21:1-6 These rules for Hebrew slaves applied to both males and females, according to Dt 15:12-17 (cp. Ex 21:20,26-27,32; Jr 34:13-16). An Israelite might choose to go into slavery to pay restitution for theft, to repay another debt, or to obtain food and shelter in hard times. On penalty of death, Ex 21:16 rules out kidnapping and forcing an Israelite into slavery. And while the life of slaves might be difficult, there were penalties for mistreatment (vv. 20-21,26-27) and slaves who ran away were not to be returned to their masters (Dt 23:15-16).
21:7-11 These verses deal with the status and rights of a woman who had been sold with the expectation of becoming a second-class wife, somewhat like Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah, who bore children for Abraham and Jacob.
21:14 You must take him from my altar pictures the murderer as having come to the sanctuary for protection. But even the Lord’s altar provided no asylum for a person who planned a murder (cp. 1Kg 1:50-53; 2:28-34). This is a reminder that the Lord’s sacred spaces and objects are not endowed with power that could be manipulated apart from him.
21:15 This law covers cases in which someone attacks one’s parent with the intent of doing bodily harm.
21:20-21 If a slave died from being beaten, the death would be avenged by death (vv. 12-14). If the slave lived but sustained permanent injury, the slave would go free (vv. 26-27). A later death might be from another cause than the owner’s action, so the owner should not die. Because he is his owner’s property adopts a pragmatic stance and assumes that the owner had shown regard for potential monetary loss and had not intended to kill or permanently injure the slave.
21:22-25 A fine was to be assessed for a blow that caused premature delivery. The only other uses of the word translated “injury” here occur in Gn 42:4,38, where the harm that Jacob feared was that Benjamin might die. The series that begins with life for life seems to have been a formula that might be repeated partly or in full, even in situations like blasphemy, where physical harm was not an issue (Lv 24:17-21; Dt 19:16-21). The formula called for proportionate punishment rather than a process of escalating violence between individuals or families (in contrast to the attitude of Lamech in Gn 4:23-24). Considering pregnancy as a special complication implies concern for the unborn infant. Certain other deaths incurred financial penalties (Ex 21:28-32). The case assumed that even unintentional injury must be remedied, while Ex 1-2 with its portrayal of intentional injury to infants stands in the background of this passage.
21:26-27 Laws protecting slaves are not found in other ancient Near Eastern law collections.
21:28-32 Stoning was a form of public execution and not the ordinary way to slaughter an animal (Dt 13:10; 17:5; Jos 7:25; 1Kg 21:13). If the owner’s negligence caused the death, he too must die or pay a ransom for his life. The possibility of a ransom implies that the owner was less directly responsible for the person’s death than in cases of murder (Ex 21:12,20,23; Nm 35:31). This value placed on human life over animals fits with God’s earlier statement, “I will require a penalty for your lifeblood” because humans are made in God’s image (Gn 9:5-6). Other ancient Near Eastern laws treat these situations strictly as monetary matters. In case a child died, the stipulation that the negligent owner was to be dealt with according to this same law treated the lives of children as valuable and protected the negligent owner’s child, whose life was forfeited in some ancient law codes.
21:33-36 Unlike the death of a human, the death of an ox was a monetary matter. When the matter was unforeseeable, the owners of both oxen bore the loss equally.