Exodus 21
Pulpit Commentary
Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.
Verse 1. - These are the judgments. The term "judgment" applies most properly to the decisions of courts and the laws founded upon them. No doubt the laws contained in the "Book of the Covenant" were to a large extent old laws, which had been often acted on; but we should do wrong to suppose that there was nothing new in the legislation. The Hebrew mishphat is used with some vagueness. Vers 2-11. -
If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
Verse 2. ? If thou buy an Hebrew servant. Slavery, it is clear, was an existing institution. The law of Moses did not make it, but found it, and by not forbidding, allowed it. The Divine legislator was content under the circumstances to introduce mitigations and alleviations into the slave condition. Hebrews commonly became slaves through poverty (Leviticus 25:35, 39), but sometimes through crime (Exodus 22:3). In the seventh he shall go out. Not in the Sabbatical year, but at the commencement of the seventh year after he became a slave. If the jubilee year happened to occur, he might be released sooner (Leviticus 25:40); but in any case his servitude must end when the sixth year of it was completed. This was an enormous boon, and had nothing, so far as is known, correspondent to it in the legislation of any other country. Nor was this all. When he went out free, his late master was bound to furnish him with provisions out of his flock, and out of his threshing floor, and out of his winepress (Deuteronomy 15:12-14), so that he might have something wherewith to begin the world afresh. The humane spirit of the legislation is strikingly marked in its very first enactment.
If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.
Verse 3. - If he came in by himself, etc.. The first clause of this verse is further explained in the next; the second secured to the wife who went into slavery with her husband a participation in his privilege of release at the end of the sixth year.
If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself.
Verse 4. - If his master have given him a wife. If the slave was unmarried when he went into servitude, or if his wife died, and his master then gave him a wife from among his female slaves, the master was not to lose his property in his female slave by reason of having permitted the marriage. When the man claimed his freedom at the end of the sixth year, he was to "go out" alone. Should children have been born, they were also to be the property of the master and to remain members of his household. No doubt these provisos, which cannot be regarded as unjust, had the effect of inducing many Hebrew slaves not to claim their release (vers. 5, 6).
And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:
Verses 5, 6. - I love my master, etc. Affection might grow up between the slave and the master, if he were well treated. The Hebrew form of slavery was altogether of a mild kind. Masters are admonished to treat their slaves "not as bond-servants, but as hired servants or sojourners," and again "not to rule over them with rigour" (Leviticus 25:39, 40, 43). Even among the heathen, slaves often bore a true affection to their masters. Or, the slave might be so attached to his wife and children as to be unwilling to separate from them, and might prefer slavery with the solace of their society to freedom without it. For such cases the provision was made, which is contained in ver. 6. On the slave declaring to his master his unwillingness to go free, the master might take him before the judges, or magistrates (literally "gods") as witnesses, and perhaps registrars of the man' s declaration, and might then reconduct him to his house, and by a significant ceremony mark him as his slave "for ever." The ceremony consisted in boring through one of his ears with an awl, and driving the awl into the door or doorpost of the house, thereby attaching him physically to the dwelling of which he became thenceforth a permanent inmate. Almost all commentators assert that some such custom was common in the East in connection with slavery, and refer to Xen. Aaab. 3:1, § 31; Plant. Poenul. 5:2, 21; Juv. Sat. 1:104; Plutarch. Vit. Cic. § 26, etc. But these passages merely show that the Orientals generally - not slaves in particular - had their ears bored for the purpose of wearing earrings, and indicate no usage at all comparable to the Hebrew practice. The Hebrew custom - probably a very ancient one - seems to have had two objects -

1. The declaring by a significant act, that the man belonged to the house; and

2. The permanent marking of him as a slave, dis-entitled to the rights of freemen, he shall serve him for ever. Josephus (Ant. Jud. 4:8, § 20) and the Jewish commentators generally maintain that the law of the jubilee release overruled this enactment; but this must be regarded as very doubtful.
Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.
And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
Verse 7. - If a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant. Among ancient nations the father' s rights over his children were generally regarded as including the right to sell them for slaves. In civilised nations the right was seldom exercised; but what restrained men was rather a sentiment of pride than any doubt of such sales being proper. Many barbarous nations, like the Thracians (Herod. 5:6), made a regular practice of selling their daughters. Even at Athens there was a time when sales of children had been common (Plut. Vit. Solon. § 13). Existing custom, it is clear, sanctioned such sales among the Hebrews, and what the law now did was to step in and mitigate the evil consequences. (Compare the comment on verse 2.) These were greatest in the case of females. Usually they were bought to be made the concubines, or secondary wives of their masters. If this intention were carried out, then they were to be entitled to their status and maintenance as wives during their lifetime, even though their husband took another (legitimate) wife (ver. 10). If the retention was not carried out, either the man was to marry her to one of his sons (ver. 9), or he was to sell his rights over her altogether with his obligations to another Hebrew; or he was to send her back at once intact to her father' s house, without making any claim on him to refund the purchase-money. These provisos may not have furnished a remedy against all the wrongs of a weak, and, no doubt, an oppressed class; but they were important mitigations of the existing usages, and protected the slave-concubine to a considerable extent.
If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.
Verse 8. - If she please not her master. If he decline, i.e., to carry out the contract, and take her for his wife. Then let her be redeemed. Rather, "Then let him cause her to be redeemed." Let him, i.e., look out for some one who will buy her of him and take his obligation of marriage off his hands To sell her to a strange nation he shall not have power. Only, this purchaser must be a Hebrew, like himself, and not a foreigner, since her father consented to her becoming a slave only on the condition of her being wedded to a Hebrew. Seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. By professing to take her as a secondary wife, and not carrying out the contract.
And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.
Verse 9. - And if he hath betrothed her unto his son. A man might have bought the maiden for this object, or finding himself not pleased with her (ver. 8), might have made his son take his place as her husband. In this case but one course was allowed - he must give her the status of a daughter thenceforth in his family.
If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
Verse 10. - If he take him another wife - i.e., If he marry her himself, and then take another, even a legitimate, wife - her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage shall he not diminish - she shall retain during her life all the privileges of a married woman - he shall not diminish aught from them. The word translated "duty of marriage" seems to mean "right of cohabitation."
And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.
Verse 11. - If he do not these three unto her. Not the "three" points of the latter part of ver. 10; but one of the three courses laid down in vers. 8, 9, and 10. She shall go out free - i.e., she shall not be retained as a drudge, a mere maidservant, but shall return to her father at once, a free woman, capable of contracting another marriage; and without money - i.e., without the father being called upon to refund any portion of the stun for which he had sold her.
He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.
Verses 12-14. - Homicide. Ver. 12 reiterates the Sixth Commandment, and adds to it a temporal penalty - "he shall surely be put to death." The substance of this law had already been given to Noah in the words, "Whoso sheddeth man' s blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6). Real murder, with deliberate intent, was under no circumstances to be pardoned. The murderer was even to be torn from the altar, if he took refuge there, and relentlessly punished (ver. 14). See the case of Joab (1 Kings 2:28-34). But, if a man happened suddenly upon his enemy, without having sought the opportunity, and slew him (ver. 13), then the case was one not of murder, but at most of manslaughter, or possibly of justifiable homicide. No legal penalty was assigned to such offences. They were left to the rude justice of established custom, which required "the avenger of blood" to visit them with due retribution. According to the general practice of the Eastern nations, he might either insist on life for life or take a money compensation. With this custom, deeply ingrained into the minds of the Oriental people, the law did not meddle. It was content to interpose between the avenger of blood and his victim the chance of reaching an asylum. Places were appointed, whither the shedder of blood might flee, and where he might be safe until his cause was tried before the men of his own city (Numbers 35:22-25), and afterwards, if the judgment were in his favour. Some particular part of the camp was probably made an asylum in the wilderness.
And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.
Verse 13. - God deliver him into his hand. This does not seem to mean more than, "if he chance upon him without seeking him." God' s providence does in fact bring about the meetings which men call accidental. I will appoint thee a place. When we first hear of the actual appointment, the number of the places was six - three on either side of Jordan. (See Joshua 20:7, 8; and compare Numbers 35:10-15, and Deuteronomy 19:2.) Thus there was always a city of refuge at a reasonable distance.
But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.
Verse 14. - Presumptuously. Or "proudly," "arrogantly." Thou shalt take him from mine altar. See the comment on ver. 12.
And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
Verses 15-17. - Other capital offences. The unsystematic character of the arrangement in this chapter is remarkably shown by this interruption of the consideration of different sorts of homicide, in order to introduce offences of quite a different character, and those not very closely allied to each other - e.g.,

1. Striking a parent;

2. Kidnapping;

3. Cursing a parent. Verse 15. - He that smiteth his father, etc. To "smite" here is simply to "strike" - to offer the indignity of a blow - not to kill, which had already been made capital (ver. 12), not in the case of parents only, but in every case. The severity of the law is very remarkable, and strongly emphasises the dignity and authority of parents. There is no parallel to it in any other known code, though of course the patria potestas of the Roman father gave him the power of punishing a son who had struck him, capitally.
And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
Verse 16. - He that stealeth a man. Kidnapping, or stealing men to make them slaves, was a very early and very wide-spread crime. Joseph' s brothers must be regarded as having committed it (Genesis 37:28); and there are many traces of it in the remains of antiquity. (See Herod. 4:183; Strab. 7. p. 467; Sueton. Octav. § 32; etc.) Most kidnapping was of foreigners; and this was a practice of which the laws of states took no cognizance, though a certain disrepute may have attached to it. But the kidnapping of a fellow-country-man was generally punished with severity. At Athens it was a capital offence. At Rome it made a man infamous. We may gather from Deuteronomy 24:7, that the Mosaic law was especially levelled against this lena of the crime, though the words of the present passage are general, and forbid the crime altogether. Man-stealing, in the general sense, is now regarded as an offence by the chief civilised states of Europe and America, and is punished by confiscation of the stolen goods, and sometimes by imprisonment of the man-stealers.
And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.
Verse 17. - He that curseth his father, etc. Blasphemy against God, and imprecations upon parents, were the only two sins of the tongue which the law expressly required to be punished with death (Leviticus 24:16). In later times analogy was held to require that "cursing the ruler of the people" (Exodus 22:28) should be visited with the same penalty (2 Samuel 19:22; 1 Kings 2:8, 9, 46). The severity of the sentence indicates that in God' s sight such sins are of the deepest dye.
And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:
Verses 18, 19 - Severe assault. Assault was punishable by the law in two ways. Ordinarily, the rule was that of strict retaliation' ' Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (vers. 24, 25; compare Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21). But where the assault was severe, causing a man to take to his bed, and call in the physician' s aid, something more was needed. The Rabbinical commentators tell us that in this case he was arrested, and sent to prison until it was ascertained whether the person hurt would die or no. If he died, the man was tried for murder; if he recovered, a fine was imposed. This was axed at such a sum as would at once compensate the injured man for his loss of time and defray the expense of his cure. A similar principle is adopted under our own law in many cases of civil action. Verse 18. - If men strive together. If there is a quarrel and a personal encounter. In our own law this would reduce this offence, if death ensued, to manslaughter. With a stone, or with his fist. The use of either would show absence of premeditation, and of any design to kill. A weapon would have to be prepared beforehand: a stone might be readily caught up.
If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.
Verse 19. - If he rise again and walk upon his staff. If he recovered sufficiently to leave his bed, and get about with a stick to lean on, his hurt was not to be brought up against the injurer, though he died soon afterwards. Compensation was to be received, and the score regarded as wiped off.
And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
Verses 20, 21. - Homicide of slaves. In most ancient states the slave was the absolute property of his master, and might be ill-used to any extent, even killed, without the law in any way interfering. It is said that the state of things was different in Egypt (Kalisch); but we have scarcely sufficient evidence on the point to be certain that the slave enjoyed there any real and efficient protection. At Athens, beyond a doubt, the law protected the life of the slave; and a very moderate amount of ill-treatment entitled a slave to bring an action. At Rome, on the contrary, "the master could treat the slave as he pleased, could sell him, punish him, and put him to death" (Dict. of Greek & Roman Antiq. p. 1036). And this was the ordinary state of the law, particularly in Oriental countries. The Mosaic legislation must be regarded as having greatly ameliorated the condition of the native slave population. Hebrew bondmen it placed nearly upon a par with hired servants (Leviticus 25:40); foreign slaves, whether prisoners taken in war, or persons bought in the market, it protected to a very great extent. By the law given in verses 26, 27, it largely controlled the brutality of masters, who had to emancipate their slaves if they did them any serious injury. By the law laid down in verse 20, it gave their lives the same protection, or nearly the same, as the lives of freemen. "Smiting "was allowed as a discipline, without which slavery cannot exist; but such smiting as resulted in death was, as a general rule, punishable like any other homicide. The only exception was, if the slave did not die for some days (ver. 21). In that case the master was considered not to have intended the slave' s death, and to be sufficiently punished by the loss of his property. Verse 20. - If a man smite his servant, or his maid. "Maids" would commonly be chastised by their mistress, or by an upper servant acting under the mistress' s authority. "A man" here means "any one." With a rod. The rods wherewith Egyptian slaves were chastised appear upon the monuments. They were long canes, like those used by our schoolmasters. Under his hand. Criminals in the East are said often to die under the bastinado; and even in our own country there have been cases of soldiers dying under the lash. A special delicacy of the nervous system will make a punishment of the kind fatal to some, which would have been easily borne by others.
Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.
Verse 21. - If he continue a day or two - i.e., "If the slave does not die till a day or two afterwards." Compare the provision in ver. 19, with respect to persons who were not slaves. No special callousness to the sufferings of slaves is implied. He is his money. The slave had been purchased for a stun of money, or was at any rate money' s worth; and the master would suffer a pecuniary loss by his death.
If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
Verse 22-25. - Assault producing miscarriage. Retaliation. Women in all countries are apt to interfere in the quarrels of men, and run the risk of suffering injuries which proceed from accident rather than design, one such injury being of a peculiar character, to which there is nothing correspondent among the injuries which may be done to man. This is abortion, or miscarriage. The Mosaic legislation sought to protect pregnant women from suffering this injury by providing, first, that if death resulted the offender should suffer death (ver. 23); and, secondly, that if there were no further ill-result than the miscarriage itself, still a fine should be paid, to be assessed by the husband of the injured woman with the consent of the judges (ver. 22). The mention of "life for life," in ver. 23, is followed by an enunciation of the general "law of retaliation," applied here (it would seem) to the special case in hand, but elsewhere (Leviticus 24:19, 20) extended so as to be a fundamental law, applicable to all cases of personal injury. Verse 22. - If men strive and hurt a woman. A chance hurt is clearly intended, not one done on purpose. So that her fruit depart from her. So that she be prematurely delivered of a dead child. And no mischief follow. "Mischief" here means "death," as in Genesis 42:4, 38; Genesis 44:29. He shall pay as the judges determine. He was not to be wholly at the mercy of the injured father. If he thought the sum demanded was excessive, there was to be an appeal to a tribunal.
And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
Verse 23. - Then thou shalt give life for life. "Life for life" seems an excessive penalty, where the injury was in a great measure accidental, and when there was certainly no design to take life. Probably the law was not now enacted for the first time, but was an old tribal institution, like the law of the "avenger of blood." There are many things in the Mosaic institutions which Moses tolerated, like "bills of divorce" - on account of "the hardness of their hearts." Verses 23, 24. - Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, that this was the rule of justice which Rhadamanthus was supposed to act on in the judgment after death (book 5, see. 3), and that it had the approval of the Pythagoreans. Solon admitted it to a certain extent into the laws of Athens, and at Rome it found its way. into the Twelve Tables. There is a prima facie appearance of exact equality in it, which would captivate rude minds and cause the principle to be widely adopted in a rude state of society. But in practice objections would soon be felt to it. There is no exact measure of the hardness of a blow, or the severity of a wound; and "wound for wound, stripe for stripe," would open a door for very unequal inflictions "Eye for eye" would be flagrantly unjust in the case of a one-eyed man. Moreover, it is against public policy to augment unnecessarily the number of mutilated and maimed citizens, whose power to serve the state is lessened by their mutilation. Consequently in every society retaliation has at an early date given way to pecuniary compensation; and this was the case even among the Hebrews, as Kalisch has shown satisfactorily. If the literal sense was insisted on in our Lord' s day (Matthew 5:38), it was only by the Sadducees, who declined to give the law a spiritual interpretation.
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake.
Verses 26, 27. - Assaults on Slaves. The general law of retaliation was not made to extend to slaves. For ordinary blows the slave was not thought entitled to compensation, any more than the child. They were natural incidents of his condition. In extremer cases, where he was permanently injured in an organ or a member, he was, however, considered to have ground of complaint and to deserve a recompense. But for him to revenge himself upon his master by inflicting the same on him was not to be thought cf. It would have put the slave into a false position, have led to his prolonged ill-treatment, and have been an undue degradation of the master. Therefore, compulsory emancipation was made the penalty of all such aggravated assaults, even the slightest (ver. 27). Verses 26, 27. - If a man smite the eye, etc. The "eye" seems to be selected as the most precious of our organs, the "tooth" as that the loss of which is of least consequence. The principle was that any permanent loss of any part of his frame entitled the slave to his liberty. A very considerable check must have been put on the brutality of masters by this enactment.
And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake.
If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.
Verses 28-32. - Injuries done by cattle to slaves and freemen. For the purpose of inculcating as strongly as possible the principle of the sanctity of human life, the legislator notices the case where mortal injury is done to a person by a domesticated animal. The ox is taken as the example, being the animal most likely to inflict such an injury. In accordance with the declaration already made to Noah (Genesis 9:6), it is laid down that the destructive beast must be killed. Further, to mark the abhorrence in which murder ought to be held, the provision is made, that none of the creature' s flesh must be eaten. The question then arises, is the owner to suffer any punishment? This is answered in the way that natural equity points out - "If he had reason to know the savage temper of the animal, he is to he held responsible; if otherwise, he is to go free." In the former case, the Hebrew law assigned a higher degree of responsibility than accords with modern notions; but practically the result was not very different. The neglectful Hebrew owner was held to have been guilty of a capital offence, but was allowed to "redeem his life" by a fine. His modern counterpart would be held to have been guilty simply of laches or neglect of duty, and would be punished by fine or imprisonment Verse 28. - The ox shall be surely stoned. He shall suffer the same death that would have been the portion of a human murderer. His flesh shall not be eaten. The animal was regarded as accursed, and therefore, as a matter of course, no Hebrew might eat of it. According to the Rabbinical commentators, it was not even lawful to sell the carcase to Gentiles. The owner shall be quit - i.e., "shall be liable to no punishment."
But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.
Verse 29. - If the ox were wont to push with his horns. If he were notoriously, and to his owner' s knowledge, a dangerous animal, which required watching, and no watch was kept on him, then the owner became blame-able, and having by his neglect contributed to a homicide, was "guilty of death."
If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him.
Verse 30. - If there be a fine laid upon him. There can scarcely have been any circumstances under which the penalty of death would have been enforced. No neglect could bring the crime into the category of murder. It is assumed, therefore, that practically the penalty would be a fine, proportioned no doubt to the value of the life taken.
Whether he have gored a son, or have gored a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done unto him.
Verse 31. - Whether he have gored a son or a daughter. If the sufferer were a child, the value of the life, and therefore the amount of the fine, would be less.
If the ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant; he shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
Verse 32. - If the ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant. Hitherto, the case of free persons only has been considered. But the accident might have happened to a slave. Where this was the case, the death of the ox was still made indispensable, and thus far the same sacredness was made to attach to the life of the slave and of the freeman. But, in lieu of a varying fine, the average price of a slave, thirty shekels of silver, was appointed to be paid in all cases, as a compensation to the master

CHAPTER 21:33-36
And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit, and not cover it, and an ox or an ass fall therein;
Verse 33. - If a man shall open a pit. Rather, "If a man shall uncover a cistern." Cisterns, very necessary in Palestine, were usually closed by a flat-stone, or a number of planks. To obtain water from them, they had to be uncovered; but it was the duty of the man who uncovered them, to replace the covering when his wants were satisfied. Or dig a pit and not cover it. A man who was making a cistern might neglect to cover it while it was in course of construction, or even afterwards, if he thought his own cattle would take no hurt. But in the unfenced fields of Palestine it was always possible that a neighbour' s cattle might go astray and suffer injury through such a piece of negligence. An ox, or an ass, falling into a cistern, would be unable to extricate itself, and might be drowned.
The owner of the pit shall make it good, and give money unto the owner of them; and the dead beast shall be his.
Verse 34. - The owner of the pit shall make it good - i.e., "shall duly compensate the owner of the cattle for its loss." And the dead beast shall be his. Having paid the full price of the slain beast, the owner of the cistern was entitled to its carcase.
And if one man's ox hurt another's, that he die; then they shall sell the live ox, and divide the money of it; and the dead ox also they shall divide.
Verses 35, 36. - If one man s ox hurt another s, etc. The hurt might be purely accidental, and imply no neglect. In that ease the two parties were to divide the value of the living, and also of the dead ox - i.e., they were to share between them the loss caused by the accident equally. If, however, there was neglect, if the aggressive animal was known to be of a vicious disposition, then the man who had suffered the loss was to receive the full value of the slain animal, but to lose his share of the carcase. This explanation, which the words of the text not only admit, but invite, seems better than the Rabbinical one, "that the dead ox should also be the property of the injured party."

Or if it be known that the ox hath used to push in time past, and his owner hath not kept him in; he shall surely pay ox for ox; and the dead shall be his own.
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