Bible Commentaries
Exodus 21

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

Verses 1-36

Exodus 21:1. These are the judgments. In this chapter we enter upon the fifty seven precepts of the civil law of the Hebrew nation. They are the laws of patriarchal society; and are here arranged and modified so as to promote order, purity and justice, in the whole community. The American Indians are found to have had many of these laws, as will be cited under the particular precept. Theodore Beza has left us a Latin work entitled Mosaycarum & Romanorum Legum Collatio, the Mosaic code collated with the Roman laws, in which many of the statutes are striking coincidents.

Exodus 21:2. Buy a Hebrew servant. In criminal cases, and in cases of debt, the magistrates had of course the power to inflict this punishment. It was allowed also in cases of insolvency. 1 Kings 4:1. Matthew 18:25. And seven years servitude was milder than long imprisonment.

Exodus 21:4. The wife her master’s. The Jews affirm that this law respected aliens only.

Exodus 21:6. Bore his ear: a frequent custom among the gentiles as well as the Jews.

Exodus 21:7. If a man sell his daughter, not for δουλα , a slave, but οικετις , for a domestic, and under a promise of marriage. In all Shem’s race, as in the tribes of Ham and Japhet, a man had the power of a husband over a maid that he had bought. “From the beginning,” as our Saviour says on cases of divorce, “it was not so.” Moses therefore mitigates what he could not supersede, by guarding the spotless honour of a poor virgin.

Exodus 21:13. God delivered him into his hand. That is, he proved the stronger in the fight, and his opponent died of his bruises. But neither refuge nor satisfaction was allowed for wilful murder. Numbers 35:31.

Exodus 21:24. Eye for an eye. The judges might in some cases mitigate this. If a man with one eye should do this, the punishment would exceed the crime.


The political laws given to the Jews are worthy the serious attention, not only of judges and magistrates, that they may conform to them as much as possible in all things that are not peculiar to the Israelites, to the land of Canaan, and to those times, but of every other person; as they contain very excellent precepts of justice and charity, and many other duties. Upon the laws concerning slaves it must be observed, that slavery is prohibited among christians; and therefore that these laws do not respect us directly. However, we may conclude from them that the will of God is, that servants should be faithful to their masters, and that masters should treat their servants with tenderness and humanity. We learn likewise in this chapter, that murderers, men stealers, and those that curse father or mother, are guilty of very enormous crimes, which the magistrates ought to punish severely; and we may judge from thence, that God will not leave them unpunished. These are crimes which ought not to be so much as known among christians, any more than several others mentioned in the laws of Moses.

From this chapter, says Ostervald, we learn that those who smite or wound their neighbour ought not to go unpunished that those who occasion any evil to their neighbour, whether wilfully or accidentally and without any evil intention, should suffer for it, and ought to repair the damage as far as possible that although slavery obtained amongst the Jews, God did not intend that they should treat their slaves cruelly or inhumanly as other nations did; from whence it appears that christians should behave with still greater meekness and gentleness towards their servants. It must also be observed, that these words, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” do not authorize private revenge, but only denote the punishment that judges were to inflict upon such as assaulted and wounded their neighbour; otherwise, we should be so far from returning evil for evil, that we ought, (as our Saviour observes, Matthew 5:0. where this law is mentioned) to bear injuries patiently: not to avenge ourselves, nor always insist upon what is strictly our right; but to imitate that meekness and patience which Jesus Christ our Redeemer has given us an example of.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 21". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. 1835.