Book of Exodus Chapter Twenty-One Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Laws For Israel
This chapter is an extension of Chapter 20, continuing the Lord's Word to Moses for the people. Verse 1: "Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them..." and that which follows was specific to the culture and time of the Hebrew nation, Israel. However, years ago, in First Year Law, I was surprised to find that the earliest British case law, adopted in many countries, came directly from Scriptures such as these. The Old Testament Law is the basis of much "modern" law. Remember also that God sees the future more clearly than we perceive the present. Every one of these laws would be needed in specific future instances that God already saw as though they happened right that minute. He is God.
At the time these Scriptures were written, there were only two kinds of people in most of the world—slaves and those who owned them. "Jobs" were rare to nonexistant, but contained those few who might be called "free," mostly former slaves. Here is revolutionary law from 3,500 years ago: Verse 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." Can you imagine? This was a people who had been slaves in Egypt for life, with no possibility of parole. Unending slavery existed all over the world, but here, after only a few years, you could be free! And every week, the slave had to be given a sabbath 24-hour day of rest! It was all unthinkable and wonderful. These were "ordinances" of mercy.
God's creation of Israel is a historical fact and it is also a parable. The nation was to be like the black velvet setting for a diamond, the Messiah, the Christ who was to come. The slavery of these verses is a picture of Him delivering us from our sin on the cross. When we are rescued from sin, we are to take nothing of our slavery with us. That is what Verses 3-4 are all about: "If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If 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." You are in a certain condition in life...then you fall into sin. If you receive the Lord, you are set free...and anything related to the sinful state is to be left behind.
The words of Verses 5-6 form a beautiful picture of what Jesus Christ did for you and me: "But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,' 6 then 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." Jesus came from the freedom of eternity into the slavery of this world, and He loved us to the extent that He was pierced for you and me. He did not need to die for us, but He did and has bound Himself to us in love.
Children have not been well treated throughout history. In the "enlightened" Greek and Roman Empires, if a baby was unwanted, he or she was "exposed," left by a roadside to be eaten by animals or...what? The parents did not want to know. Verse 7 cites a common practice of the time: "If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do." It sounds very harsh, but take note as God does, that in our "modern" world, millions of unborn babies are killed every year by doctors and parents that should know better. We pronounce death upon innocent unborn children, often only because they might inconvenience our lives. God's mercy is greater than the slavery of our sin. And male and female, He does set us free.
The rules of these verses were far more gentle than the cultural practices of that time and place, and God, who knows the future already knew the precise outcomes in the lives of all individuals who would be affected by them. Verse 8: "If 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. The contract between the purchaser and the girl's father would have been based on economic need, and she would remain within her cultural setting because God made it so. The arrangement included Verse 9 in many cases: "If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters." She would marry and be treated like the daughter-in-law she was—with love and respect.
She was to be cared for. This purchaser, "If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights" (Verse 10). During the past four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel had no rights whatsoever, but as to a potential "owner," "If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money." God is the true owner of us all—and can assign us to whomever He will, but at the right time, He will set us free from mistreatment. It was true of the Lord then and it is true of Him now. He is merciful.
Verses 12-14 make a distinction between murder and manslaughter: "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. 13 But 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. 14 If, 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." This would include people who are in a fight—if one of them died, a way, a place of mercy was provided for the survivor, unless it could be shown he deliberately committed the act of murder.
As this is written, the televised news is full of the story about a young person who allegedly murdered his family. As seen in Verse 15, "He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death." Skipping to Verse 17, even "He who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death." Parents do become abusive and that is wrong, but children who callously mistreat or even do harm to their parents certainly do exist, and they were to be stopped before others were harmed...the law for young people in Israel. Parents have experienced a lot more of life than children have, and their mistakes can be valuable learning tools for younger people. The two verses about disobedient young people is interrupted by Verse 16: "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." You and I would agree with this verse if we were the ones who were kidnapped.
In Verses 18-19, the offense listed is not criminal, but instead involves civil monetary damages: "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, 19 if 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." The two have a fight, one is badly injured, and it's very much like a civil judgment in today's court cases. If the plaintiff wins, the defendant must pay for the winner's financial losses and medical care. And these laws are God's Laws, imparted to sub-judges by Moses, as suggested by Jethro in Exodus Chapter 18.
Verses 20-21: "If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21 If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property." In the world of that time, slaves had absolutely no rights at all, and the idea that the slave owner "shall be punished" was a revolutionary concept. Verse 21 sounds callous, but cruelty carried a risk: the victim might die instantly and punishment would occur. The owner would have to try and nurse them back to health. Additonally, slave owners made their living through the work of their servants and the loss of one meant a loss of income. God knows the future and He could see every outcome from these verses as though they already happened. These laws are about judgment, but also about mercy, for God is merciful.
Have you noticed that men are like little boys?...proud and full of a "don't tread on me" attitude. That's the assumption in these verses—males will fight, often for very little reason. Verse 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." A child born prematurely has had little chance for survival throughout history, and if a fight knocked over a pregnant woman and the child was lost, money damages were to be paid. Note that the unborn child has value as a human being in the sight of God.
Injuries were to result in penalties for the one who caused them, as seen in Verses 23-25: "But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." There is an underlying premise here, which can be summed up by the words—the punishment is to be appropriate to the crime—which would deter many from criminal activities, or at least make them think before doing it.
And note the unprecedented mercy to the slave as seen in Verses 26-27: "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. 27 And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth." If you injure your servant even in the slightest, that servant will go free and no longer be a part of your life—your income from whatever services that person performed will be gone.
In Verses 28-29, we find precise language that was in British case law during and before the 1700's AD: "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. 29 If, 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." If something of yours, such as a dog, harms someone, there may be no civil liability. You're likely as surprised as the person who was injured. Your dog is guilty and you are not. But if the dog previously harmed somebody and does it again, you should have known better and the penalty is yours—under the law of Moses' time, you and the dog would be sentenced to death.
The concept of "you should have known better" continues a variety of scenarios and punishments, and these are included in the rules Moses was teaching the sub-judges of Israel, as seen in Chapter 18 through the words of Jethro. Verses 30-31 of this chapter continue: "If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him. 31 Whether it gores a son or a daughter, it shall be done to him according to the same rule." Statutory law for Israel was being established, as continued in Verse 32: "If 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." Thirty pieces of silver was the price of a slave, the amount changing through the centuries according to inflation or deflation at differing times. And the owner of the ox would no longer benefit from the animal because its life was ended before it harmed somebody else. And note that "thirty shekels" was the price paid for the betrayal of Jesus Christ, who died to set us free from the slavery of sin.
These verses speak about inadvertant damages: You didn't mean to do it, but it happened and you should have known better. Verses 33-34 provide a perfect example: "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, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his." The remedies here are simple and appropriate: If you cause loss to someone, they should receive value to compensate them for what is gone, and that has been the basis of courtroom decisions through the centuries: Quid Pro Quo—something for something. And note, by the way, that you become the owner of a dead animal at the bottom of a pit—it's your problem.
The wisdom of the rule in Verses 35-36 sums it all up and is clear and simple: "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. 36 Or 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."
Father, we are sinners and cannot keep the Law, but You place Your law of love into the hearts of those who have faith in the Lord. And so, dear Lord, we place our trust in You. Forgive us and help us to become the kind of thoughtful, prayerful people who do not harm others. In Jesus Name. Amen.