The laws and regulations in this and other chapters of Exodus served to meet the needs and circumstances existing in times and cultures that differed significantly from our own. Often these laws and regulations affected long-established institutions and the then-existing social order. They prohibited abuses, introduced a more humane, compassionate, or just way of dealing with fellow humans, set forth penalties for criminal behavior and serious negligence, promoted greater consideration for the welfare of domestic animals, established practices that contributed to the preservation of productive arable land, and outlined procedures for preventing illness and controlling infectious diseases. (21:1)
Long before the Israelites received the laws that are recorded in the book of Exodus, slavery existed and often slaves were mistreated. Among the Israelites, a fellow Israelite could not, without his personal consent, be owned permanently. The period of servitude for an Israelite slave ended after six years (or earlier if the time remaining until the Jubilee year was less than six years). During the time of his servitude, the slave was to be treated justly like a hired laborer. (Leviticus 25:39, 40) According to Deuteronomy 15:12-15, the liberated slave was to be provided with a generous gift that would aid him to start his life as a free man on a sound footing. (21:2)
A Hebrew (or Israelite) slave who began his service for a master as a single man would be set free as a single man in the seventh year, but a married man would be set free along with his wife. In case the master gave the single man a woman to be his wife, the master retained possession of the woman and of any children resulting from the union. Apparently the woman would have been a non-Israelite, for an Israelite woman could not have been treated like the permanent property of the master who gave her as a wife to another man. In the event the Hebrew slave was content in his position and loved his master and his wife and his children, he could choose to remain a slave. To signify that he wanted to remain with his master, the master would bring him “before God” (or “before the judges” [if the plural word for “God” is not a plural of excellence but applies to human judges (Psalm 82:6; John 10:34, 35)]). With the slave standing with his ear against the door or the doorpost, the master would pierce this ear with an awl, signifying that the slave would remain permanently in his service. As the organ of hearing, the pierced ear could also have indicated that the slave would continue to listen to, respond obediently to, or remain submissive to his master. (21:3-6)
A number of modern translations interpret the words about bringing the slave “before God” to mean bringing him to the place where God is worshiped and where God would witness the piercing of the ear and the commitment the slave had voluntarily made to his master. (CEV, TEV) The expression “before God” may, however, simply denote that the act of piercing the slave’s ear would be done in the presence of God, with God being called upon to witness that the slave chose to be owned permanently. In that case, the door or doorpost could have been that of the master’s house. For the slave to be brought before the judges would denote that he was brought before them so that they could serve to witness the choice the slave had made. It would then be at that particular location where the slave’s ear would have been pierced. The Septuagint rendering supports understanding the reference to be to the judges, for it may be translated, “before the judiciary of God.” (21:6)
A Hebrew woman whom her father sold as a slave would not be released from servitude in the same way as a Hebrew man. There is a question about the significance of a master’s not having designated her if she did not please him. Numerous modern translations do not translate the Hebrew word for “not” but follow the meaning that the Septuagint rendering conveys. “If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition) “If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed.” (NIV) “If she doesn’t please the man who bought her to be his wife, he must let her be bought back.” (CEV) The Septuagint rendering may be translated, “If she does not please her master to whom she was engaged, he shall let her be redeemed.” Either her own family could redeem her or a Hebrew man who wanted her as his wife could do so. According to Targum Jonathan, her father may redeem her. The master whom she displeased could not sell her to a foreigner. By not following through in having the Hebrew woman be honorably married to him because she did not please him, her master would have dealt treacherously or faithlessly with her. (21:7, 8)
The master of the Hebrew woman had to grant her the rights of a daughter when selecting her as the wife for his son. Regardless of whether she became her master’s or his son’s wife, either one had the same three responsibilities toward her. If an additional wife was taken, the woman’s food, clothing, and marriage due could not be withheld. Any failure in this respect would grant the woman her freedom, and the master lost any right of repayment. (21:9-11)
Murder was punishable by death. If a man killed another man accidentally, it was considered an act that God allowed to happen. A place was to be set aside to which the accidental manslayer could flee. Once the Israelites were settled in the land that God had promised to give to them, six cities of refuge (Hebron, Shechem, Kedesh, Golan, Ramoth, Bezer) served this purpose. (Joshua 20:7-9; 21:13, 21, 27, 32, 36, 38) Premeditated murder merited the death penalty, and a person’s taking hold of God’s alter would not save him from being put to death. The murderer was forcibly to be removed from the altar and killed. (21:12-14)
A son who viciously struck his father or his mother was to be put to death. The death penalty was imposed on kidnappers, regardless of whether the kidnapper had sold the person or still had the individual in his possession. Cursing a father or a mother constituted a solemn declaration that expressed the wish that they be dead and merited the death penalty. (21:15-17; see the Notes section.)
If during a quarrel, one of the men struck the other man with a stone or with his fist and the injured man did not die but was confined to his bed, the man who harmed him had to compensate him for earnings lost because of being unable to work and for what was needed for his recovery. The man who struck him did not have any other penalty imposed on him if the injured party was able to get up from his bed and walk about with the aid of his staff. (21:18, 19) According to Targum Jonathan, the guilty man would be “acquitted from the penalty of death.”
If a male or female slave was brutally beaten with a rod and died as a result, the responsible party was to be punished, for the severe beating indicated intent to do bodily harm that could be fatal. Apparently the judges determined whether the penalty should be death. Targum Jonathan says that the man would be “judged with the judgment of death by the sword.” In the event the slave lived for a day or two and then died, his master would not be punished. It could then not be absolutely determined whether the slave had died as a result of the beating or from some other cause. Moreover, the slave was considered as property, for he had been acquired with the payment of silver. (21:20, 21)
The life of the unborn was protected. If during a fight between men a pregnant woman (an innocent bystander) was pushed and injured and had a miscarriage, her husband could stipulate a fine that the man responsible for the harm needed to pay. The matter would be brought to the attention of judges who would determine the actual payment amount. If, on the other hand, a death or serious injury occurred, the principle of like for like would be applied. The judges, not the husband, applied the principle and determined the penalty. (21:22-25; see the Notes section.)
A provision that safeguarded male and female slaves from being seriously abused was the following: If the mistreatment led to the loss of an eye or a tooth, the slave was granted his or her freedom. Having to set a slave free would have been a significant financial loss for the master, and likely this would have deterred most masters from resorting to brutality. (21:26, 27)
A bull that gored a man or woman to death was to be killed, and meat from the animal was not to be eaten. The owner of the bull would not be held liable if the animal had not been known to gore in the past. If, however, the owner was negligent, having been previously warned about the bull that was in the habit of goring and did not keep the animal under guard, both the bull and the owner would be put to death. In the event the judges determined that the negligent owner of the bull could be exempted from the death penalty, he would have to pay whatever ransom amount for his life was required of him. The same regulations applied in case a bull gored a son or a daughter. (21:28-31)
Slaves were considered to be the property of the owner. Therefore, if a bull gored a male or female slave, the owner of the bull had to pay 30 shekels (the price of a slave) to the owner of the killed slave. The goring bull had to be stoned to death. (21:32)
A negligent man who failed to cover an open pit that he had opened or dug made himself responsible for any harm this hazard posed for domestic animals. If a bull or a donkey fell into the pit, the negligent man would receive the dead animal and had to pay “silver” (money) as compensation to the owner for his loss. (21:33, 34)
If a bull killed the bull belonging to another man, the owner of the goring bull had to sell it. He would then give half of the sale price to the owner of the dead bull. Both men also would divide the price for the dead bull, with each of them receiving an equal share. If, however, the bull was known to have been in the habit of goring and the owner had not taken measures to control the animal, the penalty was more severe. The owner had to replace the dead bull with a living bull of his own, and he received the dead animal. (21:35, 36; see the Notes section.)
In the Septuagint, the two commands relating to parents are kept together, with the words of verse 17 following those of verse 15.
Targum Jonathan says that, if the pregnant woman is killed during the fight between the men, the one responsible for her death would forfeit his life. (“You shall judge the life of the killer for the life of the woman.”) Regarding the infant if the woman is not killed, Targum Jonathan states. “The fine on account of the infant which the woman’s husband shall lay upon him [the one responsible for the miscarriage], he shall pay according to the sentence of the judges.” In the Septuagint, the rendering of verses 22 and 23 conveys a different meaning. It says that, if the infant is not fully formed (recognizable as human offspring), the man responsible for the miscarriage would have to pay a fine. In case of the death of a fully formed baby, the judges would apply the principle of like for like.
The words that follow verse 36 appear in printed Bibles either as verse 37 or as verse 1 of chapter 22. See Exodus 22:1 for comments on this verse.