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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 21

Verse 1

1. The judgments which thou shalt set before them As distinguished from the words spoken directly from heaven . Judgments are here to be understood as decisions of law, or judicial statutes and regulations to govern in the administration of justice . These were the rules of judgment by which the rights of individuals were to be maintained and civil order secured .

Verses 1-36

THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT, Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33.

Here follows a collection of sundry laws which were compiled by Moses, and doubtless represent the oldest written legislation of the Pentateuch. This compilation probably constituted “the book of the covenant” which is mentioned in Exodus 24:7. Kalisch classifies the laws under three heads: (1 . ) Those touching the rights of persons, Exodus 21:1-32; (2 . ) Those touching the rights of property, Exodus 21:33 to Exodus 23:14; and (3 . ) General moral laws . Exodus 22:15 to Exodus 23:19. These are followed by sundry exhortations. Exodus 23:20-33. The various precepts, however, are scarcely susceptible of such a classification, or of any systematic arrangement . They take a wide range, and deal with some twenty-eight distinct subjects . Beginning with a prohibition of idolatrous images, (23,) we have laws touching the construction of altars, (24-26,) the relations of servants and masters, (Exodus 21:1-11,) personal assaults and injuries, (12-27,) goring oxen, (28-32,) losses of cattle, (33-36,) cattle-stealing, (Exodus 22:1-4,) cattle feeding in others’ fields, (5,) kindling destructive fires, (6,) stolen or damaged trusts, (7-15,) seduction, (16-17,) witchcraft, (18,) lying with beasts, (19,) idolatrous sacrifices, (20,) treatment of foreigners, (21,) treatment of widows and the fatherless, (22-24,) loaning money, (25,) pledges, (26-27,) reviling God and rulers, (28,) devotion of firstlings, (29, 30,) abstinence from torn flesh, (31,) perversions of honour and justice, (Exodus 23:1-3,) favour toward enemies, (4-5,) judgment of the poor, (6,) maintaining justice, (7, 8,) oppression of strangers, (9,) sabbath laws, (10-12,) other gods, (13,) three annual feasts, (14-17,) sacrifice and offerings, (18, 19 . ) This body of legislation is followed in Exodus 23:20-33, by a number of prophetic promises, designed to encourage and strengthen the hearts of the people . Many of the laws and precepts here collected together were doubtless older than the time of Moses, but as Israel was now becoming a body politic, and about to occupy a prominent place among the nations, such a body of laws as was contained in this book of the covenant required formal codification .

Verse 2

2. Buy a Hebrew servant In the time of Moses slavery existed among all the nations, and commonly in most oppressive forms . The Israelites themselves had just escaped a bondage of serfdom in Egypt . The Hebrew patriarchs had owned many slaves who inter-married and begat children, and these were regarded as the property of the patriarchal chieftain . Comp . Genesis 14:14. The Mosaic legislation was adapted to mitigate the evils of the system, and provided for universal emancipation . Leviticus 25:10. This verse shows that a Hebrew might be bought and sold, but under definite restrictions. It appears, (1.) That a Hebrew might sell himself, voluntarily, for a term of years not exceeding six, (except in the case specified in Exodus 21:6.) (2.) He might, on account of poverty, feel obliged to sell himself (Leviticus 25:39) even to a foreigner .

Leviticus 25:47. (3 . ) One might sell his daughter to be a maidservant, (Exodus 21:7,) or one might be sold for theft, (Exodus 22:3. ) (4 . ) Captives taken in war might become the possession of the conquerors, (Deuteronomy 20:14; Deuteronomy 21:10-14; Numbers 31:1; Numbers 31:8,) and, (5 . ) Hebrews might purchase bond-servants of the heathen, and treat them with greater rigour than was allowable with any of their own brethren .

Leviticus 25:44-46. But stealing and selling men were punishable with death, (Exodus 21:16,) and the rendition of fugitive slaves was strictly forbidden. Deuteronomy 23:15-16. The Mosaic law does not authorize the involuntary sale of any one except for crime .

In the seventh he shall go out free Furnished also with liberal gifts . Compare Deuteronomy 15:13-14. This humane provision made it impossible for any Hebrew to become involved in unwilling bondage. Such a provision adopted by any slaveholding people would speedily abolish all holding of human beings in unjust bondage.

Verse 4

4. If his master have given him a wife This condition involved certain rights of family and household possession . It contemplates the patriarchal family, in which servants were born, and may also have had in view the fact that the wife in the case supposed might often be a bondmaid acquired from among the heathen, whose legal term of service would not expire before the jubilee. “This may appear oppressive, but it was an equitable consequence of the possession of property in slaves at all.” Keil.

Verse 6

6. Unto the judges Hebrews, unto the gods: here meaning the local magistrates . Comp . Psalms 82:6; John 10:34.

His master shall bore his ear On this Michaelis has the following observations: “In order to guard against all abuse, it was necessary that the transaction should be gone about judicially, and that the magistrate should know it . It was the intention of Moses that every Hebrew who wished to continue a servant for life should, with the magistrate’s previous knowledge, bear a given token thereof in his own body . He thus guarded against the risk of a master having it in his power either to pretend that his servant had promised to serve him during his life, when he had not, or, by ill usage, during the period that he had him in his service, to extort any such promise from him. The statute of Moses made the boring of the ears in some degree ignominious to a freeman; because it became the sign whereby a perpetual slave was to be known. And if the Israelites had, for this reason, abandoned the practice, Moses would not have been displeased. Indeed, this was probably the very object which he had in view to get imperceptibly effected by this law: for in the wearing of earrings superstition was deeply concerned.” Commentaries on the Laws of Moses, vol. ii, p. 178. London, 1814.

Verse 7

7. Sell his daughter This might occur because of extreme poverty and want . Nehemiah 5:5. The verses following show that this kind of a sale was contemplated as essentially a betrothal; but they also serve to exhibit the inferior position in which women were held as compared with men . They might be sold by their parents for maidservants, and so take the place of concubines in the family of the purchaser . But this statute was attended by the following provisions: (1 . ) A maidservant, thus acquired, was not to obtain her freedom in the seventh year, like the men-servants of Exodus 21:2. (2 . ) She could not be sold into a strange nation . (3 . ) She might be redeemed, either by her father, were he able, or by another Hebrew who desired her for a concubine . (4 . ) Her master might betroth her to his son, and in that case she was to be treated by him as a daughter. (5.) Her rights as a concubine were not to be changed by his taking another woman into the same relation. (6.) If her rights were withheld she was entitled to freedom. On the whole these laws, though far below the standard of Christian ethics, were mild and tolerant for the time.

Verse 8

8. Please not her master Hebrews, if she be evil in the eyes of her master . If he discover some defect in her, or find her less attractive and useful to him than he had expected .

Dealt deceitfully with her The purchase implied the pledge of marriage or concubinage, with its legal rights . These involved obligations which, if not met, exposed to the charge of deceitful dealing .

Verse 10

10. Her duty of marriage עונה , cohabitation and associated conjugal rights .

Verse 11

11. These three Most simply, the three things mentioned in the previous verse; namely, food, raiment, and cohabitation . Others understand the three things to be, (1) letting her be redeemed, (2) betrothing her to his son, (3) allowing her the rights of marriage named in Exodus 21:10.

Verse 12

12. Smiteth a man, so that he die This is a general law for intentional murder, and demands the punishment declared in Genesis 9:6. See also notes on Exodus 20:13.

Verse 13

13. Lie not in wait That is, intending to take life, and planning, like a hunter, to insure the death of his victim .

But God deliver him into his hand As when one is slain by the accidental blow not intended for him, as in the case supposed in Deuteronomy 19:5. Such unintentional homicide could not justly be treated as the crime of murder .

A place whither he shall flee Such “cities of refuge” were afterward appointed . See Numbers 35:9-15, and parallels .

Verse 14

14. Take him from mine altar The cases of Adonijah and Joab, as read in 1 Kings 1:50; 1 Kings 2:28, are illustrations of the prevalent notion that the altar was a place of security from violence . This law aims to take away from the presumptuous murderer all hope of protection from the holy place .

Verses 16-17

16, 17. Stealeth a man Note that manstealing was placed on the same plane with the crime of murder . Cursing a parent was also treated as a capital offence .

Verses 18-19

18, 19. He die not, but keepeth his bed Observe in this statute the careful purpose to maintain equity and right . He who smote and injured his fellowman in personal contest was responsible for all losses or damage resulting therefrom.

Verse 20

20. Smite his servant Many writers assume that foreign bondservants, not Hebrew servants, are intended here; but the law itself does not so discriminate . The reason given in the next verse, namely, that the servant is his property, evidently led to a distinction in the punishment of this kind of manslaughter . It was assumed that no man would wilfully destroy his own property by killing his slave . It was considered a master’s right to chastise his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and if death resulted from the excessive severity of the punishment it would be accidental rather than intentional . In case death resulted the man was to be surely punished, but the measure of the penalty is not prescribed; that was doubtless to be left to the magistrates to determine.

Verses 22-25

22-25. As the woman’s husband will lay upon him The Hebrews threw every possible safeguard about the fruit of the womb, and an injury of the kind here specified was treated as a very grave offence . If death resulted it was punished as a capital crime, and life for life was demanded . If, however, other and less serious damage followed, the punishment was to be proportioned, according to a rigorous law of retaliation, ( lex talionis.)

The woman might be injured in eye, tooth, hand, or foot, or by means of burning, (branding by a hot iron,) or some other wound or stripe, purposely or accidentally given, or the unborn offspring might be harmed in some of these ways, and a corresponding injury was accordingly to be inflicted upon the offender. The lex talionis, or law of retaliation, which appears in this passage and in Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21, is one of the most simple and ancient conceptions of righteous retribution. It has often been condemned as barbarous, but it is grounded in the intuitions of justice, and asserted itself in the legislation of many ancient nations, as the Romans, Greeks, and Indians. “It would seem,” says Michaelis, “that Moses retained the law of retaliation from a more ancient, and a very natural, law of usage.” It would naturally tend to prevent personal injuries, and all must see and acknowledge that when a man speedily receives in his own person the same damage he wilfully inflicted on another, he but receives his deserts and has no ground to complain. But, like the law which authorized the nearest kinsman of a murdered man to avenge his death, this law was liable to be abused. It gave too much room for the gratification of personal bitterness and hatred, and hence, mainly, the reason of our Lord’s words in Matthew 5:38-39. The New Testament teaching, as has been so often explained, does not condemn the Mosaic law as unjust, but warns against the feeling of personal bitterness and revenge which is so likely to arise from a sense of injury. That should rather be crucified by a doing good for evil where the public welfare will not suffer thereby.

Verses 26-27

26, 27. Eye of his servant Here again we note that the male or female servant was reckoned as not enjoying the same natural rights as freemen . The lex talionis did not apply to them, but they were allowed their freedom as a compensation . But we should observe how the provisions of this statute, as well as those of Exodus 21:20-21, must have tended to mitigate the wrongs of slavery, and protect the lives and persons of slaves, in a way unknown to the laws and customs of other ancient nations .

Verses 28-32

28-32. If an ox gore a man This statute further guards the sanctity of human life . A potent object-lesson lay in the command that the murderous animal’s flesh shall not be eaten, for it was to be regarded as polluted with the curse of a human life destroyed. Even the owner of such an ox might suffer the death penalty if he had knowingly permitted him to run at large after being duly admonished of the animal’s vicious habit. This penalty might, however, be commuted for a sum of money, which was, doubtless, left to the magistrates to determine. The valuation fixed by the law as the price of a slave thus killed was thirty shekels of silver. Comp. Zechariah 11:12-13; and Matthew 26:15; Matthew 27:3-4.

Verses 33-36

33-36. The provisions of this section must commend themselves as both wise and prudent . Caution, forethought, and most equitable dealing were hereby inculcated .

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 21". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.