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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged

Exodus 21

Verse 1

Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.

Now these are the judgments, [ hamishpaaTiym (H4941)] - the statutes, ordinances; Septuagint, ta dikaioomata, ordinances (cf. Hebrews 9:1, where that word is used); rules instituted for regulating the procedure of judges and magistrates in the decision of causes and the trial of criminals. The government of the Israelites being a theocracy, these public authorities were the servants of the Divine Sovereign, and subject to His direction. Most of the laws here noticed were primitive usages, founded on principles of natural equity, and incorporated, with modifications and improvements into the Mosaic code. They are enumerated without strict regard to order, the record comprising, it is presumable, the principal acts ordained for settling the causes which were most frequently brought before the inferior judges, or carried by appeal to the ultimate tribunal of Moses. The parties who brought them seem to have belonged to the lower classes, and accordingly the series begins with detailing the ordinances which related to the personal rights of dependents and servants.

The general tenor of them affords unmistakeable proofs of the rude character and degraded condition of the Israelites, as well as shows what an onerous and difficult duty had devolved on Moses, who was called to undertake the government of such a people. But the very circumstances in which they were-a nation without a country or a settled home, in a rudimentary state, at first a race of pastoral nomads, divided into tribes or clans, and afterward existing in Canaan as simple farmers on their hereditary possessions-facilitated the operation of these laws. Though the enactment of them may have arisen out of circumstances which occurred in the wilderness, yet the influence of the Divine Spirit is discernible in framing ordinances of so general, comprehensive a nature as were suited to the present as well as the prospective and future condition of the Israelites. It appears (Exodus 24:4; Exodus 24:7) that the acts recorded from the beginning of this chapter to Exodus 23:19 were an expansion, a practical development of the Ten Commandments, which constituted the basis of the national covenant; and they, too, though detached ordinances, are so associated and ranged together as to form groups of ten, after the model of the Decalogue.

Verse 2

If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

If thou buy an Hebrew servant. Though slavery was recognized in Israel, and the mention of purchase-money here seems to point to the procuring of a slave, it must not be imagined that Hebrew servitude bore any resemblance to the ancient slavery of the Greeks and Romans, or of the modern slavery in America. The Hebrew language has no word for a slave who was absolutely in the power or at the mercy of an owner. [ `ebed (H5650), servant, properly signifies labourer; and so far from being a term implying degradation or infamy, it was applied to the chosen people, to Moses, to the prophets and kings, as well as to the Messiah. Accordingly it is rendered in the Septuagint by pais (G3816), not doulos (G1401), which denotes one bound.] Every Israelite was free-born; but servitude was permitted under certain restrictions: for a Hebrew might be reduced to the condition of a servant through poverty, debt, or crime.

Saalschutz ('Mosaische Recht') thinks that none of these are applicable to the present case. Founding on the singularity of the language, "buy an Hebrew servant," by which he understands, not a Hebrew for a servant, but a Hebrew already in a servile condition, he considers this law as enacted to regulate the interests of a special class of servants, intermediate between impoverished Israelites and pagan slaves-namely, the offspring of foreign servants, who had been born in Israelite families and incorporated with them by circumcision. The circumstances of such 'Hebrew servants,' when, from being home-born slaves, they passed into the service of another master, would, so far as concerned the length of service, be greatly benefited and improved by this regulation.

But it is against the view of Saalschutz, that, in the parallel passage of Deuteronomy 15:12, not [ `ebed (H5650)] "servant," on which he lays so much stress, but "thy brother, an Hebrew man," occurs. Besides, it seems strange that an ordinance respecting such a special class of servants should have precedence, in this summary of legislative acts, of all statutes relating to the rights and privileges of Hebrews themselves. The [ `Ibriy (H5680)] "Hebrew" servant is simply used in contradistinction to 'a foreign servant;' and while it may be conceded that the various passages which detail the rights of servants point to different classes of persons (see the notes at Leviticus 25:39-43; Leviticus 25:47-55; and Deuteronomy 15:12-16), the common view seems to be correct, that the present statute points to a genuine Hebrew servant.

Six years he shall serve - i:e., reckoning from the commencement of his service, irrespective of the Sabbatic year.

And in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing - at the end of six years he was entitled to freedom without redemption-money, or any compensation to his master for the loss of his services.

Verse 3

If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.

If he came in by himself, [ bªgapow (H1610)] - with his body [Septuagint, monos].

If he were married, then his wife shall go out with him - i:e., his wife, if she had voluntarily shared his state of bondage, also obtained release upon the expiration of the specified period.

Verse 4

If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself.

If his master have given him a wife - should he have married a female slave-not a Hebrew maid, as Salvador assumes ('Institutions de Moise'), whose term of six years did not end with that of her husband; but a pagan maid, who had no claim to such a privilege-she and the children, after the husband's liberation, remained the master's property.

Verse 5

And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:

If the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children. It might be that through attachment to his family, the Hebrew servant, resolving to forfeit his personal privilege, might choose to abide as he was; and as the state of Hebrew servitude was so light, while the evils necessarily attending a servile condition were mitigated by various humane provisions of the Jewish law, it may be presumed the alternative offered to married men-servants, instead of emancipation, would be generally embraced.

Verse 6

Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.

Then his master shall bring him unto the judges, [ 'el (H413) haa-'ªlohiym (H430)] - gods, a name applied by the Egyptians to rulers, and borrowed, from familiarity with their dialect, by the Hebrews on their exodus from that country (Michaelis, 'Commentary,' vol. 1:, p. 192). Some, however prefer taking the words in the ordinary sense, 'before God,' of whom the judges were only the earthly representatives (see the notes at Exodus 22:8; Exodus 22:28; Deuteronomy 1:17; Deuteronomy 19:17). A formal process was gone through in a public court, and a brand of servitude stamped on the servant's ear (Psalms 40:6), in token of his having voluntarily bound himself to his master's service for life, or at least until the jubilee (see further the note at Deuteronomy 15:17).

Verse 7

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant. Although it is not expressly said, it may be presumed, for the reasons stated on Exodus 21:1., that this man was a Hebrew father, who having, from some cause or other, been reduced to indigence, was forced to let his daughter go from his house into that of another. The sale, as it is called, was wages, a stipulated hire; but until then the daughter had been a free woman; an inmate in the house of her father, who parted with her in the full persuasion that she was forming a suitable relation, which gave him a pledge of her future condition. She shall not go out as the men-servants do. The relation to be formed was a matrimonial one; not indeed that of a regular marriage, for she was not to be a wife, only a concubine; but it was admitted to give her a recognized status, and accordingly she is not placed on the same footing with servants who are free at the expiration of six years' service (see the notes at Deuteronomy 15:17: cf. Jeremiah 34:9-10). [The Septuagint has: hoosper apotrechousin hai doulai, as the maid-servants marry. That would be treating her as a mere slave. Lª'aamaah (H519) for a maid-servant; 'aamaah (H519) and shipchaah (H8198) are both used for "handmaid" or "maid-servant". It is not easy to determine the difference between these two words. By some the latter is supposed to denote an unmarried maid-servant (Genesis 16:1), and the former a married one (Genesis 21:10); but this distinction is not maintained elsewhere (cf. Genesis 29:24; Genesis 29:29 with 33:1). Others consider 'aamaah (H519) to denote generally a young woman in a state of bondage, and shipchaah (H8198) a maid under the special control of her mistress. But the words occur in one passage (1 Samuel 25:41) where neither of these explanations are applicable. It appears from the details of the present case, that 'aamaah (H519) is used not only for a maid-servant, but a secondary wife-a concubine.] The formation of such a connection, by the payment of a stipulated sum, being a prevalent practice, the immediate and peremptory abolition of which was impracticable, certain regulations were made to mitigate the evils attending it; and three contingencies are here specified in which the non-performance of the duties resulting from them should release her entirely from the obligations of the service.

Verse 8

If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.

If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself. This is the first contingency - "please not" - literally, 'be ... evil in the eyes of' (cf. Genesis 28:8; 1 Samuel 8:6; 1 Samuel 18:8). "hath betrothed her." [There is a difference of reading in the text here, arising from the use of a single letter-an 'aleph (') or a waw (w) after lamed (L) in the Hebrew word which precedes yª`aadaah (H3259), appointed, fixed upon, betrothed. The first, lo' (H3808), is supported, with a single exception by all the MSS. examined by Kennicott, by the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac, Persian, and Arabic versions. The other, low (H3807a), is recommended in the margin or Masoretic text. The Septuagint adopted this reading, which has been followed by our translators. The meaning is not materially affected, whichever be taken; because the choice of the first necessitates this rendering. 'If she please not her master, so that he does not betroth her (to himself)'-does not form a matrimonial relation with her. This is the translation given in the version of de Wette. But the other-namely, that in our English translation-has received more general approval.]

Let her be redeemed. In the event of a change of feelings toward her, on the part of her master, the easiest course would be to have her redeemed, either by her father repaying a part of the price, or by some other party entertaining a purpose of marrying her. But in the event of her parents or friends being unable to pay the redemption money, her owner was not at liberty to sell her elsewhere.

To sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, [ lª`am (H5971) naakªriy (H5237)] - to a foreign people. Since the natural right of the father had been transferred by the quasi-sale of his daughter, so that he had no longer any right to interfere, her master, who otherwise had acquired an absolute control of her, was restricted by this law from disposing of her to any but a native Israelite or a resident proselyte, though he was at liberty to release himself in this way, if he found such a party willing to accept her. Seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her, [ bªbigdow (H899) baah (H871a)] - in his defrauding, or acting faithlessly toward her.

Verse 9

And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.

And if he hath betrothed her unto his son. This is the second supposed contingency. Women among the Hebrews, as in the East generally, were disposed of in marriage without their personal wishes or feelings being at all taken into account. In like manner, fathers conducted matrimonial arrangements for their sons, (Genesis 24:1-67.)

He shall deal with her after the manner of daughters, [ kªMishpat (H4941)] - according to the right and privilege of daughters.

Verse 10

If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.

If he take him another (wife) [ yiqach (H3947)] - take; i:e., marry (Judges 14:2). Since there is no indication of a change of subject, it must be considered that the father is meant as 'taking him' [ low (H3807a)] - i:e., for his son. This is decidedly preferable to the rendering in the Septuagint [which has ean de labee heautoo, 'take to himself'-a rendering which might have been admitted had the words stood before Exodus 21:9 ], "another wife." There being no term corresponding to this in the Hebrew text, its insertion in our version is unwarrantable, especially as the woman spoken of was not made a wife, her master having declined even the betrothal. The clause should stand, 'If he marry another (woman).' This is the third supposed contingency.

Her food [ shª'eeraah (H7607)] - her flesh. This word is used in preference to [ lechem (H3899)] bread, as the master is supposed to be a substantial or wealthy householder, in circumstances to maintain a concubine.

Her duty of marriage, [ wª`onaataah (H5772) - a word which is not found in this form in any other passage. It is derived by lexicographers differently-from 'aanaah, to oppress, and followed by 'ishaah (H802), to humble a woman-which sense it obviously cannot bear here; or from the obsolete verb, [`uwn, to dwell-so that it will signify cohabitation.] Our version is a literal translation of the Septuagint, which viewed the word in the former acceptation. The latter is preferable, making the clause stand thus: her food, dress, and lodging he shall not withdraw. And the purport of the enactment is, that should a poor Hebrew girl, in the service of a man of property, have been betrothed as a concubine to himself or to his son, and either of them should change his mind, she was not to be neglected, or subjected to ill-usage: a maintenance must be provided for her, suitable to her condition as his intended wife, or her freedom instantly granted.

Verse 11

And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verses 12-14

He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.

He that smiteth a man so that he die, shall be surely put to death. The preceding acts for protecting the rights and privileges of the poor and dependent are here succeeded by an enumeration of laws respecting the punishment of personal injuries, which in various forms and degrees of atrocity seem at this early stage of social life in Israel to have been painfully frequent. These regulations were founded on the lex Talionis, the principle of retributive justice; and cases are specified, marked by circumstances which, when properly investigated, might tend to modify or entirely restrain the application of that principle.

A violent assault, which issued in the immediate or ultimate death of the injured party, involved the criminality of homicide, the penalty of which was death (see the note at Genesis 9:6). But it might happen that the blow was accidental or unintentional; and it was the duty of the judge to prosecute his inquiries, so as to discriminate between an act of violence committed on deliberate purpose, or from malice pretense, and what was an unforeseen, unexpected casualty, or the result of mere thoughtlessness. In cases of this latter sort certain places would be appointed on their settlement in the promised land as asylums, where offenders might seek refuge until a formal inquiry should be instituted, and if declared innocent, he should be legally discharged from the penal consequences of his act (see the notes at Numbers 35:16-34). But a foul, treacherous, resolute murderer should not be allowed to escape with impunity; and even though he should secrete himself at the altar of God, which fancy might suggest or superstition dream was an inviolable sanctuary (cf. Leviticus 4:2; Leviticus 5:15; Leviticus 5:18; Numbers 15:27-31), the convicted criminal was to be dragged by the hands of justice to meet his doom (cf. 1 Kings 2:29-31).

Verse 15

And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.

He that smiteth his father or his mother, [ 'aabiyw (H1) wª'imow (H517) - his father and his mother. The 'and' is to be rendered distributively, 'or']. Smiting or cursing a parent are declared capital offences, because they are gross outrages on those who were created in the image, and are earthly representatives, of God (cf. Exodus 20:12).

Verse 16

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

Man - stealing to sell into slavery. These three crimes are mentioned afterward with additional circumstances of aggravation (see the notes at Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Deuteronomy 24:7).

Verse 17

And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verses 18-19

And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:

If men strive together ... Should a quarrel arise between two or more individuals, and a scuffle ensue, in which one of the party may receive such serious injuries as to disable him for work, in the event of his recovery, the individual who dealt the blow would be treated as innocent, implying, of course, that if he died in consequence of the damage done to him, the assailant would be held guilty of murder (Exodus 21:12); only he would have to compensate the invalid for the loss of his time, and for all the expenses incurred during his illness.

Verse 20

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

If a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die ... [ basheebeT (H7626)] - with the rod. Among the Israelites, as among all other people where slavery existed, the owner possesses the power of punishing his delinquent servants. But the exercise of absolute authority is liable at times to be abused; and hence, with a view to check the indulgence of intemperate passion, or excesses of undue severity, Hebrew masters were liable to be called to account for maltreatment of their servants; and in extreme cases, where the death of the servant resulted from the infliction of the rod, his master rendered himself in the eye of the Jewish law obnoxious to punishment. The precise amount of punishment, however, is not specified; for since there could be no retention on the master's part to kill his servant, the sentence of death awarded in the case described, Exodus 21:12, would have been manifestly unjust. The kind of punishment was probably left to be determined, on judicial inquiry, according to the general principles of the law. [But the phrase naaqom (H5358) yinaaqeem (H5358), 'it is to be surely avenged,' indicates that the punishment was to be severe, and by no means remitted. Jewish commentators affirm that he was executed by the sword.]

Verse 21

Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished - i:e., if the slave should continue in life for some time after the chastisement, it would be sufficiently evident that the master had no intention to kill his slave; and if the slave did afterward die, the loss of his services would be punishment enough to his master.

For he is his money. Not that God accounted a slave the mere property of his master-a part of his goods and chattels-but as the master had purchased him with a considerable sum of money, and would, according to the custom and notions of antiquity, estimate him at a certain rate of pecuniary value, it could not be supposed that he had harboured any design upon the life of his slave. The words, "for he is his money," were evidently added as a reason for this conclusion; and they implied, that in a nation which recognized slavery as an existing institution, no owner of slaves would purposely deprive himself of a servant, who, independently of his services to him, would at any time bring a good price in the market.

These are the words which (Colenso declares produced a strong revulsion of feeling in the mind of an intelligent native of Africa on reading them for the first time, and to which the professor, from sympathy with that feeling, has assigned a prominent place among the proofs that the Pentateuch is unhistorical. For they express, as he alleges, 'the revolting notion that the great and blessed God, the Father of all mankind, would speak of a servant or maid as mere "money," and allow a horrible crime to go unpunished, because the victim of his brutal usage had survived a few hours.'

It is superfluous to say that this is a total perversion of the act in question. It supposes a master chastising his servant with the rod-not, it will be observed, inflicting blows upon him with any instrument or weapon which, in the moment of passionate displeasure, might be within his reach-that would have been illegal; but with the ordinary stick employed to bastinado indolent or disorderly servants. It enacted, that if the servant should expire on the spot while undergoing the correction, his death in these circumstances should be regarded as murder, without further proof; and that the judge should, in retributive justice, avenge it by pronouncing on the offender a sentence of death. Should the servant, however, survive for a few days, it was provided that a judicial inquest should be made, in order to ascertain the real cause of his death-whether it had been the result of malice or accident-whether it might not have proceeded from some natural infirmity in the constitution of the deceased. If it were proved that he had expired under the blows of his master, then it was a case of murder, which came under the cognizance of the criminal law. But if it were traceable to any other cause, or if the matter were involved in uncertainty, the master should have the benefit of the doubt; because it was clearly against his interest to destroy his own property. Such is the reasonable and proper interpretation of this passage.

It is impossible to read it without perceiving that the enactment was a merciful provision for mitigating the evils of slavery-a provision utterly unknown in any other code of laws before the advent of our Lord. It shows in a very striking light the superior wisdom and humanity of the Jewish law. For while the Greek and Roman slave had no personal rights, but was under the absolute power of his master, to brand, torture, or kill him at pleasure, the Hebrew servant was fully protected by the law, and his owner was responsible for any excess of severity in the treatment-for any injury he might do to the life or person of his dependents (see the notes at Exodus 21:26-27).

Verse 22

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child. This is a casualty that must frequently have happened, with or without bad consequences to the wife, whose concern for her husband's safety might have led her, at great risk to herself, to interpose for the separation of the combatants.

So that her fruit depart from her, [ wªyaatsª'uw (H3318 ) yªlaadeyhaa (H3206 ); Septuagint, kai exelthee to paidion autees, and yet no mischief follow, [ wªlo' (H3808 ) yihªyeh (H1961 ) 'aacown (H611 ); Septuagint, mee exeikonismenon]: he shall be surely punished [ `aanowsh (H6064) yee`aaneesh (H6064)] - he shall be surely amerced (a totally different phrase from that which is used in the preceding verse) in a fine imposed by her husband, which, if unreasonably heavy, shall be modified by the decision of judges.

Verse 23

And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verses 24-25

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

Eye for eye. The law which authorized retaliation-a principle acted upon by all primitive people-was a civil one. It was given to regulate the procedure of the public magistrate in determining the amount of compensation in every case of injury, but did not encourage feelings of private revenge. The later Jews, however, mistook it for a moral precept, and were corrected by our Lord Jesus (Matthew 5:38-42).

Verses 26-27

And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake.

If a man smite the eye of his servant ... he shall let him go free ... It may be inferred from the general equity of these laws that this provision was not confined, as some think, to Israelite servants only, but was intended for the benefit of foreign slaves also; otherwise its beneficial influence on the conduct of irritable and tyrannical masters would be greatly diminished. Their manumission was a just compensation to servants for the injury sustained; and although an eye and a tooth are specified, yet, as the one is the principal organ, and the other is a small part of the body, all other members must be considered as included in the wide range of the act.

Verses 28-36

If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.

If an ox gore a man. For the purpose of sanctifying human blood, and representing all injuries affecting life in a serious light, an animal that occasioned death was to be killed, or suffer punishment proportioned to the degree of damage it had caused.

Verse 29. But if the ox were wont to push ... and it hath been testified to his owner. According to Jewish writers, this notification required to be done three separate times before a magistrate. But that he hath killed a man or a woman - who was free (cf. Exodus 21:32).

Verse 30. If there be laid on him a sum of money - as some sort of compensation for the loss of a relative, the amount being determined either by the Go'el, the blood-avenger, who was the nearest kinsman or by a public judge, who, from a calm and careful consideration of extenuating circumstances, which might lessen the culpability of the owner-such as the breaking of the halter, the overleaping of fences, or the negligence of the keeper-would be qualified to give a just and satisfactory award.

Verse 32. Thirty shekels of silver. This sum, which was to be given to a master as compensation for the goring of a man-servant or a maid-servant, was half of the freeman's value (cf. Hosea 1:3; Matthew 26:15).

Verse 30. If there be laid ... Blood fines are common among the Arabs, as they were once general throughout the East. This is the only case where a money compensation, instead of capital punishment, was expressly allowed in the Mosaic law. Punishments are still inflicted on this principle in Persia and other countries of the East; and among a rude people greater effect is produced by these in inspiring caution, and making them keep noxious animals under restraint, than a penalty imposed on the owners.

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Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Exodus 21". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". 1871-8.