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

Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

Exodus 21


Laws concerning servants, man-slaughter, cursing of parents, retaliation, damage done by an ox, &c.

Before Christ 1491.

Verse 1

Exodus 21:1. Now these are the judgments The subsequent divine laws are delivered in an irregular and interrupted method; most probably, because they were written down by Moses one after another, and delivered by him to the people of Israel just as he received them from Jehovah himself; and perhaps also, because a perfectly methodical manner would have favoured too much of human wisdom. "As to the frequent repetition of them," observe the authors of the Universal History, "the reader will find sufficient occasion for it; since it will appear by the sequel, that neither that, nor the grievous punishments which befel the Israelites almost upon every disobedience, proved effectual to bend their stubborn necks, or cure them of their untractable disposition. Some [of these laws and ordinances] related to the immediate worship of GOD; such as were the building of the tabernacle, with all its grand apparatus of utensils for use and ornament; their sacrifices of all sorts; the consecration of their priests and Levites; the holy oil to anoint them; their habit, office, privileges, revenue, and the like; the festivals, offerings, tythes, vows, purifications, laws concerning clean and unclean things, diseases, meats, &c. some of which are generally looked upon as typical: others, as topical, or confined to that climate; and others as political; but all of them calculated with a wise design of preserving them both in their obedience to GOD, and from all intermixture with other nations; and from adopting any part of their religious worship into their own: all which were delivered at several times, and upon divers exigencies, by GOD to Moses, and by him committed to writing in the same order in which he received them." See the note at the beginning of the last chapter. By judgments here, it is generally thought, are meant such judicial or political laws as respected the civil government, and the rights between man and man. It has been generally believed, that many of the most ancient and wisest lawgivers and states have much availed themselves of the Mosaic system.

Verse 2

Exodus 21:2. If thou buy an Hebrew servant, &c.— The laws respecting male and female Hebrew servants, or slaves, are here delivered first; no doubt, to impress the just feelings of humanity towards them. Tertullian elegantly calls these laws the precepts of humanity; a just denomination, if we consider the dispensation under which they were decreed. Perpetual slavery is absolutely forbidden. Six years was the utmost term of slavery: to which they were sold, sometimes as malefactors by the judges, ch. Exo 22:3 sometimes as insolvent debtors to their creditors, 2 Kings 4:1. Mat 18:25 and sometimes, through extreme poverty, persons sold themselves, Leviticus 25:39.; in which last case parents also might sell their children. No such slave was to serve longer than six years; on the seventh, or on the year of jubilee, (of which more will be said hereafter,) he was to go out free.

Verses 3-4

Exodus 21:3-4. If he came in by himself, &c.— That is, single, he shall so depart; if married, his wife also was to depart in freedom with him. Leviticus 25:41. The case was to be different if he married while in servitude; when, if his master gave him a wife, a slave like himself, and not of the Hebrew race,—the wife, and such children as he might have by her, were to continue the master's property, and the man alone was to be free. See Leviticus 25:44-45. But if, as was very likely to happen, the connection of wife and children, joined to a regard for his master, should induce the man to continue in slavery, Exo 21:5 then the ceremony mentioned in the next verse was to take place.

Verse 6

Exodus 21:6. Then his master shall bring him unto the judges If the servant refused to be free, he was to be brought to the judges, אלהים elohim, gods, in the original; magistrates being so called, as the visible representatives of God upon earth. Psalms 1:6. John 10:34.Romans 13:1; Romans 13:1. The LXX render it προς το κριτηριον θεου, to the judgment of God; by which they mean, most probably, the sanctuary and oracle: but the true meaning seems to be, that the master was to bring his slave to the temporal judges, that they might take proper cognizance of the case; which done, he was to bring the servant to the door, or door-post of his house, Deu 15:16-17 and there bore through his ear with an awl, in token of perpetual slavery. The word for ever, signifies to the end of his life; the man having refused the advantage of the day of jubilee, and willingly submitting himself to a life of slavery. This custom of boring the ears of servants is alluded to in Psa 40:6 and implied the servant's constant obligation to hearken to his master's orders. The custom lasted a long time in Syria and Arabia, as appears from Juvenal, Sat. i. 159 who makes a Syrian slave speak thus:

"Though born a slave, though my torn ears are bor'd, 'Tis not the birth, 'tis money makes the Lord."
And Petronius says, pertunde aures, ut imitemur Arabes; bore the ears, that we may imitate the Arabs. This custom of boring the ears of slaves is still usual in the East Indies, and in various other parts, and has from thence been derived even to whole nations, who have made the original mark of servitude a badge of honour, by wearing large rings in their ears. See Xenophon's Sympos. lib. 2: cap. 1.

Verse 7

Exodus 21:7. And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant It appears very plainly from the account given in Leviticus, that the law laid down in the former verses held good with regard to female as well as to male-servants; and consequently, what follows must be considered as an exempt or particular case: in which view, it can no otherwise be understood, than as referring to a parent's selling his daughter through poverty. Daughters, thus sold by their parents, were to be treated in a different manner from those females who were sold on the other accounts mentioned in note on Exodus 21:2.; for the sacred writer tells us, that if a man thus sold his daughter, she should not go out as the men-servants do; that is, by gaining her liberty after a servitude of six years: other and easier terms are assigned for her.

Verse 8

Exodus 21:8. Shall he let her be redeemed This might more properly be rendered, after many of the versions, he shall redeem or deliver her: he shall set her free. What is rendered, to a strange people, might properly be read, to another family, which is the true meaning of the expression. (Leviticus 22:10.) The Hebrews had no power, in any case, to sell any of their own people, whether male or female, to those of another nation.

REFLECTIONS.—We have here ordinances concerning servants: they had been servants themselves, and therefore are peculiarly called to exercise gentleness towards such. Though they had suffered, they must not play the tyrant in their turn.

1. Of the man-servant. Note; Voluntary slavery will seldom be found among men; but they who have tasted the blessed freedom of God's service are happy to be confirmed in his house for ever, and desire to go out no more. 2. Of the maid-servants. The meanest of Israel's daughters are honourably taken care of. Thus Jesus first bought the Church with his Blood; then, mean and unequal as was the match, espoused her to himself in mercy, and liberally endowed her with all the rich blessings of his grace.

Verse 12

Exodus 21:12. He that smiteth a man, &c.— See Genesis 9:6. It appears from Lev 17:16 that this law was not confined to the murder of Israelites, but extended to strangers, and all men in general; contrary to the shameful glosses of some of the Rabbis.

Verse 13

Exodus 21:13. But God deliver him into his hand As God is the Lord of life and death, whose providence is over all his works, the Scripture teaches us to ascribe to him all such events, as, in common phrase, are called accidental. See Deuteronomy 19:5. Of the cities of refuge we shall have occasion to speak hereafter. Before they were appointed, the altar served for a place of refuge, as the next verse shews.

Verse 14

Exodus 21:14. Thou shalt take him from mine altar God is a God of justice, and will never suffer his sanctuary to screen and protect the guilty. See Deuteronomy 19:11-12. 1 Kings 2:28; 1 Kings 2:46.

Verse 15

Exodus 21:15. And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, &c.— Of so great importance is obedience to parents, that God was pleased not only to enjoin it by a positive law, but even to adjudge those to death who were notoriously defective in it. The reason of which severity seems to be this; that those must be extremely hardened in guilt, and of a most perverse disposition, who could not only disobey, but even strike, abuse, and revile their parents. Exodus 21:17. Matthew 15:4.Mark 7:10; Mark 7:10. It is not, however, to be supposed, either that this power of life and death was vested in the parents, or that children were immediately to be dragged to capital punishment for the offence. Frequent chastisement and repeated admonitions were first to take place; which proving inefficacious, the judges and elders of the city were, upon the parents' accusation, to denounce the punishment. See Deuteronomy 21:18; Deuteronomy 21:23. It has been often observed, that Moses makes no provision for parricide; a crime so monstrous that he mentions it not, as supposing human nature incapable of it. Thus too the ancient Persians held, that no man ever put his father or mother to death; and that those, whom history brands with the name of parricides, must either have been spurious children or foundlings. (See Herodot. lib. 1: cap. 138.) Solon, and the law of the twelve tables, omit any mention of this crime for the same reasons (see Plutarch's Life of Romulus); a crime which the Chinese hold in such detestation, that, if it ever occurs among them, they totally destroy the town or village in which it happened, with all its inhabitants. Dr. Delaney's words upon the subject are so remarkable, that I cannot forbear producing them. "In China, if a father charges his son with any crime before a magistrate, there needs no other proof; he is immediately condemned. If a son should presume to mock a parent, or lay violent hands upon him, the whole country is alarmed, and the judgment reserved for the emperor himself: the magistrates of the place are turned out, and all the neighbourhood threatened, as having given countenance to so infernal a temper, which must be supposed to have discovered itself upon other occasions; it is impossible, they think, that it should have arrived at such a degree of villainy at once. The criminal in these cases is sentenced to be cut into ten thousand pieces, and afterwards burnt; his houses and land destroyed; and even the houses which stood near him, to remain as monuments of so detested a crime; or rather, that the remembrance of so abominable a villainy should be effaced from the earth. Nor are even their emperors, in all their height of power, exempted from the strictest discharge of duty and piety to their parents."

Verse 16

Exodus 21:16. And he that stealeth a man, &c.— See Deuteronomy 24:7. This crime was death both by the Athenian and Roman laws. It is difficult to say, why this law is placed between those respecting striking and cursing parents. Some suppose that children, stolen in youth, might, upon returning to their own country, be guilty of the crimes between which this law stands, as not knowing their parents. But as these are single laws, it may be difficult, if not impossible, always to assign reasons for their position and connexion.

REFLECTIONS.—Note; 1. If the murderer will find no sanctuary even at God's altar, surely he should find none elsewhere. Mercy to a murderer is cruelty to mankind. 2. Though the behaviour of an undutiful son under our laws meets not with such exemplary punishment, God will surely take vengeance, either in time or eternity. 3. Nothing is accidental: if a sparrow fall not to the ground without Divine direction or permission, much less does a man.

Verse 20

Exodus 21:20. If a man smite his servant, &c.— The equity of these laws is apparent to every reader, though the Jewish Rabbis have done all they could to restrict and render them unworthy the Divine Lawgiver. The law here refers undoubtedly to servants in general, not to Hebrew ones only; cruelty to whom is forbidden, by appointing to that master, who should so beat his servant as to slay him upon the spot, the punishment due to a murderer. Calmet has well observed of how much higher and better a spirit this lenity to slaves is demonstrative, than the absolute and unlimited power over them which was allowed among the wisest heathens, the Athenians, Lacedemonians, Romans, &c. Even Plato, in his republic, the laws of which he wanted to form on the justest model, gives his sanction to the same practice: "He who kills his own slave," says he, "shall be acquitted; whoso, in anger, kills another's, shall pay double the price of him." The Emperor Adrian was the first who softened the rigour of the laws respecting slaves; and afterwards Antoninus Pius expressly appointed death for the master who slew his slave without any just cause. It is unpleasing to reflect, that, in the times of Christianity, there are many who profess that faith, and yet do not act with such equity towards their slaves, as even the Mosaic law itself enjoins! See Exodus 21:26-27.

Verse 21

Exodus 21:21. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, &c.— As it might be presumed, that, in this case, the death of the slave was not absolutely owing to the wounds he received, the master was to be thought sufficiently punished by the loss which he sustained in this part of his property; for he is his money; and in this view it might be supposed, that the master had no design to kill him. See Leviticus 25:44.

Note; All these laws concerning slaves, as before intimated, were mild and merciful, if we consider the dispensation under which they were delivered, and the state of mankind in those early ages. But since life and immortality have been brought to light by the Gospel, slavery can no more be admitted or vindicated than polygamy, consistently with the perfection of that high dispensation under which we at present live.

Verse 22

Exodus 21:22. And yet no mischief follow The literal translation of this in the Hebrew is, and there shall not be death; which is much more proper than our version.

Verse 24

Exodus 21:24. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, &c.— See Leviticus 24:20.

Verse 28

Exodus 21:28. If an ox gore a man or a woman The Hebrew word שׁור shor, might, perhaps, with more propriety, be rendered a bull; the LXX have it ταυρος . The Romans used to mark mischievous bulls by twisting hay about their horns. Horace alludes to this, when he says, foenum habet in cornu, longe fuge, He has hay on his horns, avoid him. The law of the twelve tables ordered, that the owner of such beast should pay for what damages it committed, or deliver it to the person injured. See Genesis 9:5. There can be no doubt that this law extended equally to any other destructive animals, whereof the owners did not take due care.

Verse 30

Exodus 21:30. If there be laid on him a sum of money A ransom was allowed in this case. As the law might sometimes prove too rigorous, the judges were to determine that ransom which was usually given to the heirs and relations of the person killed: thirty shekels of silver, Exo 21:32 which was somewhat more than three pounds, was the ransom to be paid for a slave; and this, be it observed, was the low price for which the traitor Judas sold his Blessed Master. Matthew 26:15.

Verse 33

Exodus 21:33. If a man shall open a pit We have had frequent occasion, in our notes on the Book of Genesis, to mention these pits which were usually dug in this country; and which, being dug in common or public ground, there was great need of caution with respect to them.

REFLECTIONS.—Note; 1. The care that God has of man's life: even the ox or bull, which kills a man, must be stoned. 2. They who are acquainted with the mischievousness of their cattle, and take not proper care of them, are looked upon as accessary to the hurt done by them. Not to restrain the evil which is in our power, is to commit it. 3. We deserve to be punished for negligence, as well as for mischief.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Exodus 21". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.