Exodus Chapter 21

Laws About Slaves

    • These are the ordinances you must present to Israel:

      • “These ‘laws,’ or, better, ‘judgments’ (mispatim), are given as precedents to guide Israel’s civil magistrates in the cases of civil dispute.” (Kaiser)

* Before we begin, we should go ahead and make abundantly clear that the slavery discussed here in the Bible, is NOT the same idea that we have of slavery in our society. The slavery that is being described in the following passages would be much better termed “indentured servitude” in our modern language.

        • Guzik writes, “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: (1) Chosen or mutually arranged; (2) Of limited duration; and (3) Highly regulated.”

      • Guzik explains the four basic ways in which a Hebrew may become a slave to another Hebrew: “ (1) In extreme poverty, they might sell their liberty (Leviticus 25:39); (2) 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); (3) In the case of bankruptcy, a man might become servant to his creditors (2 Kings 4:1); and (4) If a thief had nothing with which to pay proper restitution (Exodus 22:3-4).”

* The second thing that should be noted, is that contrary to claims by some skeptics, the Bible is not “responsible” for slavery. Slavery was a documented, common practice in the ancient world long before the Israelites. HCSB commentary gives an excellent explanation, “The Bible does not condone slavery any more than it condones polygamy or divorce. Instead, it establishes human limits for an existing, evil system. Slavery had long been a feature of human society. The Israelites were always to remember that they themselves had been the victims of this practice for an extended time as slaves in Egypt. Accordingly, Israelite slave owners were to treat their slaves in a fair and charitable manner…Through these measures the law of Moses made it clear that slaves were to be treated as persons with God-given rights and standing before God. Furthermore, slavery for the Israelites was to be a temporary state, not a lifetime condition. The law of Moses laid the groundwork for the eventual demise of one of the most demeaning institutions in human society.”

        • Morgan writes, “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.”

        • G. Campbell Morgan writes, “A careful consideration of them [laws regarding slavery] will show that they abolished slavery, and substituted for it, covenanted labour.”

      • Chadwick notes, “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.”

    • “When you buy a Hebrew slave he can serve for 6 years, but must be released as a free man in the 7th year- owing you nothing. If he was single when he became your slave, he will leave single. If he was married when he became your slave then he will leave with his wife. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave and they have children, then the wife and the children belong the master, and the man will be free. However, the slave may declare, ‘I love my master and my family. I don’t want to go free.” In this case, his master must bring him before the judges, then to the door or doorpost and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will serve his master for life.”

      • “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.” (Guzik)

    • “When a man sells his daughter as a slave she will not be freed at the end of six years like men are. If she doesn’t please her owner, who is betrothed to her, he must allow her to be bought by another Hebrew. He cannot sell her to a foreigner, because he is the one who broke the contract. If the slave’s owner buys her for his son, she must no longer be treated as a slave, but as a daughter. If a man who has taken a slave for a wife, then takes another wife, he cannot neglect his first wife. If he fails to meet all his obligations to her of food, clothing, and sexual intimacy, then she can leave as a free woman without paying him anything.”

      • 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…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…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…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.” (Guzik)

Laws About Personal Injury

    • “Anyone who assaults and kills another person must be put to death. However, if the death was an accident, I will set aside a refuge where the killer can run for safety. If a person intentionally makes a plan to murder someone, then the killer must be taken from my altar and killed.”

      • “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)…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…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. ” (Guzik)

      • In his commentary, Guzik draws attention to this important point, “The principle that unpunished murders defile a land (Numbers 35:31, 33-34) is a sobering, humbling thought among Americans, were so many are murdered and few are brought to justice for those murders.”

      • Clarke addresses the “refuge” for unintentional murderers, “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.”

    • “Anyone who strikes their mother or father must be killed.”

      • Guzik clarifies, “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.”

    • “Anyone who kidnaps someone must be killed, whether they are caught while still in possession of the victim or have already sold them.”

      • “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).” (Guzik)

      • Kaiser makes this important point, “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.”

    • “Anyone who curses their father or mother must be killed.”

      • This sounds extreme, but Guzik elaborates with a quote from Cole, “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.’”

    • “If two men get into a fight and one injures the other to the point that he is confined to his bed, if the injured party heals and is able to walk with a crutch, then the other man will not be punished. However, he will be required to pay the victim for any lost work time and for provide for his full recovery.”

    • “If a man beats his slave and the slave dies from it, then the owner must be punished. However, if the slave recovers within a day or two, the owner won’t be punished since the slave belongs to him.”

      • “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.” (Guzik)

      • Kaiser, speaking on the use of “ownership” language, “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.”

      • Cole notes, “The great advance on ancient thinking is that the slave is considered here as a person.”

      • Guzik makes one final point about “slavery” laws before we move on to laws regarding retribution, “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.”

    • NLT Illustrated Study Bible on the following laws, “These laws governed compensation for injuries that did not lead to death.”

    • “If two men are fighting and they accidentally hit a pregnant woman causing her to go into labor and deliver her baby prematurely, if there is no injury, the one her struck her must pay whatever fine the woman’s husband demands and the judges approve of. However, if there is injury, then they must give life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, foot for a foot, burn for a burn, bruise for a bruise, and wound for a wound.”

      • “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…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.” (Guzik)

    • “If a man hits his slave in the eye and the slave is blinded or if he knocks out a slave’s tooth, he must let the slave go free as compensation.”

      • “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…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.” (Guzik)

      • Clarke remarks on the stipulation that if a man knocked out his slaves tooth, he must set his slave 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.”

    • “If an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox must be stoned and you cannot eat it. In this case, the owner of the ox will not be held liable. However, if the owner of the ox had been informed that the ox was in the habit of goring and he failed to keep the ox under control, then the ox and the owner will be stoned. Unless, the relatives of the deceased agree to accept payment as compensation for the loss of life. The owner of the ox must then pay whatever is demanded. The same law applies if the ox gores a child. If, however, the ox gores a slave, the owner of the ox must pay the owner of the slave 30 shekels of silver and the ox must be stoned. ”

      • “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.” (Guzik)

      • Guzik notes this New Testament correlation to the 30 shekel price for a slave, “Significantly, this was the same price Jesus was sold for when Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15).”

    • Guzik makes this note about the following laws, “These laws communicate the principle of responsibility for the consequences of an individual’s actions upon another.”

    • “If someone digs or uncovers a pit and doesn’t cover it up, then an ox or donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit must pay compensation to the owner of the animals, but then the deceased animal belongs to him.”

    • “If one man’s ox injures another man’s ox and it dies, they must sell the live ox and split the proceeds and divide the dead animal between themselves. However, if the man’s ox was known to have a habit of goring and the owner failed to restrain it, he must compensate the other man fully for the loss of his ox, and the dead animal will be completely his.”

A very interesting and educational article about Ancient Law Codes is printed in my NLT Illustrated Study Bible. I’ll share it with you here:

“Until the late 1800’s, the law of Moses was believed to be a unique code of law, existing nearly a thousand years before anything comparable in Greek and Roman laws. Excavations in Persia in the late 1800’s, however, uncovered laws set forth by the Babylonian king Hammurabi in the 1700’s BC, some 300 years prior to Moses. Surprisingly, a number of the laws in that list are almost identical to those in the Bible. Though this seemed to imply that the biblical laws had been taken from Hammurabi, subsequent discoveries produced law codes preceding Hammurabi’s by at least 500 years, and several laws common to all of them, so Hammurabi did not originate them.

What does this mean for the Bible? First, it is not surprising that we find similar laws from cultures neighboring Israel; similar societies require similar codes of conduct in order to ensure justice. Second, the biblical laws are unique in that they are incorporated in a covenant with God. Elsewhere in the ancient Near East, religious laws (about sacrifice, prayers, offerings, etc.) and civil laws (covering theft, lying, sexual conduct, murder, etc.) were completely unrelated because ethics and religion were considered separate domains. Religion was a matter of prayer, devotion, offerings, and ritual behavior- the territory of priests. Ethics concerned social and civil behavior- the business of the king. The biblical view of things is different: God is sovereign over both religion and society. So a person who is in a relationship with the true God must not only participate in proper worship (religion), but also treat other people rightly (ethics.)

Israel’s covenant with God made use of existing forms but invested them with new meaning. For example, the basic layout of Israel’s Tabernacle (Exodus 26-27) and Temple (see I Kings 6:1-7:38) were the same as elsewhere in the ancient world, and the basic forms of the Hebrew sacrifices (see Leviticus 1-7) were largely identical to the forms of pagan sacrifices. But the meaning and purpose of the Temple and the sacrifices were significantly different from the meaning and purpose of such things in paganism.

While many of the laws of Moses were not new to the new world at that time, the idea that the behavior they called for is written into the very fabric of the universe by its Creator was radically new.”