The Decisions, 1

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

Hebrew Servants, 2-11

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, 12-27

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.

‘The kidnapping described in v. 16 is done for the sake of selling a person into slavery. This was common in the ancient world, and it is here regarded as a heinous crime. The popular notion that the Bible approves of slavery needs careful qualification; the kind of slavery practiced in recent times, whereby African persons were kidnapped by Arabs, sold to Europeans, and transported to the New World, is absolutely forbidden in the Bible and even said to be worthy of the death penalty.’ (Garrett)

21:17 “Whoever treats his father or his mother disgracefully must surely be put to death.

See also Lev 20:9.

Such behaviour would violate  the fifth commandment (vv. 15, 17; Lev 20:9; Deut 27:16).

Enns thinks that what would be involved here would be serious act of disrespect or neglect, such as refusing their duty of care towards elderly parents.

Stuart also stresses the probable seriousness of the offences envisaged here.  ‘Most likely this law envisions a situation in which someone would not merely in a moment of rage say to his parents something like “I wish you were dead!” but would publicly, perhaps by an oath spoken in the name of Yahweh, assert that he wanted never again to have anything to do with his parents and would not respect or serve them any longer as their child, wishing only harm for them. Thus the curser would, carrying out the curse, neither obey his parents nor care for them in their old age as was the expected duty but would openly declare something to the effect that he wanted them “out of the way.”129 Such behavior was sufficiently outrageous that God would not tolerate its continuation within the covenant community, and he therefore declared it a capital crime.’

‘As far as we know, no one ever treated this as if it were a literal law, any more than Jesus’ telling you to pluck out your eye was a literal law. What it does is set limits to the compensation someone has a right to seek when one gets injured. Likewise, as far as we know no one was ever executed for offenses such as belittling one’s parents, or most of the many “capital” offenses in Israel’s rule of life. Saying “such a person should be put to death” is a way of saying, “This is a really wicked thing to do; terrible consequences may follow.”’ (Goldingay)

‘Was the death penalty carried out in these cases? The sentence in Heb., mot yumat (infinitive absolute with the hopʿal imperfective) can be translated, “may be put to death.” The NIV translates the same words “shall surely be put to death” and “must be put to death.” While “may” is not likely, it is grammatically possible, functioning as a strong rhetorical deterrent. Some rabbinic opinion takes mot yumat to be God’s prerogative (“he will surely die”) and the isolated yumat an execution by human judges (e.g., 35:2; on the other hand, see Num. 35:21; Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Verse 17 does not specify the executer, method, and timing. Gerstenberger has argued that this was only a legal form and did not establish the practice of capital punishment.’ (Alexander)

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.

He will surely be punished – Punished, that is, according to the principle of retribution.  ‘The fact that a slave had to be set free if so much as a tooth were knocked out (v27) gives some indication of the value the law would set on his life.  By having no fixed penalty in the present case it was not necessarily showing indifference, but leaving room to assess the factors which make the distinction between murder at one end of the scale, and misadventure a the other (where some accident or abnormality has turned the blow into a fatal one).’ (Kidner, Hard Sayings, p33)

If the injured servant survives one or two days – The assumption here would be that the man had not intended to kill his servant.

He has suffered the loss – lit. ‘[the slave] is his money’.  This is ‘not the gratuitous insult that it appears to be.  Its context is the question of compensation in various cases where people come to blows.  The previous case has the ruling that in a brawl a serious but no fatal injury carries no worse penalty than payment for the victim’s loss of earnings and his restoration to health.  But a slave has no earnings to make good; the only monetary loss is the mater’s, and here it has been self-inflicted: it needs no assessment or enforcement.’ (Kidner)

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’.  This text is sometimes referred to in the debate about abortion between ‘pro-choice’ and the ‘pro-life’ advocates.  The point made by the former would be that the punishment if an injury to a woman leads to a premature birth amounts to no more than a fine, whereas a more serious injury (to the woman) warrants capital punishment.  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).’

Richard Hays discusses the possible relevance of this passage for the debate about abortion:

‘The passage does not in any way deal with intentional abortion; rather, it is a piece of property law, prescribing how to deal with an unintentionally inflicted injury that results in a miscarriage. If the injured woman dies or suffers permanent injury, then the crime is treated like any other case of murder or assault, requiring capital or physical punishment on the offender, depending on the degree of injury sustained (w. 23–25, cf. v. 12). But if only the fetus is lost, only a monetary fine is imposed (v. 22), to be paid to the woman’s husband in compensation for his loss of potential progeny. Although the passage does not directly deal with abortion, it seems to posit a qualitative distinction between the fetus and the mother; only the latter is legally a person with reference to whom the lex talionis applies.’  (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 446-447)

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, 28-36

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.