Exodus 21 (NRSV)
Exodus chapters 21-23 contain many laws on a wide variety of subjects.
“These different regulations are as remarkable for their justice and prudence as for their humanity. Their great tendency is to show the valuableness of human life, and the necessity of having peace and good understanding in every neighbourhood; and they possess that quality which should be the object of all good and wholesome laws—the prevention of crimes.”
“If I Had a Hammer” is a justice and freedom song, sung here by Peter, Paul & Mary. The performance HERE is from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival held at Fort Adams Park, Rhode Island. They also performed this song at the 1963 March on Washington, where Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Law concerning Slaves
These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:
2When you buy a male Hebrew slave,
It is significant that the first words of this section of law in the Book of Exodus show that God wanted Israel to respect the rights and dignity of servants. Bishop George Chadwick wrote: “The first words of God from Sinai had declared that He was Jehovah Who brought them out of slavery. And in this remarkable code, the first person whose rights are dealt with is the slave.”
he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, 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 be her master’s and he shall go out alone.
5But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” 6then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.
Psalm 40:6-8 (New International Version)
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but my ears you have pierced;
burnt offerings and sin offerings
you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
“That awl represents the nail that affixed Christ to the cross, and we must expect it in every true act of consecration.”
–F. B. Meyer
7When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.
The matter described here seems to describe the selling of a young female as a slave to a family with the intention of marriage, either to the new owner himself or for his son . . .
8If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. 11And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.
The Law concerning Personal Injuries
12Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.
God makes a distinction between unintentional manslaughter and deliberate murder.
15Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.
16Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.
17Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.
Proverbs 20:20 (Contemporary English Version)
Children who curse their parents
will go to the land of darkness
long before their time.
18When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.
20When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.
In ancient Israel, the master was culpable for the murder of a servant. In many other cultures, the master was held blameless if he murdered a servant, because the servant was not considered a person.
22When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Matthew 5:38-42 (English Standard Version)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
26When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. 27If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.
“If this did not teach them humanity, it taught them caution, as one rash blow might have deprived them of all right to the future services of the slave; and this self-interest obliged them to be cautious and circumspect.”
The Law concerning Injuries caused by Animals
28When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained 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 imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
Thirty silver coins. The same price Jesus was sold for when Judas betrayed Jesus (Matthew 26:15).
33If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.
35If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide. 36But if it was known that the ox was accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not restrained it, the owner shall restore ox for ox, but keep the dead animal.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.