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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 21

Verses 1-36

The Book of the Covenant (continued)

I-ii. Regulations regarding the Treatment of Hebrew Slaves.

Slavery was universal in ancient times, and the Mosaic Law does not abolish it. Among the Hebrews, however, slavery was by no means the degrading and oppressive thing that it was among other nations. Manstealing, upon which modern systems of slavery are based, was a crime punishable by death (see Exodus 21:16), and the Law of Moses recognises the right of a slave to just and honourable treatment. A Hebrew slave might occupy a high position in his master’s household and be regarded as a trusty friend, as the case of Eliezer shows (Genesis 24). He could not be bound for more than six years at a time; in the seventh year he obtained his freedom if he desired it (see Exodus 21:2); he might hold property and come to be able to redeem himself (Leviticus 25:49); he was protected from the violence of his master (Exodus 21:20-21); he could claim compensation for bodily injury (Exodus 21:26-27); and he was entitled to the sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10). If a Hebrew girl became her master’s concubine he could not sell her to a foreigner, but must let her be redeemed (Exodus 21:8); if his son married her he must treat her as a daughter (Exodus 21:9); if he took a second wife he must not degrade her, but use her as liberally as before (Exodus 21:10). In general the Hebrew master was to treat his slave rather as a brother or hired servant than as a chattel, and the principle which was to govern his treatment was the humane precept ’thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God’ (Leviticus 25:43). These laws, it is true, apply to the slave who was an Israelite, but the lot of even the foreign slave who had been captured in war was only a little less favourable. If it be asked why the Mosaic Law did not at once abolish slavery the answer must be that the time was not ripe for that. Christ Himself did not abolish it; and His apostles tolerated it (see 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 and the Epistle to Philemon). Christianity did not violently overthrow existing social institutions or abolish class distinctions. But it taught the brotherhood of all men, and by quietly introducing the leaven of justice, humanity, and brotherly love into society, gradually abolished the worst social abuses and made slavery impossible.

2. If thou buy an Hebrew servant] A man might voluntarily sell himself for debt (Leviticus 25:39), or he might be judicially sold for theft (see Exodus 22:3), or he might be sold by his parents (Exodus 21:7). If the year of Jubilee fell before the seventh year of his servitude he went free then: see Leviticus 25:40, Leviticus 25:41. Lifelong compulsory servitude was therefore unknown.

3. If he were married] before coming into slavery. If he married after becoming a slave, the case contemplated in the next verse, he would do so subject to the consent of his master, in which case the wife and children remained with the master.

5. Slavery may be preferable to freedom. This shows the mild nature of slavery among the Hebrews.

6. Unto the judges] RV ’unto God.’ The expressions are really identical, for the judges would be the priests, or the high priest, and the transaction would take place at the sanctuary and have the sanction of the divine judgment: see on Exodus 22:8, Exodus 22:28; RV. Bore his ear] The fastening of the ear to the doorpost signifies his perpetual attachment to the house of his master: cp. Deuteronomy 15:17. The ear is pierced as being the organ of hearing and, therefore, of obedience.

7. To be a maidservant] The word denotes a slavewife, a consort of inferior rank, like Hagar (Genesis 16:3). Her position was permanent. She did not go out at the end of six years, which would have been a degradation. If she were the wife of the master of the house, she was to be treated as a wife; if of the son, as a daughter. If she were dismissed, it must be in an honourable way (Exodus 21:8, Exodus 21:11), and without repayment of the purchase money.

10. Polygamy, like slavery, was tolerated by the Law of Moses. Its cessation in Christian lands has naturally followed the nobler teaching of Christianity regarding woman: cp. the remarks on the cessation of slavery.

12-17. Three Offences Punishable by Death, viz. murder, manstealing, and the smiting or cursing of parents.

13. For the appointment of cities of refuge as an asylum in the case of accidental homicide, see on Numbers 35:9-34.

14. From mine altar] The altar seems to have been the place of refuge at first: see 1 Kings 1:50; 1 Kings 2:28.

15. Smiteth] not necessarily with fatal effect. Reverence towards parents was regarded in ancient times as more a religious than a social duty, and a breach of the fifth commandment, like blasphemy, was a capital offence: see intro. to the Decalogue, and cp. Deuteronomy 21:18.

16. Manstealing is to be punished as severely as murder.

17. Cursing, like blessing, is always looked upon as efficacious. It is a solemn appeal to God, who will not permit His name to be taken in vain. He will not respond to the child who invokes His power to the injury of a father or mother. And such an impious appeal is itself a serious crime.

18-32. The Law of Compensation for Injury to Life or Limb.

19. Shall.. be quit] i.e. of the charge of murder. But he must pay for the injured man’s loss of time and medical treatment.

21. He is his money] The master himself loses by his servant’s inability to work, and is sufficiently punished in this way. If the injury is of a permanent nature the slave is entitled to his freedom: see Exodus 21:26, Exodus 21:27.

23. Any mischief] beyond the loss of the child (Exodus 21:22). The law of retaliation (’like for like’) is common to all early stages of civilisation: cp. e.g. art. ’Laws of Hammurabi.’ It is a rough and ready kind of justice, but it involves many difficulties and is generally abandoned in favour of a system of fines and penalties. It should be observed that the law of retaliation is not the same as private revenge. The equivalent penalty is inflicted by the judge, not by the injured person: cp. Leviticus 24:17-21; Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Christ refers to this passage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38.), forbidding the spirit of revenge, and enforcing the duty of forbearance in imitation of the heavenly Father.

28. The following enactments are a good illustration of the spirit of even-handed justice displayed by the Mosaic Law: cp. Genesis 9:5. His flesh shall not be eaten] This would serve to emphasise the horror connected with such an accidental death. It was also in accordance with the law forbidding the eating of blood as unclean. An ox killed by stoning would not be bled: see on Leviticus 17:10-16, and cp. Exodus 22:31.

29. In this case the owner is morally responsible and is liable to be put to death. The death penalty may, however, be commuted by a fine, the amount of which would be fixed by the relatives of the person killed, with probably an appeal to the judges.

32. The silver shekel was in value a little more than half-a-crown. The ordinary price of a slave, therefore, was about £3 10s.: cp. Zechariah 11:12-13; Matthew 26:15. From the latter passage it will be seen that our Lord’s life was reckoned of the same value as that of a slave.

33-c. Exodus 22:15. Law of Compensation for Injury to Property.

34. The dead beast shall be his] It is assumed that he has paid the full value of the live animal.

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Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Exodus 21". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". 1909.