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Bible Commentaries

Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible

Exodus 21


Law concerning bond-men or slaves, Exodus 21:1-5.

Servants bored through the ear, Exodus 21:6.

Ordinances for bond-women, Exodus 21:7-11.

Of murderers, Exodus 21:12.

Of them that curse their parents, Exodus 21:17.

Of strikers, Exodus 21:18,Exodus 21:19.

Of them that hurt a woman with child, Exodus 21:22-25.

Of a master of a family that strikes out an eye or tooth of his man or maid servant, Exodus 21:26,Exodus 21:27.

Of a pushing ox, Exodus 21:29.

Of them that hurt their neighbour’s ox by digging a pit, Exodus 21:33.

Of one ox killing another, Exodus 21:35,Exodus 21:36.

Verse 1

Or, the judicial laws, by which thou and the judges before mentioned shall govern thyself and the people in civil and criminal causes.

Verse 2

If thou buy an Hebrew servant; of which practice see Jeremiah 34:14. This was allowed in two cases:

1. When a man for his crimes was condemned by the judges to be sold; of which see Exodus 22:3; 2 Kings 4:1; Matthew 8:25.

2. When a man pressed by great poverty sold himself or his children; of which see Leviticus 25:39,Leviticus 25:40. The seventh year is to be numbered, either,

1. From the last sabbatical year, or year of release, which came every seventh year; and the sense of the place is, not that he shall always serve six full years, but that he shall never serve longer, and that his service shall last only till that year comes. Or rather,

2. From the beginning of his service; for,

1. It were a very improper speech to say, he shall serve six years, of one who possibly entered into his service but a month before the year of release.

2. In the law of the sabbatical year there is no mention of the release of servants, as there is of other things, Leviticus 25:0; Deuteronomy 15:0; and in the year of jubilee, when servants are to be released, it is expressed so, as Leviticus 25:54,Leviticus 25:55.

Verse 3

By himself, i.e. with his own person only, not with a wife, as the opposite branch showeth.

Verse 4

That being a true rule, and approved both by Scripture and by heathen authors, that the birth follows the belly, Genesis 21:10; Galatians 4:24,Galatians 4:25; and he that owns the tree hath right to all its fruit.

Quest. How was this separation of man and wife agreeable with the first institution of marriage, by which that bond is made indissoluble?

Answ. 1. That bond was not necessarily dissolved by this law, both because the separation was at the man’s choice, who might have staid there if he so pleased; and because the distinction of their habitations might consist with the right and use of matrimony, which the master also would probably permit for his own advantage.

Answ. 2. God might here, as well as in the case of divorces, dispense with his own laws and institutions, especially in this case, where he might design this for a punishment to the man for marrying a stranger, which was not pleasing to God, as appears from Deuteronomy 21:11; Ezra 10:2; Nehemiah 13:23. And that this woman was a stranger, and not a Hebrewess, is manifest, because then she also must have gone out free, Exodus 21:7-9; Deuteronomy 15:12.

Verse 6

Shall bring him unto the judges; partly, that it may appear he chooseth this freely, and is not overawed nor overreached by his master; and partly, that the agreement being so publicly and solemnly confirmed, might be irrevocable.

He shall also bring him to the door, to wit, of his master’s house, as it is expressed, Deuteronomy 15:17; a token that he was fixed there, and never to go a freeman out of these doors.

His master shall bore his ear through with an awl, as a note of a servant; as it continued to be long after this in Syria and Arabia, as Juvenal and Petpontus Arbiter affirm; and it did fitly represent his settled and perpetual obligation to abide in that house, and there to hear and obey his master’s commands. See Psalms 40:6.

For ever, i.e. not only for six years more, but without any limitation of time, as long as he lives, until the jubilee, which is an exception made by God to this law, Leviticus 25:40; Deuteronomy 15:17. The Hebrew word olam, here used, oft signifies not eternity, but only a long time. See Exodus 12:14.

Verse 7

A man, i.e. a Hebrew, as appears by the opposition of one of a strange nation, Exodus 21:8.

For a man to

sell his daughter to be a maid-servant was allowed in case of extreme necessity, because of the hardness of their hearts.

She shall not go out as the men-servants do, but upon better terms, as being one of the weaker and more helpless sex.

Quest. How doth this agree with Deuteronomy 15:17,

Also unto thy maid-servant thou shalt do likewise?

Answ. 1. Distinguish persons. She, Deuteronomy 15:17 was sold by herself, and that to mere servitude; this here was sold by her father, not only for service, but in order to her marriage, as the following verses sufficiently imply.

2. Distinguish things. The likeness between men-servants and maid-servants was only in the rites used, in case she consented to perpetual servitude. The difference here is, in case they both were made free, in which case she had some privileges, which here follow.

Verse 8

Who hath betrothed her to himself, for a concubine or secondary wife. Not that masters did always take maid-servants upon these terms, as some conceive; but that some did so, and of them this place speaks. Though here is a differing reading; and as the margin hath lo the pronoun, signifying to him, so the text hath lo the adverb, signifying not; and so the text may be translated thus, so that he doth not betroth her, to wit, to himself, or to his son, as he gave her hopes he intended. Either reading or sense is proper and probable.

Then shall he let her be redeemed, either by herself or friends, or any other person that will redeem her.

Quest. How could he part with her, and sell her, when she was betrothed to him?

Answ. 1. This might be one of those many indulgences given to them for the hardness of their hearts; and there is no doubt God could dispense with his own positive laws.

2. The latter reading avoids this difficulty.

To sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power: this was in general prohibited for all Hebrew servants, but it is particularly mentioned here, because there was special reason for it; both because there was more danger of her corruption in chastity and religion in regard of her sex, and because the master in that case was under a greater temptation of selling her to a foreigner, because no Israelite would buy her, or give so much money for her as a heathen would, who would and might keep her for a perpetual servant, which the Israelites might not do.

He hath dealt deceitfully with her, viz. in breaking his promise of marriage made to her, or blasting the hopes he encouraged her to have of it. The Hebrew words are exactly rendered thus, in dealing deceitfully or falsely with her or against her; and they may be added as an aggravation of that sin of selling her to a strange nation, wherein there was a double false dealing; the one towards God, who by his law forbad this; the other towards her, whom he hired upon other terms, and not with a power to dispose of her contrary to the law and manner of the Israelites.

Verse 9

i.e. Give her a convenient portion, as he doth to his own daughters, Exodus 22:16.

Verse 10

Her duty of marriage is called due benevolence, 1 Corinthians 7:3. Or, her dwelling, as the word is oft used. So here are the three great conveniences of life, food, and raiment, and habitation, all which he is to provide for her. Or, her cohabitation, or, her time, the convenient and appointed times for conjugal converse with her; for some times were disallowed for it, Leviticus 15:0, and when there were plurality of wives, they had their vicissitudes, Genesis 30:15,Genesis 30:16.

Shall he not diminish, or rather, not withdraw, or deny it, as the word signifies, and as the LXX., Chaldee, Samaritan, Vulgate, and others render it,

Verse 11

And with gifts also by virtue of the law, Deuteronomy 15:14. The sum is this, The master was either,

1. Willing to part with her; and then he was to let her be redeemed by herself, or any of her friends, but not by a heathen, Exodus 21:8. Or,

2. Willing to keep her; and then, as he had betrothed her, he was to perform all the duties of a husband to her, although he had another wife besides her, Exodus 21:10.

3. If he would keep her, and yet deny those duties to her, then as his fault was aggravated, so was his punishment; for now he cannot sell her, but must let her go freely, as in this verse.

Verse 12

He that smiteth a man knowingly and wilfully, as appears by the next verse, neither the friends of the party slain, nor the magistrate, shall give him a pardon, or accept a ransom for him, Numbers 35:31.

Verse 13

If it appear that the manslayer did not intend nor desire it, but only it fell out by his heedlessness, or by some casualty, or by some unexpected providence; or, God, and not man, God without the man’s contrivance or design; for otherwise, in a general sense and way, God delivered Christ into the hands of Judas and the Jews, who did advisedly and maliciously kill him.

A place whither he shall flee, i.e. a city or place of refuge, Numbers 35:11; Deuteronomy 19:5.

Verse 14

If a man come presumptuously, i.e. do this proudly, boldly, purposely, and maliciously; for so the word signifies.

From mine altar, which not only in the wilderness, but afterward, seems to have been esteemed a place of refuge, 1 Kings 1:50, as it also was among the heathens: but God so far abhors murder, that he will rather venture the pollution of his own altar than the escape of the murderer. See 2 Kings 11:15.

Verse 15

He that smiteth; either,

1. So as is before mentioned, Exodus 21:12, so as they die. And to smite sometimes signifies to kill, as Genesis 4:15; 2 Kings 14:5, compared with 2 Chronicles 25:3. And this may be here added by way of distinction: q.d. That killing of another man which is punished with death, must be done presumptuously; but the killing of parents, though not done presumptuously, is a capital crime. Or,

2. The mere smiting of them, to wit, wilfully and dangerously. Nor will any think this law too severe, that considers that this is an act full of horrid impiety against God, who hath so expressly and emphatically commanded children to honour their parents; of highest and most unnatural ingratitude, and utterly destructive to human society.

Verse 16

i.e. In the manstealer’s hand; q.d. though he keep him in his own hands for his own use; for still it is a theft, and he is made that man’s slave, and it is in his power to sell him to another when he pleaseth, and therefore deserves death.

Verse 17

Or, revileth, to wit, wilfully, maliciously, obstinately, against all admonition, by comparing Deuteronomy 21:18.

Verse 18

With a stone, or any other instrument fit for such a mischievous purpose. A usual synecdoche.

Verse 19

The loss of his time, i.e. of the profit which he could or commonly did make of his time in the way of his calling.

Cause him to be thoroughly healed, i.e. pay the charges of the cure.

Verse 20

His servant, namely, a stranger; for an Israelite was to be better used. See Leviticus 25:39,Leviticus 25:40, &c.

With a rod; a fit and usual instrument for correction, whereby it is implied, that if he killed him with a sword, or any such weapon, he was to die for it.

Under his hand, i.e. whilst the master is correcting him.

He shall be surely punished; not with death, for then it would have been said so, as it is before and after; but as the magistrate or judge shall think fit, according to the diversity of circumstances; and therefore no particular punishment is set down.

Verse 21

i.e. His possession bought with his money; and therefore,

1. Had a power to chastise him according to his demerit, which might be very great.

2. Is sufficiently punished with his own loss.

3. May be presumed not to have done this purposely and maliciously.

Verse 22

A woman with child, to wit, the wife of the other person, who interposed herself to succour her husband.

No mischief follow, neither to the woman nor child; for it is generally so as to reach both, in case the abortive had life in it.

The husband shall impose the fine, and if it be unreasonable, the judges shall have a power to moderate it.

Verse 23

Any mischief; either to the mother or to the child, whether it be death, or any maim or mischief.


shall give life for life?

Answ. Not the private person, which would have introduced infinite mischiefs and confusions, but the magistrate; for these laws are given to Moses, and the execution of these things was committed to Moses, and others under him.

Verse 24

This is called the law of retaliation, and from hence the heathen lawgivers took it and put it into their laws. But though this might sometimes be practised in the letter, yet it was not necessarily to be understood and executed so; as may appear,

1. By the impossibility of the just execution of it in many cases, as when a man that had but one eye or hand was to lose the other, which to him was a far greater mischief than what he did to his neighbour, whom he deprived but of one of his eyes or hands. And this is a sure and righteous rule, Punishments may be less, but never should be greater than the fault. And how could a wound be made neither bigger nor less than that which he inflicted?

2. By comparing this with other laws, wherein a compensation is allowed in like cases, as Exodus 21:18,Exodus 21:30. And when it is enjoined that no satisfaction shall be taken for the life of a wilful murderer, Numbers 35:31, it seems therein implied that satisfaction may be taken for lesser injuries. And indeed the payment of such a price as the loss of an eye, or hand, or foot required, though it might not so much satisfy the revenge of the party so injured, yet it was really more to his benefit. This law therefore was only minatory, but so as it was literally to be inflicted, except the injuring party would give such satisfaction as the injured person accepted, or the judges determined.

Verse 27

Some confine this to the Israelitish servants, but the text doth not so limit it; and the reason of the law seems to reach to Gentile servants, this being a just punishment to unmerciful masters, (who ought to be merciful to their beasts, much more to such servants,) and a fit recompence to a servant for such a loss. And this law reacheth the loss of any other member, these two being instanced in, the one as the chief, and the other as the meanest, to intimate that other parts of a like or middle nature are included.

Verse 28

Under which you are to understand any other creatures of like nature which hurt a man in such a dangerous manner, whether with their horns, or teeth, or feet; but he mentions only the ox or bull, and his goring with his horn, because this is most frequently done.

Ox shall be stoned; partly, to prevent future mischiefs from that creature; partly, to punish its master for his negligence in not keeping it in; and principally, for man’s admonition, for whom seeing the beasts were made, it is not strange nor unjust if it be destroyed for man’s good. God would hereby show that he would not, and men should not, spare a wilful murderer.

His flesh shall not be eaten; both because it was forbidden food, its blood being not let out; and for the punishment of the owner, who was hereby hindered from the sale of it, to beget in all the greater detestation of murderers, when they observe the poor beast upon this account accursed, and therefore not to be touched or tasted.

Verse 29

It hath been testified, which the Jews say was to be done thrice, and before the magistrate.

A man or a woman, to wit, an Israelite, or a stranger who is free, by comparing this with Exodus 21:32.

Verse 30

If there be laid on him; either by the avenger of blood, the next akin to the party slain, who is willing to exchange the punishment; or by the judge, who may discern some circumstances which may much lessen the crime, as if an ox had broken his cords wherewith he was tied, or broke forth through the carelessness or wickedness of his servant to whose care he was committed.

Verse 31

A son or a daughter; names signifying their tender age, in respect of the man or woman, Exodus 21:29. And this is added, lest the foregoing sense should be restrained to their parents, whose lives were more precious, and therefore their loss greater.

Verse 32

The half the freeman’s price. See Poole on "Matthew 26:5".

Verse 33

If a man shall either

open an old pit which hath been covered with earth; or

dig a new

pit, to wit, in a public way, as the reason of the law shows; for if it were done in a man’s own house or ground, there was no danger of such an accident, except the beast transgressed his bounds, and then the man was not culpable.

Verse 34

The owner of the pit, i.e. he by whose hand or command it was made,

shall give money equal to the worth of the dead beast, in the opinion of the judge.

Verse 35

They shall divide the money; not equally, for so the owner of the mischievous ox might be gainer by the mischief, his ox being much worse than that which was killed; but in such proportions as the judges shall think fit, considering the worth of the cattle, and the circumstances of the action.

Verse 36

Ox for ox; an ox of equal value with that slain ox, or the price and worth of it.

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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on Exodus 21". Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. 1685.