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Deeper Commentary

Exo 21:1 Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them-
The Hebrew mishpat, "ordinances", has a wide range of meaning. The idea is of judgment, as if God and His Angels gave these laws as their considered judgment after considering the human condition, and Israel were to abide by them. But the word also the idea of a right or privilege; and that is how we should see God's laws. They are only felt as a burden because of human hardness of neck towards God's ways. His laws are not of themselves burdensome, but rather a privilege and blessing. The law was indeed "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12), designed to inculcate a holy, just and good life (Tit. 1:8), a way in which a man should "walk" in daily life (Lev. 18:4), a culture of kindness and grace to others which reflected God's grace to man. If we dwell upon the idea of "rights" carried within the word mishpat, we note that the law begins in Ex. 21:1,2 (also Dt. 15:12-18) with the rights of a slave- those considered to have no rights in the society of that day. The "rights" to be afforded by us to others are the essence of God's rightness / justice.  

Exo 21:2 If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years and in the seventh he shall go out free without paying anything-
Slaves could be bought out of slavery by others or by themselves somehow raising the required amount. Often they went into slavery in order to pay a debt. But six years was the maximum they could serve- that was enough to pay any debt. They could not be then forced to still pay some debt. This total freedom from debt may look forward to the intended "rest" of the Kingdom at the end of the 6 days / 6000 years of Biblical human history.

Exo 21:3 If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself. If he is married, then his wife shall go out with him-
This reflects God's desire that husband and wife not separate nor be separated by others, especially for material reasons. The idea here seems to be that the husband could as it were save his wife from slavery; if he was the one in debt who had gone into slavery, or her debt was greater than his; then all the same, his redemption became hers. This too looks forward to the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus, "the servant of Yahweh" par excellence.


Exo 21:4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself-
This might possibly suggest that the "him" in "She bears him" is the master and not the husband. But this apparently oppressive ruling is to be read in the context of the next verses. The servant could retain his wife and children if he devoted himself to his master's house for the rest of his life. The situation was set up in order to make the servant pay a price for his wife and children. He made a free choice to marry whilst a servant; and he was to make that choice aware of the huge long term price he was going to have to pay for it. That was in order to help him understand the long term commitment required from a man in marrying and having children. It was a resignation of his personal freedom (:5), and the man had to knowingly make that choice. We can deduce that the marriage was completely his choice; if it were forced upon him by the master, then this would be the kind of personal manipulation and robbing of personal freedom which the law of Moses outlaws. And that is the take away lesson from this- all the more relevant in our age of casual relationships, married men refusing to resign personal freedom and fathering of children without taking personal responsibility. See on :5.


Exo 21:5 But if the servant shall plainly say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go out free;’-
The Lord's crucifixion was likened to His ear (His hearing of the master's word) being nailed to an upright piece of wood (cp. the cross; Ex. 21:6 = Ps. 40:6-8 = Heb. 10:5-12). That was the sign of His total dedication to the house of Yahweh, but it was motivated by His love for us, and commitment to entering an eternal relationship with us (see on :4). His relationship with us is described as "I and the children whom God has given me" (Heb. 2:13). This would allude to this situation, where the servant was 'given' a wife and thence children by the master, God (:4). The children were given to Him by God, the master, because He plainly declared His love for us, His wife and children. And that plain declaration was surely on the cross.   


Exo 21:6 then his master shall bring him to the elohim, and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever-
This
speaks of bringing a slave "to God". This could refer to the elohim, the elders. Or it could refer to the door post of the home, and nailing his ear to it. "God" is paralleled with the door post. The servant was saying that he was now permanently attached to the household, symbolized by his ear being physically attached to it. The ear was chosen because this was a symbol of obedience to the master's word. R.E. Clements notes that this alludes to the ancient pagan practice whereby "a household god would have been kept by the threshold of a house to guard it" (R.E. Clements, Exodus (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1972) p. 133). Moses is attacking this idea- by saying that God, Israel's God, is the One there- and not the household gods which those around Israel believed were there.  See on Ex. 12:7.

This custom is alluded to in Ps. 40:6, and applied to Christ in Heb. 10:5-10. For love of us, the wife whom He was given by God His “master” (:4), Christ chose to stay in the Father’s house for ever. The nailing of the ear to a piece of wood is understood in Hebrews 10 as prophetic of Christ’s nailing to the cross. The ear represented obedient listening to the Master’s word. Christ on the cross was ultimately obedient to God’s word- for our sakes. That we are seen as His wife should inspire us to the utmost faithfulness and support of His cause in this world.

The question is whether this apparently lifelong commitment was undone by the provisions for the release of slaves at the year of Jubilee. The nature of the language used here would suggest that the freedom of the year of Jubilee didn't apply in this case. So we again see how the law of Moses, like any legal code, had internal contradictions, and times when one law must take precedence over another. These features of the law of Moses were in order to elicit thoughtful obedience to it, rather than blind obedience of a perfectly consistent legal code. For the law was to inculcate thoughtful relationships, both with God and man.


Exo 21:7 If a man sells his daughter to be a female servant, she shall not go out as the male servants do-
Men in debt would typically sell their daughters as servants, but they were often bought with a view to marrying them- either by the purchaser, or by his children.


Exo 21:8 If she doesn’t please her master, who has married her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her-
The servant who was bought may have been bought blind, never having met her. Or the 'being evil in the eyes' (Heb.) of the master may be because she was found not to be a virgin. He could then sell her to another, but not to a Gentile. His 'deceit' was in that he had purchased a woman ostensibly as a female servant, when it was his plan to marry her. 


Exo 21:9 If he marries her to his son, he shall deal with her as a daughter-
Although she had been purchased as a servant, she was now effectively to be set free from that by her marriage to his son. She was not to be allowed to slip into the category of 'wife second class'. She was to be treated fully as his daughter in law and not as a servant, to run his errands.


Exo 21:10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marital rights-
If a man betrothed his slave girl unto his son, he "must" ["shall"] treat her as he would his own daughter (:9). But if he didn't, she could go free (Ex. 21:9-11). There were clearly different levels of obedience envisaged. "Her marital rights" seems to refer to sex. The man was to treat this woman still as his wife, even if he took another wife. We note that sex was considered a basic human need, as much as food and clothing. And we can infer from that as we will, guided by God's moral principles elsewhere expressed. But it should guide and help us in our consideration of all the moral and sexual issues we at times encounter in church life. We also note here that to continue having sex with her was required by the law; but as with the commands not to covet and to observe intimate hygiene in order to be "clean", there could be no mechanism to ensure obedience to this. How often the man was to sleep with the first wife was not defined. The law of Moses was God speaking to the hearts and personal consciences of people, rather than being merely a legal code, obedience to which could be judged solely by external behaviour. In this way, God's law was unlike any other legal code.  


Exo 21:11 If he doesn’t do these three things for her, she may go free without paying any money-
"These three things" may not refer to the three things of Ex. 21:10, but rather to the three courses of action in Ex. 21:8-10. She would go out free, her father would not be required to repay any of the money which had been paid for her. Going out free might also imply that she was free to remarry. Clearly second marriage was envisaged and tolerated under the law of Moses. 


Exo 21:12 One who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death-
"
Surely" foresees situations whereby there was a temptation for the death penalty for murder not to be enforced. In surrounding cultures, a wealthy person could murder their servants with impunity; the fits of rage of the wealthy and powerful were excused. But that was not to be so with God's people.


Exo 21:13 but not if it is unintentional, but God allows it to happen-
This is a comforting perspective on manslaughter- it was allowed by God to happen.

Then I will appoint you a place where he shall flee-
That place was the altar (:14). Later, when Israel were in the land, cities of refuge were designated for these cases. And they were promised more cities of refuge if they continued in the path of obedience. We see here how God's saving purpose expands and changes form over time. It would also be an example of where many of the commands of the law of Moses were only relevant to the wilderness generation. Although in this case, using the altar as a city of refugee is found in 1 Kings 1:50; 2:28.


Exo 21:14 If a man schemes and comes presumptuously on his neighbour to kill him, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die-
The altar represented Christ (Heb. 13:10). He is the place of refuge whither we may flee, we who like the man of :13 have committed sins worthy of death and yet against our deepest will. Whilst we cannot justify all our sins by blaming them on circumstances, within some kind of ‘situational ethic’, it is also true that God recognizes that at times and in some ways we sin without deeply intending to. 


Exo 21:15 Anyone who attacks his father or his mother shall be surely put to death-
Significantly, the mother is treated on the same level as the father. The law of Moses afforded the same human dignity to both genders, and was far ahead of its time in this- for it reflects the huge value which God places upon the human person. As in :17 the law exalts the value of parents, and seeks to inculcate particular honour towards them. Instances of hitting or cursing parents (:17) were most likely to occur in heated domestic squabbles where there was no outside witness. So here again we have an example of God's law legislating about intimate personal matters, rather like the law not to covet. There was no way that this could be legally proven. The law was intended as a personal dialogue between God and the individual Israelite.

The laws of Hammurabi stated that if a man struck his father, his hand was to be cut off. But God's law was far stricter- the punishment was death. For God so deeply wanted respect for parents. I suggest the allusions to the laws of Hammurabi were in order to explain to Israel where the existing laws they had known were wrong, where they were right, and where they were partly right and needed reframing. The greatest difference is that the law of Moses sees sin as being against God, whereas the other legal codes see failure as a sin against society alone.


Exo 21:16 Anyone who kidnaps someone and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death-
To deprive someone of their personal freedom is treated here in the same context as murder (:14). Whilst we may not be tempted to kidnap anyone, there are other ways in which in essence we can deprive another of their personal freedom, treating them as a thing rather than a person. The selling of the kidnapped Israelite (Dt. 24:7) was likely to a Gentile nation. This was going to distance the person from the sanctuary and the ways of God. To cause another to spiritually stumble is worthy of eternal death, the Lord was to later teach.

"Found in his hand" could mean that he had purchased such a kidnapped person. Or maybe he had kidnapped him and was keeping him as a captured person, with a view to selling him. But the idea is that he had taken another person and deprived them of their freedom, inappropriately asserting control over another. And this is a principle which can apply to many situations which may not today be judged as criminal.


Exo 21:17 Anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death-
The Lord Jesus saw as parallel the commands to honour parents and also not to curse them. These two separate commands (from Ex. 20:12 and Ex. 21:17) He spoke of as only one: "the commandment" (Mk. 7:9). He therefore saw that not to honour parents was effectively to curse them (Mk. 7:10). Omitting to honour parents, even if it involved appearing to give one's labour to God's temple, was therefore the same as committing the sin of cursing them. Sins of omission are perhaps our greatest weakness. To deal with a person as if they are an object is judged by God as bad as murder. The value and meaning of the human person is paramount with God, and is reflected in His law.


Exo 21:18 If men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone, or with his fist, and he doesn’t die, but is confined to bed-
The idea seems to be that the injured party was also guilty because he had been involved in the quarrel. AV "strive together" may imply that the two men were in an actual fight, rather than simply quarreling.


Exo 21:19 if he rises again and walks around with his staff, then he who struck him shall be cleared: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for his healing until he is thoroughly healed-
This is not a light punishment. Rather the injured man was paying the price for having been involved in the fight in the first place; see on :18.

The idea of the Lord as the good Samaritan taking care for the man is expressed in the language of Ex. 21:19, which says that if a man wounds another, "he shall pay... and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed". This somewhat odd allusion (at first sight) surely indicates that the Lord took upon Himself the full blame for our stricken condition, presumably in the sense that as the second Adam He took upon Himself the guilt of Adam. This is why there are so many connections between His death and the effects of Adam's sin (e.g. the crown of thorns, the Garden etc.). The way Christ compared Himself to a Samaritan, half Jew and half Gentile, shows that especially on the cross, this is how He felt.


Exo 21:20 If a man strikes his servant or his maid with a rod, and he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished-
A slave was to be respected as a person no less than anyone else. A person’s social or economic standing can never excuse abusing them. However we note the lack of a specific death penalty. The law does allow meaning to the fact that a person was a servant, and thereby the property of another. There appears to be the acceptance of corporal punishment even for a slave (Prov. 10:13; 13:24). 


Exo 21:21 Notwithstanding, if he gets up after a day or two, he shall not be punished, for he is his property-
We may well wonder why the whole idea of slavery was permitted under the law of Moses. I see it as the same question as to why polygamy was permitted. It was a concession to their weakness. To square these commands with other principles in the law of Moses, the Rabbis suggest that the servant in view must be a Gentile one.


Exo 21:22 If men fight and hurt a pregnant woman so that she gives birth prematurely, and yet no harm follows, he shall be surely fined as much as the woman’s husband demands and the judges allow-
The situation may be of men fighting between themselves, and a pregnant woman being unintentionally damaged. These may have been the situations which Moses had so far encountered whilst leading the people. Or perhaps Moses had been asked to judge a situation like this at the time of Ex. 2:13.


Exo 21:23 But if any harm follows, then you must take life for life-
The "harm [which] follows" appears to be to the child when it is born. "Follows" implies that the harm is only later revealed, and therefore the reference is to the child and not to the woman. The value of the health and state of a newborn child is thereby taught.


Exo 21:24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot-
The Lord Jesus didn't come to destroy the Law of Moses. It still stood when He gave His teaching (Mt. 5:38). Yet He said that instead of insisting upon an eye for an eye in situations like a pregnant woman having a deformed child because of the violence of a man, she should instead try to forgive him (Ex. 21:22-24). He was not changing the Law, as some have wrongly thought. He was saying that the Law was capable of being lived on different levels, and that some aspects of it were a concession to human weakness. Thus the woman with a deformed child could legitimately express her anger by insisting on the physical deformation of the man who had attacked her during pregnancy; but this, the Lord was saying, can give way to a higher level: simply forgive the man.


Exo 21:25 burning for burning, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise-
"Burning" or (Heb.) 'branding' would refer to permanent scars, and that is likely also the idea of 'wound' and 'bruise'. 


Exo 21:26 If a man strikes his servant’s eye, or his maid’s eye, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake-
This may seem fair enough, but then there is juxtaposed against this the command in :27 that this is also true if the tooth of a servant was knocked out. To loose a tooth is far less than to loose an eye. But the sense was that any permanent damage to another, even if they were a slave, was to result in the granting of freedom. Most people were in slavery because they had been sold into it because of debts. The debts were thereby cleared and the master stood at a financial loss because of his fit of temper.


Exo 21:27 If he strikes out his male servant’s tooth, or his female servant’s tooth, he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake-
See on :26. We note that the law stressed the equality of male and female servants; whereas female servants were considered of far less legal value under the surrounding legal codes. Again we see the huge value attached to the human person by the Divine law, regardless of gender.

Exo 21:28 If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the bull shall not be held responsible-
These laws are almost verbatim with the laws of Hammurabi 250-252. The question is, who copied whom? In this section of Ex. 21 there are various allusions to the Hammurabi laws- but with significant differences. I suggest the allusions to the laws of Hammurabi were in order to explain to Israel where the existing laws they had known were wrong, where they were right, and where they were partly right and needed reframing. The greatest difference is that the law of Moses sees sin as being against God, whereas the other legal codes see failure as a sin against society alone.


Exo 21:29 But if the bull had a habit of goring in the past, and it has been testified to its owner, and he has not kept it in, but it has killed a man or a woman, the bull shall be stoned, and its owner shall also be put to death-
Because Eli wouldn't exercise discipline, he was somehow seen as committing those very things which he failed to rebuke. The man who wouldn’t discipline his wayward ox was to be treated like as if he had committed the crime the ox did, and therefore must die if the ox killed a man (Ex. 21:29).


Exo 21:30 If a ransom is laid on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is laid on him-
Remember that the Rabbis taught that salvation was impossible for Gentiles: “For the heathen nations there will be no redemption”, so reads the targum on Ex. 21:30. Like us, the early Jewish converts were influenced by their backgrounds and their limited world views. Until the Lord brought experiences to bear which, when responded to, taught them what is now the obvious meaning of His words- that we each have a duty to take the good news of Him to the whole planet. After His resurrection, the Lord Jesus was sent to preach blessing and forgiveness to Israel (Acts 3:26). But after His resurrection, He sent His men to preach this message. His witness became expressed through, and therefore limited by, His preachers. When they willfully misunderstood His commission as meaning preaching to Jews from all nations, rather than taking the message to the whole planet literally, His work was in that sense hindered and His intention delayed.


Exo 21:31 Whether it has gored a son or has gored a daughter, according to this judgment it shall be done to him-
Again we see the huge value attached to the human person by the Divine law, regardless of gender (also in :32). To gore is in Hebrew literally 'to push down'. The leaders of Israel were later condemned for pushing down the weak and vulnerable in the flock of God (Ez. 34:21 s.w.). And so a wider principle emerges- that we are culpable before God if we allow others to be pushed down by our indifference and inattention.


Exo 21:32 If the bull gores a male servant or a female servant, thirty shekels of silver shall be given to their master, and the ox shall be stoned-
The price of a slave was thirty shekels of silver, and this was the price of the Lord Jesus. He is constantly hinted at throughout the Mosaic law, as the consummate "servant of Yahweh".


Exo 21:33 If a man opens a pit, or if a man digs a pit and doesn’t cover it, and a bull or a donkey falls into it-
The Lord's story about the little boy who falls down the well spoke of how He was out to save Israel, who had fallen down the well for the sake of the inattention of others. The legalistic mind would have gone straight to Ex. 21:33: the man who dug a well and didn’t cover it was responsible for any deaths arising from it. The Lord's story would imply that the father of the child was the owner of the well. The Lord doesn’t draw the lesson that 'It's your own fault for being disobedient to the Law'. He focuses instead on the need to act urgently to save, without maxing out on the issue of whose fault it was that the tragedy had occurred.

I once heard a middle class woman say to her child (in that irksome White Anglo-Saxon Protestant way): "Look at that bad man lying there in the gutter. He’s been drinking! Silly man, hey!". She didn’t want to imagine how that red, contoured face had once been a sweet baby, a mothers pride and joy; a mischievous little lad at school; a young man with an ambition to marry a young woman and have a family. Yes, on one level it was his fault he was in the gutter. But the heart that bleeds sees the tragedy, the human pain and wastage of it all. The heart that bleeds cant walk on by. It will realize our limited ability to judge the total circumstances in any human encounter, but more than that, it will be hopeful and seeking for Gods glory to be achieved in the most apparently hopeless of cases. God need not have grieved for the grief of Israel. It was their fault. But He did, and He eventually grieved for it to the extent of giving His own son to be done to death.

Exo 21:34 the owner of the pit shall make it good. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall be his-
These laws were seeking to inculcate sensitivity to others. We too should live our lives thinking about the possible consequence to others of our actions, both in what we commit and what we omit to do. 


Exo 21:35 If one man’s bull injures another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live bull, and divide its price; and they shall also divide the dead animal-
Arguments amongst herdsmen were infamous. We think of the various conflicts which the patriarchs were involved in. God shows Himself absolutely aware of and sensitive to such very common human situations. Truly man is not alone, but God knows and is aware. And seeks to guide us through them.


Exo 21:36 Or if it is known that the bull was in the habit of goring in the past, and its owner has not kept it in, he shall surely pay bull for bull, and the dead animal shall be his own-
We see here the principle that knowledge brings responsibility. The abiding principle is that of restraint of situations which are likely to lead to damage.