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Saturday, June 15th, 2024
the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10
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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 21

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verse 1

Exodus 21:1

These are the Judgments.

The judgments

These judgments stood related to the second table of the Law, just as the regulations concerning the worship of the altar stood related to the first. It is to be remembered also that these “judgments,” and those of the same kind which afterward were added as occasion arose, are to be distinguished from the moral law, not only as applying to the state rather than the individual, but also as local and temporary in their nature, representing not what was ideally best, but only what was then practically possible in the direction of that which was best. Some very superficial people criticise them as if they were intended for the nineteenth century! The Decalogue was, and is, intrinsically perfect; the “judgments” were adapted to the circumstances and wants of Israel at the time. And it would be a good thing if reformers of modern times would always remember the same wise and necessary distinctions, between that which is ideally perfect and that which alone may be practically possible. Still further it is to be remembered, that these judgments were suitable to “the Theocracy” of Israel; and hence those are entirely wrong who attempt to use them as precedents for general legislation in the limited monarchies and republican governments, and otherwise entirely altered circumstances, of modern times. Yet if we could only compare these “judgments” with the laws and customs of the nations around, we should see by force of contrast how exceedingly pure, wise, just, and humane they are; and especially where private relations are dealt with, we have touches which would not shame the New Testament itself, however much they may in another sense shame us, as for instance Exodus 23:4-5. The third division of the book of the covenant has to do with matters which relate neither to worship exclusively, nor to civil relations exclusively, but to both. These are the Sabbath year, the Sabbath day, and the yearly festivals (Exodus 23:10-19). As for the Sabbath year and the festivals, they will come up again in the fuller details given from the tabernacle and recorded in Leviticus. And as for the Sabbath day, we may simply remark the significance of its presence here in the book of the covenant, as well as in the Decalogue, indicating that while in its principle it belongs to universal and unchangeable law, in its letter it formed part of that national covenant which was merged in the new and better covenant of the later age. (J. M. Gibson, D. D.)

The Hebrew commonwealth founded on religion

There is a very common reflection upon the Hebrew lawgiver, which, though it does not call in question any particular law, is yet designed to vitiate and weaken the impression of the whole--that he was a stern and relentless ruler, who may indeed have understood the principles of justice, but whose justice was seldom tempered with mercy. This impression is derived partly at least from the summary way in which in several instances he dealt with rebellion. To this kind of argument there is one brief and sufficient answer: All bodies of men are acknowledged to have the right to resort to severe penalties when encompassed by extraordinary dangers. The children of Israel were in a position of great peril, and their safety depended on the wisdom and firmness of one man. Never had a ruler a more difficult task. Moses did not legislate for the ideal republic of Plato, a community of perfect beings, but for a people born in slavery, from which they had but just broken away, and that were in danger of becoming ungovernable. Here were two millions and a half who had not even a settled place of abode, mustered in one vast camp, through which rebellion might spread in a day. Moses had to govern them by his single will . . . To preserve order, and to guard against hostile attacks, all the men capable of bearing arms were organized as a military body . . . He suppressed rebellion as Cromwell would have suppressed it: he not only put it down, but stamped it out; and such prompt severity was the truest humanity. But it is not acts of military discipline that provoke the criticism of modern humanitarians, so much as those religious laws which prescribed the God whom the Hebrews should worship, and punished idolatry and blasphemy as the greatest of crimes. This, it is said, transcends the proper sphere of human law; it exalts ceremonies into duties, and denounces as crimes acts which have no moral wrong. Was not, then, the Hebrew law wanting in the first principle of justice--freedom to all religions? Now it is quite absurd to suppose the Hebrews had conscientious scruples against this worship, or seriously doubted whether Jehovah or Baal were the true God. They had been rescued from slavery by a direct interposition of the Almighty, they had been led by an Almighty Deliverer; and it was His voice which they heard from the cliffs of Sinai. But it was not merely because their religion was true, and the only true worship, that they were required to accept it; but because also of the peculiar relation which its Divine Author had assumed towards the Hebrew state as its founder and protector. They had no king but God; He was the only Lord. As such, no act of disobedience or disrespect to His authority could be light or small. Further: the unity of God was a centre of unity for the nation. The state was one because their God was one. The worship of Jehovah alone distinguished the Hebrews from all other people, and preserved their separate nationality. Admit other religions, and the bond which held together the twelve tribes was dissolved. How long could that union have lasted if the prophets of Baal had had the freedom of the camp and been permitted to go from tribe to tribe and from tent to tent, preaching the doctrine of human sacrifices? Hence Moses did not suffer them for an hour. False prophets were to be stoned to death . . . Such was the Hebrew commonwealth, a state founded in religion. Was it therefore founded in fanaticism and folly, or in profound wisdom and far-seeing sagacity? “Religion, true or false,” says Coleridge, “is, and ever has been, the centre of gravity in a realm, to which all other things must and will accommodate themselves.” Would it not be well if some of our modern pretenders to statesmanship did not so completely ignore its existence and its power? The religion which Moses gave to the Hebrews was not one merely of abstract ideas; it was incarnated in an outward and visible worship by which it addressed the senses. Even in the desert the tabernacle and the altar were set up, and the daily sacrifice was offered; the smoke and the incense below ascending towards the pillar of cloud above, and the fire on the altar answering to the pillar of fire in the midnight sky. This daily and nightly worship made religion a real because a visible thing; it appealed to the senses and touched the imagination of the people, and held their spirits in awe. The feeling that God dwelt in the midst of them inspired them with courage for great efforts and great sacrifices. (H. M. Field, D. D.)

Verses 2-6

Exodus 21:2-6

If thou buy an Hebrew servant.

Slavery and sovereignty

These judgments of God are the declarations of human rights.

These judgments dealt with an existing institution. The circumstances under which an Hebrew might be reduced to servitude were--

1. Poverty.

2. The commission of theft.

3. The exercise of paternal authority.

This admitted institution does not sanction modern slavery. There is in the Divine revelation a spirit ever working to the enfranchisement of the race. More closely consider the conditions of Mosaic slavery--

This system asserted the slave’s personal sovereignty. 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.”

This system declared the slave’s right to be a man of feeling. The man was not to be separated from the wife he had chosen prior to his days of servitude. This part of the Mosaic regulations would not harmonize with the painful scenes which took place at slave marts.

This system proclaimed the slave’s right to freedom, and that it is the highest condition. The Hebrew slave worked on to the day of happy release. This term of service was no longer than a modern apprenticeship. The bells of the seventh year rang out the old order of slavery, and rang in the new glorious order of freedom.

This system typically sets forth that the service of love is the highest, and alone enduring. He only was to serve “for ever” who chose continued servitude on account of love to his master, and love to his wife and his children. The service of love outstrips in dignity and surpasses in duration all other forms of service. (W. Burrows, B. A.)

Attachment to a master

The following anecdote is furnished by an officer who went through the campaign in Egypt against the French in the time of the first Napoleon. “I am glad,” he says, “to recall to my memory the remembrance of a deed done by a brave and faithful servant. While in Egypt, the plague broke out in the 2nd Regiment of Guards. A large tent was immediately set apart as a hospital for the stricken. It was, naturally, regarded with extreme dread by the unfortunate sufferers, who despaired of ever leaving it alive. The surgeon of the Guards, discovering that he had symptoms of the disorder about him, bravely gave himself up as an inmate of the plague tent. His servant, who was greatly attached to him, was in despair. ‘At least,’ he said, ‘let me go with you, and nurse you.’ His master, however, made answer that such a step was impossible, since the tent was guarded by sentinels, who had orders to admit no one without a pass. The breach of this rule was punishable with death. The man was silenced for the moment, but at nightfall, regardless of the danger of disease or detection, he crept on hands and knees past the sentinels, and slipping under the cords of the doomed tent, he presented himself at his master’s bedside. Here he went through many days of patient and tender nursing of the sick man, till the plague claimed another victim, and the good surgeon died. Then the servant walked quietly out of the tent door, and went through the usual form of disinfection, after that returning to his regiment, where he was received with open arms. To have dared so much for a beloved master raised him to the rank of a hero, both among officers and men. He had shown that love for a fellow-man was stronger even than the love of life in his breast, and those who might not have been brave enough to dare such fearful risks, were noble enough to own their admiration of one who had done so. Such faithful service is registered in heaven,” the writer adds. (Great Thoughts.)

Love for a master

In the latter days of Sir Walter Scott, when poverty stared him in the face, he had to announce to his servants his inability to retain them any longer. But they begged to be allowed to stay, saying they would be content with the barest fare if only they might remain in his employ. This was permitted, and they clung, to him until the last. (H. O. Mackey.)

The ear bored with an aul

We are going to use this as a type, and get some moral out of it:

1. And the first use is this. Men are by nature the slaves of sin. Some are the slaves of drunkenness, some of lasciviousness, some of covetousness, some of sloth; but there are generally times in men’s lives when they have an opportunity of breaking loose. There will happen providential changes which take them away from old companions, and so give them a little hope of liberty, or there will come times of sickness, which take them away from temptation, and give them opportunities for thought. Above all, seasons will occur when conscience is set to work by the faithful preaching of the Word, and when the man pulls himself up, and questions his spirit thus:--“Which shall it be? I have been a servant of the devil, but here is an opportunity of getting free. Shall I give up this sin? Shall I pray God to give me grace to break right away, and become a new man; or shall I not?”

2. Our text reads us a second lesson, namely, this. In the forty-first Psalm, in the sixth verse, you will find the expression used by our Lord, or by David in prophecy personifying our Lord, “Mine ear hast thou opened,” or Mine ear hast thou digged.” Jesus Christ is here, in all probability, speaking of Himself as being for ever, for our sakes, the willing servant of God. Will you not say, “Let my ear be bored to His service, even as His ear was digged for me”?

First, let us speak upon our choice of perpetual service.

1. The first thing is, we have the power to go free if we will.

2. We have not the remotest wish to do so.

3. We are willing to take the consequences. The boring of our ear is a special pain, but both ears are ready for the aul. The Lord’s service involves peculiar trials, for He has told us, “Every branch that beareth fruit He purgeth it.” Are we willing to take the purging?

Now, secondly, our reasons for it. A man ought to have a reason for so weighty a decision as this. What reasons can we give for such decided language?

1. We can give some reasons connected with Himself. The servant in our text who would not accept his liberty, said, “I love my master.” Can we say that? The servant in our text, who would not go free, plainly declared that he loved his wife, so that there are reasons connected not only with his Master, but with those in his Master’s house, which detain each servant of Jesus in happy bondage. Some of us could not leave Jesus, not only because of what He is, but because of some that are very dear to us who are in His service. How could I leave my mother’s God? Besides, let me add, there are some of us who must keep to Christ, because we have children in His family whom we could not leave--dear ones who first learned of Christ from us.

2. There are reasons also why we cannot forsake our Lord which arise out of ourselves; and the first is that reason which Peter felt to be so powerful. The Master said, “Will ye also go away?” Peter answered by another question. He said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

3. And why should we go? Can you find any reason why we should leave Jesus Christ? Can you imagine one?

4. And when should we leave Him if we must leave Him? Leave Him while we are young? It is then that we need Him to be the guide of our youth. Leave Him when we are in middle life? Why, then it is we want Him to help us to bear our cross, lest we sink under our daily load. Leave Him in old age? Ah, no! It is then we require Him to cheer our declining hours. Leave Him in life? How could we live without Him? Leave Him in death? How could we die without Him? No, we must cling to Him; we must follow Him whithersoever He goeth.

In the last place, I want to bore your ear. Do you mean to be bound for life? Christians, do you really mean it? Come, sit ye down and count the cost.

1. And, first, let them be bored with the sharp awl of the Saviour’s sufferings. No story wrings a Christian’s heart with such anguish as the griefs and woes of Christ. The bleeding Lamb enthralls me. I am His, and His for ever. That is one way of marking the ear.

2. Next, let your ear be fastened by the truth, so that you are determined to hear only the gospel. The gospel ought to monopolize the believer’s ear.

3. Furthermore, if you really give yourself to Christ, you must have your ear opened to hear and obey the whispers of the Spirit of God, so that you yield to His teaching, and to His teaching only. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

Verses 7-11

Exodus 21:7-11

If a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant.

Degraded condition of girls in Africa

The condition of girls in Africa is thus described by a missionary: “A father looks upon his girl as being of the value only of so many goats, and he is ready to sell her as soon as any man offers him the required payment. Thus, while she is quite young--perhaps only four or five--her life and liberty may have been sold away by her own father, and sooner or later she must become the wife, the slave, the drudge of her owner. While at Mayumba, near the mouth of the Congo river, I one afternoon heard a child screaming frantically behind the house where I was staying, and going out I found a little Bavilla girl, not more than four years old, who had just been brought down the lagoon from her home away in the Mamba hills, where she had been bought by a Mayumba man. The crew of the canoe in which she had been brought down--six big, fierce-looking men--were standing around the little prisoner, pointing their guns and spears at her just for the sport of seeing her shake and scream with fright; and a band of women were dancing with wild delight at the heartless game. It was possible to save the poor child from the cruel treatment just then, but that was only the beginning of a lifetime of suffering for her in the midst of a strange people, with no friend at hand to help or protect her.”

Verses 12-14

Exodus 21:12-14

Shall be surely put to death.

Cases of homicide

Homicide in effect. “He that hateth his brother is a murderer.” Anger in the heart gives unconscious malicious power to the will. The man is responsible for the effects of his anger, even though these effects are more disastrous than he intended.

Homicide by mistake. Cities of refuge. And in the final adjustment of human affairs, merciful consideration will be dealt out to those who have done vast mischief by mistake; upon sins of ignorance will fall the blessed light of Divine mercy. Embrace the glorious truth that through the sternest code the Divine love cannot help revealing its gracious tendencies.

Homicide by design. Death is to be his portion. Life is God’s most sacred gift. He bestows largely for its unfolding. He provides many safeguards for its preservation. (W. Burrows, B. A.)

Capital crimes in the Mosaic code

Complaint has been made against Moses on account of the number of crimes made capital in his code. But great injustice has been done him in this particular. The crimes punishable with death by his laws were either of a deep moral malignity or such as were aimed against the very being of the state. It will be found, too, on examination, that there were but four classes of capital offences known to his laws--treason, murder, deliberate and gross abuse of parents, and the more unnatural and horrid crimes arising out of the sexual relation. And all the specifications under these classes amounted to only seventeen; whereas it is not two hundred years since the criminal code of Great Britain numbered one hundred and forty-eight crimes punishable with death--many of them of a trivial nature, as petty thefts and trespasses upon property. But no injury simply affecting property could draw down upon an Israelite an ignominious death. The Mosaic law respected moral depravity more than gold. Moral turpitudes, and the most atrocious expressions of moral turpitude, these were the objects of its unsleeping severity. (E. C. Wines, D. D.)

Verse 15

Exodus 21:15

He that smiteth his father.

God’s indignation against the unfilial spirit

The unfilial spirit in two aspects.

1. He that smiteth his father or his mother.

(1) A child may smite his parent literally, as in the case of those brutes we read of in the newspapers every week.

(2) A child may smite his parents’ authority by rebellion in thought, word, or deed; e.g., Absalom.

(3) A child may smite his parents’ wealth by extravagance or carelessness.

(4) A child may smite his parents’ character by an incautious revelation of domestic secrets.

(5) A child may smite his parents’ health, and, by misconduct, bring their grey hairs with sorrow to the grave; e.g., Joseph’s brethren.

(6) A child may smite his parents’ heart, and break it by disobedience and wilfulness; e.g., sons of Eli.

2. “He that curseth (lit. revileth)

his father or his mother.”

(1) A child may revile his parents by an assertion of personal independence.

(2) A child may revile his parents by speaking of them in a careless and irreverent way.

(3) A child may revile his parents by speaking to them in a familiar or impertinent way.

(4) A child may revile his parents by treating their counsels with contempt; and

(5) Alas! a child may revile his parents by cursing them to their face.

The uniform punishment of the unfilial spirit. “Shall surely be put to death.” The letter of this condemnation is now repealed, but its spirit lives on through the ages.

1. An unfilial child dies to the respect of civilised society.

2. An unfilial child is morally dead. If the sign of the moral life is “love of the brethren,” how dead must he be in whom filial respect and love is extinct!

3. An unfilial child, inasmuch as he breaks a moral law, and a law that partakes of the qualities of both tables and combines them, dies in a more terrible sense. “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” (J. W. Burn.)

Filial impiety

The books tell us of an old man whose son dragged him, by his hoary locks, to the threshold of his door, when the father said: “Now stop, my son, that is as far as I dragged my father by his hair,” There is still a God that judgeth in the earth. He makes Himself known by the judgments which He executeth. Who has ever seen any one a loser by filial piety, or a gainer by the want of it? There still lives a man who, in a passion, cursed his own father, and then struck him several times with a horsewhip. Judgment against this evil work was not executed speedily. Time rolled on, but no ingenuous repentance followed. After some time the cruel son was blasting rock in a well. The fuse caught fire, and he was blown up with the loss of both his eyes, and his right hand, with which he had struck his father. Soon after this sad occurrence he was received in the year 1868 as a pauper at the county workhouse. He has habitually been restless and miserable. He is happy nowhere. He has gone to another county and to another workhouse. But he is well known as a very wretched man. By the law of Moses, cursing father or mother was punished with death. No reason for the law is given, but the atrocious nature of the act. What fearful force is in such words as these: “Whoso curseth his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness.” “The eye that mocketh at his father, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it” (Proverbs 20:20; Proverbs 30:17). (W. S. Plumer.)

Cruelty to a mother

A young man, of whom I once heard, was often spoken to and often prayed for by his mother, until he said to her, “Mother, if you don’t give up that praying for me, I will run away to sea.” He ran away. Before he went, his mother packed his box. She put the writing paper at the top, and all she begged of him was, “My boy, when you are far away from me, write to me. I will write to you; but send me an answer.” He went away; he stayed three years, and never sent a single syllable to that loving mother, who oftentimes was kneeling by her bedside praying for that runaway boy. At last he went back to the old village to see how she was. As he walked down the street his heart misgave him. He walked up the path to the house, he knocked at the door; it was opened by a person whom he did not know. He asked for Mrs. So-and-so. “How is she?” The woman looked blank at him. He said, “Is not she here?” “Oh,” said the woman, “you mean the old woman who used to live here. She died eight months ago of a broken heart. She had a bad son, who went away to sea and left her, and she wrote to him, and he never wrote back again.” He turned away and went into the village churchyard. He looked at the graves, he found the one he sought, and threw himself down upon it, saying, “Oh, mother, I never meant it, I never meant it! “ But he did it. (Dr. Morgan.)

Verse 16

Exodus 21:16

He that stealeth a man.

About kidnapping

The same law is repeated in Deuteronomy 24:7; from which passage it is evident that it treats of kidnapping a Hebrew. And thus the severity of the punishment, death, without the possibility of redemption, cannot appear surprising. For all Israelites are considered as free citizens with inalienable and equal rights, of which they can never be entirely divested. Now it is natural that he who steals an Israelite will, in the rarest cases, keep him as his slave or sell him to an Israelite, as the injured person could, in the Holy Land, easily find means to inform the authorities of his fate, and thus cause the punishment of his criminal master. The latter, therefore, generally sold the kidnapped individual to foreign merchants into distant lands, either to Egyptians, who commanded the land commerce to the south, or to Phoenicians, who influenced the trade to the west; and opportunities of selling must have easily offered themselves, as Palestine was situated in the exact centre of the commerce of the East. But by such sale, free Israelites became permanent slaves; they forfeited with their liberty their chief characteristic as Hebrews, and were thus lost to the Hebrew community, the more so, as the exclusive intercourse with pagans must necessarily defile the purity of their faith, and gradually accustom their thoughts to idolatry. For this reason it was in the Mosaic law, interdicted to sell even thieves into foreign countries, because thereby souls are, as it were, extirpated from Israel. Thus he who kidnapped Israelites and sold them to other countries justly deserved death, especially if we consider the most melancholy and bitter lot to which the slaves of heathen nations were generally doomed. (M. M. Kalisch, P h. D.)

Unrighteousness of slave holding

At the time slaves were held in the State of New York, one of them, escaping into Vermont, was captured and taken before the court at Middlebury by his owner, who asked the court to give him possession of his slave property. Judge Harrington listened attentively to the proofs of ownership, but said that he was not convinced that the title was perfect. Then the counsel asked what more was required. “Until you bring me a bill of sale from God Almighty you cannot have this man.” (J. Swinton.)

Verses 18-19

Exodus 21:18-19

If men strive together.


1. Passions and contentions breed many sad events among neighbours.

2. Smitings, and wounds, and sickness, and death are usual effects of sudden passions.

3. In case it proceed not to death, God will not suffer injuries unpunished by men.

4. Not only the death, but the hurts of men, are in God’s heart to prevent (Exodus 21:18).

5. It is just with God that he who wounds must look to thorough healing of his neighbour.

6. Man’s loss of time, as well as health, God will have recompensed by the injurious.

7. Security and prosperity of creatures is the end cf God’s judgments against violent men (Exodus 21:18-19). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Human strife

Are our little personal strifes noted in heaven? Yes, every one of them. But can men strive together? Properly looked at that would seem to be the harder question of the two. Coming suddenly upon a line of this kind we should exclaim in surprise, “The assumption is impossible. We must begin our criticism of a statement of this kind by rejecting its probability, and, that being done, there is no case left. How can men strive together? Men are brothers, men are rational creatures, men recognize one another’s rights, and interests, and welfare; society is not a competition, but a fraternal and sacred emulation; therefore, the assumption that men can strive together is a false one, and, the foundation being false, the whole edifice totters down.” That would-be fine theory, that would be sweet poetry, it might almost be thrown into rhyme, but there are the facts staring us in the face. What are those facts? That all life is a strife, that every man in some way or degree, or at some time, begrudges the room which every other man takes up. The tragedy of Cain and Abel has never ceased, and can never cease until we become children of the Second Adam. Great degrees of modification may, of course, take effect. The vulgarity of smiting may be left to those who are in a low state of life--who are, in fact, in barbarous conditions; but they who smite with the fist are not the cruellest of men. There is a refined smiting--a daily, bitter, malignant opposition; there is a process of mutual undermining, or outreaching, or outrunning, in the very spirit of which is found the purpose of murder. But mark how beneficence enters into the arrangement here laid down. Not only is the man who smote his brother to pay for the loss of his brother’s time; that would be a mere cash transaction. There are men ready enough to buy themselves out of any obligation; a handful of gold is nothing. Their language is, “Take it, and let us be free.” That would be poor legislation in some cases, though heavy enough in others. To some men money has no meaning; they have outlived all its influences; they are so rich that they can bribe and pay, and secure silence or liberty by a mere outputting of the hand. But the beneficence is in the next clause, “and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.” The man must be made as good as he was before, therefore he must be inquired about; he must be taken an interest in; he must become a quantity in the life of the man who injured him, and, however impartial the man who inflicted the injury may become under such chafing, the impatience itself may be turned to good account. Some men can only be taught philanthropy by such rough and urgent schoolmasters. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Verses 20-21

Exodus 21:20-21

If a man smite his servant.

Masters and servants

1. It is supposed that masters in the Church of God may be cruel in correcting servants, but it is sin.

2. It is possible that death may follow upon such cruel smiting.

3. In such case the life of the vilest slaves is precious with God, and He requireth it with death (Exodus 21:20).

4. Correction due unto servants which endangers not life, is supposed lawful.

5. No governor is guilty by God’s law upon such due chastening.

6. Servants are the due purchase of their lords for their labours not for their lives.

7. The lives and comforts of poorest slaves are dear to God and secured by Him (Exodus 21:21). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Verses 22-25

Exodus 21:22-25

Life for life.

The criminal law: was it written in blood

The only sense in which retaliation was authorized was as a maxim of law, which helped to fix the measure of punishment for crime. It was the mode of punishment which was at once the simplest, the most natural, and the most easily administered. Indeed, in many cases it was the only mode possible. How would our modern reformers punish such offences? By putting the malefactor in prison? But where was the prison in the desert? In the desert the only possible penalty was one which could be inflicted on the person of the offender, and here the principle of strict retaliation for the crime committed, rigid as it may seem, was perfectly just. It was right that he who inflicted a wound upon his neighbour should feel himself how sharp and keen a wound may be; that he who ferociously tore his brother’s eye from its socket should forfeit his own. The law against murder followed the same inexorable rule--“life for life”; a law in which there was no element of pardon or pity. But Moses did not create it; it had been the law of the desert long before he was born. When that old bearded sheik of all the Bedaween of Sinai, sitting under the shadow of a great rock in the desert, explained to us the operation of the lex talionis in his tribe, he set before us not only that which now is, but that which has been from the very beginning of time. It was somewhat startling, indeed, to find that laws and customs which we had supposed to belong only to an extreme antiquity still lingered among these mountains and deserts. The avenger of blood might follow with swift foot upon the murderer’s track, and if he overtook him and put him to death the law held him free. But at the same time it gave the criminal a chance for his life. In the cities of refuge the manslayer was safe until he could have a fair trial . . . Perhaps nothing shows more the spirit of a law than the modes of execution for those who are to suffer its extreme penalty. It is not two hundred years since torture was laid aside by European nations. James the Second himself witnessed the wrenching of “the boot” as a favourite diversion. The assassin who struck Henry the Fourth was torn limb from limb by horses, under the eye of ladies of the court. The Inquisition stretched its victims on the rack. Other modes of execution, such as burning alive, sawing asunder, and breaking on the wheel, were common in Europe until a late period. The Turks impaled men, or flayed them alive; and tied women in sacks with serpents, and threw them into the Bosphorus. Among the ancients, punishments were still more excruciating. The Roman people, so famous for the justice of their laws, inflicted the supreme agony of crucifixion, in which the victim lingered dying for hours, or even days. After the capture of Jerusalem, Titus ordered two thousand Jews to be crucified. How does this act of the imperial Romans compare with the criminal law of “a semi-savage race”? Under the Hebrew code all these atrocities were unknown. Moses prescribed but two modes of capital punishment--the sword and stoning . . . And is this the law that was “written in blood “? No, not in blood, but in tears; for through the sternness of the lawgiver is continually breaking the heart of man. Behind the coat of mail that covers the breast of the warrior is sometimes found the heart of a woman. This union of gentleness with strength is one of the most infallible signs of a truly great nature. It is this mingling of the tender and the terrible that gives to the Hebrew law a character so unique--a majesty that awes with a gentleness that savours more of parental affection than of severity. Crime and its punishment is not in itself a pleasing subject to dwell on; but when on this dark background is thrown the light of such provisions for the poor and the weak, the effect is like the glow of sunset on the red granite of the Sinai mountains. Even the peaks that were hard and cold, look warm in the flood of sunlight which is poured over them all. Thus uniting the character of the supporter of weakness and protector of innocence with that of the punisher of crime, Moses appears almost as the divinity of his nation--as not only the founder of the Hebrew state, but as its guardian genius through all the periods of its history. When he went up into Mount Nebo, and stretched out his arm toward the Promised Land, he gave to that land the inestimable blessings of laws founded in eternal justice; and not only in justice, but in which humanity was embodied almost as much as in the precepts of religion. Nor was that law given for the Israelites alone. It was an inheritance for all ages and generations. That mighty arm was to protect the oppressed so long as human governments endure. Moses was the king of legislators, and to the code which he left rulers of all times have turned for instruction. (H. M. Field, D. D.)


1. God supposeth the cruel smitings of masters, but alloweth them not.

2. God foreseeth the sufferings of poor slaves, and provides in His law against it.

3. The perishing of the least member of servants, even of a tooth, God will require of superiors (verse 26).

4. God by His law depriveth those men of lordship, who abuse their power cruelly over servants.

5. Bond and free are equally considered by God in His law without respect of persons. He makes the oppressed free (verses 26, 27). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Stripe for stripe

A boy was one day sitting on the steps of a door. He had a broom in one hand, and in the other a large piece of bread-and-butter, which somebody had kindly given him. While he was eating it, and merrily humming a tune, he saw a poor little dog quietly sleeping not far from him. He called out to him: “Come here, poor fellow!” The dog, hearing himself kindly spoken to, rose, pricked up his ears, and wagged his tail. Seeing the boy eating, he came near him. The boy held out to him a piece of his bread-and-butter. As the dog stretched out his head to take it, the boy hastily drew back his hand, and hit him a hard rap on the nose. The poor dog ran away, howling most dreadfully, while the cruel boy sat laughing at the mischief he had done. A gentleman who was looking from a window on the other side of the street, saw what the wicked boy had done. Opening the street door, he called to him to cross over, at the same time holding up a sixpence between his finger and thumb. “Would you like this?” said the gentleman. “Yes, if you please, sir,” said the boy, smiling; and he hastily ran over to seize the money. Just at the moment that he stretched out his hand, he got so severe a rap on the knuckles from a cane which the gentleman had behind him, that he roared out like a bull. “What did you do that for?” said he, making a very long face, and rubbing his hand. “I didn’t hurt you, nor ask you for the sixpence.” “What did you hurt that poor dog for just now?” said the gentleman. “He didn’t hurt you, nor ask you for your bread-and-butter. As you served him, I have served you. Now, remember dogs can feel as well as boys, and learn to behave kindly towards dumb animals in future.” (Great Thoughts.)

Life for life

Herbert was yet of tender age when his father, the huntsman of Farmstein, was, in the heart of the forest, shot down by an unknown poacher. His mother brought up her fatherless boy as well as she could, and at the age of twenty, when he has become a skilful forester, he obtained his father’s situation. It happened that one day, when Herbert was hunting in the forest with many hunters, he shot at a large stag, and missed it. Presently a voice exclaimed piteously in the copse, “Oh, heaven! I am shot.” Herbert moved forward, and found an old man who was uttering loud groans, as he lay covered with blood. The whole company of hunters gathered around the dying man. Herbert, however, knelt down beside him and begged his forgiveness, protesting that he had not seen him. The dying man, however, said, “I have nothing to forgive you, for that which has hitherto been concealed from all the world shall now come to light. I am the poacher who shot your father just here, under this old oak. The very ground where we now are was dyed with his blood; and it has evidently been destined that you, the son of the murdered man, should on this precise spot, without any thought or intention of such a thing, avenge the act on me. God is just!” he exclaimed, and presently expired.

Equitable Judgment

“A Teuton made a little fortune here not long ago in the milk business, and decided to return to Germany and enjoy it in his old home. In the ship that was bearing him homeward was a mischievous monkey. The monkey, prying around one day, found a heavy bag and ran up to the masthead with it. The German clasped his hands in despair at seeing the bag; it was his money, all in gold. The monkey in a leisurely way pulled out a piece and flung it down to the deck, when the ex-milkman gathered it up. Then the beast tossed a second piece into the sea. Thus alternately the pieces went, one into the ocean and the next into the distracted man’s pocket. ‘Ah,’ said the ex-milkman, as he pocketed just half of what he had started with, ‘it is just. One-half of that milk I have sold was milk, and the money for it comes back; the other half was water, and half goes back to water.’”

Verses 28-36

Exodus 21:28-36

If an ox gore.

God’s regard for the safety of man and beast

God cares for the safety of man.

1. If an ox injured a man for the first time, the life of the ox only was forfeited (Exodus 21:28). But--

2. If the owner of the ox, acquainted with the proved vicious character of his beast, neglected to put him under restraint, and the ox killed his victim--as culpably negligent,--

(1) the owner was put to death; or--

(2) his life commuted for a fine.

God cares for the safety of the beast. Other Scriptures demonstrate this (Matthew 6:26, etc.).

Provision for the safety of others should be made.

1. This provision should be made promptly.

2. This provision should be permanent.


1. Beware of injuring your neighbour’s soul by an unguarded inconsistency.

2. Beware of injuring your neighbour’s friendship by any unguarded passion.

3. Beware of injuring your neighbour’s character by any unguarded word.

4. Beware of injuring your neighbour’s peace by any unguarded look or action.

5. In all matters concerning your neighbour, remember that “Whatsoever ye would,” etc. (J. W. Burn.)

The penalties of carelessness

Life is superior to property. The ox that had gored a man to death was to be killed, and put out of the way. The ox is stoned to death; and, legally, it would involve physical uncleanness to eat of the flesh.

The careless man is culpable. If the animal had been known to gore; if this fact had been testified to the owner, and proper precautions had not been taken, then the owner was in some measure participant in the evil doings of the vicious creature. Carelessness is culpable. He that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. To prevent evil by wise precaution is our bounden duty, and is an indirect method of doing good. All life is precious; but it seems to be indicated that some lives are more precious than others. Thirty shekels is a high price for some; but a hundred shekels would be a low price for others. After death has visited, then estimates nearer the truth of a man’s worth will be formed.

Man is responsible for preventable evil. If into the uncovered pit an ox or an ass fall, the owner of the pit shall make good the damage. Will the Almighty hold us responsible for the moral pits we have left uncovered? We have not placed precautionary signals in sufficient number along those highways where moral pits and quagmires abound. (W. Burrows, B. A.)

Punishment of criminal carelessness

If Moses had to regulate our legislation in reference to railway accidents, he would put it on altogether a new basis. If half-a-dozen people were killed and a score seriously injured through the mail running into a goods train, and Moses found that the engine driver who missed the signal had been on his engine twelve or fourteen hours, or that the pointsman who turned the mail into the goods siding had been kept at his post for, perhaps, a still longer period, I cannot help thinking that managers and directors would stand a chance of having a much, sharper punishment than they commonly receive now. And if criminal carelessness which might be fatal to life was punished by Moses with death, I think that fraudulent acts which are certain to injure the health and perhaps the life of the community, would have been punished by him not less severely. He would certainly have approved the sentence under which a few months ago a large farmer, greatly to his own astonishment and the astonishment of his friends, was put in prison for sending diseased meat to market; only I think that the old Jewish legislator would have inflicted a still heavier punishment--a few years’ penal servitude instead of a month or two’s imprisonment. Chemists, who adulterate the drugs on which the rescue of life depends--the rescue of the life not only of ordinary members of the community like ourselves, whom also Moses would have protected, but of men of science, poets, and statesmen, whose death would be a calamity to the nation, and to the world--would I think, have been made responsible by him for the death of those who perished through their fault; and if they were not stoned or hung for murder, which I think would have been possible, a criminal penalty so heavy would have been inflicted on them, and they would have been branded with such imfamy, that other evil-disposed persons would have feared to repeat the crime. (R. W. Dale, D. D.)

Responsibility respecting life

We have this principle certainly in our law, but with what beneficial effect a much wider application of it might be made! Look at a few instances of carelessness. There is a block of crowded, unventilated, and badly-drained houses, into which necessity drives the poor to herd, and where they sicken and die. Think you this principle would not lay hands on the owner of such property? Would it spare a corporation if it neglected to deal with a pestilence breeding quarter? Neither would trifling carelessness escape. What is trifling? A traveller goes to a strange hotel, and retires to damp sheets, and ever afterwards suffers from ill-health, sometimes speedily loses life. Think of the thousands who travel, and follow even one stricken one into a sorrowful and bereaved family! Carelessness, when seen in its consummation, speaks for itself. But worse than carelessness is selfishness which pursues its ends regardless of others. In the sloppy winter of the Franco-German war, an army contractor furnished boots with paper soles to the French. In the Crimean war we heard of manufacturers who supplied blankets which, so to speak, rotted on the backs of our soldiers. How much death and disaster was due to this selfishness! Because we cannot count the victims is there no guilt? Moses would say, if life be lost and can be traced to a man, let him atone for it; results must be dealt with. Life is the one sacred thing. Nor is it difficult to see that such a principle applies itself to the selfishness of those who by their trickery and roguery in business ruin the commerce of their country. Alas! for the advice because it is utopian, and more because it is needed, but it is true that no tribunal would better serve England at this juncture than one which held the terror of moral justice over manufacturers who send out worthless goods and taint our honest name, and impair our credit the wide world over. They rob others, and they destroy their country. There are traitors to-day as real as those who in olden days took a bribe and sold their armies or their castles to the enemy. (W. Senior, B. A.)

A needful warning

On a cold Sabbath morning in February, a gentleman was walking along, somewhat hastily, through the snow. He noticed a bright-looking little lad standing upon the pavement, with his cap in his hand and his eyes fixed upon one spot on the sidewalk. As he approached him he looked up to him, and pointing to the place, said, “Please don’t step there, sir. I slipped there and fell down.” What a different world this would be if all Christians were as particular as this lad to warn others against dangers, whether temporal or spiritual. (Christian Herald.)

A danger signal

At Saltcoats, not very far from the shore, stands a beacon in the winter. If you were to ask any one who belongs to that place, why it is there, you would be told this story:--“A merchant from Glasgow, with his family, was residing there for the summer months. One morning the merchant went out to bathe before breakfast, and he thought he was quite safe as long as he kept near the shore. But there was a pit there which he did not know anything of, and into this pit he fell, and nothing more was seen or heard of him. After this accident a beacon was put up as a warning to all others to keep from the spot.” What were the feelings that prompted this beacon to be put up? It must have been feelings of love to keep all others from danger. (Christian Herald.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Exodus 21". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/exodus-21.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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