top of page

Exodus 21 - The Law concerning Servants, Violence + Property

These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:


When you buy a male Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 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 alone. But if the servant declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I choose not to go out a free person,” then his master shall bring him before God.[a] 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 the rest of his life.


7 When a man sells his daughter as a servant, she shall not go out as the male servants do. 8 If 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. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.[b] 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.


The Law concerning Violence


12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If 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. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.


15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.


16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.


17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.


18 When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19 but 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.


20 When a servant owner strikes a male or female servant with a rod and the servant dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the servant has a full and speedy recovery, there is no punishment; for the servant is the owner’s property.


22 When 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. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.


26 When a servant owner strikes the eye of a male or female servant, destroying it, the owner shall let the servant go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. 27 If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female servant, then they shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.


Laws concerning Property


28 When 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. 29 If 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. 30 If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31 If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a male or female servant, the owner shall pay to the servant owner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.


33 If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.


35 If 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. 36 But 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.


Footnotes

a. Exodus 21:6 Or to the judges

b. Exodus 21:10 Heb of her


New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 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.


 

Comprehensive Analysis


Slavery or Indentured Servitude (Exodus 21:1-11)


Slavery was permissible in certain situations, so long as slaves were regarded as full members of the community (Gen. 17:12), received the same rest periods and holidays as non-slaves (Exod. 23:12; Deut. 5:14-15, 12:12), and were treated humanely (Exod. 21:7, 26-27). Most importantly, slavery among Hebrews was not intended as a permanent condition, but a voluntary, temporary refuge for people suffering what would otherwise be desperate poverty. “When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt” (Exod. 21:2). Cruelty on the part of the owner resulted in immediate freedom for the slave (Exod. 21:26-27). This made male Hebrew slavery more like a kind of long-term labor contract among individuals, and less like the kind of permanent exploitation that has characterized slavery in modern times.


Female Hebrew slavery was in one sense even more protective. The chief purpose contemplated for buying a female slave was so that she could become the wife of either the buyer or the buyer’s son (Exod. 21:8-9). As wife, she became the social equal of the slaveholder, and the purchase functioned much like the giving of a dowry. Indeed, she is even called a “wife” by the regulation (Exod. 21:10). Moreover, if the buyer failed to treat the female slave with all the rights due an ordinary wife, he was required to set her free. “She shall go out without debt, without payment of money” (Exod. 21:11). Yet in another sense, women had far less protection than men. Potentially, every unmarried woman faced the possibility of being sold into a marriage against her will. Although this made her a "wife" rather than a "slave," would forced marriage be any less objectionable than forced labor?


In addition, an obvious loophole is that a girl or woman could be bought as a wife for a male slave, rather than for the slave owner or a son, and this resulted in permanent enslavement to the owner (Exod. 21:4), even when the husband's term of enslavement ended. The woman became a permanent slave to an owner who did not become her husband and who owed her none of the protections due a wife.


The protection against permanent enslavement also did not apply to foreigners (Lev. 25:44-46). Men taken in war were considered plunder and became the perpetual property of their owners. Women and girls captured in war, who were apparently the vast majority of captives (Num. 31:9-11, 32-35; Deut 20:11-14), faced the same situation as female slaves of Hebrew origin (Deut. 21:10-14), including permanent enslavement. Slaves could also be purchased from surrounding nations (Eccl. 2:7), and nothing protected them against perpetual slavery. The other protections afforded Hebrew slaves did apply to foreigners, but this must have been small comfort to those who faced a lifetime of forced labor.


In contrast to slavery in the United States, which generally forbade marriage among slaves, the regulations in Exodus aim to preserve families intact. “If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him” (Exod. 21:3). Yet often, as we have seen, the actual result of the regulations was forced marriage. Regardless of any protections afforded in the Law, slavery was by no means an agreeable way of life. Slaves were, for whatever duration of their enslavement, property. Whatever the regulations, in practice there was probably little protection against maltreatment, and abuses occurred. As in much of the Bible, God’s word in Exodus did not abolish the existing social and economic order, but instructed God’s people how to live with justice and compassion in their present circumstances. To our eyes, the results do—and should—appear very disgusting.


In any case, before we become too disquieted, we should examine working conditions that prevail today among poor people in the world, including developed nations. Ceaseless labor for those working two or three jobs to support families, abuse and arbitrary exercise of power by those in power, and misappropriation of the fruits of labor by illicit business operators, corrupt officials, and politically connected bosses. Millions work today without the basic regulations provided by the Law of Moses. If it was God’s will to protect Israel from exploitation in the sin of slavery, what does God expect His people to do for those who suffer the same underlying oppression, in the labor and social structures of today?


Theology of Work Project

Theology of Work Project, Copyright © 2014 Theology of Work Project, Inc. Also find this article in Theology of Work Bible Commentary, Volume 1: Genesis through Deuteronomy. For additional resources, please see The Theology of Work Project Series.

0 views

Comments


bottom of page