10 million Ukrainians without power because of Russia. Help us purchase electrical generators for churches.
Consider helping today!

Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary

Exodus 21

Verses 1-6


Exodus 21:1. Judgments.] Here begins the second part of “The Book of the Covenant” (ch. Exodus 24:7), the entire contents of which seem to range themselves thus:—

1. Safeguards of worship (ch. Exodus 20:22-26);

2. Safeguards of justice and mercy (ch. Exodus 21:1 to Exodus 23:19);

3. Promises, blended with admonitions (ch. Exodus 23:20-33). Next to the Ten Commandments stands this “Book,” in importance, as the Divinely-laid foundation of Israel’s nationality, and as the Magna Charta of the people. Here we see more in detail than in the Ten Commandments, but still in a summary and very comprehensive way, what, sort of a nation Israel was laid under the most solemn obligation to become.

Exodus 21:6. Unto the judges.] Heb. el hâ ’elthim. literally “unto the gods;” but, according to usage, rather, “unto God,” “unto the God,” “unto the [living and true] God,” or unto “God Himself.” No doubt, however, “the judges” are intended. Compare especially (Deuteronomy 19:17): “Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before Jehovah, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days.” In coming unto the priests and judges, they came “unto the judgment seat of God,” as the LXX. here renders (πρὸς τὸ κριτῆριον τοῦ θεοῦ).



The most influential factor in the process of human development has been the written revelation of God; and without that we cannot suppose humanity would have risen to glorious heights. These judgments are part of that revelation, and indicate the gradual methods by which the Almighty educates the nations. God’s teachings touch humanity at its lowest point, and are adapted to the state of highest development. These judgments, then, must be considered in their relation to primitive conditions. They are the world’s most ancient and most complete repositories of legal enactments. Their spirit is undying, and proclaims infinite wisdom. These judgments of God are the declarations of human rights. We must, in a teachable and impartial spirit, consider these judgments, as severally set forth to the Jews, in their ethical bearings.

I. These judgments dealt with an existing institution. The word most commonly employed in the Old Testament in this connection was one meaning slavery in our modern sense. We have, then, the fact that slavery was an admitted institution in the Mosaic economy. The circumstances under which a Hebrew might be reduced to servitude were—

(1) poverty;
(2) the commission of theft; and
(3) the exercise of paternal authority. We cannot explain the divine methods, and do not know how it was that slavery was not at once abrogated by a divine decree. But we see that divine beneficence was revealed in the regulations.

II. This admitted institution does not sanction modern slavery. The Mosaic sanction of slavery was a strong support of that institution in the Southern States of America. But a candid inquirer will soon, perceive that it had little kinship with that which it claimed for its support. There is in the divine revelation a spirit ever working to the enfranchisement of the race. The letter is for the time then present, but the spirit is for all time; and it shall operate unceasingly and triumphantly till all forms of oppression are banished from the world. More closely consider the conditions of Mosaic slavery.

III. This system asserted the slave’s personal sovereignty. Every step in the process will show the absurdity of instituting a comparison between Hebrew slavery and other forms of slavery, in order to make the former sanction human greed and cruelty. In modern systems, the man is a mere chattel, but in the Mosaic system the slave’s manhood is declared. He is sovereign over himself, and is allowed the power of choice. The Southern slaveholder would not permit his slave to say, “I will not;” but the Hebrew slave is permitted to say, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free.”

IV. This system declared the slave’s right to be a man of feeling. The man was not to be separated from the wife he had chosen prior to his days of servitude. The slave is here regarded as one capable of loving, and of feeling distress at separation. Even where the wife was the gift of the master, and there fore she and her children the master’s property, the servant was not to be forcibly separated; but, under other systems, slaves have been treated as if they did not possess the feelings common to humanity. This part of the Mosaic regulations would not harmonise with the painful scenes which took place at slave marts.

V. This system proclaimed the slave’s right to freedom, and that it is the highest condition. The Hebrew slave worked on to the day of happy release. This term of service was no longer than a modern apprenticeship. The bells of the seventh year rang out the old order of slavery, and rang in the new glorious order of freedom. “If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh year he shall go out free for nothing.” “The fixing of the seventh year as the year of emancipation is connected with the sabbatical year, but does not coincide with it.” The slave might choose to continue in servitude, but he did not choose the highest state. Such an one must have his ear bored before the judges, as setting forth his subject condition, and as sealing the voluntary compact. But no marks are placed on the person of the free man. “The boring of the ears was among the Orientals a sign of slavery.”—Knobel.

VI. This system typically sets forth that the service of love is the highest, and alone enduring. He only was to serve “for ever” who chose continued servitude on account of love to his master, and love to his wife and his children. The service of love outstrips in dignity and surpasses in duration all other forms of service. Love’s bonds are sweet. Its yoke is easy, and its service light. There is a loving service which shall be in the literal sense “for ever”—a service which is highest freedom, and from which the slave will never ask to be liberated. The service of Christ reaches beyond death, and is coeval with eternity.—W. Burrows, B.A.

In considering generally the judgments of that part of the “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:3-7) contained in Exodus, chaps. 21–23, three things must be borne in mind.

1. That God was legislating for Jews, and had to deal with such materials as existed and to make the best of them. Remember

(1) The Jews were contaminated by their contact with and bondage under the Egyptians, and these were familiar with and contracted those habits which these judgments were intended to abolish or control. And

(2) How needful a special and minute legislation was, their characteristics through many centuries of their history amply show (cf. Matthew 19:8).

2. That this legislation was founded on great moral principles and was referable to them (Exodus 20:1-17).

3. That this legislation as such
(1) was not final. Many of the enactments, e.g., those respecting slavery, contemplated a special state of things and made provision for their removal. And

(2) it had respect to a legislation higher and final to which it was preparatory (Deuteronomy 18:15; Galatians 3:24; Hebrews 8:6-13).

(3) With that legislation therefore this must be compared.

Chapter 21. exhibits (i.) God’s care for the slave (1–11, 16, 26, 27); (ii.) God’s indignation against the unfilial spirit (15, 17); (iii.) God’s disapprobation of the use of brute force (18, 19); (iv.) God’s regard for the safety of man and beast.


1. Slavery was an established institution, and thus was only recognised and not established by the Mosaic law.
2. Humanly speaking, its entire abolition at this period was impossible or at least impracticable.
(1.) Subsequent history shows how difficult it was to repress customs far less rooted in the Hebrew mind.
(2.) In the wars in which the Israelites were engaged, it was the only alternative to extermination.

(3.) In a condition of society where a labouring class was unknown, in many cases it was the only alternative to want (Leviticus 25:25).

(4.) Under circumstances where imprisonment was impossible, it was the only alternative for a criminal to a harsher fate (Exodus 23:3).

3. עֶבֶד conveyed a very different meaning to δοῦλος, or servus or serf or thrall or slave. It implied a position of trust, and dealt rather with the duties of the servant than the right of the master.

4. Those who make a difficulty of Old Testament slavery should remember—
(1.) That this is the first, and for centuries the only, attempt to legislate on behalf of the slave.
(2.) That this attempt stands first among those judgments which regulated political and social life. And

(3.) that if fairly carried out it meant the eventual and effectual extinction of slavery, and the establishment of the right of man as man.

5. That bondage could scarcely have been very intolerable from which its subjects should so seldom endeavour to escape (1 Samuel 25:10; 1 Kings 2:39).

The other subjects connected with Old Testament slavery will be dealt with in their proper place in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The present passage deals with Hebrew slaves.

I. With regard to the slave himself we notice—

(1.) That his term of service was limited. In the sabbatic year (not literally six years) he was to be free (Exodus 21:2.)

(2.) Then he was to be made free, legally and without cost, “for nothing.”

(3.) That the service might be of such a character, that, through love of his master or his family, it might be preferable to freedom (Exodus 21:5).

(4.) That so precious and divine was liberty, a special enactment was necessary to enable the slave to forego his right to it (Exodus 21:5-6).

(5.) That fair play might be observed all round, this preference of slavery to freedom must be expressed in the most judicial, public, and solemn manner (Exodus 21:6).

(6.) That with regard to woman (with the exception noted in Deuteronomy 15:12-13) she could only become a slave on the condition of marriage with her master or his son, in which case all the rights and privileges of wedlock under all circumstances must be respected, or else her unconditional freedom must be granted (Exodus 21:7-11).

(7.) That no man could be kidnapped and sold for a slave under penalty of death for the manstealer (Exodus 21:16).

(8.) That the life and limb of the slave must be respected under severe penalties. (a) If he died under chastisement, the master might be indicted for murder (Exodus 21:20, cf. Exodus 21:12). (b) If he was maimed in the slighest degree, he was entitled to freedom (Exodus 21:26-27).

All this minute legislation was for the benefit of the slave.

II. With regard to the slaveholder

(1.) He was entitled at most to six years of service.
(2.) Only by the free consent of the slave, and the authorities, could he retain his services for one moment longer.

(3.) In the case of punishment inflicted on the slave, only unless the victim survived it two days, did the owner escape the charge of murder, and even then the loss of a valuable servant was no small penalty. A great deal has been made of this last case (Exodus 21:20-21). But

(1) it argues a strong public sentiment on behalf of the slave, and implies that indignation might rise so high as to be difficult to repress.
(2) The slave might not die wholly from this cause, and since it might be beyond the power of the master to prove his innocence, the law provides that he should have the benefit of the doubt.
(3) The master was punished if guilty by the loss of valuable service, which was equivalent to money.

(4) Why should “He is his money” be interpreted more literally than “Time is money”? In conclusion—

I. If God cared for the Hebrew slave He will care for the Christian servant.
II. If it was the duty of the Hebrew slave to serve his master with that diligence and affection which this legislation implies, how much more is it obligatory on the Christian servant?
III. If the Hebrew master were amenable to God’s laws, and if those laws distinctly contemplated his relation to his dependent, how much more should he, who himself “serves the Lord Christ,” obey His laws who said, “One is your master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren”?—J. W. Burn.


Exodus 21:1-6. Penalties as well as laws God would have made known to His people.

It concerns all Israel to know the judgments of God as well as His laws.
Notwithstanding all the general laws given to men, God has reserved some special judgments for His Church.
Amongst the judgments given to the Church, God has provided much concerning servants.
Servants in the Church must do faithful service for their time.
God in judgment delivers men to certainty of servitude when they choose it.
God’s judgments, about corporal bondage and freedom, should remindus about our spiritual: to hate slavery and love freedom.



Moral Law! Exodus 21:1. Travelling some Alpine pass, where the narrow road, cut out of the face of the rock, hangs over a frightful gorge, it is with friendly eyes you look on the wall that restrains your restive steed from backing into the gulf below. Such are the restraints God’s law imposes—no other. It is a fence from evil—nothing else. Men hate the Divine restrictions as the madman raves against the padded walls which save him from deeds of horror. Thank God, our hearts are not left to themselves.

“For wholesome laws preserve us free,

By stinting of our liberty.”


Slavery-Bias! Exodus 21:2. Martin says that slavery, both Indian and Negro, that blighting upas which has been the curse of the West Indics, has accompanied the white colonist—whether Spaniard, Frenchman, or Briton—in his progress, tainting like a plague every incipient association, and blasting the efforts of man, however well disposed, by its demonlike influences over the natural virtues with which the Creator has endowed him; leaving all cold, and dark, and desolate within. But his limitation is unjust to the “pale-faces,” for black and red and white skins have been alike addicted to enslaving their fellows. In Germany, England, and Russia a modified kind of slavery has existed. In the last-named country it was only a few years ago that the masses of serfs were emancipated. Although the serfs of Russia, the old villeins of England, and the like, could hardly be denominated slaves in the sense in which that word is understood to apply to the Roman slave, or to the modern African slave; yet there is no doubt that these servants of feudal chiefs worked for their masters, and were sold by them, very much as the modern serf.

“Thus man devotes his brother, and destroys;
And worse than all, and most to be deplored,
As human nature’s broadest, foulest blot,
Chains him and tasks him, and exacts his sweat
With stripes.”


Slave-Trade! Exodus 21:2. It has been suggested that a great distinction lies between “slavery “and the “slave trade.” The primitive domestic slavery which has for ages prevailed in Africa, bears no comparison with the cruel, oppressive bondage under which the poor negroes so long groaned in America. The Portuguese were the first to begin this infamous traffic at Cape Bajedor in 1442. But the first cargo of slaves was conveyed to Jamaica by some Genoese merchants in 1517, to whom the Emperor Charles V. granted a patent for the annual supply of 4000 negroes to his West Indian possessions. England first sullied her hands with “the blood of bondage” in 1562, when Charles II. sanctioned an expedition of three ships under Captain Hawkins.

“I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews, bought and sold, have ever earned.”

Slave-Sufferings! Exodus 21:2. Little Benome was an African girl. Sent by her mother to one of Africa’s sunny fountains for water, she saw a slave-hunting party approach. Rushing home, the villagers were alarmed and escaped to the woods. Their village was burnt, and next day themselves pursued. The fugitives were captured by the men-stealers, and Benome with her mother and many others were tied together and marched off to the coast. The way led through a desert and across a river. Here the cruel hunters seized a babe in arms, and flung it alive into the jungle to be devoured by wild beasts. The coast reached, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, were sold separately, and shipped to America. Hundreds were imprisoned in the hold of the ship; and there, like bales of goods, kept till the voyage was over. Benome’s ship was, however, captured by a British man-of-war, and Benome and the others were taken to the Island of Trinidad for emancipation. Here she learned to love the Lord Jesus Christ.

“O England, empire’s home and head,

First in each art of peace and pow’r,

Mighty the billow-crest to tread,

Mighty to rule the battle hour,

But mightiest to relieve and save,—
Rejoice that thon hast freed the slave.”


Slave-Emancipation! Exodus 21:2-4. One of the grandest results of Christian missions to the West Indies was the emancipation of the slaves in all the British Colonies in 1838. The enemies of freedom had predicted anarchy and rebellion. They loudly averred that the freed-men would at once rise against their former owners, and seek revenge. But it was not so. The utmost quiet prevailed. A Watch-night meeting was held in different places. Thousands of men, women, and children were found upon their bended knees before God to receive the blessing of freedom from heaven. When the clock struck twelve, which was the death-knell of slavery, they rose to their feet, and sung with united heart and voice, as they had never sung before—

“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him, all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host—
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

Freewill-Serfdom! Exodus 21:6. As in nature’s field, says Law, so in Israel’s story, almost every object reflects Christ. A Hebrew servant is the subject of this verse, but one for whom freedom has no charms. Attachment binds him to his master’s home, and a new ordinance is appointed to sanctify this willing offer of perpetual service. It may, perhaps, come as a new thought to some, that in this servant’s choice and constant love, Jesus reveals Himself. In the 40th Psalm, where faith ascends in heaven-high flight, the Eternal Son, in close communion with the Eternal Father, is heard declaring, “Mine ears hast Thou opened,” i.e., digged by Thy hand. Thus we see the God-man stooping to the lowest grade—seeking a servant’s voice—submitting to a servant’s toil. Jehovah’s fellow is Jehovah’s workman in the labour-field of grace. We have, then, in this abject state a speaking portrait of the love of Jesus. “Behold My servant, whom I uphold” (Isaiah 42:1). “I am among you as he that serveth” (John 13:0).

“To conquer and to save, the Son of God

Came to His own in great humility,

Who wont to ride on cherub wings abroad,

And round Him wrap the mantle of the sky.”


Verses 7-11


Exodus 21:7. Not as the men-servants] From Deuteronomy 15:17, ‘Kalisch infers that in this place foreign female servants are intended, whereas in that place Hebrew domestics are meant, by which supposition the seeming contradiction is removed.



This passage is somewhat obscure, and in its interpretation we find comparatively little help from the Commentators. It treats of that state of concubinage which was assumed and provided for by the law of Moses. “The natural desire of offspring was, in the Jew, consecrated into a religious hope, which tended to redeem concubinage from the debasement into which the grosser motives for its adoption might have brought it.”
I. The Israelitish daughter as servant and concubine. On account of poverty the Israelite sold his daughter, not merely as a slave, but with the hope that ultimately she would become the wife of her master, or of his son. In this respect she is not to be treated as a male slave. She is not to be sent out in the seventh year, but remain as one of the members of the family. Practically she has become a concubine, and if her rights are respected, it is far better for her to remain in the house of her master, than to go out free as did the manservant in the seventh year. “She shall not go out as the menservants do.” The master must not follow mere caprice. Lust must be checked. She has rights which must be respected.

II. Her rights when betrothed unto the master. He has no power to deal with her as he lists, even though she be evil in his eyes. “If she please not her master, then shall he let her be redeemed.” The father may redeem her by paying back either the whole or part of the purchase money. The master has no power to sell her unto a strange nation. “The Greek, too, did not sell a Greek slave to go beyond the boundary of the land” (Knobel). Her lot would be more severe in a strange land than in her own country. To sell her into a strange land would be to deal unjustly by her. This would be to increase the injustice, if. after having dealt deceitfully with her, he were to sell her unto a strange nation.

III. Her rights when betrothed unto the son. “And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.” “As his son’s concubine, she is to be regarded by him as a daughter.” The servile merged in the connubial relation, and her children would be free.

IV. Her rights if displaced by another. “If he take him another wife, her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.” If the master take another wife for the son, then the concubine’s domestic rights must remain inviolate. She must have her proper food, her fitting raiment, and her recognised seat and resting-place in the house as a lawful concubine.

V. The concubine’s remedy if her rights are not regarded. “And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.” She becomes a free woman, and the master can get no compensation. Learn that the weakest have rights which must be regarded—and that masters must conduct themselves so as to promote the welfare of the community and the consolidation of the nation.—W. Burrows, B.A.


Exodus 21:7-11. It is a great hardness of heart to sell children for the advantage of men to unnatural fathers.

God’s special judgments take care for daughters as the weaker sex, before men. God will not have any to make merchandise of the children of the Church.
Man’s deceitfulness occasions God’s faithfulness to provide for His oppressed children.
God’s judgments determine all relations justly to be used, servants as servants, children as children.
God’s justice appears in legal freedom, and His goodness to the Gospel freedom under Christ our head.



Slave-Service! Exodus 21:7. Swinnock says that civil subjection to man came in by sinful defection from God. The word “servant” is thought to be derived from a servando, because those who were taken in battle and might have been slain were saved (2 Kings 5:2). As servitude came in with a curse (Genesis 9:25), so sovereignty is promised as a blessing (Genesis 27:9). It was usual for the debtor to become servant to the creditor amongst the Romans, by the law of the Twelve Tables. The French were wont also to sell themselves to noblemen for debt; and the Jews were not ignorant of this practice (2 Kings 4:1). Titus Sempronius would sell his aged and weak servants as cattle. Cato Pollio commanded one of his servants to be thrown into his fishponds for breaking a glass which he valued highly, though he had an abundant stock of them. When Augustus Cæsar heard of it, he entered the place where the glasses were, and broke them all.

“Why didst thou this? Man! was he not thy brother?
Bone of thy bone, and flesh and blood of thine?
But ah, this truth, by Heaven and reason taught,
Was neverfully credited on earth.”


Verses 12-17



A rude state of society requires rough measures for the repression of crime and for the preservation of social order; and in considering the stern severity of the Mosaic code, we must try to project ourselves into that aboriginal state of society, and pronounce our judgments accordingly. Laws which were required in those early times ought not to be needful in these days. It is well that, through the spread of Gospel principles, justice is being more and more tempered by mercy. But mercy must not be allowed to supplant justice. And there is a danger lest in our pity for the man we restrain justice with regard to the criminal.
I. Homicide in effect.—The first case is that of the man who strikes his fellow; strikes in anger, but not with a murderous intention, and yet death is the result of the angry blow. Such a man shall be surely put to death. This is one of the most severe cases of punishment in those early periods. But it is a stern practical comment upon the New Testament words, “He that hateth his brother is a murderer.” Let us then learn to avoid angry feelings towards our brother men. Anger in the heart gives unconscious malicious power to the will. The blow directed by an angry man may be more severe than his better self would approve. The man, then, is responsible for the effects of his anger, even though these effects are more disastrous than he intended. The preservation of the physical life is important, but much more the preservation of the moral life in all its purity.

II. Homicide by mistake.—If a man kill his fellow, not in consequence of an angry blow, but by reason of a stroke given through mischance, then there is to be merciful provision for his safety. It a man kill his fellow through misadventure, then the city of refuge is to be opened for his reception. And cities of refuge were afterwards provided. Into those cities the avenger of blood could not enter. And in the final adjustment of human affairs, merciful consideration will be dealt out to those who have done vast mischief by mistake; upon sins of ignorance will fall the blessed light of Divine mercy. Embrace the glorious truth that through the sternest code the Divine love cannot help revealing its gracious tendencies.

III. Homicide by design.—The last mentioned, in verse fourteen, is a case of real murder. Here are all the marks of the murderer. There is the breaking through, in ebullient rage, the sacred restraints which protect one’s neighbour as God’s image. There is to be no hope for such a man. He is even to be torn away from God’s altar. Death is to be his portion. It is a strange fact that through all times, with very few exceptions, the Mosaic law of death for death has so largely prevailed. A few monarchs have abolished capital punishment; but soon the stern decree has been re-enacted. It is sad to hang a man, but in saying this we seem to forget that it is a sadder thing to murder a man. The sufferer of capital punishment has not such severe measure dealt out to him as the victim who has suddenly been deprived of life. The repression of crime, and not revenge, is the purpose of wisely-constructed and justly-administered penal codes; and if the abolition of capital punishment tend to the diminution of murder, then we do not see that the Bible stands in the way of such a course. Learn the exceeding preciousness of life. How awful to kill the body! More awful still the conduct of those who go about destroy moral life! It is dreadful to be a soul murderer. Life is God’s most sacred gift. He bestows largely for its unfolding. He provides many safeguards for its preservation.—W. Burrows, B.A.


Exodus 21:12-14. The life of man is dear to God to preserve it; man is God’s image.

Pride, presumption, and treachery, make men truly murderers.



Nothing is more marked, in Old Testament and New Testament alike, than the imperative character of parental claims and filial duties. A special law incorporated in the moral code deals with this subject. These rights and duties arise from the peculiar relation in which parents stand between their children and God. God, through the parent, gives existence to the child, and makes through the same medium provision for its protection and nurture, and the supply of its moral, intellectual, and physical necessities. Parents must be regarded, therefore, as God’s delegated authorities, and must be respected as such. Offences against them God treats as offences against Himself, and punishes them as such. Our text deals with

(1) the unfilial spirit in two aspects; and
(2) with its uniform punishment. Some excellent remarks on this subject and the Rabbinical treatment of it will be found in an article by Dr. Ginsburg in “Cassell’s Bible Educator,” vol. i. pp. 153.

I. The unfilial spirit in two aspects.

1. He that smiteth his father or his mother (Exodus 5:15).

(1.) A child may smite his parent literally, as in the case of those brutes we read of in the newspapers every week.

(2.) A child may smite his parents’ authority by rebellion in thought, word, or deed; e.g., Absalom.

(3.) A child may smite his parents’ wealth by extravagance or carelessness; e.g., ancient and modern spendthrifts.

(4.) A child may smite his parents’ character by an incautious revelation of domestic secrets.

(5.) A child may smite his parents’ health and, by misconduct, bring their grey hairs with sorrow to the grave; e.g., Joseph’s brethren.

(6.) A child may smite his parents’ heart, and break it by disobedience and wilfulness; e.g., sons of Eli

In all these instances (2–6) a child may effectually smite his parents’ without lifting a finger.

2. “He that curseth (lit. revileth) his father or his mother.”

(1.) A child may revile his parents by an assertion of personal independence; as in the case of the prodigal demanding his portion of goods and taking his journey into a far country.

(2.) A child may revile his parents by speaking of them in a careless and irreverent way. What else is it when a youth refers to his father as “the governor,” and to his mother as the “old lady”?

(3.) A child may revile his parents by speaking to them in a familiar or impertinent way.

(4.) A child may revile his parents by treating their counsels with contempt; and
(5.) Alas! a child may revile his parents by cursing them to their face.

II. The uniform punishment of the unfilial spirit.—“Shall surely be put to death.” The letter of this condemnation is now repealed, but its spirit lives on through the ages.

1. An unfilial child dies to the respect of civilised society. All the unwritten codes of humanity agree in condemning it as an unpardonable sin to treat one’s parents with disrespect.

2. An unfilial child is morally dead. If the sign of the moral life is “love of the brethren,” how dead must he be in whom filial respect and love is extinct! It would be easy to show

(1) how all that deserves the name of intelligence,
(2) veneration,
(3) natural affection, and all the higher faculties of the soul, are utterly destroyed before a man can “smite” or “revile” his father or his mother.
3. An unfilial child, inasmuch as he breaks a moral law, and a law that partakes of the qualities of both tables and combines them, dies in a more terrible sense. “The soul that sinneth” (sin is the transgression of the law) “it shall die.”

In conclusion—

(1.) A word to parents. “Provoke not your children unto wrath.” Don’t do anything calculated to excite those distempers which may express themselves in “smiting” or “reviling”; but “train them up in the way they should go,” “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
(2.) A further word to children. “Obey and honour your parents in all things in the Lord.” If there is anything you may deem objectionable, remember (a) your own inexperience, and (b) your indebtedness to those who have given you life and who have preserved and provided for it till now.


We do not observe any deep metaphysical or psychological reasons for the order and number of these laws. There does not seem to be any great regard for logical order in the Hebrew spirit. We may simply discover the instructive and very suggestive circumstance that the three crimes mentioned in these verses are placed in the same category, and have meted out to them the same awful penalty. Thus, it appears that the man who curses his father or his mother is no better than the man-stealer. And in this respect the social code of Christian England is scarcely equal to the moral code of the Mosaic economy. It is not indeed to be deplored that the penalty of death is less frequently inflicted in these times than in the days of the past; but it is to be lamented that reverence for parents is not now-a-days a virtue very strenuously insisted upon. We should not now think of placing the curser of parents, or even the smiter of parents, on the same level with the man-stealer. Those who make a trade of kid-napping are now reprobated; but cursers of fathers and of mothers are at least not regarded as criminals, if indeed they are not welcomed into good society. There is, however, a similarity of spirit in the two characters. There is a closer connection between the curser of parents and the man-stealer than we may at first imagine. Let us study them together, as placed before us in Holy Writ, and learn to avoid the evils.
I. The crime of cursing father or mother. The order now proposed for discussion as logical is to commence with cursing father or mother, then smiting father or mother, and then man-stealing. This crime of cursing father or mother is one of the letters of the Mosaic economy that has been in too large a measure dropped out of the moral alphabet of modern society. There is a needs be that it stand out in brighter colours. It is not by any means a desirable circumstance that, practically, we are behind the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Egyptians in this particular. We read out to our children the words, “Honour thy father and thy mother,” but society does not on a large scale reprobate those who curse their fathers and their mothers. There are fathers and mothers who entail upon their children a heritage of woe; and we must feel pity for such children, and not be very much surprised if there is a tendency to curse their parents. It is difficult for us to be hard upon those children whose parents, either by their folly or by their wickedness, have entailed upon them a depraved physical or moral nature. Oh, let us be gentle in our speech towards those whose parents have been vile, reckless, and worthless! What a severe lot it is for those children whose homes are the abodes of wretchedness, or the hotbeds of crime! Still, crime in others is no excuse for our crimes. Cursing father or mother is to be condemned under all circumstances. (a.) It is to be condemned, for it is a reflection upon the human authors of our being. And thus it is in a sense a reflection upon God Himself. Instead of thanking God for our creation, we are practically cursing God that ever we were born. There is a great deal in life for which to be thankful; and most shun the process of giving up life. Why, then, should we curse those who have brought us into life? Why should we curse the dear mother whose gentle voice has hushed our sorrowful wailing into peaceful slumbers? Why should we curse the father whose strong hand has shielded from danger and ministered to our necessities? (b.) It is to be condemned, for it is a disparagement of God’s vicegerent. If there is any being in this world placed by God in a position of authority, it is the father. He is the type of the eternal Father. He is God’s true representative on earth. The house is his kingdom, and the children are his subjects, and he has an undoubted right to sway the sceptre of a divinely-constituted authority. How great, then, is the crime of that child who curses his father; who despises God’s representative; who resists the lawful control of God’s vicegerent! Is it much to be wondered at that the penalty for this crime in that early society was death? (c.) It is to be condemned, for it is a subversion of the good order of society. The family constitution is the primal form of government. All true governments are but its development. The true ideal of a nation is that of a family of which the king is the head and father. And our kingdom is established for this, among other reasons, that the throne is built upon the thrones set up in happy English homes. Rightly conducted family life is essential to national life and national prosperity. Rebellion in the household is rebellion in the nation. Cursing the father leads to cursing the king. Anarchy in the home means anarchy in the state, and destruction to the community. We have regretted the fact that we seem behind some other nations in not branding the cursing of parents as a crime of deepest dye; but we have to rejoice in the salutary influence of so many Christian homes, which have been the safeguard of our nation; and we are extremely jealous lest the safeguard should be removed or its power diminished.

II. The crime of smiting father or mother. The man who curses his parents is the man who is prepared to smite them when the occasion arises. That father cannot safely trust himself to that grown-up son who has ventured to curse, and thus shown his contempt for the parental authority. Under certain circumstances it may be right for the father to smite his son. There may be too much leniency, as well as too much severity, in the family; some modern fathers appear to have lost faith in the wisdom of Solomon’s proverbs. They spare the rod, and by bitter experience find that the child is spoiled. The father who never smites his son may thank God if that son never smites him. However, never use the rod in anger. Administer chastisement in the spirit of prayer, for the child’s good, and for the maintenance of authority. But it is not right for the son to smite the father. The son had better suffer undeserved physical injury than venture to smite his father or his mother. The reasons adduced for the condemnation of those who curse their parents, are still more cogent when applied to those hardened children who smite their parents. What a wretch is he who smites the mother that has given of her life for the promotion of his life; who has poured out all the vast wealth of her nature in order to nurture up to glorious manhood. The penalty of death for this crime has no place in our civil code; but the man who smites his father or his mother will find that the stroke has a recoil sooner or later. Years may elapse between the act of smiting and the fact of being smitten. But the return stroke, though long delayed, at last shall come with fearful pains. Better suffer thy right hand to be amputated than use it to strike thy father or thy mother.

III. The crime of man-stealing. We have seen that slavery was allowed to continue; but man-stealing was made subject to the penalty of death. Even in those rude states of society God taught the great lesson that He had made of one blood men of different nations, as well as men of the same nation. It is a crime to steal a man’s property. It is a crime to steal a man’s character by villanons slander. But the crime of crimes is to steal a man’s person. It is a striking fact that this Mosaic enactment has been exerting a powerful influence from age to age; and it has so worked that the kidnapper has never for long occupied a respectable position in society; and the time is fast hastening when the word may be eliminated from our language, and kindred words from all other languages. So great is this crime that the Apostle Paul numbers the men-stealers amongst those lawless and disobedient ones with special reference to whom the law is made. So great is this crime that there is in every rightly-constituted nature—yea, in every man not deeply sunk in sin and thoroughly hardened by iniquity—an instinctive horror of and shrinking from the man-stealer. Executioners appointed by human governments may not now put the man-stealer to death; but his doom is sealed. Fearful is the outlook. Unless he truly repent and forsake his way, his lamp too shall go out in fearful darkness. And the man who smites his father or his mother without any feeling of remorse, and without an earnest effort to restrain himself, is quite prepared to become the man-stealer when the opportunity presents itself; his depravity is sufficiently great to avail himself of the offered power of kidnapping his fellows.


(1.) These three crimes taken together are suggestive of the genesis of crime. There is the indulgence of evil thinking, then this grows into evil speaking, and then comes evil acting. Inward cursing grows into outward cursing, and this culminates in crime of physical violence. The man who permits himself to curse his father inwardly, will not be long before he curses outwardly. In this respect cursing and smiting follow closely upon one another. And the man who smites his father or his mother is prepared to smite anybody else if there be provocation sufficient and no dread of consequences. The children who forsake their parents, when those parents are God-fearing, commence a downhill course from which return is difficult.

(2.) Gives a word of caution to parents. So live, and work; and pray that your children may not curse you, but have good reason to bless your memories. And, parents, remember that in after years children may think they have reason to curse you for being too indulgent as well as for being too severe.

(3.) Gives a word of caution to children. The wrongdoing of parents is no justification for the wrongdoing of children. Most likely a more severe penalty awaits the child who has been favoured with many privileges and has abused them, than the child whose privileges have been few, and who has accordingly gone astray. Do not dwell upon what your parents might have done for you if they had been different or had acted differently; but reflect upon the more pleasing part of their dealings with you. And try to make the best of unpropitious circumstances. He is the best general who knows how to retrieve mistakes. He is the world’s hero who fights his way through and surmounts difficulties, and achieves moral victories.—W. Burrows, B.A.



Homicide! Exodus 21:12. Pause and look for a moment on these drops of gore that stain the fresh greensward of earth. It rests silent, but how significant, upon the ground! It lies there a memorial of the curse which God had pronounced on man, “Thou shalt surely die.” It lies a mirror, wherein sin may see its foul features most accurately represented, and whence the homicide may start back appalled at his own image. It is an awful thing to send any man into eternity, still more awful if he is unprepared. Anger is too often the fruitful cause of staining the human hand with the “red rain.” All perfumes will not sweeten this hand!

“Will all the mighty ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?
No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”


Parricide! Exodus 21:15. This was by the Roman law punished in a much severer manner than any other kind of homicide. After being scourged, the delinquents were sewn up in a leather sack with a live dog, a cock, a viper, and an ape, and then cast into the sea. Solon, in his laws, made none against parricide, conceiving it impossible that any one should be guilty of so unnatural a crime. And yet we are told that Tullia, the wife of Tarquin, drove over the corpse of Tullius, her own father; the wheels of her chariot, dashing through the pool of gore, besprinkling the garments of the parricide with a baptism of blood. By the order of Antipater, in his very presence—some say with his own hands—his mother Thessalonica was put to death because he thought she favoured his brother. When a Tahitian became tired of his aged parent, he would either place him in a separate hut to die of starvation, or thrust him through with a spear. Recently, in the south of France, a young man killed and buried his widowed mother in order to be owner of the little farm.

“Blood of the soul! Can all earth’s fountains
Make thy dark stain disappear!”


Slave-Taking! Exodus 21:16. Men defended the modern slave-trade by Scripture allusions; but there was little or no analogy between the two. Ancient heathen nations made slaves either

(1) by sentence of courts for breach of the laws of the land; or
(2) by capture of soldiers in battle; and the Jews may have acted similarly. But there is no warrant for “slave-hunting;” and such pictures of the pursuit of African villagers as modern writers have lined in pathetic language, would have aroused emotions of horror in the Hebrew heart. In Africa, petty wars were got up. Slave-hunting parties were organised for the express purpose of surprising peaceful villages in the interior, capturing the inhabitants, and dragging them into perpetual slavery. These parties were generally headed by base Portuguese, who were assisted in their nefarious enterprise by such depraved negroes from the coast as would enlist for such service. England has, however, secured treaties with Egypt and Zanzibar and Malagasy, empowering her cruisers and soldiers to put down this iniquitous traffic with resolute hand.

“Proudly on Cressy’s tented wold

The lion-flag of England flew;

As proudly gleamed its crimson fold

O’er the dun heights of Waterloo;

But other lyres shall greet the brave;
Sing now, that we have freed the SLAVE.”

Selling Slaves! Exodus 21:16. The Koran justifies slavery on two grounds only:

1. A religious war;
2. Captives in such war. The Sultan of Turkey declares that man is the most noble of all the creatures God has formed in making him free, therefore selling people is contrary to the will of the sovereign Creator. The Pasha of Egypt has also denounced slavery in the strongest terms. The Shah of Persia raised some religious objection to the abolition of the slave-trade, but he was met by the opinion of six of his chief Mollahs that selling male and female slaves is an abomination. It is worthy of remark that Mahomet strove to ameliorate the condition of the slave, and gradually to extirpate slavery itself, which from old times had taken root in Arabia as well as in many other countries.

“Dear as freedom is, and in my heart’s

Just estimation prized above all price,
I would much rather be myself the slave,
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.”

Slave-Sellers! Exodus 21:16. The Banians of Zanz bar figure prominently in the literature connected with the East African slave-trade. These men are Hindus, i.e., natives of India. They are to be found in large numbers in Kattywar; but their stronghold is Pylitana. There they have beautiful temples, to which bauds of pilgrims periodically flock from other countries. They possess the most tender feelings for animals, and would run any risk to prevent cruelty to them. But though they have an elaborate system for the protection of even noxious creatures, they have no regard for human life. These are—along with the Bhatias—the slave-dealers in Zanzibar; and when they have acquired by this nefarious traffic a competency, they return to their native laud. Thus

“There’s naught so monstrous, but the mind of man,
In some condition, may be brought to approve.”


Verses 18-27



I. One of the great underlying principles and fundamental axioms of the Mosaic legislation was the sanctity of human life. Hence the number of hedges and guards by which it was surrounded.

1. Life is everywhere regarded as the gift of God. It is therefore taken for granted that He alone has a right to interfere with it or take it away.

2. Life is everywhere regarded as given for the express purpose of promoting the Creator’s glory, and fulfilling those duties which He has laid down. To injure or destroy that life, therefore, is to make it fail of the end for which it was given.

3. Life, therefore, is to be protected from

(1) attacks which would inflict a temporary injury upon it, under the penalty of remuneration for loss of time and medical attendance (Exodus 21:18-19); or, according to the lex talionis (Exodus 21:22-25), and which might become

(2) murder, in which case the punishment was death.

4. Life, however, was so precious that even the manslayer, if his crime was accidental, might have an opportunity for clearing himself (Exodus 21:13); thus in the wilderness, anticipating the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:0; Deuteronomy 4:0; Deuteronomy 19:0; Joshua 20:0)

5. But life was so sacred that even the sanctuary was no protection to the deliberate murderer (Exodus 21:14.) (See 1 Kings 1:50; 1 Kings 2:28; Leviticus 4:7).

II. This principle, properly applied, means the extinction of all strife, whether between individuals or nations. There may be circumstances under which personal encounter or national war may be justifiable, as when rights are invaded or the helpless oppressed. But, in the great majority of cases, quarrels may be settled by arbitration or mutual concession. At any rate, this grand principle of the sanctity of human life, if acted on all round, would discourage all violence and inaugurate the era of universal peace and good will towards man.


I. Because it is beneath the true dignity of man. Such contests as described in the text are the outcome of the animal and lower part of our nature (James 4:1-2), and reduce man to the level of the beast. But God has given man reason, discretion, self-control; and fighting degrades the man. This applies

(1) to what, by a solemn irony, is described as the “noble (?) art of self-defence;”
(2) to the vast majority of those wars undertaken to gratify an individual’s or a nation’s lust of glory, revenge, or spoil.

II. Because it is unnatural. Humanity is a brotherhood. “God has made of one blood all the nations of men.” Therefore men should be prepared

(1) to make concessions;
(2) to forgive;
(3) to live in peace and unity together.

III. Because it is dangerous

1. To the victor in the struggle.

(1.) He may disable his adversary, and have to pay a heavy indemnification (18, 19).

(2.) He may have to pay with his life the murderer’s forfeit (Exodus 21:12).

2. To the vanquished. It may mean (a) serious injury, or (b) death.

IV. Because no worthy object is gained. Strength, time, skill, money, and, it may be, life are expended for what? Merely the ascendency of the strongest and the compulsory subjection of the weak.

V. Because it is eminently unchristian. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son.”

1. It is contrary to the example of Christ, “who, when he was reviled, reviled not again (1 Peter 2:23), and who “did not strive.”

2. It is contrary to the precept of Christ. “Love one another;” “Love your enemies;” “They that use the sword shall perish by the sword;” “My kingdom is not of this world else would My servants fight.”

3. It is contrary to the whole body of Christian teaching. Paul (2 Timothy 2:24; Hebrews 12:14); Peter (1 Epis. Exodus 3:8-11); James (Exodus 3:13-16), Jude (Ep. 9); and as for John every chapter in his epistles is against it. This principle applies (I.) To the dogmatist. (II.) To the controversialist. The instrument need not be fist or stones. God disapproves of the employment of—(i.) force of intellect; (ii.) fluency of speech; (iii.) power of lung when exerted against moral principles.—J. W. Burn.


There is in this passage no punishment appointed for the mere striver. He is simply held responsible for any evil consequences that may ensue from the strife. So that he who would be on the safe side, as regards either the being injured or being the cause of injury to another, must learn to “walk honestly, as in the day;—not in strife and envying.” For mental strife stirreth up anger; and this leadeth to physical strife; and this to violent smiting; and this sometimes terminates in death. “He loveth transgression that loveth strife.”
I. The striver who injures his opponent. The man smitten with a stone in a contention, and forced to take to his bed, is entitled to compensation. The smiter must pay for the loss sustained during enforced absence from work, and must also be responsible for all the injured man’s medical requirements. Acts have consequences, and men are to be held responsible for such consequences. On this principle we still proceed in great measure; and especially is this true when the consequences are immediate. Move with caution. Let every deed be the result of prayerful deliberation. Who can tell what the deed of to-day may produce in the far off to-morrow?

II. The smiter who injures his servant. The man who smites his servant or his maid with a rod, and causes death, is to be surely punished. It is plain that capital punishment is not to be inflicted on this smiter; for it is left to the discretion of the judges to award the damages. If capital punishment were intended, it is strange that it is not stated, as in the foregoing passages. Perhaps the term “rod” is here employed designedly; for where an iron was used malicious intention was supposed, and death was the punishment where death was caused. If, however, the injured servant continue a day or two, the striker shall not be punished; for the servant is the master’s money. The master suffers the loss of his servant’s services, and therefore receives sufficient punishment. If the servant or the maid lose either an eye or a tooth, through being struck by the master, then the servant or maid so suffering is entitled to liberty as a compensation. Such is the merciful provision for the slave’s physical welfare. A tooth is but a small price to pay for liberty. Many slaves have risked their lives in order to purchase the precious boon of freedom. Even the physical part of man’s nature is important. A slave’s body is God’s workmanship, and must be treated with respect.

III. The striver who injures a pregnant woman. Very often women meddle with the strifes of husbands or brothers. It is natural that women should seek to separate the contending parties. And if such women get injured in their efforts, we sometimes say it serves them right for interfering. But the Mosaic code did not so affirm; and we think rightly. Strivers should be held responsible for the results of their quarrels. It would greatly alter the condition of things if warlike strivers could be held responsible for the results of their contentions. As the result of the pregnant woman suffering permanent injury we have an enforcement of the law of retaliation. In rude states of society we may proceed on the principle of an eye for an eye, &c; but we may aspire to and work up to a state of society, thoroughly permeated with Gospel principles, where all the members of the state will be members of Christ’s mystical body—when this law shall vanish, and the higher laws of Christian love and forbearance shall be in full operation. It will then be an easy thing not to resist evil, for this will be reduced to a minimum. And, till those Elysian days appear, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.” “If thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

W. Burrows, B.A.


Exodus 21:18-27. Passion and contention breed very bad events amongst neighbours.

Not only death, but the injury of man, God desires to prevent.
It is just with God that he who wounds must look to the healing of his neighbours.
Security and prosperity of creatures is the end of God’s judgments against violent men. The lives and comforts of the poorest slaves are dear to God, and secured by Him.



Homicide! Exodus 21:20. Dr. Leland writes concerning the Spartans, that nothing could exceed their cruelty to their serfs—their helots, as they called them. Not only did they treat them in their general conduct with great harshness and insolence, but it was part of their policy to massacre them on several occasions in cold blood, and without provocation. Several authors have mentioned their kruptia—so called from their lying in ambuscade in thickets and clefts of rocks, from which they issued out upon the serfs, and killed all they met. Sometimes they set upon them in the open day, and murdered the ablest and stoutest of them as they were in the fields at work. But English and American writers have been forced to admit the record of many such homicides in more modern times. Murdered “Uncle Toms” are no myth.

“Ah! for the tale the slave could speak,

Ah! for the shame of England’s sway;

On Afric’s sands the madden’d shriek,

’Neath southern suns the burning day;

Ye sounds of guilt—ye sights of gore—

Away! for slavery is no more.”

Slave-Sorrows! Exodus 21:23-25. All honour Livingstone’s righteous indignation against the cruelties which he was obliged to witness as he travelled amid the horror of the slave-traffic. On the Luongo, he describes an incident in words which show this feeling. Six men were singing as if they did not feel the weight and degradation of the slave-sticks. I asked the cause of their mirth, and was told that they rejoiced at the idea of coming back after death, and hunting and killing those who had sold them. Some of the words I had to inquire about; for instance, the meaning of the words “to hunt and kill by spirit power.” Then the song started afresh: “Oh! you sent us off to the sea-coast, but the yoke is off when we die, and back we shall come to haunt and to kill you.” Then all joined in the chorus, which was the name of each seller. The strain told not of fun, but of the bitterness and tears of such as were oppressed.

“O for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumour of oppression and deceit
Might never reach me more.”


Eye for Eye! Exodus 21:25. Selden says that this does not mean that if I put out another man’s eye, therefore I must lose my own (for what is he better for that?), though this is commonly received. It means that I must give him what satisfaction an eye shall be janlged to be worth. Accordingly, Cruickshank relates the case of a slave, who appealed to a traditionary law which entitled him to freedom for the loss of an eye, in his master’s service, from the recoil of a branch of a tree. Compensation, then, and not retribution, is the essential element in this law. Substitution is here, and not revenge.

“You satisfy your anger and revenge;
Suppose this, it will not
Repair your loss.”


Verses 28-36



This is an extension of the principle maintained in the preceding section,—the sanctity of human life. So sacred is it, that it is not merely to be protected from injury or murder, but from accident. And not only human but animal life. Even that must not be sacrificed carelessly. Then—

I. God cares for the safety of man.

1. If an ox injured a man for the first time, the life of the ox only was forfeited (Exodus 21:28). But

2. If the owner of the ox, acquainted with the proved vicious character of his beast, neglected to put him under restraint, and the ox killed his victim as culpably negligent,
(1) the owner was put to death; or
(2) his life commuted for a fine.

II. God cares for the safety of the beast. Other scriptures demonstrate this (Matthew 6:26; &c.).

1. In the case of a beast falling into an unprotected pit (or well), the penalty was adequate remuneration for the loss (Exodus 21:33-34).

2. In the event of an ox exhibiting vicious propensities for the first time, both the ox and its victim were to be sold and the proceeds equally divided; but after its proved viciousness, the owner for culpable carelessness was to bear the entire loss.

None but a superficial mind will deem this legislation trivial. It involves important principles recognised in all civilised codes. The application is, that God’s regard, as expressed in the law, should be man’s as expressed in action. The Jew, in the literal case before us, must put a wall round his pits or wells, or cover them in some way and “keep in” his intractable bulls: the Christian, in practical life, must adopt every precaution necessary for the safety of his neighbour or his neighbour’s property. Hence there are matters about which a man may not simply consult his own interest. God and society demand that we consult the interest of others. Thus selfishness is checked, and provision made for harmony and peace and safety between man and man. The text suggests—

I. That provision for the safety of others should be made. We must not argue that others are able to take care of themselves, and if they walk into danger it is their own fault. No, the Christian law is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” We may be able to walk amidst the dangers of our own field with impunity, because we are familiar with them, and are armed against them. Our neighbour may not be. Wherefore, “If eating flesh or drinking wine,” &c. “Destroy not thy brother for whom Christ died.”

II. That this provision should be made promptly. We must not argue that it will be time to adopt precautions when we see our neighbour coming. No, Christian life must be regulated by the principle that “prevention is better than cure.” We are not at liberty to wait till the accident has occurred. Life is too short, and too valuable, for such experiments. We save life equally by prevention as by rescue. There may be no conspicuous heroism in taking precautions, but God counts it as very acceptable service. Davy did more for humanity by inventing his simple lamp than he would by daring attempts to rescue hundreds of victims from exploded mines. And so it is better by far to save a man from moral ruin than by indefatigable attempts to save him when ruined.

III. That this provision should be permanent. That accidents are exceptional does not alter the case. Most of the permanent arrangements of life are made to meet exceptional cases. A house is not built for weather, which with us is pretty uniformly mild; but so as to stand the severe stress of occasional torrents and winds. A shipbuilder does not contemplate the fair weather; but the exceptional storm. So our neighbour may be calling, or his ox straying, at any moment. The visit may be uncertain, but the uncertainty is permanent. So should be our means of meeting it. Be prepared, therefore, for accidents, and make sure in case of uncertainties. And depend upon this, he who is careful about his neighbour will be equal to any emergency that may occur respecting himself.

Application—(i.) Beware of injuring your neighbour’s soul by any unguarded inconsistency. (ii.) Beware of injuring your neighbour’s friendship by any unguarded passion. (iii.) Beware of injuring your neighbour’s character by any unguarded word. (iv.) Beware of injuring your neighbour’s peace by any unguarded look or action. (v.) In all matters concerning your neighbour, remember that “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.”

J. W. Burn.


In a nomadic state of society, great care is required in the management of cattle, if interests are not to clash, if the welfare of the community is to be promoted. Even when the children of Israel reached the Promised Land, there would be still need for caution, and great precision in the laying down of laws. The wise foresight of the legislator is seen in these particular laws with reference to dangerous cattle.

I. Life is superior to property.—The ox that had gored a man to death was to be killed, and put out of the way. His flesh was not to be eaten. The ox is stoned to death; and, legally, it would involve physical uncleanness to eat of the flesh. Is there Old Testament symbolism in this fact? Does the ox symbolise the murderer? Does the Almighty thus in a most significant manner set forth the awfulness of murder? This, however, may be safely inferred, that property should ever be subordinate to life. What a pity that this noble principle of the Mosaic code is not more fully carried out in modern days! We rightly slaughter cattle to prevent the spread of disease; but the farmer would object to have an ox slaughtered because it had unfortunately gored a man to death. There is still at work in modern society the influence of this mistaken principle,—the omnipotence of property. We need to learn the preciousness of human life.

II. The careless man is culpable.—If the animal had been known to gore; if this fact had been testified to the owner, and proper precautions had not been taken, then the owner was in some measure participant in the evil doings of the vicious creature. Carelessness is culpable. He that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. To prevent evil by wise precaution is our bounden duty, and is an indirect method of doing good. There are degrees of carelessness, and degrees of guilt. The man may so conduct himself as to declare that he rather rejoiced in the ox’s murderous tendency; and, if so, the man must not only have his ox killed, but he himself is to be put to death. But there may be mitigating circumstances about the owner’s conduct. The sufferers may take a lenient view of the transaction. Then the owner of the ox shall give a proper ransom for the life which has been forfeited, whether son or daughter. But if it be a manservant or a maidservant that is killed, then thirty shekels of silver shall be given to the master; which was probably the usual market price of a slave. All life is precious; but it seems to be indicated that some lives are more precious than others. Thirty shekels is a high price for some; but a hundred shekels would be a low price for others. After death has visited, then estimates nearer the truth of a man’s worth will be formed.

III. Man is responsible for preventable evil.—If into the uncovered pit an ox or an ass fall, the owner of the pit shall make good the damage. He shall pay the price of the animal so killed; and receive the dead beast, of which he could only use the skin, and other such parts. The flesh was unclean. If we leave a pit uncovered we must take the consequences. Will the Almighty hold us responsible for the moral pits we have left uncovered? We have not placed precautionary signals in sufficient number along those highways where moral pits and quagmires abound.

IV. Community of interest.—In the Jewish polity men were not to be allowed to consider their own interests as paramount. They were to consider the welfare of others. The man, whose ox had killed the ox of another, was in a measure responsible for the loss occasioned. The goring ox was to be sold, and thus removed out of the sight of those to whom it had rendered itself obnoxious And the money got for the living ox was to be divided; and the dead ox also they shall divide. It is likely that the dead ox had gored. But if the ox had been known to gore aforetime, then the owner must pay ox for ox; and the dead shall be his own. The master must be watchful over the very cattle that he owns. He must have respect to the welfare of his neighbour. Let us feel that we have interests in common. The prosperity of one is the prosperity of all in a degree. In the long run there can be no individual interests separate from the interests of the whole community. Selfishness is self-defeating and suicidal. If there cannot be community of goods, there must always be community of interests—W. Burrows, B.A.



Pitfalls! Exodus 21:33-34. Evils are wrought by want of thought, as well as by want of heart. Bare want of thought is censured as sinful. There is a selfish and heedless disregard of the rights and personal safety of others. But there are moral as well as material pits. The gin-palace keeper should be compelled to write up, “An open pit here.” Keepers of haunts of vice should be forced to have for their sign the opinion of the wise man in the Book of Proverbs—“The Way to the Pit.”

“Our dangers and delights are near allies;
From the same stem the rose and prickle rise.”


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Exodus 21". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.