The Decisions

21:1  “These are the decisions that you will set before them:

Hebrew Servants

21:2  “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year he will go out free without paying anything. 21:3 If he came in by himself he will go out by himself; if he had a wife when he came in, then his wife will go out with him. 21:4 If his master gave him a wife, and she bore sons or daughters, the wife and the children will belong to her master, and he will go out by himself. 21:5 But if the servant should declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 21:6 then his master must bring him to the judges, and he will bring him to the door or the doorposts, and his master will pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.
21:7 “If a man sells his daughter as a female servant, she will not go out as the male servants do. 21:8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to a foreign nation, because he has dealt deceitfully with her. 21:9 If he designated her for his son, then he will deal with her according to the customary rights of daughters. 21:10 If he takes another wife, he must not diminish the first one’s food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 21:11 If he does not provide her with these three things, then she will go out free, without paying money.

If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights – This has been taken to countenance polygamy.  However, ‘there is no suggestion of a second marriage with “marital rights” in Exodus 21:10, for the word translated “marital rights” should be rendered “oil” or “ointments.” The text says that a man who has purchased a female servant (perhaps to fulfill a debt) must continue to provide for her if he proposes marriage and then decides not to consummate it.’ (HSB)

Personal Injuries

21:12  “Whoever strikes someone so that he dies must surely be put to death. 21:13 But if he does not do it with premeditation, but it happens by accident, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. 21:14 But if a man willfully attacks his neighbor to kill him cunningly, you will take him even from my altar that he may die.

Put to death – ‘Many modern readers of the biblical laws are likely to be disturbed by the use of capital punishment for a variety of crimes, including murder, kidnapping, physical or verbal assaults against parents, sorcery, bestiality and idolatry (21:12–17; 22:18–20). Against modern standards of justice this punishment appears extremely harsh. Nevertheless, it reflects the value which the Israelites placed upon individual human life; the hierarchical structure within the family; and the purity of worship. In the case of murder the death penalty was invoked, not out of indifference for human life, but rather because each human life is of tremendous value (cf. Gn. 9:6). A life for a life does not express vengefulness, but rather the idea that the only payment which can be made for the taking of a human life is a human life itself. This even applies to animals responsible for a human death (21:28).’ (NBC)

21:15 “Whoever strikes his father or his mother must surely be put to death.
21:16 “Whoever kidnaps someone and sells him, or is caught still holding him, must surely be put to death.
21:17 “Whoever treats his father or his mother disgracefully must surely be put to death.
21:18 “If men fight, and one strikes his neighbor with a stone or with his fist and he does not die, but must remain in bed, 21:19 and then if he gets up and walks about outside on his staff, then the one who struck him is innocent, except he must pay for the injured person’s loss of time and see to it that he is fully healed.
21:20 “If a man strikes his male servant or his female servant with a staff so that he or she dies as a result of the blow, he will surely be punished. 21:21 However, if the injured servant survives one or two days, the owner will not be punished, for he has suffered the loss.
21:22 “If men fight and hit a pregnant woman and her child is born prematurely, but there is no serious injury, he will surely be punished in accordance with what the woman’s husband demands of him, and he will pay what the court decides. 21:23 But if there is serious injury, then you will give a life for a life, 21:24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 21:25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

…and her child is born prematurely – lit. ‘and her children come out’.  Enns (following Sprinkle) argues that, in the ancient world, premature birth would be understood as implying still-birth.  The ‘injury’ referred to in this text is to the woman alone.  The text is, accordingly, not particularly relevant to the modern debate about abortion.  And, even if it were relevant, ‘a convincing argument would have to be mounted for why the principles behind this law should be adhered to but not many of the others in the Book of the Covenant (e.g., Ex 22:16–17).’

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth… – ‘At first sight, the law of talion appears to be a rather barbaric way of ensuring justice. Yet, within the development of law in the Ancient Near East it represented an important advance. In the earliest known collections of laws monetary fines were imposed in cases of assault and bodily injury. The weakness of such fines was that they failed to take into account an individual’s ability to pay. (For an unemployed labourer a fine of a thousand pounds imposes great hardship; to a millionaire it is a mere trifle.) The law of talion removed all such discrepancies by ensuring that the punishment should be no less, or no more, than the crime demanded.’ (NBC)

21:26 “If a man strikes the eye of his male servant or his female servant so that he destroys it, he will let the servant go free as compensation for the eye. 21:27 If he knocks out the tooth of his male servant or his female servant, he will let the servant go free as compensation for the tooth.

Laws about Animals

21:28  “If an ox gores a man or a woman so that either dies, then the ox must surely be stoned and its flesh must not be eaten, but the owner of the ox will be acquitted. 21:29 But if the ox had the habit of goring, and its owner was warned, and he did not take the necessary precautions, and then it killed a man or a woman, the ox must be stoned and the man must be put to death. 21:30 If a ransom is set for him, then he must pay the redemption for his life according to whatever amount was set for him. 21:31 If the ox gores a son or a daughter, the owner will be dealt with according to this rule. 21:32 If the ox gores a male servant or a female servant, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver, and the ox must be stoned.
21:33 “If a man opens a pit or if a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 21:34 the owner of the pit must repay the loss. He must give money to its owner, and the dead animal will become his. 21:35 If the ox of one man injures the ox of his neighbor so that it dies, then they will sell the live ox and divide its proceeds, and they will also divide the dead ox. 21:36 Or if it is known that the ox had the habit of goring, and its owner did not take the necessary precautions, he must surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal will become his.