Exodus 21:2
If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
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(2) If thou buy an Hebrew servant.—Ancient society was founded upon slavery. “The ultimate elements of the household,” says Aristotle, “are the master and his slave, the husband and his wife, the father and his children” (Pol. i. 2, § 1). In any consideration of the rights of persons, those of the slave class naturally presented themselves first of all, since they were the most liable to infraction. Slaves might be either natives or foreigners. A Hebrew could become a slave—(1) through crime (Exodus 22:3); (2) through indebtedness (Leviticus 25:39); (3) through his father’s right to sell him (Nehemiah 5:5). Foreign slaves might be either prisoners taken in war, or persons bought of their owners (Leviticus 25:45). The rights of Hebrew slaves are here specially considered.

Six years shall he serve.—The Hebrew was not to be retained in slavery for a longer space than six years. If a jubilee year occurred before the end of the six years, then he regained his freedom earlier (Leviticus 25:39-41); but in no case could he be retained more than six years in the slave condition, except by his own consent, formally given (Exodus 21:5). This law was an enormous advance upon anything previously known in the slave legislation of the most civilised country, and stamps the Mosaic code at once as sympathising with the slave, and bent on ameliorating his lot. It has been thought strange by some that slavery was not now abrogated; but even Christianity, fifteen hundred years later, did not venture on so complete a social revolution.

Exodus 21:2. If thou buy a Hebrew servant — Either sold by himself or his parents through poverty, or by the judges for his crimes, yet even such a one was to continue in slavery but seven years at the most. See the texts referred to in the margin.

21:1-11 The laws in this chapter relate to the fifth and sixth commandments; and though they differ from our times and customs, nor are they binding on us, yet they explain the moral law, and the rules of natural justice. The servant, in the state of servitude, was an emblem of that state of bondage to sin, Satan, and the law, which man is brought into by robbing God of his glory, by the transgression of his precepts. Likewise in being made free, he was an emblem of that liberty wherewith Christ, the Son of God, makes free from bondage his people, who are free indeed; and made so freely, without money and without price, of free grace.A Hebrew might be sold as a bondman in consequence either of debt Leviticus 25:39 or of the commission of theft Exodus 22:3. But his servitude could not be enforced for more than six full years. Compare the marginal references. 2-6. If thou buy an Hebrew servant—Every Israelite was free-born; but slavery was permitted under certain restrictions. An Hebrew might be made a slave through poverty, debt, or crime; but at the end of six years he was entitled to freedom, and his wife, if she had voluntarily shared his state of bondage, also obtained release. Should he, however, have married a female slave, she and the children, after the husband's liberation, remained the master's property; and if, through attachment to his family, the Hebrew chose to forfeit his privilege and abide as he was, a formal process was gone through in a public court, and a brand of servitude stamped on his ear (Ps 40:6) for life, or at least till the Jubilee (De 15:17). If thou buy an Hebrew servant; of which practice see Jeremiah 34:14. This was allowed in two cases:

1. When a man for his crimes was condemned by the judges to be sold; of which see Exodus 22:3 2 Kings 4:1 Matthew 8:25.

2. When a man pressed by great poverty sold himself or his children; of which see Leviticus 25:39,40. The seventh year is to be numbered, either,

1. From the last sabbatical year, or year of release, which came every seventh year; and the sense of the place is, not that he shall always serve six full years, but that he shall never serve longer, and that his service shall last only till that year comes. Or rather,

2. From the beginning of his service; for,

1. It were a very improper speech to say, he shall serve six years, of one who possibly entered into his service but a month before the year of release.

2. In the law of the sabbatical year there is no mention of the release of servants, as there is of other things, Le 25 Deu 15; and in the year of jubilee, when servants are to be released, it is expressed so, as Leviticus 25:54,55.

If thou buy an Hebrew servant,.... Who sells himself either through poverty, or rather is sold because of his theft, see Exodus 22:3 and so the Targum of Jonathan paraphrases it,"when ye shall buy for his theft, a servant, a son of an Israelite;''agreeably to which Aben Ezra observes, this servant is a servant that is sold for his theft; and he says, it is a tradition with them, that a male is sold for his theft, but not a female; and the persons who had the selling of such were the civil magistrates, the Sanhedrim, or court of judicature; so Jarchi, on the text, says, "if thou buy", &c. that is, of the hand of the sanhedrim who sells him for his theft:

six years he shall serve; and no longer; and the Jewish doctors say (d), if his master dies within the six years he must serve his son, but not his daughter, nor his brother, nor any other heirs:

and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing; without paying any money for his freedom, as it is explained Exodus 21:11, nay, on the other hand, his master was not to send him away empty, but furnish him liberally out of his flock, floor, and wine press, since his six years' servitude was worth double that of an hired servant, Deuteronomy 15:13, and his freedom was to take place as soon as the six years were ended, and the seventh began, in which the Jewish writers agree: the Targum of Jonathan is, at the entrance of the seventh; and Aben Ezra's explanation is, at the beginning of the seventh year of his being sold; and Maimonides (e) observes the same. Now as this servant, in the state of servitude, was an emblem of that state of bondage to sin, Satan, and the law, which man is brought into by his theft, his robbing God of his glory by the transgression of his precepts; so likewise, in his being made free, he was an emblem of that liberty wherewith Christ, the Son of God, makes his people free from the said bondage, and who are free indeed, and made so freely without money, and without price, of pure free grace, without any merit or desert of theirs; and which freedom is attended with many bountiful and liberal blessings of grace.

(d) Maimon. & Bartenora in Misn. Kiddushin, c. 1. sect. 2.((e) Hilchot Abadim, c. 2. sect. 2.

If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for {a} nothing.

(a) Paying no money for his freedom.

2. If thou buy] In the Heb. the primary cases (vv. 2, 7, 20, 22 &c.) are introduced by ki, ‘when,’ the subordinate ones (vv. 3a, 3b, 4, 5; 8, 9, 10, 11, &c.) by ’im, ‘if,’ or ’ô, ‘or if’; but the distinction is not preserved in EVV.

an Hebrew servant] better, an Hebrew bondman (RVm.) or male slave, i.e. one of Hebrew birth, as opposed to foreigners, who did not enjoy the same privileges as Hebrew slaves, and might be slaves for life (Leviticus 25:44-46). The release in the seventh year, after six years of servitude, seems, like the Sabbatical Year (Exodus 23:10 f.), to be suggested by the weekly sabbath closing the six days of toil.

go out free] Cf. Ḥammurabi’s Code, § 117 (below, p. 421). The philanthropic legislator of Deuteronomy (Exodus 15:13 f.) enjoins the master to bestow a handsome present upon his slave when he thus leaves him.

2–6. Hebrew male slaves. Their term of service is fixed for six years (v. 2). A slave is to leave his master’s service exactly as he entered it: if he entered it without a wife, he is to leave it without wife, even though he may have taken a wife in the meantime (vv. 3a, 4). If on the other hand he was married when his master bought him, his wife may accompany him when he receives his Freedom (v. 3b). Provision is further made for a voluntary life-service (v. 5 f.).

2–11. The law of slavery. Cf. Deuteronomy 15:12-18, Leviticus 25:39-55 (H and P), where there are other regulations on the same subject, in some respects differing remarkably from those of Ex., and springing evidently out of a different and more advanced stage of society. The present law deals only with Hebrew slaves: the case of foreign slaves is dealt with in Leviticus 25:44-46. The conditions of society in ancient Israel were such that slavery could not be abolished: but it was regulated, and restrictions were imposed on the power of a master over his slave (see also vv. 20 f., 26 f.). An Israelite might fall into slavery from different causes: (1) he might be sold by his parents, a case of particularly common occurrence with daughters; (2) he might be sold for theft (Exodus 22:3) or insolvency (2 Kings 4:1, Amos 2:6); (3) he might be obliged by poverty to sell himself (Leviticus 25:39). Of course, also, he might be born a slave. The later legislation of Leviticus 25:39-46 sought to limit slavery to foreigners.

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. Exodus 21:2The Hebrew servant was to obtain his freedom without paying compensation, after six years of service. According to Deuteronomy 15:12, this rule applied to the Hebrew maid-servant as well. The predicate עברי limits the rule to Israelitish servants, in distinction from slaves of foreign extraction, to whom this law did not apply (cf. Deuteronomy 15:12, "thy brother").

(Note: Saalschtz is quite wrong in his supposition, that עברי relates not to Israelites, but to relations of the Israelites who had come over to them from their original native land. (See my Archהologie, ֗112, Note 2.))

An Israelite might buy his own countryman, either when he was sold by a court of justice on account of theft (Exodus 22:1), or when he was poor and sold himself (Leviticus 25:39). The emancipation in the seventh year of service was intimately connected with the sabbatical year, though we are not to understand it as taking place in that particular year. "He shall go out free," sc., from his master's house, i.e., be set at liberty. חנּם: without compensation. In Deuteronomy the master is also commanded not to let him go out empty, but to load him (חעניק to put upon his neck) from his flock, his threshing-floor, and his wine-press (i.e., with corn and wine); that is to say, to give him as much as he could carry away with him. The motive for this command is drawn from their recollection of their own deliverance by Jehovah from the bondage of Egypt. And in Exodus 21:18 an additional reason is supplied, to incline the heart of the master to this emancipation, viz., that "he has served thee for six years the double of a labourer's wages," - that is to say, "he has served and worked so much, that it would have cost twice as much, if it had been necessary to hire a labourer in his place" (Schultz), - and "Jehovah thy God hath blessed thee in all that thou doest," sc., through his service.

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