Exodus 21 Commentary

Laws concerning slavery (21:1-11)

Among the Hebrews a slave had rights. Any person, man or woman, who became the slave of another Hebrew, could not be held as a slave for more than six years (21:1-2; Deut 15:12). If a man took his wife with him into slavery, he also took her with him when he was released. If he was unmarried when he became a slave, then later was given a wife by his master, he did not take his wife and children with him when released. They remained with the master. However, if he chose to continue working for the master, he could keep his wife and family (3-6).

The case of a female slave who had become a wife or concubine of the master was different. She was not freed after six years like other slaves, but neither could her master sell her to a foreigner if he no longer wanted her. She had to be bought either by her parents or by some other close relative. If no one bought her, the husband-master had to continue to look after her in accordance with her rights as his wife. If the husband failed to do this, he had to free her without payment (7-11).

Concerning violence and injury (21:12-27)

Death was the penalty for wilful murder, violence to parents and kidnapping for slavery. Israelite law did not allow the widespread ancient practice of a murderer trying to escape punishment by clinging to the horns of the altar and pleading for mercy. But cases of manslaughter were different. When the Israelites settled in their new homeland, they were to appoint certain places as cities of refuge, where a person guilty of manslaughter could find safety (12-17; Num 35:9-15; Deut 19:1-6).

A person had to pay compensation for injuries done to others, the amount paid depending on the nature of the injury and the loss or inconvenience it caused (18-19). A master could not treat a slave brutally and could not beat him to death. If he did, he was punished. If there was no proof that the slave’s death was the result of the beating, the master was not punished; but neither could he replace the slave. He had to bear the cost of the loss (20-21).

The basic principle of justice was ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’; that is, the punishment had to fit the crime. A heavy penalty was required for a major offence, a light penalty for a minor offence. This principle also restricted vengeance, as people often take revenge far in excess of the wrong done to them (22-25). If a slave suffered serious injury through cruel treatment, he was compensated by being freed unconditionally (26-27).


Jesus, in his reference to ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (see Matthew 5:38-42), did not contradict the principle of fair punishment for wrongdoing, a principle that is a basic element in civil government. Jesus was not laying down laws for civil administrators as was the case with Moses, but was reminding his disciples that they must not always stand on their rights. In personal relationships they must be guided by a spirit of forgiveness, self-denial and active love towards the offender. The spirit ruling in the hearts of Christians is not the same as that which rules in the code of legal justice.

Injuries caused by animals (21:28-36)

Laws were laid down both to protect and to punish the owners of animals that injured or killed people. In determining how much the owner was at fault and what compensation he should pay, the main consideration was how much he could be held responsible for control of the animal. If the person killed by the animal was a slave, compensation was paid to the master, since he owned the slave. But the slave was acknowledged as a human being, not treated as a mere ‘thing’, and the animal that killed him was destroyed as in the case of an animal that killed a free person. This destruction of the animal was a recognition of the sanctity of human life (28-32).

The principles for assessing responsibility and compensation for injury to animals were similar to those outlined above for injury to people. All parties received fair treatment (33-36).

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