Bible Commentaries
Exodus 21

Garner-Howes Baptist CommentaryGarner-Howes

Verses 1-6


Verses 1-6:

This text begins "the judgments" which Jehovah gave to Moses, to determine the civil and social position of Israel in relation to each other (Ex 21:1-23:12), and their religious position in relation to the Lord (Ex 21:13-19). This legislation begins not at the top level of society, but at its lowest: that of the slave. First are provisions dealing with the personal rights of male slaves.

The Law was not given to change existing customs: It was given to regulate these customs, and to prevent abuse of them. One example is that of slavery, an existing institution. The Law did not create slavery; it regulated it and prohibited its abuse. Among the Hebrews, one might become a slave in one of two ways: (1) by poverty (Le 25:35-39; and (2) by crime (Ex 22:3.

A Hebrew slave could be held for only six years. At the beginning of the seventh year, he must be allowed to go free. His master must furnish him with provisions from flock and field (De 15:12-14), so he could begin his life anew. A married man who became a slave could take his wife to freedom with him. But if his master had given him a wife during his servitude, the wife was not allowed to go free with him; and neither were any children born during this time.

If a freed slave did not wish to leave his master or his wife and children, he could declare his intention to remain a slave. The master could present the case before the magistrates; then he would bore a hole in the slave’s ear, affixing him thus to the door or door post of the house. This would indicate that he would be a slave "for ever."

The "earmarked slave" illustrates the relationship of the saved to the Lord Jesus. One who is saved has been set free from sin’s slavery, Ga 3:13; 4:5; 1Pe 1:18, 19; Joh 8:34-36. He has a new relationship to Christ: that of a voluntary enslavement to Him, as Lord and Master, 2Pe 1:1; Jude 1:1.

Verses 7-11

Verses 7-11:

It was not uncommon for daughters to be sold as slaves. In some cases they were sold as wives or concubines. In this case, the female slave was not set free at the end of the sixth year, as was the male slave. If for some reason she did not "please" her master, he must "let her be redeemed," or offer a near kinsman the right to redeem her. He must not allow her to be sold to a foreigner.

If the owner of the female slave took another wife, he must not, in any way, diminish any of the rights of the first in preference to the second. If he did, he must allow the first to go free.

Verses 12-15

Verses 12-15:

The penalty for willful murder: death. God instituted capital punishment, as a principle of justice, and as a deterrent to crime.

If one were guilty of involuntary manslaughter, taking the life of another with no malice or premeditation, there was provision for sparing his life. God provided in the Land, six "cities of refuge," to which the man slayer might flee to escape the "avenger," the near kinsman whose right it was to execute vengeance (see Nu 35). Another provision was: the man slayer might flee to the Temple (Tabernacle), and grasp the "horns of the altar" with a plea for sanctuary. In both instances, if deliberate murder were proven, the guilty was to be executed.

The smiting of a parent was a capital offense. No mercy was allowed. This strongly emphasizes parental dignity and authority.

Verse 16

Verse 16:

Kidnapping was punishable by death. If one kidnapped a man for the purpose of selling him as a slave, he was to be put to death. Or if one bought a kidnapped man, he was a guilty as the one kidnapping him.

Verse 17

Verse 17:

Two sins of the tongue were regarded as capital offenses: blasphemy against God, and blasphemy against parents. The severity of this sentence confirms that in God’s sight, both sins are of deepest dye.

Verses 18-19

Verses 18, 19:

"If men strive together" implies a personal quarrel. If death were to occur, this would not be murder but manslaughter. Use of fist or stone implies no premeditation or design to kill. If the injured person recovered sufficiently to get about with use of a staff (cane), the one inflicting the injury must pay compensation for his lost time. In this case the score was regarded as settled.

Verses 20-21

Verses 20, 21:

Slaves were considered as chattel. In some ancient societies, the master had absolute authority over the slave. He could punish as he chose, even to death. The Hebrew law provided that a master could discipline a slave by beating. However, if this resulted in death, it was in general treated like any other homicide. The exception: if death did not occur for some days. In that case, it was presumed the master did not intend the death, and it was regarded as involuntary manslaughter, and the death with the resulting loss of revenue was considered punishment enough.

Verses 22-25

Verses 22-25:

An assault resulting in a miscarriage (abortion) was punished by a fine, to be determined by the woman’s husband. If the guilty party thought the fine excessive, he could appeal to a tribunal.

The "law of retaliation" extends beyond the present instance to include all cases of personal injury. "Eye for an eye. . ." etc., was a common mode of justice in the ancient world. The implication is for an exact equality. It would be manifestly unjust to require an "eye for an eye" in the case of a one-eyed man! Jesus referred to this principle: Mt 5:38, and pronounced a higher law, that of mercy toward the offender.

Verses 26-27

Verses 26, 27:

The "law of retaliation" did not apply to slaves. In case of personal injury, rather than allowing the slave to inflict the same penalty on the master, he was to be set free.

Verses 28-32

Verses 28-32:

The text concerns death caused by a domesticated animal, in this case an ox, as one most likely to inflict such injury. In such case, the animal must be put to death (see Ge 9:6). Its meat could not be eaten. This would acquit the owner of any further liability.

In the event the owner was aware of the savage temper of his ox, and if he did not keep the animal under proper restraint, he was then held personally liable. If the animal then killed a person, the owner must pay whatever fine was imposed upon him. This related to freeman. In the case of a slave, the owner of the ox must pay a fine of thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the animal must be stoned.

Verses 33-34

Verses 33:34:

"Pit" denotes a cistern. These were usually covered by a flat stone, or a wooden lid. It was the duty of the one uncovering the cistern, to replace the cover. If he failed to do so, and if this resulted in the death of a neighbor’s livestock, he must then pay compensation for the dead animal.

Verses 35-36

Verses 35, 36:

If the hurt was accidental and there was no evidence of neglect, the two parties were to divide the value of the living animal, and the carcass of the dead one. However, if there were evidence of neglect, and the aggressive animal were unrestrained, the one who suffered loss would receive the full value of the slain animal, and lose his share of the carcass.

The provisions of the Law were designed for administration of absolute justice to all, regardless of social or political standing.

Bibliographical Information
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on Exodus 21". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. 1985.