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. Which you shall set before them: These next three chapters present laws establishing precedent for the legal system of Israel, the judges appointed by Moses.
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: "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 his children into servitude (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).
c. He shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing: In such cases, the servitude was never obligated to be life-long. The Hebrew servant worked for six years and then was set free. At the end of the six years, 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 or be redeemed.
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.
b. His master shall pierce his ear with an awl: In the ceremony, the servant's ear would be pierced - opened - with an awl, in the presence of witnesses - then, he shall serve him for ever.
i. Psalms 40:6 speaks 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).
c. 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.
4. (7-11) The rights of female maid-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 maid-servant was bought, but not really to be a slave, but to be the master's wife or the wife of the master's son one day.
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.
c. He shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights: The idea of women - and women of lower classes - having such rights, respected by God and society was revolutionary in an age when women were usually regarded as property.
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 wield 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: The issue is clearly one of premeditation and treachery. God did not place 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.
i. 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)
ii. Therefore, there must be no mercy towards the "first-degree" murderer. You shall take him from My altar, that he may die refers to a practice common among many pagan cultures, where a criminal - even a murderer - could find refuge at the altar of a god, and as long as he stayed in the temple, he was given sanctuary. God here says that even if a first-degree murderer comes to His altar, he is to be punished.
d. Then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee: Later (Numbers 35 and Joshua 20) God commanded and Israel made cities of refuge - a place where he may flee - cities where one could flee in a case of manslaughter, and be protected until his case was properly heard.
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 murders, or attempts the murder of a parent, is 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.
c. He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death: The idea is of an adult child who threatens their parent. Though this law is severe, it preserves a critical foundation for civilized society: respect between generations.
i. It also has 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 had 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.
ii. Yet the law discouraging conflict between generations is important. The 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.
iii. Unfortunately, modern euthanasia laws allow murder of the older generation by the younger generation - all approved by law.
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 is unable to work (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.
b. If he rises again and walks about outside with his staff: However, if the man can 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 other cultures, the master was held blameless if he murdered a servant, because the servant was not considered a person.
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 is 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. If the slave died, the loss of property was thought to be penalty enough to the master.
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.
i. 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 is injured in a conflict, and she gives birth prematurely. A penalty is only to be assessed if there is lasting damage.
i. If no lasting damage results, there are no damages awarded. Here, God recognizes that some bad things just happen, and we get over them - and move on.
b. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye: If lasting damage results, retribution is always limited by the eye for an eye principle. This law was meant to block our desire for vengeance, and not given as a license for revenge.
i. Our tendency is to want to do more to the offending party than what they have done 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.
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 has a different application for servants. The servant, if injured by the master, received something more precious than an eye - his freedom.
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 illustrates the principle of intent and neglect. An owner of a man-killing ox cannot be held guilty if the animal had no history of aggression towards people - yet the animal must die, and the owner is forbidden to profit from the animal or its death (its flesh shall not be eaten).
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 has an ox whom he knows to be aggressive, and he fails to control the animal, he shall be held 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 must be applied even if a minor is killed. They were regard 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. Significantly, this was the same price Jesus was "sold" for. Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15).
2. (33-36) More laws giving the principle 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 "you-break-it-you-bought-it." If your negligence resulted in the death of your neighbor's animal, you were obligated to recompense your neighbor.
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 amplifications of the principle, "do what is fair."
©2004 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission.