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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 21

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes

Verse 1

Judgments - i. e. decisions of the law.

Verse 2

A Hebrew might be sold as a bondman in consequence either of debt Leviticus 25:39 or of the commission of theft Exodus 22:3. But his servitude could not be enforced for more than six full years. Compare the marginal references.

Verse 3

If a married man became a bondman, his rights in regard to his wife were respected: but if a single bondman accepted at the hand of his master a bondwoman as his wife, the master did not lose his claim to the woman or her children, at the expiration of the husband’s term of service. Such wives, it may be presumed, were always foreign slaves.

Verse 6

Forever - That is, most probably, until the next Jubilee, when every Hebrew was set free. See Leviticus 25:40, Leviticus 25:50. The custom of boring the ear as a mark of slavery appears to have been a common one in ancient times, observed in many nations.

Unto the judges - Literally, “before the gods אלהים 'ĕlohı̂ym.” The word does not denote “judges” in a direct way, but it is to be understood as the name of God, in its ordinary plural form, God being the source of all justice. The name in this connection always has the definite article prefixed. See the marginal references. Compare Psalms 82:1, Psalms 82:6; John 10:34.

Verse 7

A man might, in accordance with existing custom, sell his daughter to another man with a view to her becoming an inferior wife, or concubine. In this case, she was not “to go out,” like the bondman; that is, she was not to be dismissed at the end of the sixth year. But women who were bound in any other way, would appear to have been under the same conditions as bondmen. See Deuteronomy 15:17.

Verse 11

If he do not these three unto her - The words express a choice of one of three things. The man was to give the woman, whom he had purchased from her father, her freedom, unless

(i) he caused her to be redeemed by a Hebrew master Exodus 21:8; or,

(ii) gave her to his son, and treated her as a daughter Exodus 21:9; or,

(iii) in the event of his taking another wife Exodus 21:10, unless he allowed her to retain her place and privileges.

These rules Exodus 21:7-11 are to be regarded as mitigations of the then existing usages of concubinage.

Verse 12

The case of murder of a free man and of a bondman. See Exodus 21:20 note. The law was afterward expressly declared to relate also to foreigners, Leviticus 24:17, Leviticus 24:21-22; compare the marginal references.

Verses 13-14

There was no place of safety for the guilty murderer, not even the altar of Yahweh. Thus all superstitious notions connected with the right of sanctuary were excluded. Adonijah and Joab 1 Kings 1:50; 1 Kings 2:28 appear to have vainly trusted that the common feeling would protect them, if they took hold of the horns of the altar on which atonement with blood was made Leviticus 4:7. But for one who killed a man “at unawares,” that is, without intending to do it, the law afterward appointed places of refuge, Numbers 35:6-34; Deuteronomy 4:41-43; Deuteronomy 19:2-10; Joshua 20:2-9. It is very probable that there was some provision answering to the cities of refuge, that may have been based upon old usage, in the camp in the Wilderness.

Verses 15-16

The following offences were to be punished with death:

Striking a parent, compare Deuteronomy 27:16.

Cursing a parent, compare the marginal references.

Kidnapping, whether with a view to retain the person stolen, or to sell him, compare the marginal references.

Verse 19

Quit - i. e. if one man injured another in a quarrel so as to oblige him to keep his bed, he was free from the liability to a criminal charge (such as might be based upon Exodus 21:12): but he was required to compensate the latter for the loss of his time, and for the cost of his healing.

Verses 20-21

The Jewish authorities appear to be right in referring this law, like those in Exodus 21:26-27, Exodus 21:32, to foreign slaves (see Leviticus 25:44-46). The protection here afforded to the life of a slave may seem to us but a slight one; but it is the very earliest trace of such protection in legislation, and it stands in strong and favorable contrast with the old laws of Greece, Rome, and other nations. If the slave survived the castigation a day or two, the master did not become amenable to the law, because the loss of the slave was accounted, under the circumstances, as a punishment.

Verses 22-25

The rule would seem to refer to a case in which the wife of a man interfered in a quarrel. This law, “the jus talionis,” is elsewhere repeated in substance, compare the marginal references. and Genesis 9:6. It has its root in a simple conception of justice, and is found in the laws of many ancient nations. It serves in this place as a maxim for the magistrate in awarding the amount of compensation to be paid for the infliction of personal injury. The sum was to be as nearly as possible the worth in money of the power lost by the injured person. Our Lord quotes Exodus 21:24 as representing the form of the law, in order to illustrate the distinction between the letter and the spirit Matthew 5:38. The tendency of the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees was to confound the obligations of the conscience with the external requirements of the law. The law, in its place, was still to be “holy and just and good,” Romans 7:12, but its direct purpose was to protect the community, not to guide the heart of the believer, who was not to exact eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but to love his enemies, and to forgive all injuries.

Verses 26-27

Freedom was the proper equivalent for permanent injury.

Verses 28-32

The animal was slain as a tribute to the sanctity of human life (Compare the marginal references and Genesis 4:11). It was stoned, and its flesh was treated as carrion. Guilty negligence on the part of its owner was reckoned a capital offence, to be commuted for a fine.

In the case of a slave, the payment was the standard price of a slave, thirty shekels of silver. See Leviticus 25:44-46; Leviticus 27:3, and the marginal references for the New Testament application of this fact.

Verses 33-34

The usual mode of protecting a well in the East was probably then, as now, by building round it a low circular wall.

Verses 35-36

The dead ox in this case, as well as in the preceding one, must have been worth no more than the price of the hide, as the flesh could not be eaten. See Leviticus 17:1-6.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Exodus 21". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/exodus-21.html. 1870.
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