Exodus 21



Hebrew Servants (21:1–11)

(Deuteronomy 15:12–18)

1–2 The word “Hebrew” was a term that non-Israelites used to describe the people of Israel; thus, in common usage, the words “Hebrew” and “Israelite” had basically the same meaning. Thus the Hebrew servants mentioned in this section were members of the covenant community of Israel and could not be treated as permanent slaves: they were to be freed from servitude after six years (verse 2).

3–6 The remaining verses in this section outline the rights of a Hebrew servant and his family. God always safeguards the rights of those who cannot defend themselves, such as servants, women and children.

Only if a servant agreed to stay permanently with his master would he then become a servant for life (verse 6). Sometimes a ring with the master’s name on it would be placed through the servant’s pierced ear. It was not a dishonor to be the servant of a good master. Christians, too, have the honor of being “servants for life” of Jesus Christ (Psalm 84:10; Romans 1:1).

In the corresponding passage in Deuteronomy 15:12–18, the master of the servant being freed is commanded to treat the servant generously and not send him away empty-handed; the master is to remember that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt, and that therefore he should treat his servant as he would have wanted to be treated himself (Deuteronomy 15:14–15; Matthew 7:12).

7–11 Sometimes a man might “sell” his daughter as a servant (verse 7). In such cases, the daughter was sold to be married, not to be enslaved; probably her father needed the money. Such girls had certain legal rights, which are outlined in this section.

Personal Injuries (21:12–36)

12–14 The punishment for intentional killing (murder) was death (Genesis 9:6). Human life was so valuable that no amount of money could make up for it; the murderer had to pay with his life.

However, unintentional or accidental killing was treated differently; the one who did the killing was to be protected from vengeful relatives. God said, “. . . he is to flee to a place I will designate” (verse 13); later on God designated places of refuge for this purpose (see Numbers 35:6–29 and comment).

When one kills accidentally, the killing is beyond that person’s control; thus he should not be punished for it. The same principle would apply to all accidents: God is more concerned with the person’s intention (his heart) than He is with the act itself.

Accidental killing is something that God lets . . . happen (verse 13). Nothing is “accidental” with God; every circumstance in the universe is under His ultimate control(Matthew 10:29–30).

For further discussion on the subject of murder, see Exodus 20:13 and comment.

15–17 In these verses three offenses are listed which could receive the death penalty: attacking one’s parents, cursing one’s parents, and kidnapping (the stealing of a human being). Parental authority was so important to God that abusing it demanded the severest possible penalty (see Exodus 20:12 and comment). Notice that the father and mother are both mentioned; they both deserve equal respect from their children.

Many Christians today are troubled by the use of capital punishment in the Old Testament for such crimes as attacking and cursing parents, kidnapping, sorcery, bestiality and idolatry. However, such punishment reflected the high value God placed on the family structure and on the purity of worship and on life itself. Far from demeaning the sanctity of life, capital punishment was designed to preserve it. It is likely, however, that capital punishment was used sparingly in Old Testament times; lesser penalties were frequently chosen.

18–19 When a person was intentionally injured by another, but recovered, the one causing the injury had to pay compensation for the time the injured person could not work. If recovery did not take place, however, the one causing the injury would have to bear the appropriate penalty (see verses 22–25 and comment).

20–21 In the ancient world slavery was common. Slaves had no rights or protection whatever; their masters could treat them as they pleased. The law given here was unprecedented in its time, because it gave slaves some protection from cruel masters and held those masters accountable. If a master killed a slave deliberately, he could face the death penalty. If the master only injured the slave, he was required to set the slave free (verses 26–27).

22–25 In these verses we are given a very important Old Testament law: the “law of retaliation” (verses 23–25). The law is introduced by an example involving a pregnant woman and her child, but the law itself applies to any kind of bodily injury. The law is often paraphrased: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”

This law has often been misunderstood. It did not sanction personal revenge.73 Rather, it was meant to aid judges and courts in determining a punishment that would match the crime. In other words, the law was meant to protect someone from being punished too harshly—from having to give a “life for an eye” or a “limb for a tooth.”

Furthermore, this “law of retaliation” was not meant to be applied literally in every case; it was only a guide. Instead of actually paying with one’s life—or one’s eye or tooth—the guilty person could pay money.74

The Jews in Jesus’ time were using this law to justify revenge and retaliation: “If you injure my eye, I’ll injure yours.” But Jesus taught that one shouldn’t retaliate at all; rather, one should be merciful and forgive the one who did the harm (Matthew 5:38–42).

26–27 If a master injured a slave, the slave was to be set free; as a result, the master suffered economic loss. This law, therefore, inhibited masters from mistreating their slaves (see verses 20–21 and comment).

28–36 These verses list various laws that cover injury involving animals. Notice in verse 28 that an animal which killed a human must itself be killed (Genesis 9:5). Furthermore, the owner of the animal could be held responsible and even be given the death penalty (verse 29).

If an animal killed a slave, the animal’s owner was required to pay thirty shekels of silver75 to the master of the slave (verse 32). But if the animal’s owner had been negligent,76 then he would have to bear full responsibility for the death of a human being (see verse 20). Slaves were no less valuable in God’s sight than other people.