Attention!
15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Exodus 21

God, Who knows all things in advance, after the law in the previous chapter, gives in the following chapters, Exodus 21-23, in a number of common cases, as it were, case-law, the application of the law. This shows that certain circumstances are also taken into account, things that can happen in everyday life. The cases discussed are models for all things that can happen among God’s people.

We have God’s directions for daily life in His Word. The Holy Spirit is given to us through Whom we are able to understand God’s Word and to live for God’s glory in obedience to His Word.

Verses 1-6

The Hebrew Slave


It is not normal to be a slave while you are a member of a redeemed people. This must be the result of special circumstances. It can be the result of poverty, which has caused someone to get into debt. If someone turns to poverty, it is already a judgment in a certain respect, for in obedience to God there will be no poor among them. But because of the need, a Hebrew can offer himself as a slave to a fellow countryman in order to eliminate his guilt.

God sets the duration of the commitment at six years. In the seventh year the slave is free again. If he has taken a woman with him at the beginning of his period of service, she may leave with him. The situation is different if, during his service as a slave, he received a wife from his master. Then his wife, together with any children, remains the property of his master: the slave has come alone, he must also leave on his own.

Then we hear the language of love. The love of the slave does not only concern his wife and children, but also his master and him in the first place. The slave loved his master during his service to him. In his love he wishes to exchange his freedom for a life of service. There is no coercion, persuasion or manipulation. That is absolutely alien to love. As a sign that the slave remains forever connected to his master’s house, the ear – the symbol of listening, of doing what is said, of obedience – is pierced with an awl at the doorpost.

It is not difficult to recognize the Lord Jesus in the picture of the Hebrew slave. He has offered Himself as a Slave to take away the curse that sin put on creation and to work the redemption of sins for all those who believe (Phil 2:6-7; Zec 13:5). He has performed a perfect service as a Slave. He is the obedient Man Who as the only One has fulfilled the law perfectly. He could have returned to heaven after His perfect life, without dying.

In His perfect love, however, He became a Slave of His free will forever (Lk 12:37). Love is the true source of service. His love concerns in the first place “my master”, that is His Father; then “my wife”, that is the church, the bride; and finally, “my children”, those are the individual believers – we are not children of the Lord Jesus, Scripture never calls us like this, but children of God. He allowed himself to be pierced through the ear. He paid with His blood, and acquired his wife, the church, and the children of God, for His property.

In Psalm 40 and Isaiah 50 we also read about opened ears.
1. Psalm 40 points at his coming into the world: “Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; My ears You have opened; burnt offering and sin offering You have not required. Then I said, “Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me” (Psa 40:6-7; Heb 10:5).
2. Isaiah 50 points at His going through the world: “He awakens [Me] morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple. The Lord GOD has opened My ear; and I was not disobedient nor did I turn back” (Isa 50:4b-5).
3. Exodus 21 connects beautifully to this, for it refers to His departure from the world: He has surrendered Himself at the end of His life for His own to be an everlasting Servant to them (Exo 21:6).

It is nice to note that in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the expression “ears dug out for me”, as it is literally written in Psalm 40:7 in Hebrew, is translated as “a body You have prepared for Me”. Because the latter gives the true meaning, this translation is quoted by the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 10: “Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, But a body You have prepared for Me” (Heb 10:5) The open ear is the means by which people listen, the body is the means by which the will is carried out.

Verses 7-11

The Hebrew Female Slave


The Hebrew male slave may be released in the seventh year after six years of service. This arrangement is not for a Hebrew female slave. She has been bought to please her master. If she disappoints him, he has to let her go. The condition is that he will not sell her to a foreign people. The purpose of this regulation is to protect her against arbitrariness.

He may also have destined the female slave for his son. Then he has to treat her like his daughter. If he takes another wife and does not sell her, but keeps her, he cannot evade his marital obligations. If he does, she is free to leave, without any purchase price involved.

In this female slave we can see a picture of Israel. Israel cannot go out freely, as the Lord Jesus was allowed to. The people are bought by God so that they may please Him. But the people did not please God.

Unlike the master in this section, God has sold His people in the hands of foreign peoples (Jdg 2:14; Psa 44:12; Isa 50:1). This is not faithless action on His part. On the contrary, it is because of the faithlessness of the people. His goal here is to teach the people the difference between service of Him and service of the nations (2Chr 12:8).

The female slave, Israel, will eventually become free. She will become the wife of the Son (Hos 2:19). Then God will deal with her according to that position. In anticipation of that time, the Son has taken “another woman”, the church. There is no relationship with Israel at the time the church is formed (Hos 3:3-5). Israel is now “Lo-ruhamah”, which means “not having compassion”, and “Lo-ammi”, which means “not My people” (Hos 1:6; 9). God does not acknowledge Israel in this time as His people. It has gone away, away from Him.

Verses 12-14

He Who Kills a Man


In Exo 21:12-36 further regulations are given in case of violation of a certain commandment. We see how God takes into account different circumstances. He also takes into account whether and to what extent it is unintentional or deliberately.

In Matthew 5 the Lord Jesus also pays attention to the transgression of the commandments (Mt 5:17-48). He shows there that it is not only about deeds, but especially about the heart, the attitude that lies behind the deeds and the words. He has also revealed His own heart and has shown how much it goes beyond what the law requires. He has not only fulfilled the law, but also what goes beyond it. Nowhere does the law ask to give your life for the other. He did. That is where love brings you.

First, further regulations are given in case of violation of the sixth commandment (Exo 21:12-14; Exo 20:13). The most radical form of violation of the law against his neighbor is to kill him, to take his life. As a general rule, in the case of manslaughter, one must act in accordance with what has been declared to Noah (Gen 9:6). He who kills another, enters into the rights of God. Only God has the right over life and death. God has transferred this right to the government (Rom 13:1-7).

If someone accidentally kills another person, he can flee to a city of refuge, for which arrangements will be made later (Num 35:1-34; Deu 19:1-13; Jos 20:1-9). He can also take refuge at the altar. God allowed it to happen at his hand. That does not mean that God worked it, but has allowed it. The fact that nothing happens outside His will does not mean that He is responsible for it. He does have a purpose with what happens. In this case we can see that God wants to use this tragic event to bring the manslayer to His altar, a picture of the cross. But he who is not sincere in this, will still die (1Kgs 2:29).

Verse 15

He Who Strikes His Father or His Mother


He who strikes his father or his mother, violates the fifth commandment (Exo 20:12). The fifth commandment is the first commandment of the commandments relating to the relationship with one’s neighbor. As with the sixth commandment, this is rebellion against God-given authority. This rebellion must be punished with the death penalty.

God’s authority is represented on earth primarily by parents. Children who have no respect for their parents generally have no respect for any form of authority (cf. Pro 30:11-14).

Verse 16

He Who Kidnaps a Man


The kidnapping of a man means a transgression of the eighth commandment (Exo 20:15). Of all forms of theft this is the worst. Paul mentions the “kidnappers” in a list in which he gives several examples of people for whom the law is intended (1Tim 1:8-11). A kidnapper is someone who deprives another of his freedom and makes him or her an object from which to earn. This crime must also be punished with the death penalty.

In spiritual terms, this happens when someone makes another totally dependent on himself and can therefore manipulate him, so that the other can no longer be as God intended him to be. Man has been made in God’s likeness (Jam 3:9). Therefore, every human being must be treated with respect (1Pet 2:17).

Verse 17

He Who Curses His Father or His Mother


Someone who curses his father or his mother violates the fifth commandment (Exo 20:12), as in Exo 21:15. This is not a violation by a misdemeanor like in Exo 21:15, but speaking scandalously about the parents. The death penalty must also be applied to this crime.

Children who abuse their parents by deed or word are deeply immersed in their natural feelings. They despise the most elementary relations God has given man in creation.

Verses 18-27

Causing Bodily Injury


The infliction of bodily injury is related to the sixth commandment (Exo 21:18-19; Exo 20:13). A fight gets out of hand. There are no dead, but there are wounded. The wounded may not work for some time. The forced rest period must be compensated. No further punishment shall be imposed if the injured person recovers to the point where he is able to walk again, even if it is still with the aid of a staff.

If a male or a female slave is struck so hard by the owner that he or she dies, the owner shall be punished (Exo 21:20-21). He has taken someone’s life away, and doesn’t have the right to do that. If the slave does not die immediately, no vengeance shall be taken. His punishment is the loss of his slave and thus his service. The Christian master is expected not to strike his slave. He is told that he must refrain from even the threat (Eph 6:9; cf. Job 31:13-15).

The pregnant woman may be wife of one of the fighting men who wants to interfere (Exo 21:22). She gets a blow and as a result she gives birth prematurely. The man who caused this must be fined, which is determined by the woman’s husband and ratified by the judges.

However, if fatal injuries are inflicted (Exo 21:23), either on the woman or on the child, the death penalty should be applied. We see here that the killing of unborn life – in our days: abortion – is judged by God as the infliction of fatal injury, to which the death penalty must be applied.

From a spiritual point of view, a quarrel can lead to nipping a young spiritual life in the bud. How much mental damage there is already in young believers caused by quarrels between adult believers!

The rule “life for life” (Exo 21:23) is further elaborated (Exo 21:24-25). Here we find the essence of the law: get what you did. That is a perfectly just principle. If God had acted according to the principle of “life for life” with a view to the death of His Son, He would have wiped out the world. But it is precisely at the time of the greatest crime that the Lord Jesus prays: “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34a).

The Lord Jesus also refers to the law of retribution, but makes it deeper: “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Mt 5:38-39). What the law demands is always just. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth”. It should be noted, however, that this should be applied by the competent court and not in the context of personal retaliation.

The disciples as faithful Jews have heard of the law of retribution, but grace goes much further. The Lord points this out with the words “but I say to you”. In what He says, He shows the spirit in which His disciples should act, as He did perfectly. It means that we do not defend ourselves against an angry neighbor, and that we do not let ourselves be humiliated just a little, but deeply.

The foregoing refers to situations in which we are wronged. Then, following the example of the Lord Jesus, we are expected to have that mind. If, however, we have done wrong ourselves, we will have to take into account that we will somehow receive back the injustice we have done (Col 3:25; Gal 6:8).

God also provides the rights of slaves (Exo 21:26-27). If the owner touches the eye or tooth of a slave in such a way that it can no longer be used, the owner must release the slave. The owner therefore misses the slave’s commitment and has to replace it, which costs money. The slave is a bit better off. He has his freedom back. But he is also handicapped. His eyesight is limited, and eating food is no longer as easy as it used to be.

Verses 28-32

Bodily Injury Caused by an Animal


If an ox kills someone, it must be killed. The animal killed for this reason should not be used as food because it must be considered unclean by its atrocity. The owner is not liable. He did not suspect that the animal would do this.

The owner is liable in case it is known that the animal is dangerous. If he does not guard the animal and it kills someone, the animal must be killed and the owner also. A possibility is given to pay redemption money, as a ransom for life.

Things in our possession can cause damage to others. This can happen through things we do not expect. It can also happen because of things we do know can cause damage to others. In the latter case, we must be attentive to how we use those things. Here we can make practical and spiritual applications for ourselves, for example: “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (Rom 14:13). And: “But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1Cor 8:8-9).

The amount mentioned in Exo 21:32 is also the price at which the Son of God in the form of a Slave is valued (Mt 26:14-15).

Verses 33-36

Injuries Inflicted on an Animal


Damage caused to the property of another person must be compensated. In case the damage cannot be repaired, an arrangement will be made.

All these events take place in the midst of God’s people. And what has happened to them has happened to them “as examples for us” (1Cor 10:6; 11). It is therefore permissible to assume that in all cases a spiritual application can be made. In one case this is obvious, in the other case this is not that obvious. It is important that an application is not based on fantasy, but on a truth expressed in the New Testament.

When it comes to our possessions, we can think of everything that has been entrusted to us physically and spiritually. How do we deal with our money, our possessions, our capacities? Do we use it to bless or to harm others? If we have caused material or mental harm to others, how do we compensate them? Material damage, too, cannot always be compensated with a sum of money alone.

In general, the teaching of this chapter is that we must be vigilant that evil has no chance of manifesting itself within us. If we have done any kind of harm, we must be prepared to pay compensation. It is about an attitude that we do not want anyone else to suffer through us, either materially or spiritually.

Copyright Statement
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
No part of the publications may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.
Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Exodus 21". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/exodus-21.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.