Exodus 21


‘These are the laws you are to set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.’ Exodus 21:1-6

Hebrew Servants

We must remember among the Hebrews didn’t really exist at this point in time, but He knew that when one became so indebted to another that he would have to give himself to the service of another until his debt was paid.

God’s main concern here is the conduct of His own people, the problem of foreign slaves was dealt with later, Leviticus 25:44-46.

How did a person become a slave?
1. He could sell himself to get out of debt, 2 Kings 4:1.
2. He could be sold by his parents in need of money, Nehemiah 5:2.

If a man was struck with poverty, he could sell himself as a slave to a fellow Hebrew. However, after serving his master for six years, in the seventh year, he would be free of his obligation and didn’t have to pay anything.

This meant he could leave in the seventh, or sabbatical year of his servitude, but on every 50th year, when the year of Jubilee came if it happened to come before the full six years was concluded, he went free then.

If the man was married when he became a slave, he could take her and then be set free. However, if the man married a fellow slave and had children with her, he couldn’t take either her or his children, if he chose to be set free.

There would be occasions, when the slave decides he wants to stay under his master’s care, if this is the case, the master would take the slave to the doorpost of his house, he would take an awl, and pierce the slave’s ears. They would usually put something in the pierced ear, usually something which signified that the slave wanted to remain under his master’s care for the rest of his life.

When we think of slaves today, we don’t think that they have any rights, and in times past this was very much the case. But here God has blessed slaves with many wonderful rights.

1. He was guaranteed the right of just and honourable treatment.

2. He could occupy positions of great trust and responsibility as did Eliezer of Damascus for Abraham, Genesis 15:2.

3. He couldn’t be bound for more than six years without his consent.

4. He could hold property, with the possibility that he might, in time, redeem himself.

5. He was protected from the sadistic violence of a brutal master, Exodus 21:20.

6. He could claim compensation for bodily injury, Exodus 21:26-27.

7. He had full rights of rest on the sabbath, Exodus 20:10.

By the time the Romans came along, slavery was ripe, with an estimated two million slaves within the Roman Empire.

How did you become a slave in Roman times? Well, you could become a slave in 1 of 3 ways.

1. Your father was a slave and if his dad was a slave and he was born into that family, he was the owner’s property.

The owner could sell him and do whatever he wants with him.

2. Maybe he was a thief who stole money and under Jewish or even Roman law, if you stole and could not pay back, then they can take you as a slave.

3. Maybe he was a murderer, but instead of killing him, they would decide to give him to the victim’s family and the family could take him or sell him or do whatever they liked.

So whatever reason, a slave has no rights whatsoever, he was a piece of property, and his master owned him. And at the slave market they would auction them off, someone would buy them for so many shekels and now the slave belongs to him.

‘If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.’ Exodus 21:7-11

Not unlike some cultures today, a man would sell his daughter as a servant, simply because the life of the father would be bettered because his daughter married into a family for financial reasons.

These regulations prevented a wealthier family from taking advantage of a poorer family. In those days female slaves were socially protected more than the male slaves.

As with the male slaves, she has rights too, at the end of the sixth year she had the choice to go free, Deuteronomy 15:12-17. If a father sold his daughter to become a wife to his master or his master’s son, and the husband wasn’t pleased with her, she could be redeemed, that is, bought back by the father.

Her husband, however, couldn’t sell her to a foreigner and if she was given to his son as a wife, then she was to be counted as one of his daughters. If she became a second wife, all her rights as a wife were to be continued. If the husband failed to provide any of his duties toward her, she was free without charge, Leviticus 25:39-55.

Many people ask, why God allowed slavery in the first place?

We could also ask, why did God allow divorce in the first place? Matthew 19:3-9. Why did God allow earthly kings in the first place? 1 Samuel 8:7-9. Why did God allow a representative priesthood instead of the priesthood of all Israel? Exodus 19:6. Why did God allow the building of the temple? 2 Samuel 7:5-17.

Maybe we’ll never be able to fully answer those questions, but it appears that people were going to do those things anyway. Maybe God knew that slave trafficking was going to happen and so, these laws were established to give some kind of protection to the enslaved.

Personal Injuries

‘Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate. But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death. “Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death. “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession. “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ Exodus 21:12-17

Here we find laws concerning murder, Genesis 9:6 / Exodus 20:13 / Deuteronomy 5:17, which was punishable by death. Remember there were no prisons in these days, so those who gave up their right to life by willingly taking the life of another were to be taken out of society.

Notice that God makes a distinction between the accidental killing and intentional murder of another person. If someone accidentally kills someone, they are to go to a place which God has designated.

These would be the cities of refuge, and there were six of them throughout Canaan, Numbers 35:22-28 / Joshua 20:1-9. These cities weren’t prisons as such but the person who fled there would stay there until the time of his trial.

If the person was convicted of the killing, they were to be taken to the altar and put to death. Although some thought they could simply just go to an altar for refuge, but again, if they were found guilty they were to be taken from the altar and put to death.

It’s clear that parents had great responsibilities for their children and they were given authority by God to rule over their children. If a child was at the age of accountability, then they were accountable for their own actions, and so if the child attacked their parents, then that child was to be put to death.

Anyone who was found guilty of kidnapping was also to be put to death. In the eyes of God, criminally enslaving someone wasn’t far from murdering them.

A child cursing their parents basically means invoking God to act against His representative on earth, the parent. It carries with it the idea that an adult child threatens their parents in some way.

There are also rights for the child involved in this, in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, we read that the parent didn’t have the right to carry out this punishment, but they had to bring the accused child before the elders and judges of the city.

‘If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.’ Exodus 21:18-19

If there is a dispute between two people which ended in one person striking another with either a stone or a fist, with no intent to kill, and the victim doesn’t die but could rise and walk, then the penalty was the one who made the striking blow had to pay for loss of time for the victim and medically care for him until he was completely recovered.

In other words, a person has the right to be free of the charge of murder unless the man died, the person who was injured had the right to claim compensation, that is for time lost or any medical care they need.

‘Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.’ Exodus 21:20-21

If a slave master struck a slave, and after a day or two the slave recovered, then the master would suffer no penalty. However, if the slave died, the master was to suffer all economic loss. The master was held free of the penalty of punishment because the loss of his slave was accounted a sufficient penalty.

‘If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.’ Exodus 21:22-27

If a pregnant wife intervened in a fight between her husband and another person, and the wife lost the unborn child, then the one who hurt the wife was to pay a fine that was determined by the judges.

If the death of the child was accidental, then the offender wouldn’t suffer the death penalty. However, if it was intentional, then they were subject to the death penalty.

In the days of Jesus, the Jews twisted the teaching of the Old Testament law on this matter, they basically took these principles and applied them to their everyday relationships.

The ‘eye for an eye’ was a civil law of the Old Testament where the people had the authority to punish offenders, but the punishment must fit the crime.

The retaliation law that was given to Israel was more compassionate than the law that existed previous to the giving of the law to Israel. In reference to this law, Jesus stated that love should succeed over the will to retaliate against our neighbour, Leviticus 24:19-20.

The principle of the law would be that the death penalty would be given to those who voluntarily murdered another person. If someone voluntarily took the life of another, he had his right to life taken from him, Deuteronomy 19:21.

This law made accusers think twice before slanderously accusing one of a deed for which he had no evidence. We have to remember that the law of the land before God gave his instructions was really bad. If you kill my child, I will kill all your children, your wife, your brothers, your whole generation! If you knock out my tooth or eye, I will knock out all of yours and kill you also.

In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus is teaching against the concept of retaliation. What Jesus was condemning was the Pharisees’ misapplication of the principle of this law. They were using the principle as a justification for personal revenge. They misunderstood the principle of the law.

That principle is that there is a punishment for the violation of law, and the punishment must match the crime. In other words, the death penalty wouldn’t be given to one who told a lie.

Laws About Animals

‘If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death. However, if payment is demanded, the owner may redeem his life by the payment of whatever is demanded. This law also applies if the bull gores a son or daughter. If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull is to be stoned to death.’ Exodus 21:28-32

If a man owned an ax which he knew was dangerous but didn’t do anything to protect others from the animal, this was classed as criminal negligence on his part.

And so, if someone was killed by a dangerous ox, the victim’s family were to be compensated. The owner would have to pay the compensation in order to escape the death penalty.

‘If anyone uncovers a pit or digs one and fails to cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the one who opened the pit must pay the owner for the loss and take the dead animal in exchange. “If anyone’s bull injures someone else’s bull and it dies, the two parties are to sell the live one and divide both the money and the dead animal equally. However, if it was known that the bull had the habit of goring, yet the owner did not keep it penned up, the owner must pay, animal for animal, and take the dead animal in exchange.’ Exodus 21:33-36

Open pits and wells had to be protected, but if they weren’t, and a neighbour’s animal fell in the pit, then the one who owned the pit was responsible.

If one ox killed another, and the ox that was killed wasn’t known for being a dangerous animal, then the two owners would share the selling price of the surviving ox.

Go To Exodus 22


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