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Bible Commentaries

Peake's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 21

III. Israel at Sinai ( XIX. XL.) .

The division Num 19– 40 presents difficulties due to its very importance, see introduction to Ex. (last paragraph). But Num 25– 31, 35– 40 readily fall apart from the rest, as containing P’ s account of the Tabernacle ( see on Exodus 25:1), the introduction to which is found in Exodus 19:1-2 a and Exodus 24:15 b Exodus 24:18 a, Exodus 34:29-35 being a link section. All critics confess that in the remainder many details must remain doubtful. The Oxf. Hex. is for the most part followed here. It does not differ very widely from Baentsch, who has made a special study of this part. Gressmann’ s drastic reconstruction is highly suggestive in particulars, but as a whole is over-bold. The noteworthy fact is that both J and E preserve important traditions. In each there is an older stratum preserving these elements of the national memory of the religious and political confederation of the tribes: an awful appearance of God upon Sinai-Horeb (Exodus 19 JE, Exodus 20:18-21 E), and the giving of a sacred code, the (Ten) Covenant Words, inscribed upon stone tablets ( Exodus 31:18 b E, Exodus 34:28 J) and sealed by a solemn sacrificial feast ( Exodus 24:5 E, Exodus 24:11 J). Now these passages concur in presenting a favourable view of Israel at this period: he is the son gratefully responding to the compassionate love of his Father ( cf. Exodus 4:22 *), or the lowly bride returning the affection of her Husband. And this agrees with the view of the period taken by all the pre-exilic prophets who refer to it (see Hosea 2:15; Hosea 11:1; Hosea 11:3 f., Hosea 12:9; Hosea 12:13, Amos 2:9-11; Amos 3:1 f., Jeremiah 2:1-3; Jeremiah 2:34). Even Ezekiel’ s severe view rather points to the ancestral heathenism of the tribes (Egyptian, Exodus 23:3, but Canaanite or Amorite-Hittite, Exodus 16:3) than to any apostasy just at this epoch. Only Hosea 9:11, if it refers to the incident Numbers 25:1-5 JE, implies such a lapse. On these grounds it is probable that Numbers 32 JE (the Golden Calf and its destruction E, and the vengeance of the Levites J), together with not a little expansion elsewhere, belongs to a later stage in the moulding of the tradition. The order of incidents is hard to follow, because the editor who united J and E, in his care to preserve as much as possible of both, took the story of the tablets in J as a re-giving and rewriting of them with a renewal of the broken covenant. Much of Numbers 33 containing the colloquies with the Divine Leader belongs to this stage. All this, of course, involves a considerable disturbance of the Bible order and representation in Ex., which, but for one section, is substantially followed by D. But the essence of the great religious facts is irrefragably secure: Israel did, by whatever stages short or long, emerge from a condition little removed from contemporary heathenism, and learned to worship one gracious and holy God (p. 84). Differences concern only the manner and form of events, and their times. Later historians have so accustomed us to having at least the main events fitted neatly into their centuries B.C. or A.D. that we find it hard to think that serious writers could be centuries out in their reckoning. But just as prophets saw future events near and distant in a foreshortened perspective, so it may be that the Bible historians— called “ the former prophets” (pp. 38, 244) by the Jews— saw their instances of the nation’ s glory and shame as more closely crowded together than they actually were. The main thing is that they actually saw them, and that, too, in the mirror of eternity.” Throughout the whole we see the material, as it were, in a plastic state. As older conceptions were outgrown new touches could modify the details, though, fortunately for our chances of recognising the earlier levels of inspiration, traces of the old were not always obliterated. Sometimes we must suppose that these modifications had already been made during the period of oral tradition.

Verse 1

Exodus 21:1 E. The Judgments.— This is best taken as the heading of a fresh collection, “ The Judgments” (p. 184), consisting of case-law, mainly about property, and containing some striking parallels with the Code of Hammurabî ( see p. 51, HDB, vol. 5, pp. 584– 612, and Johns’ Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts, and Letters, pp. 44– 68). The Bab. code was much longer, containing 248 laws, and is represented as given by the seated sun-god Shamash to the king standing before him. The Code deals only with civil and criminal laws, not with morals and religion, and the chief parallels are with the Judgments ( see Driver, CB, 420ff.). The Judgments do not borrow from the Code, but they are often too like it to be independent ( e.g. in the case of the vicious ox, Exodus 21:28 f.). Either both rest on ancient Semitic custom, or the Hebrew law is based on a survival in Canaan of Bab. civilisation from the time of the Tell el-Amarna letters. Parallels are found in Exodus 21:2; Exodus 21:11; Exodus 21:15-16; Exodus 21:18 f., Exodus 21:22, Exodus 21:23-25, Exodus 21:26; Exodus 21:28, Exodus 21:29-32, Exodus 22:1-4 (two cases), Exodus 22:5; Exodus 22:7; Exodus 22:9-10 f., Exodus 22:12; Exodus 22:14 f., Exodus 22:26.

Verses 2-11

Exodus 21:2-11 E. The Laws of Slavery.— In the 19th cent. slaves were bought and sold as chattels in Liverpool. Here we see one of the stages towards the abolition of slavery, i.e. regulation, then the only practicable course. Hebrews might become slaves through sale by parents, or forced sale for theft or insolvency, or through poverty (p. 110). Later stages of law are reflected in Deuteronomy 15:12-18 * and Leviticus 25:39-55 *. A male slave by six years’ service earned the right to rest from servitude in the seventh year, his wife accompanying him only if he were already married ( Exodus 21:3 f.), but if he could say, in the terms of a customary oath, “ I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free” ( Exodus 21:5), then he could become a slave for life. The ratifying ceremony was the boring of the ear, the symbol of obedience, to the “ door” or “ doorpost” ( Exodus 21:6), obviously that of the home in which he was to serve. That being so, the bringing of him “ unto God” will not mean to the sanctuary but to the home-altar, the threshold ( Exodus 12:22 *), or (so Kautzsch, HDB, vol. 5, p. 642) to the teraphim (p. 101) or household image of Yahweh ( cf. 1 Samuel 19:13; 1 Samuel 19:16). A female slave had no such right ( Exodus 21:7); but if she did not suit the man who had “ designed her for himself” ( i.e. as his concubine), her relatives might redeem her, or she might be sold to another Israelite ( Exodus 21:8); and if he bought her for his son, she should have a daughter’ s rights ( Exodus 21:9). If she were supplanted by another concubine he must maintain her allowance of flesh food and of clothing and her conjugal rights, or free her ( Exodus 21:10 f.). Driver also discusses a slightly different view (CB, p. 214).

Verses 12-17

Exodus 21:12-17 E. Capital Offences.— This group, varying in form from the main body of the Judgments, is here regarded as a part of the smaller Book of the Covenant (p. 184). The punishment of murder was death ( Exodus 21:12), inflicted in Israel, as elsewhere, according to the widespread custom of blood-revenge, by the next-of-kin as “ avenger of blood” ( 2 Samuel 14:11). For accidental homicide, not distinguished in Homer from murder, a place of asylum, a sanctuary of special rank, was provided ( Exodus 21:13, cf. Numbers 35:9-34 * P, Deuteronomy 19:1-13 *, Joshua 20*). But a murderer could be dragged from the horns of the altar ( Exodus 21:14, cf. 1 Kings 1:50; 1 Kings 2:28). Smiting or cursing a parent was also ( Exodus 21:15; Exodus 21:17) punishable with death, Bab. and Gr. law being less severe; and so was kidnapping, as in Bab., Gr., and Roman law.

Verses 18-27

Exodus 21:18-27 E. Injuries.— If one man injures another in a quarrel ( Exodus 21:18), he must, on the recovery of the other, compensate him for the loss of time and pay his doctor’ s bill ( Exodus 21:19). He who beat a slave to death must pay a penalty ( Exodus 21:20), no doubt fixed at the judge’ s discretion; but only if death was immediate ( Exodus 21:21). If two men quarrelling injured the wife of one of them intervening and brought on a miscarriage without permanent injury, her husband could levy a fine ( Exodus 21:22, read “ shall pay it for the untimely birth,” changing one letter). Further injury was to be punished ( Exodus 21:23-25) acording to the lex talionis, like for like, as in the old Bab. and Roman law, and among many races still. A slave whose eye or tooth was knocked out could claim freedom ( Exodus 21:26 f.).

Verses 28-36

Exodus 21:28-36 E . Damages by or to Cattle.— An ox goring anyone to death must be stoned, and might not be eaten, as tainted with blood-guilt ( Exodus 21:28). In ancient Greece and elsewhere, and even in mediæ val Europe, animals were tried in court. But the owner of an ox known to be vicious, and yet left at large, must die, or pay a fine to the relatives ( Exodus 21:29 f.), the same rule holding good of a minor of either sex ( Exodus 21:31). A slave’ s death required a fine of 30 shekels (worth £ 4, 2 Samuel 6 d. now, and much more then) and the ox’ s death. These two ( Exodus 21:30; Exodus 21:32) are the only cases in the OT of the “ wergild” or death-price so common in antiquity. Further, if a well or grain-pit were left uncovered, and an animal fell in and died, the offender had to pay the value, but might have the carcase for its skin and (possibly at that time) for its flesh ( Exodus 21:33 f.). And if one ox killed another, the owners were to divide the price of the pair; but if it was a vicious ox let loose, the owner must pay in full, but have the carcase. Doughty testifies that this is now “ the custom of the desert,” though Thomson writes as if it were still a much-needed reform.

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Bibliographical Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Exodus 21". "Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". 1919.