· In the case of bankruptcy, a man might become servant to his creditors (2 Kings 4:1).
· If a thief had nothing with which to pay proper restitution (Exodus 22:3-4).
i. The ideas of man-stealing and life-long servitude – the concepts many have of slavery – simply do not apply to the practice of slavery in the Old Testament. Normally, slavery was:
· Chosen or mutually arranged.
· Of limited duration.
· Highly regulated.
c. He shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing: In all of the four above mentioned cases, the servitude was never obligated to be life-long. The Hebrew servant worked for six years and then was set free.
i. “He was, more properly an ‘indentured labourer’, bound for six years.” (Cole)
ii. “That this servitude could extend, at the utmost, only to six years; and that it was nearly the same as in some cases of apprenticeship among us.” (Clarke)
iii. G. Campbell Morgan, after looking at the laws regarding slavery, wrote: “A careful consideration of them will show that they abolished slavery, and substituted for it, covenanted labour.”
iv. “Henceforward the condition of slaves among the Hebrew people would be in marked distinction to slavery as existing among other peoples. It was the beginning of a great moral movement.” (Morgan)
d. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him: At the end of the six years the servant went out with what he came in with. If the master provided a wife (and therefore children), the wife and children had to stay with the master until they had fulfilled their obligations or could be redeemed.
i. By himself: “Literally ‘with his back’, i.e. ‘bare back and nothing more’. The phrase is vivid and unique, but the meaning is clear. This provision may seem hard to us, but the wife was presumably a perpetual slave, and therefore the master’s own property.” (Cole)
3. (5-6) The bond-slave: a willing slave for life.
“But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.”
a. But if the servant plainly says, “I love my master”: If, after the six years of servitude, a servant wished to make a life-long commitment to his master – in light of the master’s goodness and his blessings for the servant – he could, through this ceremony, make a life-long commitment to his master.
i. This commitment was not motivated by debt or obligation, only by love for the master, and the good things that the master had provided for the servant.
b. His master shall bring him to the judges: This describes the public and recognized ceremony for recognizing a willing slave, one who had fulfilled his obligation yet still wanted to serve his master out of love.
i. “The ‘judges’ changed the slave’s status from temporary to permanent by a ceremony at the doorpost of the master’s house.” (Kaiser)
c. His master shall pierce his ear with an awl: In the ceremony, the servant’s ear was pierced – opened – with an awl. This was done in the presence of witnesses, and then he shall serve him forever.
i. It’s a remarkable thing to think of this ceremony being carried out. A servant said, “I know I have fulfilled my obligations to my master, and I have served what I have owed. Yet I love my master and am so grateful for what he has given that I will gladly obligate myself for life, not out of debt or shame or defeat, but out of love.”
ii. Psalm 40:6 later spoke of this ceremony taking place between the Father and the Son, where the Psalmist spoke prophetically for the Messiah: Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; my ears You have opened. Jesus was a perfect bond-slave to the Father (Philippians 2:7).
iii. “That awl represents the nail that affixed Christ to the cross, and we must expect it in every true act of consecration.” (Meyer)
d. He shall serve him forever: Jesus gave us the right to be called friends instead of servants (John 15:15). Yet the writers of the New Testament found plenty of glory in simply being considered bondservants of Jesus (Romans 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1).
i. Pagans had a custom of branding the slave with the name or the sign of the owner. Paul referred to himself as just such a slave in Galatians 6:17: From now on, let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus. Paul was a slave for life to Jesus.
ii. This is a picture of the sinner’s service of sin; there comes a place where the sinner, so filled with a love of his sin, seals his heart over to sin as his master.
iii. This is a picture of our service to Jesus.
· We have the power to go free if we want to.
· We must be willing to take the consequences of chosen service.
· We must be motivated by love for our Master.
4. (7-11) The rights of female servants.
“And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.”
a. If a man sells his daughter to be a female slave: The matter described here seems to describe the selling of a young female as a slave to a family with the intention of marriage. This is why the text explained, who has betrothed her to himself.
i. “Refers to a girl who is sold by her father, not for slavery, but for marriage.” (Kaiser)
ii. “Probably the origin of the custom was the same in either case: to avoid paying a higher bride-price at a later age, and to rear the future daughter-in-law within the family, ensuring that she ‘fitted in’. Such an attitude to slaves abolishes slavery, except in name.” (Cole)
iii. In ancient societies (including sometimes among the Hebrews), a child might be sold as a slave in light of a debt or; especially in the case of a female slave, in a dowry arrangement to satisfy a debt. Such arrangements were more of what we associate with indentured servitude than slavery. Yet, these are not the circumstances regarding this particular law.
b. He shall let her be redeemed: If her master did not marry her or decided not to give her to his son, the master was still obligated to respect her rights under God’s law. He had to treat her well and give her the opportunity to escape the obligation of servitude.
i. “Should the terms of marriage not be fulfilled, it is to be considered a breach of contract, and the purchaser must allow the girl to be redeemed.” (Kaiser)
ii. No right to sell her to a foreign people: “Even if he has wearied of her, he cannot sell her to another master: that would be a breach of marriage obligation to her.” (Cole)
c. He shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights: If the girl received into the home with the expectation of future marriage did not work out, she was not to be treated poorly. She was not to be deprived the comforts of the home; instead she must be treated according to the custom of daughters – treated like a daughter, not a slave.
i. “The word translated food should perhaps be rendered ‘meat’: it means, say the commentators, the wife’s fair share of luxuries, not mere subsistence allowance, which any slave would get.” (Cole)
d. Then she shall go out free, without paying money: If the household failed in their obligations toward the girl received into the home with the expectation of future marriage, she was granted freedom. These were remarkable protections of ones who might be disadvantaged.
i. The girl in this circumstance – out of her birth home, released by her natural parents – had no natural protector in that society. God directed the judges of Israel to be her protector.
ii. Thus, “The right of a parent to sell his daughter was carefully guarded against abuse.” (Thomas)
B. Laws regarding violence and disability.
1. (12-14) Appropriate punishment for both murder and manslaughter.
“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die.”
a. He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death: The principle for capital punishment goes back to Genesis 9:6: Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man. The right for the state to use the sword of execution is also stated in the New Testament (Romans 13:3-4).
b. If he did not lie in wait… if a man acts with premeditation: God told the judges of Israel to look for evidence of premeditation and treachery. God did not place accidents, or crimes of passion or neglect on the same plane as crimes of premeditation and treachery.
c. You shall take him from My altar, that he may die: The principle of punishing murderers is so important to God that He denied murderers refuge at His altar. According to almost universal custom in the ancient world, a religious altar was a place of sanctuary against justice or vengeance. An accused man might find safety if he could flee to an altar before he was apprehended.
i. “The supplicant would catch hold of the projecting ‘horns’ of the altar (1 Kings 2:28). This was tantamount to dedicating himself to YHWH, like any animal sacrifice bound with ropes to the altar horns.” (Cole)
ii. Yet God told the judges of Israel there was to be no mercy in the sentencing of those guilty of the worst murders, what we might call first-degree murder. God said, “You shall take him from My altar, that he may die.” The murderer was to find no protection in misunderstood, misapplied faith.
iii. God said also that unpunished murderers defiled the land: Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death… So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35:31, 33-34)
iv. The principle that unpunished murders defile a land is a sobering, humbling thought among Americans, where so many are murdered, and few are brought to justice for those murders.
d. Then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee: Later (in Numbers 35 and Joshua 20) God commanded and Israel made cities of refuge (a place where he may flee). These were selected, prepared cities where one could flee in the case of manslaughter and be protected until his case was properly heard.
i. “From the earliest times the nearest akin had a right to revenge the murder of his relation, and as this right was universally acknowledged, no law was ever made on the subject; but as this might be abused, and a person who had killed another accidentally, having had no previous malice against him, might be put to death by the avenger of blood, as the nearest kinsman was termed, therefore God provided the cities of refuge to which the accidental manslayer might flee till the affair was inquired into, and settled by the civil magistrate.” (Clarke)
ii. This careful distinction between degrees of guilt and punishment in murder, and the protections for the one guilty of manslaughter as opposed to murder show the sophistication and concern for justice in the principles given to Israelite judges.
2. (15-17) Laws concerning murder of a parent.
“And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”
a. He who strikes his father or mother: Strikes must be taken in the context of Exodus 21:12, which says He who strikes a man so that he dies. A child who murdered, or attempts the murder of a parent, was to receive capital punishment.
b. He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death: Kidnapping was also considered a capital offense. In the eyes of God, criminally enslaving a man was not far from murdering him.
i. “Kidnapping for slavery was common in the ancient world” (Cole), and is here clearly prohibited.
ii. This is a subtle yet important difference between slavery as it was (and is) commonly practiced and slavery as regulated in the Bible. Most slavery (ancient and modern) was actually a form of kidnapping – the taking and imprisoning of a person against their will. As regulated in the Bible (and as practiced in some other ancient cultures), slavery was received willingly (usually as payment for debt) or, in the case of war, was an alternative to death. In ancient Israel, other cultures were not kidnapped and enslaved (as was the practice in the African slave trade).
iii. The context and placement of this law is significant. “Kidnapping is not a property offense since no property offense draws a capital punishment, and this law is not listed under property laws. Instead, it is the theft of a human being.” (Kaiser)
iv. Or if he is found in his hand “should be translated ‘and is caught with the money in his hand.’ Unexpectedly large bank balances are still hard to explain to the Income Tax department of our own day.” (Cole)
c. He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death: The idea was of an adult child who threatened their parent. Though this law was severe, it preserved a critical foundation for civilized society: respect between generations.
i. The idea of the curse here is more like what we would think of as a death threat. “Since to curse was to will and pray the downfall of the other with all one’s heart, it represented the attitude from which sprang acts like striking or murder.” (Cole)
ii. The Law of Moses also had a built-in protection for the rights of the child, according to Deuteronomy 21:18-21. This passage states that the parent did not have the right to carry out this punishment, but they were required to bring the accused child before the elders and judges of the city. This meant that the parent – against all contemporary custom – did not have the absolute power of life and death over their children. As a practical matter, the judges of Israel rarely if ever administered the death penalty in such cases, yet the child was held accountable.
iii. Yet the law discouraging conflict between generations is important. Each elder generation, as they grow older, is at the mercy of the younger generation. If the younger generation is allowed to carry on open warfare with the older generation, the very foundations of society are shaken – as reflected in the Fourth Commandment. Some modern laws – including developing laws regarding euthanasia – may lead to the easy murder of the older generation by the younger.
3. (18-19) Regarding compensation for personal injury.
“If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but is confined to his bed, if he rises again and walks about outside with his staff, then he who struck him shall be acquitted. He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed.”
a. If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other: If, because of a conflict, a man was unable to work (is confined to his bed) because of an injury received at the hand of another, the one who injured him must pay compensation to the man and his family.
i. These laws of compensation for personal injury have parallels in the Code of Hammurabi and in Hittite Laws.
b. If he rises again and walks about outside with his staff: However, if the man could recover from the injury, the guilty party was only required to pay for his medical recovery and for his lost time.
c. And shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed: Though these principles have been abused by the greedy in our modern day, the principles themselves still stand.
4. (20-21) Regarding the beating and death of a servant.
“And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”
a. So that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished: This shows that in ancient Israel servants could be murdered. In many other cultures, the master was held blameless if he murdered a servant, because the servant was not considered a person.
i. “The great advance on ancient thinking is that the slave is considered here as a person.” (Cole)
b. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished: Yet the master not be punished if the servant did not die immediately. Perhaps this was a way to determine intent, with the idea that if the servant lived for several days, it was an indication that the master must not have intended to murder him.
i. The idea was that if the victim did not die immediately, it was evidence that he was struck with the intention of discipline and not murder. Additionally, if the slave died through this unintentional attack, the loss of property was thought to be penalty enough to the master.
ii. Adam Clarke noted that this reflects a general principle in the Law of Moses: great consideration to the rights of the accused. “And all penal laws should be construed as favourably as possible to the accused.” (Clarke)
iii. “The aim of this law was not to place the slave at the master’s mercy but to restrict the master’s power over him.” (Kaiser)
c. He shall surely be punished… he is his property: These laws together paint a picture of the ideas behind slavery in ancient Israel. A servant was a person (who could not be murdered), yet they were also considered the property of the master, until their obligation was fulfilled.
i. For he is his property: “Is literally ‘because he is his money.’ The point is not that men are mere chattel… but that the owner has an investment in this slave that he stands to lose either by death… or by emancipation.” (Kaiser)
ii. These principles paint a spiritual analogy. Spiritually speaking, we are the property of whom we serve. We are either slaves to Satan or to Jesus Christ.
5. (22-25) Laws of retribution.
“If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
a. He shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him: This is an example of a case of retribution, where a pregnant woman was injured in a conflict, and she gave birth prematurely. A penalty was only to be assessed if there was lasting damage.
i. If no lasting damage resulted, there are no damages awarded. Perhaps this was recognition that the law cannot address every loss or consequence, and that only permanent consequences are justly compensated.
b. But if any harm follows: If lasting damage resulted – short of death, which was covered by another law – there was retribution or restitution due.
i. “For the accidental assault, the offender must still pay some compensation, even though both mother and child survived… .The fee would be set by the woman’s husband and approved by a decision of the court.” (Kaiser)
c. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye: If lasting damage resulted, the eye for eye principle always limited retribution. This law was meant to block man’s natural desire for vengeance. It was not given as a license for revenge.
i. Our tendency is to want to do more against the offending party than what they did to us. This principle can apply to our modern practice of assessing huge punitive damages in lawsuits, and this law presents the principle that only the loss itself is to be compensated.
d. You shall give life for life: This principle leads some to wonder if, in ancient Israel, people were routinely killed for what we might consider accidental death or manslaughter. It’s important to correlate this principle of you shall give life for life with Numbers 35:31, which allows a substitute ransom payment for loss of life that was not willful and premeditated murder.
i. Numbers 35:31: Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. This prohibition indicates that it was common practice to take ransom money for wrongful death in other circumstances.
ii. “Thus we conclude that the defendant must surrender to the deceased child’s father or wife’s husband the monetary value of each life if either or both were harmed.” (Kaiser)
6. (26-27) The law of retribution as it regards masters and servants.
“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.”
a. If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye: The principle of eye for an eye had a different application for servants. If injured by the master, the servant received something more precious than an eye – his freedom.
i. These laws don’t try to make the master feel a certain way about his slave. Instead, the laws guide the behavior of the master, giving him incentive to protect and honor his slave, treating them more like an employee than a work-animal.
b. If he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free: “If this did not teach them humanity, it taught them caution, as one rash blow might have deprived them of all right to the future services of the slave; and this self-interest obliged them to be cautious and circumspect.” (Clarke)
C. Laws regarding animal control and damage.
1. (28-32) Determining guilt when an animal kills a human.
“If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death. If there is imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life, whatever is imposed on him. Whether it has gored a son or gored a daughter, according to this judgment it shall be done to him. If the ox gores a male or female servant, he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.”
a. The ox shall surely be stoned… but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted: This law illustrated the principle of intent and neglect. An owner of a man-killing ox could not be held guilty if the animal had no history of aggression towards people. Yet the animal must die, and the owner was forbidden to profit from the animal or its death (its flesh shall not be eaten). No one was to profit from or regard casually even accidental death.
i. “This means injury by oxen, since the Israelites kept no other animal that was capable of killing a human: horses were foreign luxuries.” (Cole)
ii. “This served to keep up a due detestation of murder, whether committed by man or beast; and at the same time punished the man as far as possible, by the total loss of the beast.” (Clarke)
b. But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past… the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death: Yet, if an ox owner had an ox (or similar animal) whom he knew to be aggressive and he failed to control the animal, he was guilty of murder and punished as such.
c. If there is imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life: It seems that if the survivors of the dead man accepted monetary restitution in lieu of the owner’s death, this was an acceptable settlement.
d. Whether it has gored a son or gored a daughter, according to this judgment it shall be done to him: The same principles were applied in the death of a minor. They were regarded as people with rights to respect as well as adults.
e. If the ox gores a male or female servant, he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver: If a servant was killed under such circumstances, the price of restitution was thirty shekels of silver, which was considered the price of a slave.
i. “Even in Israel, a slave was still a man: his blood brings blood-guilt, like that of any other man.” (Cole)
ii. Significantly, this was the same price Jesus was sold for when Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15).
2. (33-36) More laws regarding the principles of negligence and restitution.
“And if a man opens a pit, or if a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls in it, the owner of the pit shall make it good; he shall give money to their owner, but the dead animal shall be his. If one man’s ox hurts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the money from it; and the dead ox they shall also divide. Or if it was known that the ox tended to thrust in time past, and its owner has not kept it confined, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall be his own.”
a. He shall give money to their owner, but the dead animal shall be his: These laws communicate the principle of responsibility for the consequences of an individual’s actions upon another. The example given had to do with necessary restitution when the digging of a pit caused the death of an animal.
i. If a man opens a pit: “More likely for grain storage than water storage. Pits were also used as traps for animals (2 Samuel 23:20) or prisons for men (Genesis 37:24).” (Cole)
b. If one man’s ox hurts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the money from it: These laws required the investigation and analysis of judges, so that the application of the law took into account findings of intent and negligence. There is a sense in which these are simply applications of the general principles of justice and fairness.
i. “To a struggling Israelite farmer, fair payment for the death of an ox might mean the difference between life and death, or at least between freedom and slavery for debt.” (Cole)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission