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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Exodus 21

This chapter with its legal provisions is clearly an elaboration and extension of the Decalogue, spoken upon the same occasion and by God Himself in the presence of the whole Hebrew nation. However, it is not merely a set of regulations, it is a spiritual Bill of Rights. Orlinsky in his notes on the New Translation of the Torah affirms that the Hebrew word lying at the head of his chapter, [~mishpatiym], does not convey the sense of "ordinances, judgments regulations, and the like."[1] "What is seen here is not the laws or rules of action, but the rights by which the national life was formed."[2] Thus, we have here, exactly after the manner of the Bill of Rights which promptly follows our own Constitution of the United States, a very important and significant Bill of Rights, protecting the rights of several classes in the newly-formed nation of Israel.

The critical bias and misunderstanding that would make these sundry provisions to be evidence of the status of Israel long afterward in the days of the monarchy, thus enabling men to postulate a late date, and deny the God-given authority of these protective injunctions and their Mosaic authorship, are unacceptable when the true meaning of the chapter is ascertained. The language of this chapter is impossible of having originated in the ninth century B.C., or later, because, as Noth pointed out: "Two technical terms appear (here), (including [~`Ibriy] and [~chapshiy]) which describe a legal and social status within the framework of ancient oriental community life in the second millennium B.C."[3] The language of this chapter then belongs to the times of Moses, not to the times of the Judges or the monarchy, the same being another proof, among many others we have cited as persuasive evidence of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

The outline of the chapter, therefore, is as follows:

  1. The rights of male slaves (Exodus 21:1-6).

  2. The rights of female slaves (Exodus 21:7-11).

  3. The rights of the accused (Exodus 21:12-20).

  4. The rights of those suffering punishment (Exodus 21:21-25).

  5. The rights of persons dismembered (Exodus 21:26-27).

  6. The rights of persons wounded, or killed by animals (Exodus 21:28-32).

  7. The rights of persons suffering from willful negligence on the part of others (Exodus 21:33-36).

The inherent protection certified to such minorities as women, slaves, and the accused, which was guaranteed by these Divine pronouncements must be hailed as the greatest Bill of Rights ever known upon earth at so early a period. As Davies said, "These case laws show affinity with Mesopotamian and Hittite laws ... of the Bronze Age."[4] This is a significant admission of the 15th century B.C. date of this chapter; but the "affinity" mentioned here is inapplicable, for, as we shall see, these laws of God are infinitely higher, more merciful, and superior in every way to anything even suggested in the ancient codes that antedate the Decalogue.

"These stipulations of Exodus 21:22-Exo. 23:19, have been so arranged by the Divine Spirit as to form groups of ten, after the manner of the Decalogue."[5] In our view this recurrence of the Divine Imprimatur should have been expected. There were Ten Generations in Egypt prior to the Exodus, Ten Plagues of Egypt, Ten Commandments, Ten Provisions in the Bill of Rights, Ten Toledoths in Genesis. This is an extensive subject in its own right, and we shall not further explore it here. See the remarkable writings of William Moller on this subject.[6] A full knowledge of this quality of the Divine Mind makes impossible the acceptance of critical postulations which profess to find several other "rival" lists of the Ten Commandments in Exodus.

One other word about the obvious antiquity of this chapter is in order:

"This entire narrative (going back to Exodus 20:24ff) has numerous marks of antiquity: the primitive altar, the abhorrence of a tool upon the stone, the simplicity of the sacrifices offered (there were only two mentioned), as well as the fact that the passage makes no reference to priests and addresses Israelites as ascending the altar."[7]

Verses 1-6


"Now these are the ordinances which thou shalt set before them. If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he come in by himself, he shall go out by himself. if he be married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master give him a wife, and she bear him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever."

Slavery was widespread in the ancient world, and, while God did not order the abolition of it, he did in this passage initiate rules that greatly abetted the horrors of slavery. First of all, no Hebrew slave could be compelled to serve more than six years, the only exception being given in Exodus 21:6, where a slave could voluntarily accept perpetual slavery. The time was not then ripe for the abolition of slavery, and it should be remembered that neither Christ nor any of his apostles ever called for the abolition of it as an institution. However, the marvelous teachings of Christianity set in motion forces that in time brought down the whole conception of slavery. The regulations here "insured that Hebrew slaves would be treated as brethren."[8] God's concern here was primarily the conduct of his own people, and the problem of foreign slaves was dealt with later (Leviticus 25:44-46).

"I love my master ..." This provision stressed the likelihood that due to the benign conditions of the Hebrew slave (contrasting with that which was current in that age), there would indeed be instances in which individuals would prefer slavery to the responsibilities of freedom.

The question of how a member of the community of Israel became a slave is answered in the Bible:

  1. He could sell himself to get out of debt (2 Kings 4:1).
  2. He could be sold by his parents in need of money (Nehemiah 5:2).

"In the seventh year, he shall go out free for nothing ..." "This meant he could leave in the seventh, or sabbatical year of his servitude",[9] but on every fiftieth year, when the year of Jubilee came, if it happened to come before the full six years was concluded, "he went free then."[10] Summarizing these marvelous rights which were guaranteed to a male slave, we have:

  1. He was guaranteed the right of just and honorable treatment.

  2. He could occupy positions of great trust and responsibility as did Eliezar of Damascus for Abraham.

  3. He could not be bound for more than six years without his consent.

  4. He could hold property, with the possibility that he might, in time, redeem himself.

  5. He was protected from the sadistic violence of a brutal master (Exodus 21:20).

  6. He could claim compensation for bodily injury (Exodus 21:26-27).

  7. He had full rights of rest on the sabbath (Exodus 20:10).

"He shall go out free for nothing ..." One more word about this. Orlinsky stated that, "As far as the Hebrew text is concerned, the Hebrew slave simply walked out as a free man at the end of his six years."[11] There were no required formalities; nobody had to pass judgment on it, or give permission, for here God Himself granted permission! Also, Deuteronomy 15:13f, enjoined the master to bestow handsome presents upon his slaves when they departed. It was in keeping with this that Abraham had given great gifts to his concubines before sending them away (Genesis 25:6).

Bible scholars classify the two kinds of laws, or rules, given in this "Book of the Covenant," as: (1) those like the one given in Exodus 21:2, here, which being with "If," outlining a theoretical situation. These are called Causistic or "Case Laws." This form is followed in nearly all of the ancient codes such as that of Hammurabi. (2) Then, there is Apodeictic Law, laws which merely laid down the Divine Law, such as "Thou shalt not kill." "The presence of many apodeictic laws in Exodus suggests the intrinsic, Divine authority of these laws"[12]

"His master shall bring him unto God ..." The Hebrew text here is literally, "unto the gods," that is, the magistrates.[13] Our Lord Jesus Christ himself made appropriate use of this in his defense of his actions before the Pharisees, saying, "If he called them gods, unto whom the Word of God came, (and the Scriptures cannot be broken), say ye of him whom the Father sanctified ... `Thou blasphemest, because I said I am the Son of God'?" (John 10:35,36). The expression "gods" was here used accommodatively, of course, since the magistrates in view were the representatives of God.

Some scholars affirm that "the door-post" here was located in the master's private dwelling,[14] and others are equally sure that the ceremony of the awl and the ear was to take place only at the sanctuary, the tabernacle, or later, the temple.[15] It appears to us that the latter is most likely correct.

Verses 7-11


"If a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out as the men-servants do. If she please not her master, who hath espoused her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; to sell her unto a foreign people he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouse her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three things unto her, then shall she go out for nothing without money."

We are surprised that Noth suggested a "contradiction" between Exodus 21:2 and Exodus 21:7, although he did not use that word. The difference he supposed might have been due to the "view that only a man is a person, while the woman on the other hand was a possession."[16] How can a "Christian" commentator ascribe such a reason to Almighty God? NO! Nothing like that is here. What is in view in the case of selling a woman was that she would be used as s second-class wife, or a concubine. It is easy to see that, to make such women to be "released on their own" would be to do them a grave injustice. This Bill of Rights for women-slaves guaranteed to them legal status as permanent members of the families to which they were indentured, and, in the case of their being given to a man's son, endowed them with the status of daughterhood! They also had the right of returning to their father's home in case their master took another wife and denied them the three basic rights of food, cohabitation, and clothing. In such a case, the woman was free without the return of the purchase money.

"Her duty of marriage ..." "This is but a single word in Hebrew, defined as `cohabitation.'"[17]

The class of persons protected by these God-given rights was that of secondary-wives, or concubines, as indicated by the double mention of "espoused" and the mention of the duty of marriage in Exodus 21:10. Another right implied here but not specifically mentioned was the right of children born to such unions to inherit through either the master or his son. It was precisely this that compelled Abraham to send Hagar away in order to prevent Ishmael from becoming an heir to Abraham's wealth above Isaac. "A slave wife could be unfairly treated if they fell into disfavour, and the price of such unfair treatment was that which gave her her freedom."[18]

All of these "rights" of slaves (Exodus 21:1-11) have led some to criticize God's allowance of slavery under any circumstances. However, "God allowed slavery upon exactly the same basis that He allowed divorce (Matthew 19:3-9), allowed the monarchy (1 Samuel 8:7-9), allowed a representative priesthood instead of the priesthood of all Israel (Exodus 19:6), allowed the building of the Temple (2 Samuel 7:5-17), and allowed slavery here! "People were going to traffic in slavery anyway, so the laws were established to give some kind of protection to the enslaved."[19]

Verses 12-14


"He that smiteth a man, so that he dieth, shall surely be put to death. And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee. And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may, die."

This is the first of several protections given to assure the just enforcement of God's law. The law under consideration here was first reiterated in Exodus 21:12, capital punishment for murderers, but one accused of murder was not always guilty. There were instances of accidental, or of unintentional homicide, and to protect against the unjust punishment of one who had committed a "crime" like that, God appointed a place where the man could flee until the true facts were determined by proper authority, after which the guilty would be punished and the innocent spared. Also, Exodus 21:12 may be viewed as a limitation of the number of capital offenses. Only three were mentioned here, although more were specified later: (1) murder (Exodus 21:12); (2) striking or cursing father or mother (Exodus 21:15,17); and (3) kidnapping (Exodus 21:16).

"A place whither he may flee ..." God, through Moses, gave more complete and definite instructions regarding this in Numbers 35:9-34, where it was revealed that "after Israel entered Canaan" six cities of refuge were to be appointed, and specific rules established regarding their use and the rights and restrictions applicable to the manslayer. We know now, of course, that those cities of refuge were: Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan. They were apparently appointed by Joshua (Joshua 20:1-9).

There is no mention here of the place to which inadvertent slayers could go, but the mention of "mine altar" so closely in this connection probably indicates the altar of the tabernacle (soon to be established) which would serve until Israel entered Canaan and Joshua appointed the cities. Certainly, the idea was well known long before Moses that guilty men could claim immunity from punishment by fleeing to the altar of some holy place. The gross abuse of that pagan idea had turned the great cities of the pagan world into vast concentrations of the most evil men on earth. At a time long after Moses, the Temple of Diana at Ephesus extended their sanctuary for a full half-mile in all directions from the temple area, and that, in the times of the apostles, was probably the most concentrated population of grossly wicked men ever known on earth. Here God specifically denied the efficacy of such places of refuge. That, however, did not keep Joab from attempting to make use of it. He and Adonijah both fled to the altar, but Solomon ordered both of them slain (1 Kings 2:24-32).

"But God deliver him into his hand ..."

"This is the Biblical way of saying that the death was not planned. Since the Bible does not deal with secondary causes, "chance happenings," anything which man did not specially plan must have been caused by God's action."[20]

Verses 15-17

"And he that smiteth his father, or his mother shall surely be put to death. And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. And he that curseth his father or his mother, shall surely be put to death."

These three verses are apparently a parenthesis in the protective rights provided to inadvertent manslayers, their apparent purpose being that of assurance that all persons who committed any of the crimes mentioned here were to be denied sanctuary anywhere if they were found to be guilty.

Verses 18-19

"And if men contend, and one smite the other with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed."

The "rights" protected here were two: (1) the right to be free of the charge of murder unless the man died; and (2) the right of the injured in such a fight to be compensated for time lost and physician's bills due to injuries resulting from the fight. Thus, we have a piece of Divine legislation that recognizes the rights of victims of crime, a legal principle that is only yet dimly perceived and little honored in our society. Our so-called "modern laws" will not catch up to the spirit of this until they require convicted robbers and other violent criminals to reimburse their victims for personal injuries, medical bills, and financial loss. Until legislative bodies all over the world do this, they will languish far behind the principles of these just and holy regulations.

Verses 20-21

"And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished, for he is his money."

This was a protective right granted to slaves that they should not be beaten to death! If that seems like a small blessing to us, let it be remembered that under the system in vogue all over the pagan world of that era, and extending down even until apostolic times, the Roman Law, in force all over the world, provided as a penalty against slaves, even for trivial and unintentional violations, that shame of the whole pagan world "flagellis ad mortera" (beaten to death),[21] a penalty usually inflicted in the presence of all the other slaves of a master. God here provided that punishment should be meted out to a slave-owner for following that pagan custom. Also, in case of the dismemberment of a slave, his instant freedom from slavery was automatically provided (Exodus 21:26,27). Also, there was a protective right established here for the slave-owner who was not to be charged with murder in case a slave died under the lash, but he was to be punished.

If the slave, suffering such a punishment, survived even a few days and then died, the master was held free of the penalty of punishment, the loss of his slave being accounted a sufficient penalty.

"For he is his money ..." "The loss of the slave, under the circumstances, was accounted as a punishment.[22]

Verses 22-25

"And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow; he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband. shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

They are grossly in error who find this law harsh or unjust. Let it be remembered that this glimpse of Divine Light fell in a world darkened by ages of the grossest paganism, the societies of which wallowed in the most primitive and debased emotional darkness. The law as practiced by that shameful world was: (1) If you kill my child, I will kill you, your family, and your whole generation. (2) If you knock out my tooth, I will knock out all of yours and gouge out your eyes in additional! Etc., etc. Thus, the introduction of the law called the "Lex Talionis,"[23] was a vast improvement over what preceded it. This law was known as early as the Code of Hammurabi (circa 2,000 B.C.). It had the effect of limiting revenge. Also, as the Jews interpreted it, it gradually led to the substitution of monetary penalties for the retaliative dismemberment of enemies, as when a victim would confront the relative benefit to himself of seeing his neighbor's hand cut off (for example), or of receiving a money reward instead of it. "The Hebrew words here carry the sense of `substitute.' What is meant is that whoever causes another to lose his eye ... must make financial restitution."[24] We are not qualified to decide whether that interpretation is authentic or not, but one thing is clear, the Code of Hammurabi demanded that the penalty be executed, whereas, there are no instances in the Bible where the "Lex Talionis" was applied in any such brutal manner.

The world still has a long way to go in the matter of handling the revenge motive. The law here was a sign of progress in human relationships, but if men ever desire to have a truly desirable social climate in which to live, "They must accept the law taught by Christ, the law of unlimited forgiveness: `If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink' (Romans 12.20).[25]

Verses 26-27


"And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, and destroy it; he shall let him go free for his eye' s sake. And if he smite out his man-servant's tooth, or his maid-servant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake."

Thus, this whole chapter must be viewed as a Bill of Rights. From first to last, it lays down protections one after another for certain persons long subject to mistreatment in the societies of that age. Here a master's striking of a servant of either sex in such a manner as to dismember him led to the prompt release of the injured servant to his freedom.

Verses 28-32


"And if an ox gore a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be surely stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox was wont to gore in time past, and it hath been testified to its owner, and he hath not kept it in, but it hath killed a man or a woman: the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. And if there be laid on him a ransom, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatsoever is laid upon him, Whether it hath gored a man, or have gored a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done unto him. If the ox gore a man-servant or a maid-servant, there shall be given unto the master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned"

The right of the public to be shielded from dangerous animals, known to be so, is set forth here, where appropriate penalties for negligence are imposed. The principles of this law are binding in every country of the world today.

"Its flesh shall not be eaten ..." Having caused the death of a man, their flesh was considered to be unclean.

Note that the death penalty could be invoked for persistent and willful violations leading to someone's death,

"And if there be laid on him a ransom ..." "This is the only case where a money compensation, instead of capital punishment, was expressly allowed in the Mosaic Law."[26]

"If the ox gore (a servant) ..." (Exodus 21:32). "A slave's death required a fine of 30 shekels (about $15 or $20), and the ox's death."[27] This law was honored even in the days of Jesus Christ, and the mention here of the exact price of a dead slave as 30 pieces of silver (shekels), prompts the question as to WHY the Pharisees elected to pay Judas Iscariot exactly that amount. The haggling over the amount, as indicated by Judas' bargaining with them, suggests that there was something very special about this exact amount of money chosen by the "false shepherds" of Israel as the amount they would pay for the treachery of Judas. Most assuredly, there was!

"The evil shepherds (Pharisee, Sadducees, Herodians, the Sanhedrin) had already decided to kill Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:4). This they planned to be a clandestine murder; they regarded Jesus as already dead! They also considered him to be no better than a common slave; and therefore, they calculated that they should pay Judas the price of a DEAD slave as given here, a matter of thirty pieces of silver. Of course, Jesus was not dead at that time, but the announced purpose of the Sanhedrin of murdering him shows that they would willingly assume the role of the OX in this key verse. They would be the OX that gored him to death! What a magnificent calculation! And what a revelation of the heart of those murderers in the very price they selected as the blood money!"

"But those evil shepherds overlooked one key element in their diabolical calculations: THE OX MUST BE STONED! Thus, they sealed their own doom and that of Israel, and the sentence was ruthlessly carried out by the armies of Vespasian and Titus during that dreadful August of A.D. 70. - From Vol. 4, Minor Prophets, p. 173."

Verses 33-34

"And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit and not cover it, and an ox or an ass fall therein, the owner of the pit shall make it good; he shall give money unto the owner thereof, and the dead beast shall be his."

This type of responsibility bound upon the owner of an open pit is exactly the type of responsibility fixed by our own society upon the owner of what is called "a friendly hazard," meaning some attractive, but hazardous place where some child could be injured. The requirements here have been considered just and righteous in all ages.

Verses 35-36

"And if one man's ox hurt another's so that it dieth, then they shall sell the live ox, and divide the price of it; and the dead also shall they divide. Or if it be known that the ox was wont to gore in time past, and its owner hath not kept it in; he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his own."

This is the same as the previous verses, except that animals instead of people would have been involved in a case like this. The responsibility of the owner of a dangerous animal stands out clearly in both situations, showing that this is designed to protect the public, or society, against the thoughtlessness or unconcern of such an owner. This section makes binding upon men a social responsibility for all that they do in all ages to come.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.