Exodus 21


Laws concerning servants. They shall serve for only seven

years, 1, 2.

If a servant brought a wife to servitude with him, both should go

out free on the seventh year, 3.

If his master had given him a wife, and she bore him children, he

might go out free an the seventh year, but his wife and children

must remain, as the property of the master, 4.

If, through love to his master, wife, and children, he did not

choose to avail himself of the privilege granted by the law, of

going out free on the seventh year, his ear was to be bored to the

door post with an awl, as an emblem of his being attached to the

family for ever, 5, 6.

Laws concerning maid-servants, betrothed to their masters or to

the sons of their masters, 7-11.

Laws concerning battery and murder, 12-15.

Concerning men-stealing, 16.

Concerning him that curses his parents, 17.

Of strife between man and man, 18, 19;

between a master and his servants, 20, 21.

Of injuries done to women in pregnancy, 22.

The LEX TALIONIS, or law of like, 23-25.

for injuries done to servants, by which they gain the right of

freedom, 26, 27.

Laws concerning the ox which has gored men, 28-32.

Of the pit left uncovered, into which a man or a beast has

fallen, 33, 34.

Laws concerning the ox that kills another, 35, 36.


Verse 1. Now these are the judgments] There is so much good

sense, feeling, humanity, equity, and justice in the following

laws, that they cannot but be admired by every intelligent reader;

and they are so very plain as to require very little comment. The

laws in this chapter are termed political, those in the succeeding

chapter judicial, laws; and are supposed to have been delivered to

Moses alone, in consequence of the request of the people,

Ex 20:19, that God should communicate his will to Moses, and

that Moses should, as mediator, convey it to them.

Verse 2. If thou buy a Hebrew servant] Calmet enumerates six

different ways in which a Hebrew might lose his liberty: 1. In

extreme poverty they might sell their liberty. Le 25:39:

If thy brother be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee, &c. 2. A

father might sell his children. If a man sell his daughter to be

a maidservant; see Ex 21:7. 3.

Insolvent debtors became the slaves of their creditors. My

husband is dead-and the creditor is come to take unto him my two

sons to be bondmen, 2Ki 4:1. 4. A

thief, if he had not money to pay the fine laid on him by the

law, was to be sold for his profit whom he had robbed. If he have

nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft; Ex 22:3,4. 5. A

Hebrew was liable to be taken prisoner in war, and so sold for a

slave. 6. A Hebrew slave who had been ransomed from a Gentile by

a Hebrew might be sold by him who ransomed him, to one of his own


Six years he shall serve] It was an excellent provision in

these laws, that no man could finally injure himself by any rash,

foolish, or precipitate act. No man could make himself a servant

or slave for more than seven years; and if he mortgaged the family

inheritance, it must return to the family at the jubilee, which

returned every fiftieth year.

It is supposed that the term six years is to be understood as

referring to the sabbatical years; for let a man come into

servitude at whatever part of the interim between two sabbatical

years, he could not be detained in bondage beyond a sabbatical

year; so that if he fell into bondage the third year after a

sabbatical year, he had but three years to serve; if the fifth,

but one. See Clarke on Ex 23:11, &c. Others suppose that

this privilege belonged only to the year of jubilee, beyond which

no man could be detained in bondage, though he had been sold only

one year before.

Verse 3. If he came in by himself] If he and his wife came in

together, they were to go out together: in all respects as he

entered, so should he go out. This consideration seems to have

induced St. Jerome to translate the passage thus: Cum quali veste

intraverat, cum tali exeat. "He shall have the same coat in going

out, as he had when he came in," i.e., if he came in with a new

one, he shall go out with a new one, which was perfectly just, as

the former coat must have been worn out in his master's service,

and not his own.

Verse 4. The wife and her children shall be her master's] It

was a law among the Hebrews, that if a Hebrew had children by a

Canannitish woman, those children must be considered as

Canaanitish only, and might be sold and bought, and serve for

ever. The law here refers to such a case only.

Verse 6. Shall bring him unto the judges] el haelohim,

literally, to God; or, as the Septuagint have it, προςτο

κριτηριονθεου, to the judgment of God; who condescended to dwell

among his people; who determined all their differences till he had

given them laws for all cases, and who, by his omniscience,

brought to light the hidden things of dishonesty. See Ex 22:8.

Bore his ear through with an awl] This was a ceremony

sufficiently significant, as it implied, 1. That he was closely

attached to that house and family. 2. That he was bound to hear

all his master's orders, and to obey them punctually. Boring of

the ear was an ancient custom in the east. It is referred to by


Prior, inquit, ego adsum.

Cur timeam, dubitemve locum defendere? quamvis

Natus ad Euphraten, MOLLES quod in AURE FENESTRAE

Arguerint, licet ipse negem.

Sat. i. 102.

"First come, first served, he cries; and I, in spite

Of your great lordships, will maintain my right:

Though born a slave, though my torn EARS are BORED,

'Tis not the birth, 'tis money makes the lord."


Calmet quotes a saying from Petronius as attesting the same

thing; and one from Cicero, in which he rallies a Libyan who

pretended he did not hear him: "It is not," said he, "because your

ears are not sufficiently bored;" alluding to his having been a


Verse 7. If a man sell his daughter] This the Jews allowed no

man to do but in extreme distress-when he had no goods, either

movable or immovable left, even to the clothes on his back; and he

had this permission only while she was unmarriageable. It may

appear at first view strange that such a law should have been

given; but let it be remembered, that this servitude could extend,

at the utmost, only to six years; and that it was nearly the same

as in some cases of apprenticeship among us, where the parents

bind the child for seven years, and have from the master so much

per week during that period.

Verse 9. Betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her] He

shall give her the same dowry he would give to one of his own

daughters. From these laws we learn, that if a man's son married

his servant, by his father's consent, the father was obliged to

treat her in every respect as a daughter; and if the son married

another woman, as it appears he might do, Ex 21:10, he was

obliged to make no abatement in the privileges of the first wife,

either in her food, raiment, or duty of marriage. The word

onathah, here, is the same with St. Paul's οφειλομενηνευνοιαν,

the marriage debt, and with the ομιλιαν of the Septuagint, which

signifies the cohabitation of man and wife.

Verse 11. These three] 1. Her food, sheerah, her

flesh, for she must not, like a common slave, be fed merely on

vegetables. 2. Her raiment-her private wardrobe, with all

occasional necessary additions. And, 3. The marriage debt-a due

proportion of the husband's time and company.

Verse 13. I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.]

From the earliest times the nearest akin had a right to revenge

the murder of his relation, and as this right was universally

acknowledged, no law was ever made on the subject; but as this

might be abused, and a person who had killed another accidentally,

having had no previous malice against him, might be put to death

by the avenger of blood, as the nearest kinsman was termed,

therefore God provided the cities of refuge to which the

accidental manslayer might flee till the affair was inquired into,

and settled by the civil magistrate.

Verse 14. Thou shalt take him from mine altar] Before the cities

of refuge were assigned, the altar of God was the common asylum.

Verse 15. That smiteth his father, or his mother] As such a

case argued peculiar depravity, therefore no mercy was to be shown

to the culprit.

Verse 16. He that stealeth a man] By this law every

man-stealer, and every receiver of the stolen person, should lose

his life; no matter whether the latter stole the man himself, or

gave money to a slave captain or negro-dealer to steal him for


Verse 19. Shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause

him to be thoroughly healed.] This was a wise and excellent

institution, and most courts of justice still regulate their

decisions on such cases by this Mosaic precept.

Verse 21. If the slave who had been beaten by his master died

under his hand, the master was punished with death; see

Ge 9:5, 6. But if he survived the beating a

day or two the master was not punished, because it might be

presumed that the man died through some other cause. And all

penal laws should be construed as favourably as possible to the


Verse 22. And hurt a woman with child] As a posterity among the

Jews was among the peculiar promises of their covenant, and as

every man had some reason to think that the Messiah should spring

from his family, therefore any injury done to a woman with child,

by which the fruit of her womb might be destroyed, was considered

a very heavy offence; and as the crime was committed principally

against the husband, the degree of punishment was left to his

discretion. But if mischief followed, that is, if the child had

been fully formed, and was killed by this means, or the woman lost

her life in consequence, then the punishment was as in other cases

of murder-the person was put to death; Ex 21:23.

Verse 24. Eye for eye] This is the earliest account we have of

the lex talionis, or law of like for like, which afterwards

prevailed among the Greeks and Romans. Among the latter, it

constituted a part of the twelve tables, so famous in antiquity;

but the punishment was afterwards changed to a pecuniary fine, to

be levied at the discretion of the praetor. It prevails less or

more in most civilized countries, and is fully acted upon in the

canon law, in reference to all calumniators: Calumniator, si in

accusatione defecerit, talionem recipiat. "If the calumniator

fall in the proof of his accusation, let him suffer the same

punishment which he wished to have inflicted upon the man whom he

falsely accused." Nothing, however, of this kind was left to

private revenge; the magistrate awarded the punishment when the

fact was proved, otherwise the lex talionis would have utterly

destroyed the peace of society, and have sown the seeds of hatred,

revenge, and all uncharitableness.

Verse 26. If a man smite the eye, &c.] See the following verse.

Verse 27. If he smite out his-tooth] It was a noble law that

obliged the unmerciful slaveholder to set the slave at liberty

whose eye or tooth he had knocked out. If this did not teach them

humanity, it taught them caution, as one rash blow might have

deprived them of all right to the future services of the slave;

and thus self-interest obliged them to be cautious and


Verse 28. If an ox gore a man] It is more likely that a bull is

here intended, as the word signifies both, see Ex 22:1; and the

Septuagint translate the shor of the original by ταυρος, a

bull. Mischief of this kind was provided against by most nations.

It appears that the Romans twisted hay about the horns of their

dangerous cattle, that people seeing it might shun them; hence

that saying of Horace. Sat., lib. i., sat. 4, ver. 34: Faenum

habet in cornu, longe fuge. "He has hay on his horns; fly for

life!" The laws of the twelve tables ordered, That the owner of

the beast should pay for what damages he committed, or deliver him

to the person injured. See Clarke on Ex 22:1.

His flesh shall not be eaten] This served to keep up a due

detestation of murder, whether committed by man or beast; and at

the same time punished the man as far as possible, by the total

loss of the beast.

Verse 30. If there be laid on him a sum of money-the ransom of

his life] So it appears that, though by the law he forfeited his

life, yet this might be commuted for a pecuniary mulct, at which

the life of the deceased might be valued by the magistrates.

Verse 32. Thirty shekels] Each worth about three shillings

English; see Ge 20:16; 23:15. So, counting the shekel at its

utmost value, the life of a slave was valued at four pounds ten

shillings. And at this price these same vile people valued the

life of our blessed Lord; see Zec 11:12, 13; Mt 26:15. And in

return, the justice of God has ordered it so, that they have been

sold for slaves into every country of the universe. And yet,

strange to tell, they see not the hand of God in so visible a


Verse 33. And if a man shall open a pit, or-dig a pit] That

is, if a man shall open a well or cistern that had been before

closed up, or dig a new one; for these two cases are plainly

intimated: and if he did this in some public place where there was

danger that men or cattle might fall into it; for a man might do

as he pleased in his own grounds, as those were his private right.

In the above case, if he had neglected to cover the pit, and his

neighbour's ox or ass was killed by falling into it, he was to pay

its value in money. Ex 21:33 and Ex 21:34 seem to be out of

their places. They probably should conclude the chapters, as,

where they are, they interrupt the statutes concerning the goring

ox, which begin at Ex 21:28.

THESE different regulations are as remarkable for their justice

and prudence as for their humanity. Their great tendency is to

show the valuableness of human life, and the necessity of having

peace and good understanding in every neighbourhood; and they

possess that quality which should be the object of all good and

wholesome laws-the prevention of crimes. Most criminal codes of

jurisprudence seem more intent on the punishment of crimes than on

preventing the commission of them. The law of God always teaches

and warns, that his creatures may not fall into condemnation; for

judgment is his strange work, i.e., one reluctantly and seldom

executed, as this text is frequently understood.

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