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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Exodus 21

 

 

Introduction

THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:33).

In Exodus 24:7 we read of a ‘book of the covenant’ written by Moses (see Exodus 24:4). Logically this must include the Sinai covenant and what follows, for the Sinai covenant was not made known to the people (they heard it as though it were thunder and the sound of a trumpet) until revealed to them by Moses. Some, however, see the book of the covenant as starting at Exodus 20:22 commencing with the words, ‘and Yahweh said to Moses’, but as these are provisions extending the Sinai covenant and gain their validity through it we would argue that The Book of the Covenant commences here, although not denying that it is in two sections. This is confirmed by Exodus 24:3 where Moses speaks to the people ‘all the words of Yahweh and all the judgments’. The ‘judgments’ are in Exodus 20:21 onwards (see Exodus 21:1), ‘all the words’ must surely refer to the ten words and Exodus 20:22-26.

Note to Christians.

As we look at this chapter, we as the true Israel, the Israel of God, made up of the descendants of those Jews who first came to Jesus Christ in such abundance to form the new Israel (‘My congregations’ - Matthew 16:18), and of all who through their testimony and its after effects have come to Him and been incorporated into the new Israel, can take to ourselves the words of His covenant. We can recognise in it our calling to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 20:6 above; 1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9) and a holy nation (Exodus 20:6 above; 1 Peter 2:9), and rejoice in the fact that we are a people for His special possession (Exodus 20:5 above; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9). And hearing of the splendour of the revelation of God at Sinai, we can recognise afresh that we deal with a holy and powerful God, Who has not changed. What has changed is that Jesus Christ having been offered for the sins of the world, we can approach Him without fear if our hearts are right towards Him.

End of note.

Further Covenant Provisions (Exodus 21:1 to Exodus 23:33).

Exodus 21:1

“Now these are the judgments that you will set before them.”

Having made known His covenant, and having established how they must approach Him, Yahweh now provides detailed treatment on particular cases. These are mainly in the form of case law (casuistic) based on specific examples, with an occasional reference to apodictic law (direct command from God - a rare form of law outside Israel probably mainly restricted to patriarchal societies). The first example is of Hebrew bondmen and Hebrew bondwomen. This demonstrates that a good number of such must have come out of Egypt attached to Israelite families, and it shows Yahweh’s concern for those who were now in bondage as Israel had been in Egypt. Other law codes put slaves well down in the list. They were of little account.

Law codes were fairly common in the Ancient Near East. There were the laws of Ur-nammu of Ur, Lipit Ishtar of Isin (2100 BC), the laws of Eshnunna and of Hammurapi of Babylon (1750 BC) as well as Hittite law codes and considerable written material dealing with casuistic law. They were not comprehensive and by no means dealt with all circumstances, even common ones such as arson. Perhaps some of them reflected rather changes in the law. Thus like Biblical law there were gaps which were covered by custom rather than code. Indeed the law codes were rarely quoted in court. Whether they were for the use of judges or simply a propaganda exercise is a matter of debate. Possibly a little of both. The difference in Israel is that their laws were promulgated by God, and in the end enforceable by Him.

The covenant provisions that follow are carefully gathered into groups, mainly following a chiastic format.

Regulations With Regard to Slaves and Violence To Fellowmen (Exodus 21:2-27).

It is always difficult to appreciate the ancient mind and its working, but there is a case here for seeing a chiastic pattern in Exodus 21:2-27, especially in the light of clearer examples elsewhere. We may analyse it as follows:

a Dealings with a Hebrew slave (Exodus 21:2-6).

b Dealings with a daughter sold with a view to marriage and childbearing, if buyer does not marry her he must compensate (Exodus 21:7-11).

c Manslayers to die but a way of escape if innocent (Exodus 21:12-13).

d If a man slays with guile he is to be put to death (Exodus 21:14).

e He who smites father and mother to be put to death (Exodus 21:15).

f Kidnappers to be put to death (Exodus 21:16).

e He who curses father and mother to be put to death (Exodus 21:17).

d If one who contends smites another and he does not die he must pay costs (Exodus 21:18-19).

c Slayers of servants by beating to be punished, but escape if there is delay in dying (Exodus 21:20-21).

b Striving which hurts a woman and affects childbearing to be punished, but if the wife dies he shall die (Exodus 21:22-25).

a Dealings in respect to injury to slaves (Exodus 21:26-27).

Thus ‘a’ and its parallel contrast dealings with slaves, ‘b’ and its parallel contrast dealings with women affected by a man’s behaviour, punishment depending on result, ‘c’ and its parallel contrast manslayers of nativeborn and slave but with a possible way of escape depending on circumstances, ‘d’ and its parallel simply contrast a manslayer with a possible manslayer, ‘e’ and its parallel contrast behaviour towards father and mother. The build up of it all around ‘f’ brings out the heinousness of kidnapping in ancient eyes.

These laws probably expand on those already established by Moses (Exodus 15:25). As time went by expansion would always be necessary.


Verse 1

Further Covenant Provisions (Exodus 21:1 to Exodus 23:33).

Exodus 21:1

“Now these are the judgments that you will set before them.”

Having made known His covenant, and having established how they must approach Him, Yahweh now provides detailed treatment on particular cases. These are mainly in the form of case law (casuistic) based on specific examples, with an occasional reference to apodictic law (direct command from God - a rare form of law outside Israel probably mainly restricted to patriarchal societies). The first example is of Hebrew bondmen and Hebrew bondwomen. This demonstrates that a good number of such must have come out of Egypt attached to Israelite families, and it shows Yahweh’s concern for those who were now in bondage as Israel had been in Egypt. Other law codes put slaves well down in the list. They were of little account.

Law codes were fairly common in the Ancient Near East. There were the laws of Ur-nammu of Ur, Lipit Ishtar of Isin (2100 BC), the laws of Eshnunna and of Hammurapi of Babylon (1750 BC) as well as Hittite law codes and considerable written material dealing with casuistic law. They were not comprehensive and by no means dealt with all circumstances, even common ones such as arson. Perhaps some of them reflected rather changes in the law. Thus like Biblical law there were gaps which were covered by custom rather than code. Indeed the law codes were rarely quoted in court. Whether they were for the use of judges or simply a propaganda exercise is a matter of debate. Possibly a little of both. The difference in Israel is that their laws were promulgated by God, and in the end enforceable by Him.

The covenant provisions that follow are carefully gathered into groups, mainly following a chiastic format.


Verses 1-36

Expansion of the Ten Words of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33).

In this section, which is composed of elements put together mainly in chiastic form (see later), Yahweh expands on the Ten Words of the covenant. Notice that it begins with ‘and Yahweh said to Moses’. This proceeds as follows:

a Instructions concerning future worship in obedience to the commandments in Exodus 20:3-5, for He will be with them and record His name in places where they go (Exodus 20:22-26).

b Instructions concerning bondservants remembering the manservants and maidservants in mentioned in Exodus 20:10 (Exodus 21:1-11).

c Instructions concerning those who cause death or injury and those who dishonour their parents in obedience to Exodus 20:12-13 (Exodus 21:12-36).

d Instructions concerning a neighbour’s goods in obedience to Exodus 20:15; Exodus 20:17 (Exodus 22:1-15).

d Instruction concerning the forcing of virgins, who belong to their families, which connects with Exodus 20:14; Exodus 20:17 (Exodus 22:16-17).

c Instructions concerning wrong attitudes which connect with wider implications from the words of the covenant, which include some for which the penalty is death, and the need for avoidance of dishonourable conduct (Exodus 22:18 to Exodus 23:11).

b Instructions concerning the Sabbath (compare Exodus 20:8-9) and the regular feasts (Exodus 23:12-19).

a Yahweh’s resulting promise that His Angel will go with them until the land is theirs, finishing with a warning against idolatry (Exodus 23:20-23).

We should note here that in ‘a’ the approach to and worship of Yahweh is in mind, and His recording of His name in places as they go on their way, and they are warned against idolatry, and in the parallel the Angel of Yahweh is to go with them and they are warned against idolatry. In ‘b’ we are instructed concerning bondmen and bondwomen and in the parallel the Sabbath is dealt with which, in the announcing of the covenant, contained reference to the rights of menservants and maidservant (Exodus 20:9). The bondmen also had a right to enjoy a seven year sabbath. It may be this connection which decided the positioning of this law prior to those concerning murder and theft. In ‘c’ we have reference to death and violence, while in the parallel death is the sentence for some of the crimes mentioned. In ‘d’ we have reference to misappropriation of people’s goods, and in the parallel misappropriation of their daughters.


Verses 2-6

Regulations With Regard to Slaves and Violence To Fellowmen (Exodus 21:2-27).

It is always difficult to appreciate the ancient mind and its working, but there is a case here for seeing a chiastic pattern in Exodus 21:2-27, especially in the light of clearer examples elsewhere. We may analyse it as follows:

a Dealings with a Hebrew slave (Exodus 21:2-6).

b Dealings with a daughter sold with a view to marriage and childbearing, if buyer does not marry her he must compensate (Exodus 21:7-11).

c Manslayers to die but a way of escape if innocent (Exodus 21:12-13).

d If a man slays with guile he is to be put to death (Exodus 21:14).

e He who smites father and mother to be put to death (Exodus 21:15).

f Kidnappers to be put to death (Exodus 21:16).

e He who curses father and mother to be put to death (Exodus 21:17).

d If one who contends smites another and he does not die he must pay costs (Exodus 21:18-19).

c Slayers of servants by beating to be punished, but escape if there is delay in dying (Exodus 21:20-21).

b Striving which hurts a woman and affects childbearing to be punished, but if the wife dies he shall die (Exodus 21:22-25).

a Dealings in respect to injury to slaves (Exodus 21:26-27).

Thus ‘a’ and its parallel contrast dealings with slaves, ‘b’ and its parallel contrast dealings with women affected by a man’s behaviour, punishment depending on result, ‘c’ and its parallel contrast manslayers of nativeborn and slave but with a possible way of escape depending on circumstances, ‘d’ and its parallel simply contrast a manslayer with a possible manslayer, ‘e’ and its parallel contrast behaviour towards father and mother. The build up of it all around ‘f’ brings out the heinousness of kidnapping in ancient eyes.

These laws probably expand on those already established by Moses (Exodus 15:25). As time went by expansion would always be necessary.

Regulations Concerning Hebrew Bondmen and Bondwomen (Exodus 21:2-11).

It must be seen as quite remarkable that this coverage of the detail of the ‘judgments’ of the Law from Exodus 21-23, begins with these regulations concerning Hebrew bondmen, even prior to those dealing with the fact of the taking of human life. It demonstrates God’s care for the weak and vulnerable, but probably arises because of the mention of menservants and maidservants in the fourth ‘word’ concerning the Sabbath. ‘Hebrews’, if we associate them with the Habiru, had no protector, only God. They were a no-people. And thus His people must have His attitude towards them, for God is the God of the under-privileged. God is saying here, ‘before we consider the details of My commandments regulating your behaviour to each other, let us consider these who are a no-people without protection. Because you are my people you must care for the weak, and vulnerable, and helpless’. They were not only not to make them work on the Sabbath, they must grant them a Sabbath at the end of their term of service.

Alternately we might see that the emphasis here is on the problem of a wife married to such a person while serving in an Israelite household, the question being as to what her position is. The answer given here is quite clear. She must not be taken outside the covenant. If the Hebrew man goes out he goes out by himself, unless he brought his wife with him. If he wishes to retain a wife whom he has wed in an Israelite household he must himself remain within the covenant.

This passage may be analysed as follows:

a If a Hebrew bondman is bought he serves for six years and in the seventh goes out free for nothing (Exodus 20:2)

b If he come in by himself he goes out by himself. If he be married (when he comes in) then his wife shall go out with him (Exodus 20:3).

c If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons and daughters, the wife and children shall be her master’s and he goes out by himself (Exodus 20:4).

b If the bondman plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children, I will not go out free’ (Exodus 20:5).

a Then he is brought to God and his ear pierced and nailed to the door or doorpost and he will serve him for ever (Exodus 20:6).

Note that in ‘a’ the bondman goes out free for nothing, in the parallel he binds himself to his master and does not go out because he loves master, wife and children. In ‘b’ his wife whom he brought with him goes out with him, but in the parallel he remains for the love of his wife whom he has married while in the Israelite household. It may be argued that the central point is ‘c’, that a wife given to him while he is in an Israelite household may not go out with him, for that would be for her to be lost to the covenant.

Exodus 21:2-4

“If you buy a Hebrew bondman he shall serve for six years and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he come in by himself he shall go out by himself. If he be married then his wife shall go out with him. If his master give him a wife and she bear him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out by himself.”

At first these provisions seem a little harsh. But further consideration reveals their logic. Firstly we must consider what is probably meant by a Hebrew bondman.

Early Israel never thought of themselves as ‘Hebrews’. That came much later. They were called Hebrews by outsiders and would refer to themselves as Hebrews when speaking to outsiders, but it was not a name they ordinarily applied to themselves (see Genesis 14:13; Genesis 39:14; Genesis 39:17; Genesis 41:12; Exodus 1:15 to Exodus 2:13). Abram was ‘the Hebrew’ to the people who composed the covenant described in Genesis 14. Joseph was a Hebrew in Potiphar’s house and to the chief butler. The children of Israel were Hebrews to Pharaoh. But in all cases the description related to outsiders. It is not a name that Yahweh would apply to them or that they would apply to themselves in internal affairs.

But the reason foreigners saw them as ‘Hebrews’ was because they saw them as landless and stateless like the Habiru. These Habiru had a long history but in all cases they were landless and stateless (although at some stage some settled down just as Israel did). They could be mercenaries, slaves, shepherds, miners etc. but they stood out as belonging to no country. This was why Israel were seen as Habiru by others, (although it is possible that much later they themselves then took the name and altered it to ‘Hebrew’ in their writings to connect back to their ancestor Eber, making it respectable, although there is a slight difference etymologically).

This being so the Hebrew bondman who is in mind is such a person, a landless and stateless person who has been bought into regulated bondage by an Israelite. He is a person of no status. It is quite probable that there were many such ‘Hebrew’ bondmen among the children of Israel, for they had been in Egypt where such bondmen would be available, and poverty would have brought others to that situation.

There were a variety of different forms of service in Israel (and among their neighbours). Putting it at its most simple these included hired servants, debt slaves who had to work of a debt by a period of service, and people who entered into a bond to perform service for a certain period in return for an initial payment or a guarantee of a livelihood or some other basis of obligation (bondsmen). The Habiru often survived in this way so that ‘a Hebrew bondman’ probably means that this man was taken on as a Habiru. Then there were foreign slaves who were purchased or captured. Their position was permanent. And so on. Leviticus 25:39-41 says that no Israelite must be enslaved by another Israelite. He may be purchased but he must be treated as though he were a hired servant and released in the year of yubile. There the idea was of a semi-permanent ‘slavery’ situation, but somewhat ameliorated because the person was an Israelite. That is different from here for this is a recognised seven year contract.

Note first that here the Hebrew bondman can only be bound for six years (in a seven year contract). Apart from a captive in war no outsider was to be ‘enslaved’ for more than six years. We are told later that this is because the children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt and should therefore remember and be merciful as they have received mercy (Deuteronomy 15:12). Then he is to go out free for nothing, and is to be well provided for (Deuteronomy 15:13-14). If he brought his wife with him she is a ‘Hebrew’ woman and can therefore go out with him. But if he is married to someone (who is probably not ‘a Hebrew’), whom he has received from his master, then he goes out alone. He cannot take his wife and children outside the covenant community to share his statelessness. They belong to Yahweh and must therefore remain within the community. They remain with their master, to be released in due course depending on their status.

It is significant in this regard that at Nuzi we learn that Hapiru there similarly entered into limited servitude, a servitude similarly limited to seven years, after which their obligation ended. Israel was to be more generous. Theirs was also to be a seven year contract but they were to give him the seventh year free so that his obligation finished after six years, thus taking into account the principles of the Sabbath year. So the seven year contract for Hapiru/Habiru seems to be a general custom of the time. As Deuteronomy points out this was double the normal length of service for an Israelite (Deuteronomy 15:18). Three years are the years of a hired servant (Isaiah 16:14).

The principle that the wife remained behind was merciful for two reasons. Firstly such a wife may find the life of a ‘Hebrew’ hard to bear, and secondly if she went she might be removed from Yahweh’s mercy in the covenant. This was a possibility that could not be allowed.

But the Hebrew slave was faced with an alternative. If he loved his wife and wanted to remain with her there was a course of action he could take. He could become an ‘ebed ‘olam (a perpetual henchman), regularly someone of value and importance. Such slaves were known from elsewhere and are mentioned at Ugarit. This might also especially appeal to an older person without family, or someone who might find it difficult to build a life on the ‘outside’. They would have a place for life in a satisfactory environment, loving and being loved.

Exodus 21:5-6

“But if the bondman shall say plainly, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children. I will not go out free’. Then his master shall bring him to God, and will bring him to the door or to the door post, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever.”

In order to keep a wife obtained within the covenant community the Hebrew must become a member of the covenant community for ever. Thus he must declare his love for his master, his wife and his children. The love for the master may be to him a secondary matter in real terms if he loved his wife but to the Law it was important that the idea be maintained. It must not be seen as forced on him, for he has the choice. Then his ear is pierced to the tent pole or door post and he becomes a bondman for ever.

“Then his master shall bring him to God.” Possibly a priest had to be called in (at this time probably a head of family) to oversee the ceremony so that all was done in his presence as representing God.

The piercing of the ear would result in the shedding of blood, and the blood sealed the covenant. Furthermore he is brought to the door. This would at this stage be the door of the tent. Later when they received the land of promise it would be a door with door posts. And the awl is then passed through the ear and into the tent pole or door post (Deuteronomy 15:17). This might be seen as symbolising his permanent attachment to this home. But from then on he is a bondman for ever.

If this seems harsh we must remember that such a person may have nowhere to go, and he would thus be exchanging an uncertain future for a certain future with a good master. That it is conceived of as a possible choice demonstrates that such a life was not necessarily one of continuing harshness. Such a slave could well be beloved. But no genuine Israelite would wish to be a bondman for ever, for at the year of yubile (soon to be established - Leviticus 25:13) his family land would be returned to him, which argues against this referring to an Israelite.

While this seems to be a form of slavery it is so by choice. The initial contract was a normal commercial contract and his keep and any benefits he obtained were his wages, and the contract gave him security.

However, we must point out that many commentators see this Hebrew bondman as being an Israelite in bondage for his keep, although it is difficult to see in this case why there should be this unusual mention of ‘Hebrew’. Why not an Israelite bondman? In this case the provision regarding wife and children is purely a commercial one. They do not go out with him because they still belong to their master. And in this case also he can choose to become a permanent bondman.


Verses 7-11

Provision in Respect of A Woman Sold To Be A Slave Wife.

The remaining provisions protected a woman sold to be a slave wife permanently and were necessary for her. It meant that she could not be discarded when older. It will be noted that this system allowed a form of divorce. It was not really God’s purpose, but controlled a system that already existed because of the hardness of their hearts.

We may analyse this as follows:

a A woman bought with promises of marriage could not be treated in the same way as other bondservants (Exodus 21:7).

b If she does not please her master who has espoused her to him, then he must let her be redeemed (Exodus 21:8).

c He must not sell her to a other than her own family (to a strange people) (Exodus 21:8).

c If he espouse her to his son he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters (Exodus 21:9).

b If he takes for himself another for wife, her food, her clothing and duty of marriage he shall not diminish (Exodus 21:10).

a And if he do not these three to her then shall she go out for nothing without money (Exodus 21:11).

In ‘a’ reference is made to a woman bought with promises of marriage, in the parallel it is stressed that if not rightly treated she is to go out free, without cost. In ‘b’ we have the situation where the man, although having betrothed her to himself, decides that he will seek another wife. In that case she must be returned to her own family at an agreed price. A betrothed woman was seen in most respects as already married to her betrothed, thus this is tantamount to a divorce. In the parallel, where the man as an alternative marries another wife he may not keep the slave wife and diminish her portions. She must be treated in all respects as a true wife. In ‘c’ He must not sell her to others (the purchase was so that he could marry her and he is restricted to that). In the parallel he may marry her to his son.

Exodus 21:7-11

“And if a man sell his daughter to be a female bondservant she shall not go out as the male bondservants do. If she please not her master who has espoused her to him, then shall he let her be redeemed. He shall have no power to sell her to a strange people seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouse her to his son he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he takes for himself another for wife, her food, her clothing and duty of marriage he shall not diminish. And if he do not these three to her then shall she go out for nothing without money.”

The contrast with ‘the male bondservants’ (Exodus 21:7), which presumably looks back to the previous verses, suggests that we are here dealing with a Hebrew woman sold by her father for the purpose of marriage. The corresponding situation in Nuzi was that a Hapiru may sell his daughter either conditionally or unconditionally. If sold unconditionally the sale was outright. (With Israel the regulations in respect of bondmen and as in Deuteronomy 15:12-17 would then apply). If sold conditionally it was so that the girl should be adopted into the family of the purchaser, with a marriage situation in view. Thus at some stage they would have a responsibility for arranging her marriage. This is the example in view here.

If the master espouses the girl to himself and then finds that she is not pleasing he must allow her to be redeemed, probably to be bought back by her father at a mutually agreed price which was reasonable taking into account the poverty which had caused the original sale. He must be willing to suffer loss because he has dealt with the girl deceitfully. He may not sell her on to a strange people (that is, someone not of the family circle). Alternately it may mean that she could be sold to another Israelite, but not to a foreigner, thus keeping her within the covenant. But this seems less likely and would not really be redemption.

The alternative was that he may espouse her to his son. In this case she must be treated as a proper daughter.

If he marries her and then takes another wife he must treat her properly. He must not reduce her food and clothing, nor may he refuse her her conjugal rights.

If he does none of these things he must let her go free at no cost. She is to be released immediately. This proviso supports the view that the possible redemption is by the impoverished father. If no agreement can be reached the master gets nothing, a good incentive to reaching a reasonable agreement given all the circumstances.

The importance of this law for us today is that it lays down a principle, the principle of fair treatment for those for whom we are responsible as employers or hirers. It emphasises that we are to treat them better than others do, and must not manipulate them.


Verses 12-21

Regulations in Respect of Extreme Violence to Another (Exodus 21:12-21).

The following regulations all deal with extreme violence towards others. This came first in matters to do with behaviour towards each other.

We may analyse this passage as follows:

a Manslayers to die but a way of escape if innocent (Exodus 21:12-13).

b If a man slays with guile he is to be put to death (Exodus 21:14).

c He who smites father and mother to be put to death (Exodus 21:15).

d Kidnappers to be put to death (Exodus 21:16).

c He who curses father and mother to be put to death (Exodus 21:17).

b If one who contends smites another and he does not die he must pay costs (Exodus 21:18-19).

a Slayers of bondservants by beating to be punished, but escape if there is delay in dying (Exodus 21:20-21).

In ‘a’ manslayers are to die if the slaying was deliberate, in the parallel bondservant slayers are to be punished if the slaying was seen as deliberate. In ‘b’ to slay a man by guile was to be subject to the death penalty, but in the parallel where the person does not actually die costs must be paid. In ‘c’ the one who smites father and mother must be put to death, in the parallel the one who curses father and mother is to be put to death.

Exodus 21:12-14

“He who smites a man so that he die shall surely be put to death. And if a man does not lie in wait, but God delivers him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. And if a man come presumptuously on his neighbour, to kill him by guile, you will take him from my altar that he may die.”

For the deliberate murderer there was only the death penalty (there were no prisons in which he could be incarcerated long term). For such there could be no refuge. Even if he sought sanctuary at the altar (compare 1 Kings 2:29 with 1 Kings 2:31) it would do him no good for his blood guilt deprived him of the right. But in the case of an accidental killing a place will be provided to which that person can flee. Initially this would be to find sanctuary at the altar until satisfactory recompense could be found. Later on places would be provided called Cities of Refuge (Numbers 35).

The penalty would be carried out by the avengers of blood (Numbers 35:19). These were members of the same family as the victim (compare Genesis 4:14; Genesis 9:6), theoretically at least acting on behalf of the community. It was their responsibility to bring a murderer to justice. But, if the killer sought refuge, vengeance could only take place once the courts had agreed that the killing was deliberate (Numbers 35:24-27).

“God delivers him into his hand.” That is, the death was accidental. It is ‘an act of God’, not deliberate. This law brings out the sanctity of human life. The deliberate intent to kill cannot be excused.

Exodus 21:15

“And he who smites his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”

In a patriarchal society the leader was father of the clan, and then authority went downwards to the fathers of sub-clans or family groups until the lowest authority was reached, the father of the family. Each was seen, within his sphere, as standing, as it were, along with his wife, in the place of God. That is why the command to honour father and mother received such prominence (Exodus 20:12). To smite such was like striking a judge or even God. It was to hit at recognised authority and demanded the death penalty. By this the authority of the parents was firmly established. It is the principle that is important. Not every father would demand the death penalty for his son, circumstances would be taken into account.

In the Code of Hammurapi a son who lifted up his hand against his parents was to have his hands cut off.

Exodus 21:16

“And he who steals a man, and sells him, or if he is found in his possession, he shall surely be put to death.”

This refers to kidnapping. The enforced illicit enslavery of people within the community was punishable by death. That this is the central statement in the chiastic arrangement demonstrates its importance. Hittite law judges kidnapping more severely than murder. It was quite clearly looked on with horror.

Exodus 21:17

“And he who curses (reviles) his father and mother shall surely be put to death.”

This is on the same principle as Exodus 21:15. The word for ‘reviling’ or ‘cursing’ is very strong, far stronger than just grumbling or complaining about, or even railing at. For the word see, for example, 2 Samuel 16:5; 2 Kings 2:24; Genesis 12:3; Genesis 8:21. It suggests intention to do grievous harm. This is spoken of someone rebelling against all authority.

Exodus 21:18-19

“And if men contend and one smites the other with a stone, or with his fist, and he does not die but is laid up in bed, if he gets up again and walks out using his staff, then he who smote him will be free of any charge, only he will pay for his loss of time from work (literally ‘for his ceasing’) and ensure he is fully healed.”

Where men have a disagreement, injury caused which is serious enough to put one in bed for some time must be compensated for, but as long as the wounded person is not permanently bedridden, that is all that is required. The victim must not suffer financial loss for it and the aggressor must pay his medical bills.

In the Code of Hammurapi the aggressor has to take an oath that he did not intend to kill and must compensate for loss of time. Hittite law requires that a third party be paid to do the injured man’s work.

“With his fist.” The word for ‘fist’ is rare (here and Isaiah 58:4) and may indicate a tool or instrument.

Exodus 21:20-21

“And if a man smite his bondman or his maid with a stick, and he die under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding if he continue alive for a day or two he shall not be punished. For he is his wealth.”

Vicious treatment by a master of a bondman with a stick that might cause death is to be punished where death results within a day or two. That this punishment is usually death is not stated but might be suggested by the fact that this law is placed among laws which continually relate to the death penalty, which cease at Exodus 21:23 (but see Exodus 21:29 also. However redemption is possible there). Possibly it depended on the level of provocation which could be considered by the judges.

Otherwise, if the bondman survives for two days and then dies, consideration is given to the fact that the master has lost his services for good, which has cost him the equivalent in silver. The fact that the man does not die immediately suggests that the death was not intended. Permanent injury such as loss of an eye or a tooth will result in the bondman being released (Exodus 21:26-27).

Other law codes outside Israel have less concern for bondmen. They are more concerned about compensation to the master if an outsider wounds the bondman. So this is outstandingly humane for the time and treats bondmen as human beings and not as mere chattels.


Verses 22-27

Regulations Concerning the Causing of Injury (Exodus 21:22-27).

This may be analysed as follows:

a Where a pregnant woman loses her child in a fight but the woman is not brought close to death (no mischief follows) then the man will be fined as determined by the court.

b If the woman is badly hurt or dies the punishment will be in accordance with the injury life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth (Exodus 21:22-25).

a Where a bondservant or bondmaid are fairly badly injured, for example by losing an eye or losing a tooth, they must be given their freedom (Exodus 21:26-27).

Here the two examples in ‘a’ and its parallel, where there is injury but not injury that brings close to death, are both built around ‘b’.

Exodus 21:22-25

“And if men strive together and hurt a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, and yet nothing serious follows, he will surely be fined if the woman’s husband lays a charge against him and he will pay as the judges determine. But if anything serious follows then you will give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

A man who is deemed to cause a miscarriage in a woman who is not his wife, as a result of a tussle with another man, is liable to a fine, the amount of which will be decided by the judges on the facts of the case. But only if nothing more serious develops. The hurt is seemingly physical so somehow she must have become involved in the fight, either deliberately or accidentally.

“Lays a charge against him.” Literally ‘according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him’. This could mean the husband helps to decide the penalty (compare Exodus 21:30). But the judges have the final say.

But if the injury is more serious then he will be punished according to the level of the injury. The purpose of this law is to ensure people pay special attention to pregnant women and are more careful when they are around, and reminds them of their special vulnerability. It teaches us concern for pregnant women.

“Eye for eye, ------ stripe for stripe.” This is clearly a technical statement, regularly quoted, covering all situations. It is thus quoted here in full even though only a part could apply to the case. Deuteronomy 19:21 quotes the first part only, while Leviticus 24:20 applies a part specifically to the case in question.

The principle (called later ‘the lex talionis’) was widespread in early societies and widely accepted. It put a limit on how far people could go in seeking revenge for injury while satisfying their sense for justice. It was not always strictly carried out and often other compensation was accepted instead. But it did act as a brake on excessive revenge.

The principle behind all these laws is the recognition of the sacredness of human life in God’s eyes, and the concern that punishment be in accordance with the seriousness of the crime and not be based on revenge. The circumstances under which we live may be different but the same principles of justice can be applied.

Exodus 21:26-27

‘And if a man smite the eye of his bondman, or the eye of his bondmaid, and destroy it, he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he knock out his bondman’s tooth or his bondmaid’s tooth, the shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.’

The punishment for permanent injury to a bondman or bondwoman is the cancellation of the bond. The man or woman goes free.


Verses 28-36

Regulations For Injuries In Connection With Beasts (Exodus 21:28-36).

In this section there is a very basic chiasmus:

a Punishment for the goring of a man or woman (Exodus 21:28-32).

b Punishment in respect of a beast falling into an open pit (Exodus 28:33-34).

a Punishment for the goring of a beast (Exodus 21:35-36).

Exodus 21:28-31

“And if an ox gore a man or a woman and death results the ox will certainly be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten. But the owner of the ox shall be free from blame. But if the ox was in the habit of goring previously, and the owner had been told, and he had not kept it in, with the result that it killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and his owner also shall be put to death. If there be laid on him a ransom, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is laid on him, whether he have gored a son or have gored a daughter, it shall be done to him according to this judgment.”

A man is not to be blamed for an unexpected attack by an ox even though death results. The only punishment is the slaying of the ox by stoning. It has been rendered blood guilty. Furthermore its meat could not be eaten. It belonged to God in reparation. But if the ox had a reputation for goring people and the owner had not restricted it, then the owner is guilty of manslaughter if it kills someone, and must be put to death. There is, however, in this exceptional case the possible alternative of a ‘ransom.’ (Presumably because the killing was not the direct action of the owner - compare Numbers 35:31-32 where no ransom is allowed for a deliberate manslayer).

“If there be laid on him a ransom.” There is the alternative that the owner can pay a ransom fixed by the court and save his own life. He can be redeemed by the payment of a price. The choice as to whether a ransom can be accepted possibly rests solely in the hands of the court, but it may require the consent of the family of the deceased who may help to fix the level of the ransom (compare Exodus 21:22).

“The ox will certainly be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten.” The guilty animal must in all cases be put to death. And because it is blood guilty its flesh cannot be eaten. This may partly be due to the fact that being deprived of any benefit from the oxen is the sole punishment in some cases of the owner. But it is also a recognition that killing is an evil beyond all evils. The killer is marked off as solely in the hands of God, to be dealt with as He will. It is tabu.

In the Law Code of Hammurabi it was laid down that when an ox killed a man nothing needed to be done, but if it killed a man and was known to be dangerous then a fine should be paid. Life was not seen as quite so important there.

From our point of view there is a warning here about being concerned for the safety of others. These laws build up a background of righteous behaviour that can be applied to many situations. As we study them we learn from them the principles on which they are based, fairness, thoughtfulness and responsibility.

Exodus 21:32

“If the ox gore a bondman or a bondwoman he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.”

In this case the ransom is fixed because thirty shekels is the price of a bondman so that there is no argument.

The principle lying behind these laws is that of the responsibility of an owner for anything he owns which is dangerous. He is responsible to ensure that it can cause no harm. And secondly that blame should not be attached for what could not be foreseen.

Exodus 21:33-34

“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 falls in it, the owner of the pit shall make it good. He shall give money to their owner and the dead beast shall be his.”

A man is responsible to safeguard any pit, well or cistern that he has dug or opened, for they should be covered. So if an ox or ass falls into them he must make recompense, but keeps the carcass. The principle is that someone should not lose through another’s negligence. It reminds us today that God is concerned about our being concerned for the fate of others, including animals.

Exodus 21:35-36

“And if one man’s ox hurt another’s so that it dies, then they will sell the live ox and divide what is obtained for it, and they will also divide the dead one. Or if it is known that the ox had a tendency to gore in the past, and his owner has not kept him in, he shall surely pay ox for ox and the dead beast shall be his own.”

Where there is accidental loss through a misbehaving ox any loss is divided between the two parties, but where the misbehaving ox already had a reputation for goring, the owner should have kept it under control, therefore he is responsible for any loss of the innocent party. He does, however, receive the dead animal and can sell its hide. It seems that at this stage the meat could also be eaten or sold.

Leviticus 17:15-16 expresses disfavour at the eating of such an animal that ‘dies of itself’, either by homeborn or stranger, but as long as the blood is not eaten it only renders the person unclean, a position to be remedied by ritual washing and waiting until the evening. But Deuteronomy 14:21 forbids such food to God’s people because the people are holy to Yahweh. It may, however, be given to ‘strangers’ or foreigners. But no specific consequence is outlined. Both therefore express disapproval, any seeming contradiction probably depending on the type of ‘stranger’ in question, whether temporary, semi-permament or permanent, or on the fact that Israelites were ignoring the law so that it had to be tightened up.

The code of Hammurapi and the Hittite Laws have fairly similar regulations to these above and what follows. Such laws were required in all farming communities. These laws teach us that we have a responsibility to ensure that what we have is not a danger to others and that we must be fair in our dealings, making compensation when it is our fault.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 21:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/exodus-21.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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