Exodus chapter 21.

Ordinances Concerning Slaves and Various Forms of Violent Deaths.

Precepts regulating the master’s relation to slaves. — V.1. Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them. These were special ordinances concerning the political commonwealth of the Jews. In the New Testament God’s revelation is no longer confined to one single people, and we no longer have any state under the direct government of God. And yet, also these ordinances were recorded for our learning, especially for the purpose of teaching us various applications of the law of love. V.2. If thou buy an Hebrew servant, as a slave, six years he shall serve in this capacity; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing, the idea being that he has earned his freedom by his six years’ service. V.3. If he came in by himself, literally, with his body, that is, unmarried, he shall go out by himself; if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. Cp. chap. 22, 3; Lev. 25, 39; Deut. 15, 12–15. V.4. If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters, the woman, of course, being a slave also, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. The man could have his freedom, if he chose, but the woman would still remain the master’s property, and her children as well. V.5. And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children, I will not go out free, the slave preferring a continuation of his slavery in the company of his family to freedom without his loved ones, v.6. then his master shall bring him unto the judges, before the proper officers; he shall also bring him to the door or unto the door-post of his house; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever, the opening in the ear marking the slave as such. V.7. And if a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant, her position being that of housekeeper and probable concubine, she shall not go out as the men-servants do, that is, not be released in the seventh year, the purpose being that she meanwhile become the wife or the concubine either of the master or of his son. V.8. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, that is, who had purchased her with the expectation of making her his wife or concubine, then shall he let her be redeemed by some other man who might desire her for his wife. To sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her, he has broken faith with her, for she came to him, although her father sold her for reasons of poverty, Lev. 25, 39, with the understanding that she was to occupy the position of wife or concubine. Hebrew girls were not to be sold into unconditional slavery to members of other nations. V.9. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, if he have purchased the girl with the intention of making her his son’s wife or concubine, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters, according to the rights of a daughter. That was the second possibility. V.10. If he take him another wife, so that he have two or more wives or concubines, her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, the special duty which marriage implies, shall he not diminish. She was on no account to be neglected also in case of this third possibility; the father was to use his power and authority in upholding the rights of the girl. V.11. And if he do not these three unto her, that is, if, in the three given instances, he does not do the right thing by her, then shall she go out free without money. The woman would have her freedom, and her father would have the advantage of the purchase-money. Thus was the Hebrew male or female servant protected, for the Israelites were not to forget that the lowly among their people were likewise members of God’s chosen nation. The principle applies to Christian masters also, inasmuch as they will treat even the least among the believers as brethren and sisters in Christ.

Concerning murder and bodily injuries. — V.12. He that smiteth a man, strikes him down with deliberate intention, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. The reference seems to be to a murder committed in the heat of anger or in a condition of intoxication. V.13. And if a man lie not in wait, does not seek a man’s life with deliberate intent, but God deliver him into his hand, God permits it to happen in that manner that a man kills another by accident, then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee. The Lord later designated certain cities as cities of refuge, Num. 35, 11; Deut.19, 1–10. V.14. But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile, if he has deliberately planned the crime and carried it out in cold blood, thou shalt take him from Mine altar that he may die; in that case it would not even avail the murderer to seek the refuge of the sanctuary. Because he has broken down the sacred wall which protected his neighbor, therefore it would also, in his case, not be a violation of the altar of God to tear him away from its protection and put him to death. V.15. And he that smiteth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death. So highly was the honor of parents esteemed in the sight of God that the mere act of striking either of them was equivalent to manslaughter, to cold-blooded murder, and was punished accordingly. V.16. And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. Man-stealing, as a violent abuse of one’s neighbor’s person, of his dignity as a human being, was also placed on a plane with murder. V.17. And he that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. Since the cursing and reviling of parents flows from the same wicked disposition of mind as striking them, v.15. the same punishment is decreed by God. V.18. And if men strive together, in a quarrel which culminates in physical violence, and one smite another with a stone or with his fist, with a clod, and he die not, but keepeth his bed, is confined to his bed in consequence of the blow;v.19. if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit, be released from the probable charge of manslaughter; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed; he shall make good the loss occasioned by the enforced idleness and pay the doctor bills and the medicine. V.20. And if a man smite his servant or his maid, his male or his female slave, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall be surely punished, be required to give satisfaction. V.21. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two before dying, and it be shown in this way that it was not the master’s intention to commit murder outright, he shall not be punished; for he is his money, the slave was the master’s property, and in such a case it would not stand to reason that he had deliberately and purposely killed the slave. The law was intended to prevent ruthless exhibitions of temper and cold-blooded murders. V.22. If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, the pregnant woman interposing between the quarreling men, so that her fruit depart from her, that a miscarriage occurs, and yet no mischief follow, if the woman herself is not injured and if her ability to bear children is not impaired, he shall be surely punished, that is, the guilty man, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine; the injured parties being awarded damages according to the merits of the case. V.23. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, v.24. eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, v.25. burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. That was the law of retaliation as it could be invoked by such as sought indemnity for injuries: the injured woman might demand expiation according to the degree of’ her hurt. That was the ordinance so far as free Israelites were concerned. V.26. And if a man smite the eye of his servant or the eye of his maid that it perish, he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. No distinction is made between deliberate cruelty and an unintentional blow, the effect alone being registered. V.27. And if he smite out his man-servant’s tooth or his maid-servant’s tooth, he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake. The loss, not only of some member of the body, but even of a single tooth, as a result of the master’s treatment, entitled the slave to his freedom. So far as Christians are concerned, they know that they should not hurt nor harm their neighbor in his body. They will not insist upon any law of retaliation, as the granting of indemnities is a function of the government, but will keep in mind the Lord’s admonition to kindness and placableness.

Ordinances for the protection of life and property. — V.28. If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten, be considered unclean; but the owner of the ox shall be quit, shall be considered and declared innocent of any wrongdoing. V.29. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, if the owner was fully aware that the ox was in the habit of attacking people, that he was of a mean disposition, and yet did not confine him, but that he hath killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death, because he, by his neglect in watching the vicious animal, became the cause of the deaths. There was a possibility, however, of a man’s saving his life in such a case. V.30. If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him, as a punishment for his criminal carelessness. V.31. Whether he have gored a son or have gored a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done unto him. The law was justly strict and made no distinction between men and women; it was a case of paying the price of ransom or the penalty of death. V.32. If the ox shall push a manservant or a maid-servant, the injury resulting in death, he, the owner of the vicious brute, shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, probably the usual market price of a slave, and the ox shall be stoned. Thus we also, in passing judgment upon any trespass, distinguish between sins of weakness and sins of malice, between transgressions by neglect, by mistake, and by criminal intent, being very careful not to accuse anyone unjustly. V.33. And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit and not cover it, and an ox or an ass fall therein, the result being that his neighbor is harmed in his possessions, v.34. the owner of the pit shall make it good, and give money unto the owner of them, restore their full value in money; and the dead beast shall be his, he may dispose of the carcass as he sees fit. V.35. And if one man’s ox hurt another’s that he die, then they shall sell the live ox, the one that did the damage, and divide the money of it; and the dead ox also they shall divide, both parties, in this case, bearing the loss equally, since it could rarely be determined which animal was the aggressor. V.36. Or if it be known that the ox hath used to push in time past, and his owner hath not kept him in, he shall surely pay ox for ox; and the dead shall be his own. In this case the owner of the mean animal would be guilty of criminal neglect, of punishable carelessness, and would therefore have to restore to his neighbor the full value of the animal which was dead through the viciousness of his ox, only the carcass being his. To this day the right understanding of the Seventh Commandment demands that full restoration be made to one’s neighbor, not only in case of theft, but whenever he has suffered damage, even through the agency of a brute beast.