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Ordinances for the People The Law Concerning Servants The Covenant Code (20:22-23:33) The Treatment of Slaves Laws Concerning Slaves (follows MT versing)
21:1 21:1-11 21:1-6 21:1-6 21:1-11
21:7-11 21:7-11 21:7-11
Personal Injuries The Law Concerning Violence Laws Protecting Human Beings Laws About Violent Acts Homicide
21:12-14 21:12-13 21:12-14 21:12-14 21:12-14
21:15 21:15 21:15 21:15 21:15-17
21:16 21:16 21:16 21:16
21:17 21:17 21:17 21:17 Blows and Words
21:18-21 21:18-19 21:18-19 21:18-19 21:18-19
21:20-21 21:20-21 21:20-21 21:20-21
21:22-25 21:22-25 21:22-25 21:22-25 21:22-25
21:26-27 21:26-27 21:26-27 21:26-27 21:26-27
Animal Control Laws The Responsibility of Owners
21:28-32 21:28-32 21:28-32 21:28-32 21:28-32
Laws Dealing with Property (21:33-22:17)
21:33-34 21:33-34 21:33-34 21:33-36 21:33-36
Theft of Animals (21:37-22:3)
21:35-36 21:35-36 21:35-36

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.
  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Third paragraph
  4. Etc.


  1. A further revelation of God's will for His people is called "The Book of the Covenant." It starts in Exod. 20:22 and goes through Exod. 23:33.

  2. God wants His people to be a just society. This has always been His goal (cf. Gen. 18:19). This kind of society in a fallen world of exploitation, greed, and self (see SPECIAL TOPIC: THE FALL) will be a powerful magnet to bring the unbeliever to YHWH!

  3. There are several emphatic grammatical features (i.e., INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and an IMPERFECT VERB of the same root) in Exodus 21-23.
    1. Exod. 21:5 ‒ "plainly says" (BDB 55, KB 65)
    2. Exod. 21:12 ‒ "shall surely be put to death" (BDB 559, KB 562)
    3. Exod. 21:15 ‒ same as #2
    4. Exod. 21:16 ‒ same as #2
    5. Exod. 21:17 ‒ same as #2
    6. Exod. 21:19 ‒ "completely healed" (BDB 950, KB 1272)
    7. Exod. 21:20 ‒ "shall be punished" (BDB 667, KB 721)
    8. Exod. 21:22 ‒ "shall surely be fined" (BDB 778, KB 859)
    9. Exod. 21:28 ‒ "shall surely be stoned" (BDB 709, KB 768)
    10. Exod. 21:36 ‒ "shall surely pay" (BDB 1022, KB 1532)
    11. Exod. 22:3 ‒ "shall surely make restitution" (BDB 1022, KB 1532)
    12. Exod. 22:4 ‒ "actually found" (BDB 592, KB 619)
    13. Exod. 22:6 ‒ "surely make restitution" (same as #11)
    14. Exod. 22:12 ‒ "actually stolen" (BDB 170, KB 198)
    15. Exod. 22:13 ‒ "all torn to pieces" (BDB 382, KB 380)
    16. Exod. 22:14 ‒ "make full restitution," same as #11
    17. Exod. 22:16 ‒ "he must pay a dowry" (BDB 555, KB 554)
    18. Exod. 22:17 ‒ "absolutely refuses" (BDB 549, KB 540)
    19. Exod. 22:19 ‒ "shall surely be put to death" (BDB 559, KB 562)
    20. Exod. 22:23 ‒ "If you afflict him at all" (BDB 776, KB 853)
    21. Exod. 22:23 ‒ "he does cry out" (BDB 858, KB 1042)
    22. Exod. 22:23 ‒ "I will surely hear" (BDB 1033, KB 1570)
    23. Exod. 22:26 ‒ "take. . .as a pledge" (BDB 286, KB 285)
    24. Exod. 23:4 ‒ "shall surely return" (BDB 996, KB 1427)
    25. Exod. 23:5 ‒ "shall surely release" (BDB 736, KB 806)
    26. Exod. 23:22 ‒ "shall truly obey" (BDB 1033, KB 1570)
    27. Exod. 23:24 ‒ "utterly overthrow" (BDB 248, KB 256)
    Wow! What a string of emphatic forms. God is serious about obedience to His revelations!

  4. The "if. . .then" model of these laws (i.e., casuistic, which is characteristic of ANE laws, see SPECIAL TOPIC: LAWS IN THE ANE) shows the conditional nature of YHWH's covenant with Israel. His presence and blessings are conditional on their obedience (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27-30; see SPECIAL TOPIC: COVENANT).

  5. The Tyndale Commentary, by R. Alan Cole, has a good context outline (pp. 164-170).
    1. the Hebrew slave ‒ Exod. 21:1-11
    2. stern desert laws ‒ Exod. 21:12-17
    3. quarrels and injuries ‒ Exod. 21:18-27
    4. injuries by animals ‒ Exod. 21:28-36


1"Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them"

John H. Walton, ANE Thought and the OT, pp. 292-294, makes a good point about "casuistic" law (i.e., case law, "if this happens. . .then this happens") as distinct from apodictic law (i.e., Decalogue). On page 292 he makes the suggestion that the case laws of Exodus 21 may be decisions Moses had made as judge (cf. Exod. 18:13-27). Moses may have used one decision as a base line for the same type of issue or conflict. These laws are still from YHWH, as was Exodus 20, but possibly through the agency of Moses as law-giver to Israel (cf. Exod. 20:19).

2"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment. 3If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. 4If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone. 5But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,' 6then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently."

21:2 "If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment" Slavery was a common practice in the ancient world. For a good, brief discussion, see Roland deVaux, Ancient Israel, pp. 80-90. The uniqueness of the OT is that it made a distinction between covenant brothers and foreigners in its regulations concerning slaves. The Hebrew slave is discussed in Lev. 25:39-43 and Deut. 15:12-18. These Scriptures are characterized by thoughtful concern and brotherly help. Alien slaves are discussed in Lev. 25:44-46. Hebrew slaves were really indentured servants. They worked six years to pay off their debt. On the seventh year, or if the Year of Jubilee came first, they were to be released (cf. Lev. 25:8-17,23-33). They were not just to be released but with dignity and help in order to begin a new life (cf. Deut. 15:13-14).


▣ "he shall go out as a free man" The term "free man" refers to a particular class in society (see NET Bible, p. 170, #8).

▣ "Hebrew" The term "Hebrew" (BDB 720 I) is an ancient designation for a group of Semitic, nomadic people. Abraham is called a Hebrew in Gen. 14:13. There is some speculation as to whether it relates to the wandering Semitic group known as Habiru, which seems to mean "from beyond the river." If so, the term "Hebrews" covered a much larger group of people than simply the descendants of Abraham (cf. Deut. 26:5). Some think its origin is from the name of one of Abraham's ancestors, Eber (cf. Gen. 11:16).
The designation is often found in the recorded words of non-Israelites.

  1. Gen. 14:13 ‒ a messenger to Abraham
  2. Gen. 39:14,17; 40:15; 41:12; 43:32 ‒ Egyptians
  3. 1 Sam. 4:6,9; 13:3,7,19; 14:16,21; 29:3 ‒ Philistines
  4. Jer. 34:9,14 ‒ Babylonians
  5. Jonah 1:9 ‒ to Gentile sailors
  6. Acts 6:1 ‒ Greek-speaking Jews

21:3 "If he comes alone, he shall go out alone" The term "alone" occurs only here. Literally this term means "body," "self" (BDB 172). It means that if he came with only the shirt on his back that is the way he shall leave. This must be compared with Deut. 15:13,14, where the master is requested to be kind and give provisions to his indentured servants when they leave. From Exod. 21:4-11 it becomes obvious that if a man has a family which was given to him by his master, then he might want to remain permanently with his master. This was also provided for by a ritual whereby the ear was pierced, apparently at the home of the slave owner, although it could be the temple, and this made him a permanent slave to this family (cf. Exod. 21:4-6; Deut. 15:16-17).

21:5 If a Hebrew slave wanted to stay permanently with his master, he had the option (cf. Deut. 15:16-18). Slavery was often a much better life than poverty.

NKJV  "to the judges"
TEV  "to the place of worship"
LXX  "to the tribunal of God"
The term in the MT is Elohim (see SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY, C.) Here, 1 Sam. 2:25; and in Ps. 82:6 it refers to Israeli judges (cf. Exod. 18:13-27; 22:8-9,28; LXX, Peshitta, and Targums).
There was no tabernacle yet. Some see the parallel in Deut. 15:17 as referring to the door of the slave owner.

▣ "permanently" This is the term 'olam (BDB 761); see SPECIAL TOPIC: FOREVER ('olam). It must always be interpreted in context. Here it means for a lifetime.

7"If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. 8If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her. 9If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. 10If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. 11If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money."

21:7-11 One of the uniquenesses of the Hebrew law code is its respect and attempt to give limited rights to women in its society. This section shows the author's attempt to obtain fair treatment for females in a patriarchal system. See SPECIAL TOPIC: WOMEN IN THE BIBLE.

21:8 The textual issue here is discussed in the UBS Text Project (p. 117).

  1. MT ‒ "not," לא (Kethiv, NEB; Rotherham's Emphasized Bible, Young's Literal Translation of the Bible)
  2. emendation ‒ "to himself," לו (Qere, LXX, Syriac, JPSOA, NASB)
It gives option #2 a "B" rating (some doubt).

▣ "let her be redeemed" This VERB (BDB 804, KB 911, Hiphil PERFECT with waw) occurs only here in the Hiphil stem. This term has important theological significance. See SPECIAL TOPIC: RANSOM/REDEEM.

NASB, NRSV  "unfairness to her"
NKJV  "deceitfully with her"
NJB, JPSOA  "a breach of faith with her"
LXX  "has broken faith with her"
This VERB (BDB 93, KB 108, Qal ACTIVE INFINITIVE) basically means "to deal treacherously" (cf. Jdgs. 9:23; Isa. 33:1; Jer. 3:8,11; Hab. 1:13; 2:5). Here it denotes the unfairness of the man not marrying the woman because of some undisclosed reason (e.g., Jos. 24:15; Jer. 40:4).

21:10 These ANE arranged marriages are difficult for modern westerners to comprehend. Note how carefully the law protected the woman. This was unique to Israel's laws.

Here are the options.
  1. a man purchasing a woman to be his wife (or concubine)
  2. he does not like her but she
    1. can be sold (i.e., lit. "redeemed") to another Israelite, but not a foreigner (BDB 648; cf. Exod. 2:22; 18:3; Deut. 14:21; 17:15)
    2. can be given to his son
    3. her social status and its benefits cannot be reduced (NET Bible, p. 171, #6, suggests that "food," "clothing" and "oil" are listed in both Sumerian and Akkadian texts as necessities for life).
NASB, JPSOA, Peshitta  "conjugal rights"
NKJV  "marriage rights"
NRSV, NJB, LXX  "marital rights of the first wife"
TEV  "the same rights"
JPSOA footnote  "ointments"
This FEMININE NOUN (BDB 773, KB 855) occurs only here. Most commentators and translators relate it to sexual intercourse because of KB 852 II.
However, the JPSOA footnote led some to see "oil" or "ointments." If so, then the term may refer to the three things needed for life in Sumerian and Akkadian texts (i.e., food, clothing, oil).
Young's Literal Translation sees the word as referring to housing/habitation.

12"He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. 13But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. 14If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die."

21:12 "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death" This is the beginning of a series of seemingly severe desert laws. At first they appear to be very harsh, but in context are really an attempt to limit blood feuds between families. This "eye-for-an-eye" mentality can be seen in Exod. 21:12,14-17,23; 22:18-20. For a complete discussion of this "eye-for-an-eye" or "tooth-for-a-tooth" limited revenge, see Exod. 24:17-22 and Deut. 19:21.
Roland deVaux, Ancient Israel (p. 158), lists the crimes a person was executed for committing.

  1. against covenant partners and society
    1. intentional murder ‒ Exod. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:16-21
    2. kidnapping ‒ Exod. 21:16; Deut. 24:7
    3. abuse of parents ‒ Exod. 21:15,17; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18-21; 27:16
    4. adultery ‒ Lev. 18:20; 20:10; Deut. 22:22
    5. incest ‒ Lev. 20:11,12,14,17
    6. sodomy ‒ Lev. 20:13
    7. bestiality ‒ Lev. 20:15-16
  2. against God
    1. idolatry ‒ Exod. 22:19; Lev. 20:1-5; Num. 25:1-5; Deut. 13:2-19; 17:2-7
    2. blasphemy ‒ Lev. 24:15-16
    3. Sabbath breaking ‒ Exod. 31:14-15; Num. 15:32-36
    4. sorcery ‒ Exod. 22:17; Lev. 20:27; 1 Sam. 28:3,9
    5. prostitution of priest's daughter ‒ Lev. 21:9

21:13 "But if he did not lie in wait for him. . .a man acts presumptuously" This is the beginning of a very important aspect of Hebrew law which takes into account the motivation behind an act (see note at Exod. 21:14). The sacrificial system was meant to deal with mankind's guilt in areas of passion, ignorance, or accident. It was not designed to deal with premeditated sin. Along with these sacrifices was provided a series of cities called "the cities of refuge," where a person might flee if he accidently killed another person (cf. Num. 35:6-32; Deut. 19:1-21; Jos. 20:1-9).

▣ "but God let him fall into his hand" It is uncertain whether this is simply a cultural metaphor of the normal activities of life or if it is a theological affirmation that God is in control of all things. The balance of these two emphases has caused much tension in theology. However, both seem to be true (cf. Psalm 139; Romans 9-10; Eph. 1:4,7,11). See SPECIAL TOPIC: PREDESTINATION (CALVINISM) VS. HUMAN FREE WILL (ARMINIANISM).

NASB  "presumptuously"
NKJV, NRSV  "premeditation"
NJB  "deliberate planning"
JPSOA  "by design"
REB  "with intent"
LXX  "unwittingly"
This word (BDB 791) reflects a rare VERB (BDB 841 I, KB 1000, Qal PERFECT, lit. "lie in wait," cf. 1 Sam. 24:11), which denotes an intent/premeditation found in Exod. 21:13 (cf. Num. 35:11,22,23; Deut. 19:4). See the related rare term in Num. 35:20,22. See SPECIAL TOPIC: UNINTENTIONAL SINS.
Israel's sacrificial system dealt only with non-premeditated sins!

▣ "you are to take him even from My altar" There was no portable altar yet. Much of this material is from a later time. This is an allusion to another specific place of refuge. The horns of the sacrificial altar were the most sacred part of that object of worship. A man may flee and grab the horns of the altar for refuge, but this text asserts that if he is guilty he may be taken even from the altar and be put to death (cf. 1 Kgs. 1:50; 2:28).

15"He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death."

21:15 "He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death" This verse emphasizes respect for the family unit. This same truth is exemplified in Exod. 21:17. Exodus 21:15 speaks of the act of disrespect (possibly even murder, BDB 645, KB 697, Hiphil PARTICIPLE), while 20:17 speaks of the motive for disrespect (cf. Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18-21). Strong families make strong societies.

16"He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death."

21:16 Even if Exod. 20:15 refers to theft, this verse surely refers to kidnapping (cf. Deut. 24:7). It shows (as this whole section does) the dignity and worth of a human person.

17"He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death."

21:17 This verse highlights several theological truths.

  1. Respect for one's parents is crucial to a healthy, stable society (cf. Exod. 21:15).
  2. The mutuality of men and women, obvious in Genesis 1-2, though damaged by the Fall (cf. Gen. 3:16), is still present in parenting.
  3. "Cursing" (BDB 886, KB 1103, Piel PARTICIPLE) denotes an attitude of disrespect and dishonor to another person (cf. Gen. 12:3; Exod. 22:28; Lev. 19:14; Jdgs. 9:22; 2 Sam. 16:5,7,10,11,13; Ps. 62:4; 109:28). Therefore, it is the antonym of "honor" (cf. Exod. 20:12). So the offending son commits sin against
    1. his parents
    2. his society
    3. his covenant God

18"If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed, 19if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed. 20If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property."

21:18-19 "If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed" These verses are an attempt to deal with a man injuring another man, but not with premeditated motives. The term "fist" (LXX) in Exod. 21:18 can be translated as "shovel" (Arabic cognate, cf. Targums, NEB) or, in reality, any ready implement (i.e., weapon). This shows that the blow was not premeditated. However, even though it was an act of passion, the perpetrator is responsible for his act and must make restitution. The perpetrator is responsible for the other's well being until fully healed (cf. Exod. 21:19).

21:20-21 These verses (and Exod. 20:26-27) are another attempt to spell out the master's rights and obligations toward his slaves. It seems harsh to us but in its day it was a radical positive statement concerning the master's responsibility and the slave's rights (i.e., personhood). For a clearer statement of this truth see Lev. 25:43, where masters are admonished not to be cruel to their slaves (cf. Eph. 6:9).

22"If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. 23But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."

21:22 This deals with the subject of miscarriage. For a good brief discussion of the unborn, see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed., pp. 570-572. This text has often been used as a way of downplaying the significance of the death of unborn children. But, in context, this seems to imply a premature birth and not the death of an unborn child. The literal Hebrew has "her children come out." If the child dies then the "eye-for-an-eye" death penalty becomes operative, unless an agreement for money is reached.

21:24-25 This seems harsh to us but it was a way to limit revenge (cf. Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). Often in later Judaism a fine was imposed instead of maiming (or execution, cf. Exod. 21:30). It is often referred to as "lex talionis." Note Jesus' comment about this in Matt. 5:38-39.

26"If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. 27And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth."

2828"If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished. 29If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death. 30If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him. 31Whether it gores a son or a daughter, it shall be done to him according to the same rule. 32If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall give his or her master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned."

21:28-32 This deals with the problem of an animal killing a human being. Notice that it does involve a sin and that the flesh of the animal cannot be eaten (cf. Gen. 9:5). Although this section shows what to do in the case of an accident, it highlights the responsibility of the owner of the animal (cf. Exod. 21:29).

21:32 This shows what will happen if an animal gores a slave. The term "thirty shekels of silver" (see SPECIAL TOPIC: ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN WEIGHTS AND VOLUMES) becomes a very important prophetic saying because of Zech. 11:12 and Matt. 26:15. Apparently Judas was paid the ransom money for betraying Christ, which was the normal price of a slave.

33"If a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it over, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his."

21:33-36 These regulations obviously refer to an agricultural/pastoral setting (i.e., Israel in Canaan). A covenant partner's acts toward another covenant partner have consequences. Restitution must be part of forgiveness.

21:33 "pit" This term (BDB 92) could refer to

  1. a pit for cooking (Arabic root)
  2. a pit for rain water (i.e., cistern, cf. Lev. 11:36; Deut. 6:11; 2 Sam. 23:15,16; 2 Kgs. 18:31)
  3. a pit for storing grain (1 Sam. 19:22; Neh. 9:25)
  4. a pit to trap animals (2 Sam. 23:20)
  5. a pit for holding prisoners (Gen. 37:22; 41:14; 2 Kgs. 10:14; Jer. 38:6; 37:16; Zech. 9:11)

35"If one man's ox hurts another's so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide its price equally; and also they shall divide the dead ox. 36Or if it is known that the ox was previously in the habit of goring, yet its owner has not confined it, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall become his."

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