Exodus 21:1 “These are the laws (mishpaṭim) also translated “regulations,” and “statutes” which identifies what follows through Exodus 23:33 as the Book of the Covenant. This provides greater detail on the work of God’s people to be His priests to the nations (Ex 19:6). Justice is the practical outworking of God’s Law and these laws instruct God’s servants on the essential elements of justice. The first issue covered has to do with slavery. It would be unthinkable for God’s people to abuse people in the same way they had been abused.
Exodus 21:2-6 Though permitted to own slaves from other nations, usually prisoners of war, they were not allowed to enslave their own people. Two different situations are listed: a man who becomes a servant because of debt, and a woman who is sold to be a servant. If in the case of indebtedness, a fellow Israelite would become a slave, his master had to treat him humanely. He was to be released after six years of service in the Shemitah (release) or Sabbath year. When released he was to be provided enough to begin his free life (Deut. 15:12-15). This is why when the Jews left Egypt they left with provisions (Ex. 12:32-36) If he wanted to remain, and the judges approved it, a ceremony of ear piercing would take place and he would remain a servant the rest of his life. This is the procedure for becoming a bond servant. A bond servant was a willing servant and deemed to be more trustworthy and esteemed then other servants. We are described as bond servants of the Lord (Rom. 1:1). However, a bond servant was not to be treated like a slave. Kidnapping for slavery was punishable by death (Ex. 21:16) which rules out the kind of slavery practiced in Africa and in parts of the West today. To justify that kind of slavery using Scripture is a misunderstanding of God’s laws regarding slavery.
The Biblical form of slavery had a positive purpose. It was to benefit the servant as well as the master contrary to most practices of slavery. Slavery in Israel was to train men and women to be fruitful in their lives and the life of the community. They became servants because of debt, in some cases through negligence and sometimes to make restitution in theft. Generally, enslavement came as a result of some sin. Biblical slavery was one of God’s ways of training irresponsible men to be good stewards of their lives. They would serve in stable homes where their needs were met, and they could be trained in the ways of right living modeled by their masters. After six years they were to be set free. While there were abuses by wicked masters, those who did act in ungodly ways came under God’s judgment.
If a man came into slavery with his wife, she was to be free to leave with him. Things became more complicated if he was given a female slave for a wife. The wife and the fruit of the wife remained the property of the master v.4 the law allowed slaves in this situation to choose to stay with their families v 5-6. It is possible that this law may have been for the protection of women and children. We need to remember that the husband and father came into slavery because he was a debtor. If he learned good stewardship while in servitude, he would be ready to be a productive servant in Israel. He would then be able to buy his family’s freedom (Lev. 25:47-55). But if he had failed to learn in his time of servitude, he would likely find himself in debt again, but then his wife and children would also suffer. They would remain enslaved until the husband could redeem them. Until then the wife and child would be cared for by their current master. Further rules regarding the redemption of slaves are found in Deut. 25:5-10. We are servants of our God purchased by Him and He is our kinsman redeemer. This kind of redemption is seen in the example of Boaz in the redemption of Ruth and Naomi in the book of Ruth.
Exodus 21:7-11 With regard to female slaves, other instructions are given. At first this law seems unfair. Why did God allow his people to sell their daughters into slavery? And why did the laws differ for women? This is one of the passages used to criticize the Bible for being sexist. But we need to consider these laws in their cultural context. The man who sold his daughter was not trying to get rid of her but served as a form of an arranged marriage, which was common in most parts of the world for most of human history. This was true in my grandparent’s generation and is still the case in many societies today. A poor man would send his daughter to a rich man in the hope that eventually she might marry the master’s son.
V 8 teaches that there was a probationary period for the maidservant to prove her worth. If things didn’t work out, the maidservant was not to be blamed. The master was the decider and if he chose not to marry her, she was to be allowed to have her family ransom her. If he does marry her, she was to be welcomed as a full member of the family, with all the privileges of a daughter. If for some reason the husband divorces her and marries another woman the former husband was required to provide three things: food, clothing, and marital rights. If he failed to provide these things, she was to be released from servitude freely.
As previously mentioned, some servants would choose to remain in the service of their masters even when the Shemitah year came up. These were known as a bond servant and there was a ceremony for such a servant described in v. 5-6. The New covenant describes our relationship with God to be like this. King David refers to this in the Psalm 40:5-8. Yeshua calls us to consider ourselves as bond slaves just as he modeled in his behavior in Matt. 20:25-28. Paul describes himself as a bond slave. Abusing servants brought judgment on Israel when they returned from captivity in Neh. 8. The attitude we are to have toward slaves who are our kinsmen is to treat them as brothers. This is the point that Paul was making regarding the slave Onesimus in Philemon.
Exodus 21:12-17 These verses deal with actions that receive the punishment of death. They refer to the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”. Since we are made in God’s image murder is an attack against the image of God (Gen. 9:6). If a person was found guilty on the testimony of two or more witnesses (Num. 35:30-31), the murderer would be executed.
Torah made a distinction between premeditated murder and accidental manslaughter. If you killed somebody accidentally, you could flee to the altar in the tabernacle for safety until the elders could examine the case against you (1 Kings 2:29). When Israel entered the land, the Lord instructed Moses to appoint six cities of refuge where a person could flee and wait for a trial by the elders (Num. 35; Deut. 19; Josh. 20). It was the responsibility of the victim’s family to ensure that justice was done. The altar and the cities of refuge were to prevent revenge rather than injustice.
Exodus 21:15 & 17 Serve as two examples of case law. The case in v 15 deals with a man’s mistreatment of his parents, abusing them physically or verbally or both, which breaks the fifth commandment as well as the commands of Lev. 20:9 and Deut. 27:16 which condemns cursing one’s parents. Children who do not respect their parents generally rebel against other authority. Proverbs tells us that rebellion is likened to divination or witchcraft which also is a capital crime (1 Sam. 15:23). One of the signs of the last days will be people “Without natural affection” (2 Tim. 3:3) who among other things do not love and honor their parents or any other authority.
In V 16 we see that the death penalty was called for in the case of kidnapping and complements Deut. 24:7. If it’s wrong to steal property, it’s even more so to steal people made in God’s image and sell them into slavery. This is going on today, so we see how God views kidnapping. It is punishable by death. If we were a theocracy this would be the Law of the Land and will likely be the law during the millennium.
Exodus 21:18-19 This section through v. 32 deals with injuries. Invariably disagreements with others happen. God through Jethro moved Moses to establish a system of Judges Ex. 18:13ff. This evidently was not fully implemented until Israel entered the Land 40 years later. Jethro’s list of qualifications for leadership required qualities of character, belief, and behavior rather than age, wealth, or family position (Dt 1:13,16-17; 2Ch 19:6-7,9-10). However, at times people’s quarrels escalate to the point of blows, but if it happens and someone is hurt the law provided guidelines for the judges for consequences. If the victim died, the assailant would pay with his life, but if the victim recovers, the assailant is cleared of further charges. However, he would have to reimburse the victim for his time lost from work and medical expenses.
Exodus 21:20-21 This Law applied to a master and his slaves. It is not God’s will that slaves be looked on as property but instead as people made in God’s image deserving of human rights. If a master went too far and killed his servant, the master was to be punished. We aren’t told what the punishment was; it was probably determined by the judges (Ex. 21:22) and depended on whether there was intent to kill. If after a few days the slave recovered, the master wasn’t punished, for he had already lost income from the slave during the period of recuperation. If the slave was permanently injured whether the injury was as serious as losing an eye or as minor as losing a tooth the slave was set free (26-27). This was a major difference between slavery in Israel and slavery anywhere else. The master had failed his God-given duty to protect his servant; so, he was released from his servitude. This law was intended to eradicate the physical abuse of slaves.
Exodus 21:22-25 This addresses the injury of a woman who is pregnant. If she was the wife of one of the combatants, and as a result of the fighting gives birth prematurely or has a miscarriage “but if there is no serious injury” (either to the mother or the child) the court was required to fine the guilty man for his aggressive action against somebody who wasn’t a party to the fight. Regardless of the man’s intent, what he did could have caused the death of the child or the mother or both. But if there was serious injury, that is, the mother and/or child was maimed or killed, then the court would follow the lex talionis, the punishment must fit the crime. The only time this principle was not enforced was when a master injured a slave, and the slave’s compensation was their freedom.
In the New Covenant Yeshua prohibited His disciples from retaliating against those who hurt them (Matt. 5:38-44; 1 Peter 2:19-21). He was dealing with personal revenge and calling for personal forgiveness. He wasn’t criticizing Moses or interfering with Torah, because He came to fulfill the Torah and not destroy it (Matt. 5:17-20). As believers, we have the privilege of waiving our “legal rights” to the glory of God and not demanding compensation (1 Cor. 6:1-8). Here God’s people are called to deal with injustice among brethren and render just verdicts.
Exodus 21:28-32 Owners were responsible if their animals injure people. Here a bull is used as an example. If it had a history attacking people, it was to be fenced in. If it wasn’t confined and it killed somebody, the owner was responsible, and both the owner and the animal were put to death. The animal could not be eaten because it had been defiled by its actions. However, the court could fine the owner and allow him to pay a ransom and go free except in the case of premeditated murder (Num. 35:31). There was to be no difference between the death of a male or a female, but there was a difference when it came to slaves, in addition to compensating the slave’s family for his loss of life the owner of the animal would have to pay his master thirty pieces of silver to compensate him for the loss of his slave. This also points to the price paid to Judas by the Sanhedrin for betraying Yeshua (Matt. 26:14-16).
Exodus 21:33-36 dealt with the loss of animals if they were injured or killed. If a man’s carelessness and negligence caused an animal to be injured or killed, then he had to pay the owner for the animal, but the owner of the pit that the animal fell in could claim the carcass as his own. If one animal killed another, the two owners divided both the carcass of the dead animal and the money received from the sale of the living animal. This law not only revealed God’s concern for justice but also His desire that people be responsible for their animals so that they are not injured or cause injury.