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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 21

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-32



I. Laws connected with the rights of persons (Exodus 21:1-32). The regulations of this section concern—

1. Slavery (Exodus 21:2-6);

2. Murder and other kinds of homicide (Exodus 21:12-15 and Exodus 21:20, Exodus 21:21);

3. Man-stealing (Exodus 21:16);

4. Striking or cursing of parents (Exodus 21:15, Exodus 21:17);

5. Assaults and injuries to the person not resulting in death (Exodus 21:18, Exodus 21:19, and Exodus 21:22-27), both in the case of free men and of slaves; and

6. Injuries done by cattle both to free men and to slaves (Exodus 21:28-32). The chief bodily injury whereto women are liable is not mentioned. A later enactment (Deuteronomy 22:25-29) made it expiable by marriage, or else a capital offence. There are no other remarkable omissions.

Exodus 21:1

These are the judgments. The term "judgment" applies most properly to the decisions of courts and the laws founded upon them. No doubt the laws contained in the "Book of the Covenant" were to a large extent old laws, which had been often acted on; but we should do wrong to suppose that there was nothing new in the legislation. The Hebrew mishphat is used with some vagueness.

Exodus 21:2-11


Exodus 21:2

If thou buy an Hebrew servant. Slavery, it is clear, was an existing institution. The law of Moses did not make it, but found it, and by not forbidding, allowed it. The Divine legislator was content under the circumstances to introduce mitigations and alleviations into the slave condition. Hebrews commonly became slaves through poverty (Leviticus 25:35, Leviticus 25:39), but sometimes through crime (Exodus 22:3).

In the seventh he shall go out. Not in the Sabbatical year, but at the commencement of the seventh year after he became a slave. If the jubilee year happened to occur, he might be released sooner (Leviticus 25:40); but in any case his servitude must end when the sixth year of it was completed. This was an enormous boon, and had nothing, so far as is known, correspondent to it in the legislation of any other country. Nor was this all. When he went out free, his late master was bound to furnish him with provisions out of his flock, and out of his threshing floor, and out of his winepress (Deuteronomy 15:12-14), so that he might have something wherewith to begin the world afresh. The humane spirit of the legislation is strikingly marked in its very first enactment.

Exodus 21:3

If he came in by himself, etc. The first clause of this verse is further explained in the next; the second secured to the wife who went into slavery with her husband a participation in his privilege of release at the end of the sixth year.

Exodus 21:4

If his master have given him a wife. If the slave was unmarried when he went into servitude, or if his wife died, and his master then gave him a wife from among his female slaves, the master was not to lose his property in his female slave by reason of having permitted the marriage. When the man claimed his freedom at the end of the sixth year, he was to "go out" alone. Should children have been born, they were also to be the property of the master and to remain members of his household. No doubt these provisos, which cannot be regarded as unjust, had the effect of inducing many Hebrew slaves not to claim their release (Exodus 21:5, Exodus 21:6).

Exodus 21:5, Exodus 21:6

I love my master, etc. Affection might grow up between the slave and the master, if he were well treated. The Hebrew form of slavery was altogether of a mild kind. Masters are admonished to treat their slaves "not as bond-servants, but as hired servants or sojourners," and again "not to rule over them with rigour" (Le Exodus 25:39, Exodus 25:40, 43). Even among the heathen, slaves often bore a true affection to their masters. Or, the slave might be so attached to his wife and children as to be unwilling to separate from them, and might prefer slavery with the solace of their society to freedom without it. For such cases the provision was made, which is contained in Exodus 21:6. On the slave declaring to his master his unwillingness to go free, the master might take him before the judges, or magistrates (literally "gods") as witnesses, and perhaps registrars of the man' s declaration, and might then reconduct him to his house, and by a significant ceremony mark him as his slave "for ever." The ceremony consisted in boring through one of his ears with an awl, and driving the awl into the door or doorpost of the house, thereby attaching him physically to the dwelling of which he became thenceforth a permanent inmate. Almost all commentators assert that some such custom was common in the East in connection with slavery, and refer to Xen. Aaab. 3.1, § 31; Plant. Poenul. 5.2, 21; Juv. Sat. 1.104; Plutarch. Vit. Cic. § 26, etc. But these passages merely show that the Orientals generally—not slaves in particular—had their ears bored for the purpose of wearing earrings, and indicate no usage at all comparable to the Hebrew practice. The Hebrew custom—probably a very ancient one—seems to have had two objects—

1. The declaring by a significant act, that the man belonged to the house; and

2. The permanent marking of him as a slave, dis-entitled to the rights of freemen, he shall serve him for ever. Josephus (Ant. Jude 1:4Jude 1:4.8, § 20) and the Jewish commentators generally maintain that the law of the jubilee release overruled this enactment; but this must be regarded as very doubtful.

Exodus 21:7

If a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant. Among ancient nations the father' s rights over his children were generally regarded as including the right to sell them for slaves. In civilised nations the right was seldom exercised; but what restrained men was rather a sentiment of pride than any doubt of such sales being proper. Many barbarous nations, like the Thracians (Herod. 5.6), made a regular practice of selling their daughters. Even at Athens there was a time when sales of children had been common (Plut. Vit. Solon. § 13). Existing custom, it is clear, sanctioned such sales among the Hebrews, and what the law now did was to step in and mitigate the evil consequences. (Compare the comment on Exodus 21:2.) These were greatest in the case of females. Usually they were bought to be made the concubines, or secondary wives of their masters. If this intention were carried out, then they were to be entitled to their status and maintenance as wives during their lifetime, even though their husband took another (legitimate) wife (Exodus 21:10). If the retention was not carried out, either the man was to marry her to one of his sons (Exodus 21:9), or he was to sell his rights over her altogether with his obligations to another Hebrew; or he was to send her back at once intact to her father' s house, without making any claim on him to refund the purchase-money. These provisos may not have furnished a remedy against all the wrongs of a weak, and, no doubt, an oppressed class; but they were important mitigations of the existing usages, and protected the slave-concubine to a considerable extent.

Exodus 21:8

If she please not her master. If he decline, i.e; to carry out the contract, and take her for his wife. Then let her be redeemed. Rather, "Then let him cause her to be redeemed." Let him, i.e; look out for some one who will buy her of him and take his obligation of marriage off his hands To sell her to a strange nation he shall not have power. Only, this purchaser must be a Hebrew, like himself, and not a foreigner, since her father consented to her becoming a slave only on the condition of her being wedded to a Hebrew. Seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. By professing to take her as a secondary wife, and not carrying out the contract.

Exodus 21:9

And if he hath betrothed her unto his son. A man might have bought the maiden for this object, or finding himself not pleased with her (Exodus 21:8), might have made his son take his place as her husband. In this case but one course was allowed—he must give her the status of a daughter thenceforth in his family.

Exodus 21:10

If he take him another wifei.e; If he marry her himself, and then take another, even a legitimate, wife—her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage shall he not diminish—she shall retain during her life all the privileges of a married woman—he shall not diminish aught from them. The word translated "duty of marriage" seems to mean "right of cohabitation."

Exodus 21:11

If he do not these three unto her. Not the "three" points of the latter part of Exodus 21:10; but one of the three courses laid down in Exodus 21:8, Exodus 21:9, and Exodus 21:10. She shall go out freei.e; she shall not be retained as a drudge, a mere maidservant, but shall return to her father at once, a free woman, capable of contracting another marriage; and without moneyi.e; without the father being called upon to refund any portion of the stun for which he had sold her.

Exodus 21:12-14

Homicide. Exodus 21:12 reiterates the Sixth Commandment, and adds to it a temporal penalty—"he shall surely be put to death." The substance of this law had already been given to Noah in the words, "Whoso sheddeth man' s blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6). Real murder, with deliberate intent, was under no circumstances to be pardoned. The murderer was even to be torn from the altar, if he took refuge there, and relentlessly punished (Exodus 21:14). See the case of Joab (1 Kings 2:28-34). But, if a man happened suddenly upon his enemy, without having sought the opportunity, and slew him (Exodus 21:13), then the case was one not of murder, but at most of manslaughter, or possibly of justifiable homicide. No legal penalty was assigned to such offences. They were left to the rude justice of established custom, which required "the avenger of blood" to visit them with due retribution. According to the general practice of the Eastern nations, he might either insist on life for life or take a money compensation. With this custom, deeply ingrained into the minds of the Oriental people, the law did not meddle. It was content to interpose between the avenger of blood and his victim the chance of reaching an asylum. Places were appointed, whither the shedder of blood might flee, and where he might be safe until his cause was tried before the men of his own city (Numbers 35:22-25), and afterwards, if the judgment were in his favour. Some particular part of the camp was probably made an asylum in the wilderness.

Exodus 21:13

God deliver him into his hand. This does not seem to mean more than, "if he chance upon him without seeking him." God' s providence does in fact bring about the meetings which men call accidental. I will appoint thee a place. When we first hear of the actual appointment, the number of the places was six—three on either side of Jordan. (See Joshua 20:7, Joshua 20:8; and compare Numbers 35:10-15, and Deuteronomy 19:2.) Thus there was always a city of refuge at a reasonable distance.

Exodus 21:14

Presumptuously. Or "proudly," "arrogantly." Thou shalt take him from mine altar. See the comment on Exodus 21:12.

Exodus 21:15-17

Other capital offences. The unsystematic character of the arrangement in this chapter is remarkably shown by this interruption of the consideration of different sorts of homicide, in order to introduce offences of quite a different character, and those not very closely allied to each other—e.g.,

1. Striking a parent;

2. Kidnapping;

3. Cursing a parent.

Exodus 21:15

He that smiteth his father, etc. To "smite" here is simply to "strike"—to offer the indignity of a blow—not to kill, which had already been made capital (Exodus 21:12), not in the case of parents only, but in every case. The severity of the law is very remarkable, and strongly emphasises the dignity and authority of parents. There is no parallel to it in any other known code, though of course the patria potestas of the Roman father gave him the power of punishing a son who had struck him, capitally.

Exodus 21:16

He that stealeth a man. Kidnapping, or stealing men to make them slaves, was a very early and very wide-spread crime. Joseph' s brothers must be regarded as having committed it (Genesis 37:28); and there are many traces of it in the remains of antiquity. Most kidnapping was of foreigners; and this was a practice of which the laws of states took no cognizance, though a certain disrepute may have attached to it. But the kidnapping of a fellow-country-man was generally punished with severity. At Athens it was a capital offence. At Rome it made a man infamous. We may gather from Deuteronomy 24:7, that the Mosaic law was especially levelled against this lena of the crime, though the words of the present passage are general, and forbid the crime altogether. Man-stealing, in the general sense, is now regarded as an offence by the chief civilised states of Europe and America, and is punished by confiscation of the stolen goods, and sometimes by imprisonment of the man-stealers.

Exodus 21:17

He that curseth his father, etc. Blasphemy against God, and imprecations upon parents, were the only two sins of the tongue which the law expressly required to be punished with death (Le Exodus 24:16). In later times analogy was held to require that "cursing the ruler of the people" (Exodus 22:28) should be visited with the same penalty (2 Samuel 19:22; 1Ki 2:8, 1 Kings 2:9, 1 Kings 2:46). The severity of the sentence indicates that in God' s sight such sins are of the deepest dye.

Exodus 21:18, Exodus 21:19

Severe assault. Assault was punishable by the law in two ways. Ordinarily, the rule was that of strict retaliation' ' Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Exodus 21:24, Exodus 21:25; compare Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21). But where the assault was severe, causing a man to take to his bed, and call in the physician' s aid, something more was needed. The Rabbinical commentators tell us that in this case he was arrested, and sent to prison until it was ascertained whether the person hurt would die or no. If he died, the man was tried for murder; if he recovered, a fine was imposed. This was axed at such a sum as would at once compensate the injured man for his loss of time and defray the expense of his cure. A similar principle is adopted under our own law in many cases of civil action.

Exodus 21:18

If men strive together. If there is a quarrel and a personal encounter. In our own law this would reduce this offence, if death ensued, to manslaughter. With a stone, or with his fist. The use of either would show absence of premeditation, and of any design to kill. A weapon would have to be prepared beforehand: a stone might be readily caught up.

Exodus 21:19

If he rise again and walk upon his staff. If he recovered sufficiently to leave his bed, and get about with a stick to lean on, his hurt was not to be brought up against the injurer, though he died soon afterwards. Compensation was to be received, and the score regarded as wiped off.

Exodus 21:20, Exodus 21:21

Homicide of slaves. In most ancient states the slave was the absolute property of his master, and might be ill-used to any extent, even killed, without the law in any way interfering. It is said that the state of things was different in Egypt (Kalisch); but we have scarcely sufficient evidence on the point to be certain that the slave enjoyed there any real and efficient protection. At Athens, beyond a doubt, the law protected the life of the slave; and a very moderate amount of ill-treatment entitled a slave to bring an action. At Rome, on the contrary, "the master could treat the slave as he pleased, could sell him, punish him, and put him to death". And this was the ordinary state of the law, particularly in Oriental countries. The Mosaic legislation must be regarded as having greatly ameliorated the condition of the native slave population. Hebrew bondmen it placed nearly upon a par with hired servants (Le Exodus 25:40); foreign slaves, whether prisoners taken in war, or persons bought in the market, it protected to a very great extent. By the law given in Exodus 21:26, Exodus 21:27, it largely controlled the brutality of masters, who had to emancipate their slaves if they did them any serious injury. By the law laid down in Exodus 21:20, it gave their lives the same protection, or nearly the same, as the lives of freemen. "Smiting "was allowed as a discipline, without which slavery cannot exist; but such smiting as resulted in death was, as a general rule, punishable like any other homicide. The only exception was, if the slave did not die for some days (Exodus 21:21). In that case the master was considered not to have intended the slave' s death, and to be sufficiently punished by the loss of his property.

Exodus 21:20

If a man smite his servant, or his maid. "Maids" would commonly be chastised by their mistress, or by an upper servant acting under the mistress' s authority. "A man" here means "any one." With a rod. The rods wherewith Egyptian slaves were chastised appear upon the monuments. They were long canes, like those used by our schoolmasters. Under his hand. Criminals in the East are said often to die under the bastinado; and even in our own country there have been cases of soldiers dying under the lash. A special delicacy of the nervous system will make a punishment of the kind fatal to some, which would have been easily borne by others.

Exodus 21:21

If he continue a day or two—i.e; "If the slave does not die till a day or two afterwards." Compare the provision in Exodus 21:19, with respect to persons who were not slaves. No special callousness to the sufferings of slaves is implied. He is his money. The slave had been purchased for a stun of money, or was at any rate money' s worth; and the master would suffer a pecuniary loss by his death.

Exodus 21:22-25

Assault producing miscarriage. Retaliation. Women in all countries are apt to interfere in the quarrels of men, and run the risk of suffering injuries which proceed from accident rather than design, one such injury being of a peculiar character, to which there is nothing correspondent among the injuries which may be done to man. This is abortion, or miscarriage. The Mosaic legislation sought to protect pregnant women from suffering this injury by providing, first, that if death resulted the offender should suffer death (Exodus 21:23); and, secondly, that if there were no further ill-result than the miscarriage itself, still a fine should be paid, to be assessed by the husband of the injured woman with the consent of the judges (Exodus 21:22). The mention of "life for life," in Exodus 21:23, is followed by an enunciation of the general "law of retaliation," applied here (it would seem) to the special case in hand, but elsewhere (Leviticus 24:19, Leviticus 24:20) extended so as to be a fundamental law, applicable to all cases of personal injury.

Exodus 21:22

If men strive and hurt a woman. A chance hurt is clearly intended, not one done on purpose. So that her fruit depart from her. So that she be prematurely delivered of a dead child. And no mischief follow. "Mischief" here means "death," as in Genesis 42:4, Genesis 42:38; Gen 45:1-28 :29. He shall pay as the judges determine. He was not to be wholly at the mercy of the injured father. If he thought the sum demanded was excessive, there was to be an appeal to a tribunal.

Exodus 21:23

Then thou shalt give life for life. "Life for life" seems an excessive penalty, where the injury was in a great measure accidental, and when there was certainly no design to take life. Probably the law was not now enacted for the first time, but was an old tribal institution, like the law of the "avenger of blood." There are many things in the Mosaic institutions which Moses tolerated, like "bills of divorce"—on account of "the hardness of their hearts."

Exodus 21:23, Exodus 21:24

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, that this was the rule of justice which Rhadamanthus was supposed to act on in the judgment after death (book 5, see. 3), and that it had the approval of the Pythagoreans. Solon admitted it to a certain extent into the laws of Athens, and at Rome it found its way. into the Twelve Tables. There is a prima facie appearance of exact equality in it, which would captivate rude minds and cause the principle to be widely adopted in a rude state of society. But in practice objections would soon be felt to it. There is no exact measure of the hardness of a blow, or the severity of a wound; and "wound for wound, stripe for stripe," would open a door for very unequal inflictions "Eye for eye" would be flagrantly unjust in the case of a one-eyed man. Moreover, it is against public policy to augment unnecessarily the number of mutilated and maimed citizens, whose power to serve the state is lessened by their mutilation. Consequently in every society retaliation has at an early date given way to pecuniary compensation; and this was the case even among the Hebrews, as Kalisch has shown satisfactorily. If the literal sense was insisted on in our Lord' s day (Matthew 5:38), it was only by the Sadducees, who declined to give the law a spiritual interpretation.

Exodus 21:26, Exodus 21:27

Assaults on Slaves. The general law of retaliation was not made to extend to slaves. For ordinary blows the slave was not thought entitled to compensation, any more than the child. They were natural incidents of his condition. In extremer cases, where he was permanently injured in an organ or a member, he was, however, considered to have ground of complaint and to deserve a recompense. But for him to revenge himself upon his master by inflicting the same on him was not to be thought of. It would have put the slave into a false position, have led to his prolonged ill-treatment, and have been an undue degradation of the master. Therefore, compulsory emancipation was made the penalty of all such aggravated assaults, even the slightest (Exodus 21:27).

Exodus 21:26, Exodus 21:27

If a man smite the eye, etc. The "eye" seems to be selected as the most precious of our organs, the "tooth" as that the loss of which is of least consequence. The principle was that any permanent loss of any part of his frame entitled the slave to his liberty. A very considerable check must have been put on the brutality of masters by this enactment.

Exodus 21:28-32

Injuries done by cattle to slaves and freemen. For the purpose of inculcating as strongly as possible the principle of the sanctity of human life, the legislator notices the case where mortal injury is done to a person by a domesticated animal. The ox is taken as the example, being the animal most likely to inflict such an injury. In accordance with the declaration already made to Noah (Genesis 9:6), it is laid down that the destructive beast must be killed. Further, to mark the abhorrence in which murder ought to be held, the provision is made, that none of the creature' s flesh must be eaten. The question then arises, is the owner to suffer any punishment? This is answered in the way that natural equity points out—"If he had reason to know the savage temper of the animal, he is to he held responsible; if otherwise, he is to go free." In the former case, the Hebrew law assigned a higher degree of responsibility than accords with modern notions; but practically the result was not very different. The neglectful Hebrew owner was held to have been guilty of a capital offence, but was allowed to "redeem his life" by a fine. His modern counterpart would be held to have been guilty simply of laches or neglect of duty, and would be punished by fine or imprisonment

Exodus 21:28

The ox shall be surely stoned. He shall suffer the same death that would have been the portion of a human murderer. His flesh shall not be eaten. The animal was regarded as accursed, and therefore, as a matter of course, no Hebrew might eat of it. According to the Rabbinical commentators, it was not even lawful to sell the carcase to Gentiles. The owner shall be quiti.e; "shall be liable to no punishment."

Exodus 21:29

If the ox were wont to push with his horns. If he were notoriously, and to his owner' s knowledge, a dangerous animal, which required watching, and no watch was kept on him, then the owner became blame-able, and having by his neglect contributed to a homicide, was "guilty of death."

Exodus 21:30

If there be a fine laid upon him. There can scarcely have been any circumstances under which the penalty of death would have been enforced. No neglect could bring the crime into the category of murder. It is assumed, therefore, that practically the penalty would be a fine, proportioned no doubt to the value of the life taken.

Exodus 21:31

Whether he have gored a son or a daughter. If the sufferer were a child, the value of the life, and therefore the amount of the fine, would be less.

Exodus 21:32

If the ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant. Hitherto, the case of free persons only has been considered. But the accident might have happened to a slave. Where this was the case, the death of the ox was still made indispensable, and thus far the same sacredness was made to attach to the life of the slave and of the freeman. But, in lieu of a varying fine, the average price of a slave, thirty shekels of silver, was appointed to be paid in all cases, as a compensation to the master


Exodus 21:2-11; Exodus 20:1-26, Exodus 21:1-36; Exodus 26:1-37, Exodus 27:1-21; Exodus 32:1-35

The slave laws.

Slave laws belong to all communities, and not to some only, slavery being really a universal and not a partial institution. In the most civilised communities of modern Europe, there are two large classes of slaves—lunatics and criminals. The law openly condemns these last to penal servitude, which may be for life; and this "servitude," as Lord Chief Justice Coleridge has repeatedly pointed out, is simply a form of slavery. Ancient communities differed from modern—

1. In the extent to which slavery prevailed;

2. In the grounds upon which men were bound to it; and

3. In the treatment whereto those bound to it were subjected.

I. EXTENT OF ANCIENT SLAVERY. The slaves in ancient states were almost always more numerous than the freemen. At Athens they amounted to more than four-fifths of the community. Every free person was a slave owner, and some owned hundreds of their fellow-creatures. Perpetual insecurity was felt in consequence of the danger of revolt; and this fear reacted on the treatment of slaves, since it was thought necessary to break their spirit by severities. The evil effects of the institution pervaded all classes of the community, fostering pride and selfishness in the masters, dissimulation, servility, and meanness in the slaves.

II. GROUNDS ON WHICH ANCIENT SLAVERY RESTED. Ancient slavery did not necessarily imply any mental or moral fault in the slave. Some reached it through mental defect, as our lunatics; some through crime, as our convicts (see Exodus 22:3). But the great majority were either born in the condition, or became slaves through the fortune of war. Thus slavery was not commonly a deserved punishment, but an undeserved misfortune. Men found themselves, without any fault of their own, the goods and chattels of another, with no political and few social rights, bound to one who might be in all respects inferior to themselves, but who was their lord and master. A sense of injustice consequently rankled in the bosom of the slave, and made him in most cases dangerous. Slave revolts were of frequent occurrence.

III. TREATMENT OF SLAVES IS ANCIENT STATES. Some considerable differences may be observed between the treatment of slaves in different communities; but there are certain features which seem to have been universal.

1. Slaves were for the most part the property of individuals, and depended largely on the caprice of individuals, who might be harsh or mild, brutally tyrannical, or foolishly indulgent.

2. Slave families might at any time be broken up, the different members being sold to different masters.

3. Slaves might everywhere be beaten, and unless in case of serious injury, there was no inquiry.

4. Very severe labour might be required of them; they might be confined in workshops, which were little better than prisons, made to toil in mines, or chained to the oar as galley slaves.

5. They might be badly lodged, badly clothed, and badly fed, without the law taking any notice.

6. In most places there was no redress for any injury that a slave might suffer short of death; and in some the law took no cognisance even of his murder. The Mosaic legislation, finding slavery established under these conditions, set itself to introduce ameliorations, without condemning the institution altogether. Compare St. Paul' s conduct when he sent Onesimus back to Philemon (Philemon 1:12, Philemon 1:16). It divided slaves into two classes, Hebrew and foreign, changing the slavery of the former into a species of apprenticeship for six years, and guarding, not merely the life, but the members and organs of the latter. It acknowledged the family lie in the case of the slave, and laid down rules tending to check the separation of wives from husbands. It protected slave concubines from the caprice of a sated husband. It absolutely forbade the practice of kidnapping, whereby the slave-market was largely recruited in most countries, putting men-stealers on a par with murderers, and requiring that they should suffer death. We may gather from the Mosaic legislation on the subject—

I. THAT THERE ARE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH SLAVERY SHOULD BE TEMPORARILY MAINTAINED. Where a whole community is uncivilised, or half-civilised, where slavery is an old-established institution, engrained not only into the laws, but into the habits and manners of the people—where there are no prisons or means of building them, and where the alternative for slavery would he the massacre of prisoners taken in war, and of criminals, it may be well that even Christian legislators should for a time tolerate the institution. The Europeans who obtain political influence in Central Africa, and other similar regions are bound to bear this in mind; and while doing their utmost to put down man-stealing, should carefully consider in each case that comes before them, whether slavery can in the particular community be dispensed with or no. To tolerate it for a while is simply to act on the lines laid down by Moses and St. Paul.

II. THAT IF UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES SLAVERY HAS TO BE MAINTAINED, ALL POSSIBLE AMELIORATIONS OF IT SHOULD BE INTRODUCED WITHOUT DELAY. The slave is entitled to be protected in life and limb, to he decently lodged, fed, and clothed, to have the enjoyment of the Sunday rest, to be undisturbed in his family relations, to have the honor of his wife and daughters respected, to have an appeal from his master if he regards himself as in any way wronged. The efforts of missionaries and other humane men in uncivilised communities, should be directed primarily to the introduction of such reforms as these into the systems which they find established there.

III. THAT, WHERE DOMESTIC SERVICE HAS SUPERSEDED SLAVERY, THERE IS STILL ROOM FOR AMELIORATIONS IN THE CONDITIONS OF SERVICE. It is not the masters of slaves only who are hard and tyrannical. In all service there is room for the exhibition on the part of the master, of indulgence on the one hand, or strictness and severity on the other. We at the present day may either oppress our servants, or deal kindly with them. True, they may leave us if we oppress them; but a good servant will not readily leave a respectable place, and a good deal of tyranny is often borne before warning is given. It is the duty of masters, not only to "give to their servants that which is just and equal" (Colossians 4:1), but to show them sympathy and kindness, to treat them with consideration, and avoid hurting their feelings. More warmth and friendliness than are at all usual in the present treatment of servants, seem to be required by the fact that they are our brethren in the Lord, joint-heirs of salvation with us, and perhaps to be preferred above us in another world.

Exodus 21:12-14 and Exodus 21:20, Exodus 21:21

Laws on homicide.

Here again, in the time of Moses, a custom, regarded as of absolute obligation upon all, held possession of the ground; and nothing was practicable hut some modification of it. The next-of-kin was "avenger of blood," and was bound to pursue every homicide to the bitter end, whether it was intentional and premeditated (i.e; murder), or done hastily in a quarrel (i.e; manslaughter), or wholly unintentional (i.e; death by misadventure). Moses distinguished between deliberate murder, which the State was to punish capitally (Exodus 21:12-14) and any other sort of homicide, which was left to the avenger of blood. In mitigation of the blood-feud, he interposed the city of refuge, whereto the man who had slain another might flee and be safe until his cause was tried. And in the trial of such persons he introduced the distinction between manslaughter and death by misadventure, allowing the avenger of blood to put the offender to death in the former case, but not in the latter. (Numbers 35:16-25.) Mercy and truth thus went together in the legislation.

I. TRUTH The primary truth is the sacredness of man' s life. In rude times, where it is everywhere "a word and a blow," very severe laws were necessary, if human life was not to be continually sacrificed; and so manslaughter was placed on a par with murder, made a capital offence; the sudden angry blow which caused death, though death might not have been intended, was to receive as its due punishment death at the hands of the "avenger of blood."

II. MERCY. The "avenger of blood" was not allowed to be judge in his own cause. Cases of unpremeditated homicide were to go before the judges, who were to decide whether the death was intentional or by mischance. Mercy was to be shown to the man who had blood on his hands through accident. He was to be safe within the walls of the "city of refuge." Cities of refuge were multiplied, that one might be always within easy reach. Legislation should always seek to combine mercy with justice. Draconian enactments defeat their own purpose, since over-severe laws are sure not to be carried out. The moral sense revolts against them. Thus, when in our own country forgery was a capital offence, juries could not be got to convict of forgery. Laws should be in accordance with the conscience of the community, or they will cease to command respect. Good men will infringe them; and even courts will be slow to enforce obedience when they are infringed. Wise legislators will ever aim at embodying in the law the judgments of the more advanced conscience, and making it thus an instrument' for elevating the moral sentiments of the community.

Exodus 21:15-17

Injuries to parents.

The command to honour father and mother (Exodus 20:12), which is enough for the conscience, and which, if obeyed, would render all further laws upon the subject unnecessary, is here reinforced by two important enactments, intended to restrain those who do not scruple to disobey mere moral laws. The penalty of death is affixed to two crimes:

1. Smiting a parent;

2. Cursing a parent.

I. SMITING A PARENT. When it is considered that our parents represent God to us, that they are in a real sense authors of our being, that they protect and sustain us for years during which we could do nothing for ourselves, and that nature has implanted in our minds an instinctive reverence for them, the punishment of parent-strikers by death will not seem strange or excessive. A son must have become very hardened in guilt, very reckless, very heartless, very brutal, who can bring himself to lift a hand against a father, not to say a mother. There is as much moral guilt in a light blow dealt to one whom we are bound to love, honour, and protect from hurt, as in the utmost violence done to a stranger. However, according to the Talmud, it was not every light blow that was actually punished with death, but only a blow which caused a wound; and, of course, the punishment was only inflicted upon the complaint of the party aggrieved, who would be unlikely to take proceedings, unless the assault was of grave character. Probably the law had very seldom to be enforced. What it did was to invest parents with a sacred and awful character in their children' s eyes, and to induce them to submit to chastisement without resistance.

II. CURSING A PARENT. To curse a parent is almost as unnatural as to strike one. ALL cursing is unsuitable to such a being as man—so full of faults himself, so liable to misjudge the character and conduct of others; but to curse those to whom we owe our existence is simply horrible. The sin is akin to blasphemy, and is awarded the same punishment. At the present day, when the Mosaic law is no longer in force, and when on this point no echoes of the Mosaic legislation are to be traced in existing codes, it is specially incumbent on conscientious persons to observe the spirit of the Mosaic enactments, and (as it were) make a Christian use of them.

(1) "Smite not a parent," said the law, "or die the death." "Grieve not a parent" is the Christian paraphrase. "Grieve him not by disobedience, by idleness, by extravagance, by misconduct of any kind. Do not discredit his bringing up by misbehaviour. Do not stab his. heart by ingratitude. Do not wither up his nature by unkindness." A child may easily, without lifting a finger, "bring down the grey hairs" of his father "with sorrow to the grave." He may "smite" him in half-a-dozen ways without touching him. Let Christian men beware of such "smiting" of their parents, and dread the "eternal death" which may follow in the place of Moses' temporal death.

(2) "Curse not a parent," said the law again. We do not now, unless we part with religion altogether, curse any one. But we too often break the spirit of this law, notwithstanding. We speak slightingly of our parents; we join in disrespectful comments on their manners or behaviour; we use language to them, face to face, which is wanting in reverence and unsuitable. If we would act in the spirit of the law, "curse not a parent," we must avoid all disrespectful words, all disrespectful thoughts towards them or concerning them; we must give them the honour due to parents; we must seriously consider their counsels, and as a general rule follow their advice. As temporal death was awarded to those who "cursed" parents by the Jewish law (Exodus 21:17), so eternal death will be the portion of such as are determinately "disobedient to parents" under the Christian dispensation.

Exodus 21:16

The crime of man-stealing.

To steal the purse of a man is a trivial crime; to filch his good name is a serious one; but the worst robbery of all is to steal his person. Civilised, refined, polished, intellectual men, happy in the enjoyment of freedom, wealth, honour, domestic happiness, have gone to sleep in comfort, peace, and fancied security, to wake up in the grip of lawless man-stealers, who have bound them and carried them into a hopeless captivity, far from any relative or friend, to become familiar with every sort of ill-usage and indignity. Cilician and other pirates did this in the olden time; Norman sea-kings in the middle ages; Algerine corsairs so late as the last century. The blood boils when we think of the sufferings inflicted on thousands of our species by these fiends in human shape, without pity, without conscience, without remorse. Death was certainly a punishment not one whit too severe for this atrocious crime, by which the happiest of the human race might become suddenly one of the most wretched. In modern times, the conscience of mankind, enlightened by eighteen centuries of Christianity, has revolted against the enormity long committed with impunity on the negro races of Western Africa, and the slave-trade has been proclaimed a form of piracy. Yet the accursed traffic still continues in the centre and in the east of the "Dark Continent;" still quiet villagers are awakened in the dead of night by the news that the kidnapper is upon them; harmless, peaceable men, together with their wives and children, are carried off in hundreds by Arab and sometimes by so-called Christian traders, driven to the coast in gangs, shipped in crowded dhows, and sold to the best bidder in the marts of Arabia and Persia. It is a subject well worthy the consideration of Christian governments, whether a revival of the Mosaic enactment is not required, to stop a trade the profits of which are so enormous, that nothing short of death is likely to deter avaricious men from engaging in it.

Exodus 21:23-25

The rule of retaliation.

"To suffer that a man has done is strictest, straightest right," was a line which passed into a proverb in ancient Greece. The administration of justice is rendered very simple and easy by the adoption of the principle, which approves itself to simple minds, and might work well in a simple state of society. The law of "life for life" (Exodus 21:23) remains, and must always remain, the basis on which society justifies the execution of the murderer. If "eve for eye, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Exodus 21:24), were enforced, the criminal could not complain; but the State would suffer by the mutilation and consequent debilitation of its members. In the administration of "burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Exodus 21:25), there would be difficulties, it being almost impossible for the public executioner to inflict a burn, wound, or blow exactly similar to the burn, wound, or blow given by the criminal. These difficulties lead naturally to the substitution of "compensation" for "retaliation," which we find sanctioned in Exodus 21:19, Exodus 21:22, Exodus 21:30, and Exodus 21:32. If the damage caused by a wound, burn, blow, or even by the loss of a slave or wife, can be estimated, and the injurer be made to pay that amount to the injured party, then the original loss is in a certain sense retaliated, and the wrongdoer" suffers what he has done." In the administration of justice the rule of retaliation has thus still a place. Retaliation is made unlawful by Christianity (Matthew 5:38 Matthew 5:42), not in the administration of justice, but in the private dealings of man with man. We must not ourselves give blow for blow, "wound for wound, burning for burning;" no, nor gibe for gibe, slight for slight, insult for insult. Firstly, because we are not fair judges in our own case, and should be almost sure to overestimate our own injury; and, secondly, because we should provoke a continuance of strife. We should not even be eager to prosecute those who have injured us, if there be a chance that by patience and forbearance we may bring them to a better mind. We should be content to "suffer wrong," if by so doing we may win souls to Christ. The Christian law is, "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you; and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you;" and the ground of the law is, that by so doing we may "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21).


Exodus 21:1

The judgments.

The "rights" or "judgments" contained in this and the two following chapters show the manner in which the spirit and principles of the preceding moral legislation were intended to be applied to the regulation of the outward life of the Jewish state.

(1) As respects their origin, not a few of these laws have obviously their root in old customs, while others may have been derived from the decisions of Moses in the wilderness (Exodus 18:16). The code, therefore, in its present shape, cannot be supposed to have been verbally dictated by Jehovah to Moses; yet God may have instructed Moses as to the particular laws which were to be embraced in it, and may have revealed his will on special points which were as yet undetermined. The "judgments" were, in any case, given to Israel under express Divine sanction (Exodus 21:1).

(2) As respects their nature, the laws relate to the determination of legal rights, and to the ordering of the course of justice; in part, also, to the behaviour of the members of the community to each other in various out ward relations, and to fundamental religious ordinances. The spirit of the code is throughout that of the moral law; the principles embodied in it are those of the commandments. The point of view from which its statutes are to be regarded is, however, a different one from that which was occupied in considering the moral law as such. Moral law speaks with the voice of "the categorical imperative." It sets up the perfect ethical standard. What falls short of this is wrong, involves sin, and is condemned. It knows nothing of a morality which is merely relative. The practical legislator, on the other hand—much as he might wish to do so—cannot so mould external institutions as to make them all at once, and at every point, correspond with the requirements of ideal morality. He must, to a large extent, take things as they are—must start with existing conditions and usages, and try to make the best of them. Absolute morality, e.g; would refuse to recgonise such a state as that of war; yet, so long as wars exist—and to this hour they are of frequent occurrence—some code must be devised, representing such application of ethical maxims as is possible to military life, and to that extent stamping a moral character on the profession of the soldier. The cases of deviation from ideal morality in the laws of Moses are, however, remarkably few, relating chiefly to war, slavery, and marriage. In regard to these subjects, the legislation necessarily partakes of the backward character of the times. The statutes given are not the absolutely best, but the best which the people, at that stage of their moral and social development, could receive; that is, the relatively best—the best for them. This leads to a third point—

(3) The incompleteness of the law. The statutes here given, so far as they partook of the imperfection of the time, were not intended to be final. Within the law itself, as will be readily perceived, there was large room for development; but even the letter of the law was not so fixed, but that, in course of time, large parts of it might, and did, become obsolete; new institutions, adapted to new needs, and introduced, by proper authority, taking the place of the old ones. Mr. Robertson Smith is therefore not fair in his representation of what he calls the "traditional view," when he affirms—"The Divine laws given beyond Jordan were to remain unmodified through all the long centuries of development in Canaan, an absolute and immutable code". On such a theory, if anyone held it, his criticism would be quite just—"I say, with all reverence, that this is impossible. God, no doubt, could have given by Moses' mouth a law fit for the age of Solomon or Hezekiah, but such a law could not be fit for immediate application in the days of Moses and Joshua God can do all things, but he cannot contradict himself; and he who shaped the eventful development of Israel' s history must have framed this law to correspond with it." The reply to this is, that the most conservative defenders of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch do not deny the necessity for, and admissibility of, great developments of the principles of the law. It may suffice to quote Hengstenberg:" First, it is a gross error, though often repeated, that the Pentateuch embraces the whole civil law of the Israelites. In that portion of the Scriptures there is shown the greatest aversion from all untimely interference with the course of historical development. Only those points are determined which must be so, add in no other way, according to the fundamental maxims of the theocracy," etc..—J.O.

Exodus 21:2-12

Hebrew bond-service.

The laws relating to this subject are to be found, in addition to those in the present chapter, in Exodus 12:43-45; Exodus 22:3; Le Exo 25:39 -55; Exodus 26:13; Deuteronomy 12:12, Deuteronomy 12:18; Deuteronomy 15:15-19; Deuteronomy 16:11, Deuteronomy 16:14; Deuteronomy 21:10-15; Deuteronomy 23:15; Deuteronomy 24:7. An impartial examination of these laws will show how fallacious must be every argument attempted to be deduced from them in favour of modern slave-holding. The Mosaic law did not establish slavery—at most it accorded to it a very modified toleration. It accepted it as an existing usage, labouring to the utmost to reduce, and as far as that was practicable, to abolish, the cvils connected with it. It could not well do more, for slavery, under the then existing conditions of society, was in some form or other almost inevitable, and was often the only alternative to a worse evil. Yet the law in its entire spirit and fundamental doctrines was opposed to slavery. Its doctrines of the dignity of man as made in God' s image, and of the descent of all mankind from one pair, contained in principle the recognition of every human right. As a member of the theocracy, redeemed by Jehovah for himself, every Israelite was free by constitutional right (see the emphatic annunciation of this principle in Leviticus 25:42, Leviticus 25:55; Deuteronomy 26:13). If from temporary causes, the Hebrew lost the use of his freedom, the right to it was not thereby destroyed. It returned to him at the beginning of the seventh year. A law can hardly be regarded as favourable to slavery which makes man-stealing a crime punishable by death (Deuteronomy 24:18), and which enacts that a fugitive slave, taking refuge in Israel from his heathen master, is not to be delivered back to him, but is to be permitted to reside where he will in the land (Deuteronomy 23:15, Deuteronomy 23:16). Bondsmen (both Hebrew and non-Israelite) were incorporated as part of the nation, had legal rights, sat with the other members of the family at the board of the passover, took part in all religious festivals, and had secured to them the privilege of the Sabbath rest. The master was responsible for the treatment of his slave; and if he injured him, even to the extent of smiting out a tooth, the slave thereby regained his freedom (verses 26, 27). A female slave was to be treated with strictest honour (Deuteronomy 24:7-11), and with due consideration for her womanly feelings (Deuteronomy 21:10-15). Humanity and kindness are constantly inculcated. When the Hebrew bondsman went out in the seventh year he was to go forth loaded with presents (Deuteronomy 15:13-16). The legislation of Moses is thus seen to be studiously directed to the protection of the slave' s interests and rights. If there is a seeming exception, it is the one precept in Deuteronomy 24:20, on which see below. The law as a whole must be admitted to be framed in the spirit of the greatest tenderness and consideration, recognising the servant' s rights as a man, his privileges as a member of the theocracy, his feelings as a husband and father. As respects the Hebrew bondsman, indeed, his position did not greatly differ from that of one now who sells his labour to a particular person, or engages to work to him on definite terms for a stated period (Fairbairn). He could be reduced to servitude only by debt, or as the penalty for theft. In this latter case (Exodus 22:3), liberty was justly forfeited—is forfeited still in the case of those convicted of felony, and doomed to compulsory labours, or to transportation, or lengthened terms of imprisonment. The laws in the present section embrace three eases—

1. That of the Hebrew servant who is unmarried (Deuteronomy 24:2). He goes out at the beginning of the seventh year.

2. That of the Hebrew servant who is married. In this case, if the wife came in with her husband, she goes out with him in the year of release (Deuteronomy 24:3); but if his master has given him a wife—presumably a non-Israelite—he has not the privilege of taking her with him when he leaves. He may, however, elect to remain in his master' s service, in which case his servitude becomes perpetual (Deuteronomy 24:5, Deuteronomy 24:6). The retention of the wife may appear oppressive, but it was, as Keil points out, "an equitable consequence of the possession of property of slaves at all."

3. The third case is that of a Hebrew daughter, sold by her father to be a maidservant, i.e; as the sequel shows, as a housekeeper and concubine (Deuteronomy 24:7-12). The master may betroth her to himself, or may give her to his son, but in either case the law strictly guards her honour and her rights. If her full rights are not accorded her, she is entitled to her freedom (Deuteronomy 24:11). Lessons.

(1) Deuteronomy 24:2.—The natural right of mar. to his freedom.

(2) Deuteronomy 24:5.—Recognition of the slave' s personality. "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'" (Burrows).

(3) Deuteronomy 24:5, Deuteronomy 24:6.—Love, the true reconciler between servitude and freedom. Paul the "slave" of Christ, yet the truest freeman.

(4) Jehovah' s care for the unfriended. This comes beautifully out in the law for the protection of the woman.—J.O.

Exodus 21:12-18

Murder and related capital offences.

It is characteristic of the law of Moses that its first care, in the practical ordering of the Hebrew theocracy, is for the rights of the slave. These are dealt with in the opening paragraphs. The next laws relate to murder, to man-stealing, and to smiting and cursing of parents.

I. MURDER (Exodus 21:12-15). The same spirit of justice which attaches severe penalties to proved crimes, leads to the drawing of a sound line of distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions. Only for actions of the former class is the individual held responsible. Homicide which is purely accidental is not treated as a crime (Exodus 21:13). Not only is the man who kills his neighbour inadvertently not punished with death, but the law interposes to protect him from the fury of such as might unjustly seek his life, by appointing for him a place of refuge. (Cf. Numbers 35:1-34.; Deuteronomy 19:1-21.) The deliberate murderer, on the other hand, was to be taken even from God' s altar, and put to death (Exodus 21:14). Deliberate murder implies "malice aforethought"—"intent to kill"—but it was sufficient to expose a man to the penalty attaching to this crime, that he had been guilty of an act of violence, resulting in another' s death (Exodus 21:12; cf. Exodus 21:19, Exodus 21:23). Note on this law—

1. The recognition of Divine Providence in the so-called accidents of life (Exodus 21:13).

2. The sacredness attached to the human person. The religious ground of the enactment is given in Genesis 9:6—"Whoso sheddeth man' s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." "The true Shechinah is man" (Chrysostom).

3. The ethical character of the Hebrew religion. The altar is to afford no sanctuary to the murderer. The Bible knows nothing of a religion which is in divorce from morality. This law condemns by implication all connivance at, or sheltering of, immorality, under religious sanctions (Romish huckstering of pardons, etc.).

II. MAN-STEALING (Genesis 9:16). The statute is perfectly general. There is no evidence that it applied only to Hebrews, though these are specially mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:7. The stealing and selling of a Hebrew was a direct offence against Jehovah. (Cf. Leviticus 25:42.) "For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondsmen." The passage is a direct condemnation of the modern slave trade.

III. SMITING AND CURSING OF PARENTS (Deuteronomy 24:15-17). These offences also were to be punished with death. The fact that they are bracketed in the law with murder and manstealing, gives a peculiar impression of their enormity. As if the statute book had said, after laying down the law for murder—"And for the purposes of this law, the smiting or cursing of a father or a mother shall be regarded as equivalent to the taking of a life." And this view of the matter is, in a moral respect, hardly too strong. It would be difficult to say what crime a man is not capable of, who could deliberately smite or curse father or mother. As special reasons for the severity of the law, observe—

1. Hebrew society rested largely on a patriarchal basis, and the due maintenance of parental authority was a necessity of its existence. Just as it is found still that, whatever the form of social order, the spread of a spirit of insubordination to parents is the invariable prelude to a universal loosening of ties and obligations.

2. Parents are regarded as standing to their children in the relation of visible representatives of Jehovah (see fifth commandment). This, in the Hebrew theocracy, gave to the crime of cursing or smiting a parent the character of a treasonable act. It was an offence against the majesty of Jehovah, and as such, required to be promptly avenged. On the same ground it was forbidden to revile magistrates, or curse the ruler of the people (Exodus 22:28). The law is a standing testimony to the heinousness attaching in the sight of God to the sin of filial disobedience.—J.O.

Exodus 21:18-36

Bodily injuries.

The laws in this section may be thus classified:—


1. Strivers (Exodus 21:18, Exodus 21:19). The man who injured another in strife was required to pay for the loss of his time, and to cause him to be thoroughly healed. Had the man died, the case would have come under the law of Exodus 21:12. As it was, blame attached to both parties, and the law waived the right to further satisfaction. Note—

(1) One way of atoning for wrong is to seek in every way in our power to undo the mischief we have caused. This, alas! cannot always be accomplished. Not always is "thorough healing"—whether bodily, mental, or moral—possible. So far as it is possible we are bound to attempt it.

(2) Justice obtains her highest satisfaction when the wrongdoer can be made to contribute to the undoing of his own wrong. This principle might be more acted on than it is.

2. Servants (Exodus 21:20, Exodus 21:21; Exodus 26:1-37, Exodus 27:1-21). A master was not to be allowed to injure with impunity even a slave purchased with his "money." If the slave was wantonly murdered, the case would come under the law of murder. If he died under chastisement, the master was punished at discretion of the judges. If the slave was in any way maimed, he obtained his freedom. It has been remarked that this is the earliest certain trace of legislation for the protection of the slave. See below.

3. A woman with child (Exodus 21:22-26). The injury here is indirect. The woman is hurt in interfering in the strife between two men. Yet the law holds the man who has injured her responsible for his fault, and decrees that he shall pay heavy damages. If evil effects follow, he is to be punished under the jus talionis.

II. INJURIES BY BEASTS. The distinction formerly observed as made by the law between voluntary and involuntary actions (Exodus 21:13, Exodus 21:14) meets here with fresh illustrations.

1. If an ox gore a man or a woman, and the gored person dies, the ox is to be stoned—a testimony to the sacredness of human life (cf. Genesis 9:5), but the owner shall be quit (Exodus 21:28).

2. If, however, the owner had been previously warned of the dangerous habits of the animal, and had not kept it in, there devolved on him the entire responsibility of the fatal occurrence.

(1) If the person gored was a free Israelite (male or female), the life of the owner of the ox was forfeited; but an opportunity was given him of redeeming it by payment of a ransom (Exodus 21:29-32).

(2) If the person gored was a slave, the owner of the ox had to compensate the owner of the slave for the loss of his servant. The price fixed was thirty shekels of silver (Exodus 21:32). In either case the ox was to be stoned.

III. INJURIES TO BEASTS. The same principles of equity apply here.

1. If an ox or an ass fall into a pit which has been carelessly left uncovered, the owner of the pit is required to pay in full (Exodus 21:33, Exodus 21:34).

2. If one man' s ox kill another' s, the loss is to fall equally on both owners (Exodus 21:35).

3. If the owner of the ox was aware of its propensity to gore, and had not kept it in, he must, as before, bear the whole loss (Exodus 21:36). The equity of this series of precepts is not more conspicuous than their humanity. The important lesson taught by these enactments is, that we cannot evade responsibility for our actions. Our actions abide with us. They cleave to us. We cannot shake ourselves rid of them. We are responsible, not only for the actions themselves, but for the consequences which flow from them—for the influences they set in motion. And we are responsible, not only for direct, but for indirect consequences (Exodus 21:22). Involuntary acts are not imputed to us, but all voluntary ones are. We are responsible, as well for what we do not do (having the power to do it), as for what we actually perform. We are responsible for the effects of negligence and carelessness. These principles have wide application. They cover the whole range of conduct. They apply to the moral sphere as well as to the physical. They apply, not simply to definite acts, but to the entire influence exerted by our lives. What a responsibility is this! Only grace will enable us to bear its burden.—J.O.

Exodus 21:20

The servant dying under chastisement.

This law has frequently been seized on as a blot on the Mosaic legislation—as inculcating the odious doctrine which lies at the root of modern slave-systems, viz. that the slave is a mere "chattel," and as such, has no personal rights—is entitled to no protection of life or limb. The interpretation put on this particular clause is the more unfair, that it must be admitted to be opposed to the spirit and enactments of the law as a whole, taking, as this does, so exceptionally humane a view of the slave' s position (see above); and is, moreover, directly in the teeth of such clauses as those in the immediate context—"If a man smite the eye of a servant," etc. (Exodus 21:26, Exodus 21:27). The enactment will appear in its right light if we view it with regard to the following considerations:—

1. The law deals with slavery, not from the point of view of abstract right—from which point of view it could only be condemned—but as a recognised part of the then existing constitution of society. It takes its existence for granted. It deals with it as statesmen have constantly to deal with institutions and customs which they do not wholly approve of, but which they cannot summarily abolish without entailing on society worse evils than those from which escape is sought. But if the right to hold property in slaves—to however limited an extent—be granted, the corollaries of this possession must be granted also. A slave cannot be treated in the eye of the law quite as a free man. His position is relatively a degraded one. The owner of slaves has pecuniary and proprietary rights in his bondservants, which the law must take account of. The slave is the owner' s "money."

2. The aim of the law is not to place the slave at the master' s mercy, but to restrict the master' s power over him. Ancient law recognised no restriction. The Mosaic law does. It goes at least thus far, that if the slave dies under the rod, the master shall be punished. The drift and bent of the law is for the slave' s benefit.

3. It is important to remember that the case is treated here, not in its moral aspects, but solely as a question in criminal jurisprudence. The moral law has its own say in the matter, and. pronounces its own judgment, irrespectively of whether the individual is proceeded against under criminal law or not. The master who, by the undue exercise of the large right of chastisement which the usage of the time allowed him, occasioned his slave' s death, was responsible to God for the excess of passion which led to this catastrophe. The law of Moses gave no sanction to the master to endanger his servant' s life with the rod. But moral offences do not always admit of being dealt with as crimes. To convict of murder, e.g; there is proof required of malice prepense, and this, in the case before us, was precisely what was not forthcoming. The legal tribunals had. authority to punish the master, if the slave died under his hand; if immediate death did not take place, the master was to have the benefit of the doubt, and in view of the heavy money loss sustained in the death of the slave (on the average, "thirty shekels of silver," Exodus 21:32), was not to be further proceeded against.

4. The law in this verse—taken in conjunction with others—was really a powerful deterrent from the misuse of authority on the part of the master.

(1) It relates only to chastisement with the rod. If the master assaulted his slave with any lethal weapon, the case came under other laws, and might involve his being tried for murder.

(2) The case supposed is that of a slave dying under bona fide chastisement. If murderous intent could be proved against the master—whether the slave lingered a day or two or not—there is no reason to doubt but that the law of Exodus 21:14 would have been applied, and the master would have been put to death.

(3) Involving, as the death of the slave did, criminal proceedings, and, on conviction, severe punishment, the mere danger of a fatal result ensuing would be a powerful deterrent from exceptional violence. The punishment appears to have been left to the discretion of the judges, and probably ranged from the death penalty (if deliberate murder could be proved), to a simple money fine. The mere risk of incurring such a penalty would inspire salutary caution.

(4) The master also knew that if, by his temporary violence, the slave should suffer serious bodily injury, he would be entitled, if he did not die, to claim his freedom (Exodus 21:26, Exodus 21:27). The fear of losing a valuable property, whether by death, or, if the slave did not die, in the way last mentioned, would infallibly co-operate with other motives in the direction of restraint. The case, therefore, stood thus, that failing proof of direct intent to murder, the probabilities were in favour of the theory that the death of the slave to whom severe chastisement had been administered, was a result not designed; and the money loss involved in the death of the slave being regarded as equivalent to a heavy fine, the law, in ordinary cases, did not see it necessary to go further. But if the case was so serious that the slave had actually died under his master' s hand, or within a short space of time, then, whether the death was designed or not, the law took the matter up, and inflicted punishment according to discretion. Criminal law could scarcely have done more. The amelioration of the condition of the slave was to be looked for mainly from moral influences, which, under the Mosaic system, were assuredly not wanting.—J.O.

Exodus 21:23-26

An eye for an eye,

etc. (cf. Matthew 5:38-43). The principle here enunciated is that of the jus talionis. Stripped of its concrete form, it is simply the assertion of the dictate of justice, that when a wrong has been done to anyone, and through him to society, an adequate compensation ought to be rendered. So rendered, it is the principle underlying every system of criminal jurisprudence. We need not suppose that (in Jewish society) it was ever literally acted upon. Commutations of various kinds would be admitted (cf. Exodus 21:30). As a rule for courts of justice, therefore, this principle must remain. Bat error arises when this rule, intended for the regulation of public justice, is transferred into private life, and is applied there to sanction the spirit of revenge. This is to pervert it from its proper purpose. So far from sanctioning private retaliation, the object of this law is to set limits to the passion for revenge, by taking the right to avenge out of the hands of private individuals altogether, and committing it to public officers. In contrast with the retaliatory disposition, our Lord inculcates on his disciples a forbearing and forgiving spirit; a spirit which seeks to overcome by love; a spirit, even, which is willing to forego legal rights, whenever by doing so, it can promote the good of a fellow man.—J.O.


Exodus 21:1-11

Regulations for the treatment of slaves.

I. THE CONDITIONAL ELEMENT RUNNING THROUGH THESE REGULATIONS. What a difference there is here from the strong, uncompromising imperatives of Exodus 20:1-26! There we feel that we have to do with man, not only as he is at the time, a Hebrew in the wilderness, but with every man, in every age, and in all sorts of social circumstances. The ten commandments simply assume humanity and society. But the regulations now to be considered abound in the word "if." If certain things are done, then certain other things must be done. But then these things need not to be done at all. A man need not buy a servant; a man need not take a woman to be his companion in servitude, knowing that thereby he runs the risk of being separated from her and his offspring afterwards. These regulations have to be made for free agents, acting often thoughtlessly, or in a matter-of-fact compliance with the customs of their country. There was no real need for any of these "ifs" to pass into action. Consider how ludicrous such regulations would appear if propounded as possibilities in modern English society. The actions which they assume would be scouted as scarcely conceivable. Our notions of property, of service, and of the position of woman are quite different. And yet how many things there are even now, commonly accepted indeed as right and proper, which are no more defensible on the highest grounds than these practices of Israel in the wilderness. There are practices among Christians now, considered proper enough according to the present notions of society, and yet the day is assuredly coming when they too will seem as strange and abhorrent as the practice of a man selling his daughter to be a maid-servant. Things done without scruple, even by enlightened Christians, are far enough from what Christ would have them be. And all that can be reached is to regulate and mitigate what there is not sufficient enlightenment of conscience to abolish.

II. THE EVIDENT DESIRE TO BE JUST TO ALL THE INDIVIDUALS CONCERNED IN THESE REGULATIONS. The purchased individual must have his benefit by liberation in the seventh year; and yet the master is to be treated justly too by the recognition of the woman whom, as it were, he had lent to be a companion to the slave. So also if the slave has a notion of staying, he is compelled to treat it as a serious matter, and not play fast or loose either with master or companion. She who had been, as it were, a concubine, becomes by his desire to stay, lifted to the full privileges of a wife; and to leave then would be a wrong to her as well as the master. The principle holds good all through human society—whatsoever we want in the way of temporal advantages we must take with certain limitations. Whatever benefit there might be in buying a slave must be taken along with the limitation of the seventh year. If the slave chose to have a companion, he must make up his mind how to treat her at the six years' end; either to have liberty and lose her or keep her with life-long bondage. We should choose our position in this world, looking steadily for the guidance of infinite wisdom in our choice. If we be sure of that, then all advantages will be golden to us, and we shall not for a moment think of grumbling because of the disadvantages that must inevitably accompany them.

III. Still though there is a desire here to be just to all, IT IS EVIDENTLY THE WEAK AND UNFORTUNATE WHO ARE CHIEFLY THOUGHT OF. It is for the sake of the slave and the despised woman that these regulations are here specified. The strong in such circumstances are as a rule well able—only too well able—to look after themselves. It is the glorious mark, again and again appearing in God' s dealings, that he loves to bring the enslaved nearer to liberty, the degraded nearer to the normal elevation of humanity.—Y.

Exodus 21:12-17

Capital offences.

As we look through the penalties specified for wrong-doing in chaps, 21; 22; we notice that they are divisible into two great classes. Some offences are punished by death, and others by some sort of compensation for the injury done. The graduated terms of imprisonment with which we are familiar, were not of course possible to the Israelites, and if possible, perhaps would not have seemed desirable. We notice that in this chapter five capital offences are specified; there were doubtless many besides; but these are enough to show the principles on which Jehovah acted in taking away the life of the offender.

I. THE MURDERER PROPER. In Exodus 20:1-26. we find the general command not to kill; and here is the instruction for the Israelites what to do with the man who deliberately and maliciously took away the life of a fellow-man. This, it is plain, was done under special authority and for special reasons. It was Jehovah' s regulation for his people in their then circumstances; but we must not quote it as applicable to the punishment of the murderer generally. If on the authority of this passage we are bound to punish the murderer by death, obviously we are bound to punish him who reviles his parents, in the same way. There were reasons then for putting the murderer to death which do not now apply. The principle underlying the enactment seems to be that murder is cue of the crimes which must be followed by the severest penalty man is disposed to inflict. So long as the infliction of a death penalty at all harmonises with the general consciousness of men, it is plain that any lesser penalty for murder is inadequate. But if once we get to the position—and it is to be hoped we are ever getting nearer to it—that only the sternest necessity justifies taking human life away, we shall then substitute perpetual imprisonment as the extreme penalty. We shall all feel then that murder is assuredly a crime which should condemn the perpetrator to life-long seclusion from the society of his fellow-men.

II. THE SMITER OF FATHER OR MOTHER. Here we see how different are the principles underlying Divine law from those underlying human law. In a modern English court of justice the smiting of a parent might perhaps receive the highest penalty incurred for the commission of an assault; but it would never be exalted into a special offence. But God in his government of Israel makes an offence against a parent to be one of the first magnitude. The severe penalty specified here corresponds with the position occupied in the Decalogue by the commandment to honour parents. God we see is ever saying and doing things to set great honour on the family, and indicate great expectations from it. It has been a boldly proclaimed principle in all ages, never more proclaimed than now, and often with great arrogance and intolerance, that individuals and families exist for the State. But here in the state that is under God' s special governance provision is made that, in its punishments, that state shall honour parental authority and dignity. And of course when once smiting a parent was made into such a serious offence, it was but carrying the principle out to a logical and necessary conclusion to make the curse as great an offence. Generally, indeed, the rebellious reviling word of the lips would do more injury, inflict more pain, and be more promotive of insubordination than the blow of the hand. In the light of this enactment we see how much God expects from the parental relation. One, who in the Divine order of things, stood so high that smiting or cursing him was made a capital offence, must have been a man to whom Jehovah looked for great services, great contributions to the Divine glory, and to the prosperity of Israel.

III. THE MAN-STEALER. Within the compass of the same chapter we find provision made for recognised and openly practised customs of servitude, and also for a kind of slavery which by the penalty attached to the procuring of it is indicated as one of the worst of crimes. There was slavery and slavery. There was the buying of men in such sort as is indicated in Exodus 20:2; there was also such stealing and selling as we find an actual instance of in Genesis 37:28. Such crimes were evidently only too possible, and once committed, it might be very hard to discover the criminal or restore the captive to liberty. There was perhaps many a Joseph—and when we consider his sufferings, and the sufferings of his father, we shall not wonder at the penalty attached to the crime. Then suppose an Israelite were to sell a brother Israelite to some band of Midian merchantmen, who would take him into a far country, what would the upshot be? Not only would he be lost to loving kindred, and shut out from the sight, of his dear native land, but excluded from religious privileges. God had brought out Israel from, the house of bondage, that in freedom, necessary freedom, they might find him their God, and become, in many privileges, his people. What a monstrous thing then for an Israelite, through cupidity or revenge, to sell away his brother from peculiar, from unique possibilities! He would not find in any other land the things which God intended him to have at home.

IV. THE KNOWING OWNER OF A DANGEROUS BEAST. (Genesis 37:29.) Here is the sound principle—a principle which goes deep in its application—that a man is responsible for all foreseen consequences of an act which it is in his power to prevent. Examine the illustrative instances mentioned. A man is the owner of a pushing ox, well known to be a brute of vicious and uncertain temper. The owner indeed has been made specially acquainted with the fact. He can then take one of the two courses, either put sufficient watch over the beast, as not knowing when it may be dangerous to human life and limb, or else in sheer recklessness determine to take the chance of all keeping right. How plain it is that a man of such a heedless spirit is not fit to have free course among his fellow-men! A human life, be it that of the veriest stranger, a mere waif and stray, or say that of an old man on the very verge of the grave, is of much more account than the life of an ox, though it be in the very prime of its strength and usefulness. The property even of a millionaire must perish sooner than the life of the poorest be imperilled. The owner of the ox is looked to here, just because the brute itself cannot be looked to. The master would not be held responsible for the action of a human servant as for that of a brute beast. And is it not plain that the announcement of this penalty here has a very stringent application to all self indulgence? When a man is told that his course of action, however profitable, however pleasant to himself, has been actually injurious to some and is likely to be injurious to others, what is he to do? If he would do as Christ wishes him—the Christ who came to fulfil the law and the prophets—he would straightway refrain from that course of action. Commercial profits and temporal pleasures will be dearly purchased by us, if one day we have to stand before the throne of him who judges righteous judgment, to answer for selfish, reckless trifling with the best interests of our neighbours The owner of the ox may say, "Let people keep out of my animal' s way and guard themselves." God, we see, did not admit that principle with regard to the pushing ox; nor will he with regard to our pushing business habits or our pushing pleasures—our reckless resolution to get all we can for ourselves, at whatever risk of loss to those who may come in our way.

V. From the instances given, we may easily infer WHAT OTHER OFFENCES OF THE SAME KIND WOULD BE PUNISHED IN THE SAME WAY. Wherever there was anything peculiarly presumptuous or daring, there the occasion for death seems to have been found. That which most deeply affects the constitution of society is to be treated with the greatest severity. One man might kill another; but because it was misadventure, he would escape with temporary inconvenience. Another man, for no more than the utterance of the tongue, has to die the death. Thus, even in a scheme of government which had so much to do with outward acts as had God' s government of Israel, we have regulations which got their severity almost entirely from the evidenced state of heart on the part of the transgressor. In purely human laws the magnitude of the actual offence is always taken into account; there must be some tangible injury to person or property. But it is the very glory of these illustrative penalties here, that cursing father or mother is punished with as much severity as the actual taking away of life. How true it is from these five instances that God' s thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor his ways as our ways!—Y.

Exodus 21:22-25

The requirement of strict equivalents in making compensation for injuries.

The particular illustration here is confessedly obscure; but there can hardly be a mistake as to the principle illustrated, viz; that when injury is inflicted on the person, the very best should be done that can be done to make an adequate compensation. When property is taken it can often be restored or things put practically as they were before; but when the person is seriously injured, there is then no possibility of exact restoration. Hence the injurer might be inclined to say that because he could not do everything by way of compensation he was at liberty to do nothing. But the requirement comes in to stop him from such easy-going reflections. Eve for eye is wanted. You must do your best to restore what you have destroyed. Obviously the purpose of the regulation is, not to justify or aid in anything like revenge, but to make men be contented with the best they can get in substitution for the injury that has been done. The regulation of course was never meant to be interpreted literally, any more than our Lord' s counsel that he who had been smitten on the right cheek, should turn the other to the smiter. What good would it do literally to render an eye for an eye? That would be great loss to the person injuring and not the slightest gain to the person injured. Persistent requirement of compensation is to be distinguished from a passionate seeking for revenge. And be it noted that this requirement of compensation is not to be omitted under any erroneous notions of what weakness and self-denial may compel from us as Christians. We must keep to the principle underlying the regulation here, as well as to that other glorious and beautiful principle which our Lord ]aid down in quoting this regulation (Matthew 5:39). He spoke to stop revenge. But surely he would have been the first to say, on needful occasion, that reckless men must not be suffered to inflict injury on the supposition that Christians would not resent it. Certainly we are not to seek compensation for injuries or punishment of those who injure simply to gratify private feelings, or get a private advantage. But if conscience is clear as to its being for the public good, we must be very urgent and pertinacious in demanding compensation. We may be sure our Master would ever have us contend with all meekness and gentleness, but also with all bravery and stedfastness for all that is right. But the thing of most importance to be learnt from this regulation is, that the most precious things attainable by us are beyond human malice or carelessness to spoil in the slightest degree. The treasures God loves to make the peculiar possession of his children are such as eye has not seen. The eye may be lost, and yet the enjoyment of these treasures remain—nay more, the very loss of the natural may increase the susceptibility of the spiritual in us. The very crippling of the body may help us to make wonderful advances towards the perfect man in Christ Jesus.—Y.


Exodus 21:5, Exodus 21:6

Mine ears hast thou opened.

Slavery not usually considered a desirable condition. The Israelites as a people were just casting the slough of it, and God helps them in their social ordinances by emphasising the value of freedom. None the less, even here, a higher state than mere freedom is suggested; voluntary servitude may be preferred to liberty, and is very near akin to sonship. Consider:—

I. THE PREFERENCE. Naturally, to a slave freedom is an object. Slavery was a misfortune or a punishment resulting from debt or misconduct (cf. Le Exodus 25:39; Exodus 22:3). Thus viewed God only permitted it to continue at most for six years. Every Hebrew had been redeemed by him; and therefore permanent slavery to man would have been an infringement of his rights of ownership. Temporary serfdom under the conditions which he imposed secured his rights and the privileges of those whom he had redeemed [cf. the right of a tenant to sublet a house by arrangement with the actual owner]. The relation between a serf and his employer was thus carefully defined and limited; in so far as they were linked together by a purely external bond, that bond ceased to exist at the close of six years' servitude. During six years, however, a firmer bond might have been formed and strengthened. Possession of the slave' s body does not carry with it the possession of his affections; they cannot be bought and sold, but they may be won. If the owner during six years could find bands to bind the heart (Hosea 11:4); in such case, the serf desiring it, a permanent relation might be established. It is not the abnegation of freedom, it is the exercise of freedom to choose for oneself; if a man was so bound to his employer that he preferred continuing in his service, God was willing to endorse such a preference with his consent. Nowadays, the relation of servant and employer is still more temporary than of old. At the same time, now as ever, love can prevail to win the affections and so weave by means of them a permanent and enduring bond. Love transmutes the conditions of servitude. It changes them into something which is preferable to freedom. The cords of a man bind more firmly than any other cords; but they do not confine or fetter.

II. THE SIGN OF THE PREFERENCE. The servant who wished to remain a servant was to be brought before the judges (Elohim), the representatives of God. As God' s ministers they were empowered to permit the satisfaction of his desire. The ear pierced against the door post was the outward sign of this sacrament of servitude. Henceforth the man by his own desire was permanently united to the family of his employer. The pierced ear testified to the pierced heart. The sign of slavery was the badge of love.

III. SERVANTS OF GOD. The relation of the slave to his employer is analogous to the relation between the natural man and God. All men are his servants—debtors who cannot pay their debts. The relation however may be of a temporary character; God seeks to make it permanent by winning our hearts and our affections. Work for him in this world we must, willingly or unwillingly. He would have us willing servants; compulsory service has no moral value. "The ears opened" (Psalms 40:6), in token of the heart won, are of more value than sacrifice and offering. Are we such willing servants? (Isaiah 1:5). He is willing to "open our ears," to take us as his own for ever, but we must also ourselves be willing:—"He hath opened mine ears and I was not rebellious." Slavery is a state of imperfection; but so also is the miscalled liberty of independence; the only perfect state for man is that "service which is perfect freedom."—G.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Exodus 21". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/exodus-21.html. 1897.
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