Exodus 21

1 God had already pronounced the Ten Commandments, but now He is telling Moses how these Commandments can and should be applied to specific areas of life.
2 An Israelite could make himself an indentured servant to pay off a debt. In other cases he may be compelled by the judges to sell himself or his family if he committed a crime and could not make restitution. In a final case, an Israelite might become poor for many reasons (i.e., bad investment, disability, etc.) and might decide that indentureship is a good way to get going again.

When an Israelite became a servant he is to be treated better than a foreign slave is (foreign slaves would mainly be those conquered nations that were allowed to live). All men bear God's image, but Israelites were to be treated even better because they were God's "chosen" people.

The second highest penalty that could be placed on an Israelite was bankruptcy followed by seven years of servitude. After he had completed his time or was redeemed or the Year of Jubilee arrived he would owe nothing further and could leave servitude if he desired (Lev 25:47-55).

3 A man was entitled to keep whatever family he had before he became an indentured servant. In Lev 25:41 it is clarified that he may keep his children that he has with his current wife, so don't let the next verse confuse you.
4 If the man was single when he became a servant and the owner gives him a wife (presumably another servant), he is not entitled to take her or their children with him since she is still the property of the owner.

This appears to be a violation of the seventh Commandment (Exo 20:14). But the seventh Commandment should override this legal loophole, and the next verse should be invoked in all such cases. Basically if a man commits to a marriage while in servitude he should be committing himself to servitude for life.

5 A servant who decides to stay with his master must clearly indicate his choice. His love for his family and his desire to do right would compel him to do so.
6 The servant's permanent dedication to his master was to be a publicly witnessed event. Symbolically, the servant would be connected with the house. Physically, the servant would be permanently marked.
7 When a female Israelite was sold, the owner essentially was engaged to her. In a sense, the money would act as a dowry. There was no physical relationship, and the couple did not share quarters during an engagement. An engagement could be broken off, but to do so was frowned upon.
8 The Hebrew word for "displeasing" appears to connote wickedness. Presumably the idea is that if the female servant was unfaithful during the engagement then the wedding was off. However, the end of the verse would indicate that the displeasure could also relate to other areas. Perhaps the man could decide to break off the engagement if the woman had a bad disposition, for example. In any event, if the marriage did not take place then her father or other close kinsman would be obligated to purchase her back for the price she was bought with. The man was strictly forbidden to resell her to a foreigner.

If the marriage did commence, as it should, then the woman would be entitled to the same rights as a wife for which a normal dowry was paid. This command is a radical departure of the pagan practice of buying and selling females for pleasure and profit and gives the female of a destitute family a great deal of protection.

9 If a man bought a female slave to be betrothed to his son, then she would become a full daughter-in-law.
10 Men in this culture could take several wives for themselves. It can not be said that this verse condones polygamy since this violates the seventh commandment, but it is an admission that such things will happen because of our sinful nature. It is clear from other passages (Gen 16, 1 Tim 3:2-4, etc.) that polygamy is detrimental. Not only do multiple wives compete to get their husband's attention, but their ability to do God's work diminishes as he has more wives and children to care for. In some cases men have neglected their large families, while in other cases men who have taken many wives (especially foreigners) have been lead away from God.

With respect to this verse where it is, it is clear that if a polygamous marriage takes place that all the wives are to be taken care of. Favoritism was not to be allowed, but in practice this is almost impossible.

11 This verse covers the previous three verses. When a man buys a female slave she is engaged either to him or his son. If the marriage takes place the man must be willing to give her the full rights of a wife or daughter-in-law. If he ever were to take another wife then he must be committed ahead of time to take care of her. If he is not willing to commit to all of these things before the marriage then the engagement is broken off and the woman is allowed to return to her father's house. Her father must pay back the money she was bought with. It is clear that both sides lose if the engagement is broken off.
12 These next few verses clarify the sixth Commandment concerning murder.
13 In the case of accidental death, this verse makes it clear that God had intended for the victim to die. In like manner, He also intends for the "perpetrator" to flee to one of the cities of refuge. While it may seem to us unjust, God's judgement in such matters can not be questioned. This is not a whimsical act like the "gods" of Greek mythology that used people like playthings. God does not enjoy seeing death or punishment, but sin in the world makes them inevitable. Fortunately, one day both sin and death will be removed forever.
14 Murder is an act that requires planning ahead. Some murders are planed well in advance so that the perpetrator can ambush the victim. In an "act of passion," the perpetrator intentionally strikes the victim with the intent to harm or kill. In either case, if the perpetrator had previously been angry with the victim this would act as proof of premeditation.

Apparently, someone who killed another might run to God's altar instead of a city of refuge. I suppose the idea was that an avenger could not slay the perpetrator while he was at the altar because it would be defiled by human blood. Perhaps an innocent man could find temporary refuge there, but a guilty man must still be punished (1Ki 2:28-34).

15 This is a combination of the fifth and sixth Commandments. The verb here appears to include several kinds of physical attacks ranging from slapping to killing. In this case it is not be necessary to kill ones parents to be guilty of a capital crime.
16 Most people may not see kidnapping as murder per-se, but it is unjustly detaining or imprisoning someone against their will. In the vast majority of cases kidnapping is done for the purpose of obtaining a ransom or other personal gain. In order to do so it is often necessary to make murderous threats against the victim.

When the Israelites conquered Canaan they were allowed to force some of the vanquished people into slavery (Josh 9). They were also allowed to buy slaves from foreigners (Exo 12:44). However, this command would make it a capital crime to go to another country and kidnap people to become slaves when there was no war declared between them. The vast majority of the slave trade in America was done this way, and undoubtedly this displeases God immensely.

A form a kidnapping that seems to be becoming more common today is the abduction of one's own children from the other spouse. This has typically occurred during custody lawsuits that have followed a divorce. The children involved may go willingly or may simply not know what is happening. In any event, such kidnapping is illegal. In countries with civil authorities the courts must decide where the children should go in these cases. For Christians, divorce should be strongly avoided in the first place.

17 As in verse 15 this combines the fifth and sixth commandment. While verse 15 dealt with physical attacks on one's parents, this verse makes verbal attacks against the parents a capital crime. The verb "curse" here again appears to have a range of meanings from "triteness" to "cursing."
19 This verse shows that if someone intentionally harms another, then the perpetrator is liable. He is to provide for the injured man's medical and living expenses until that time when the injured man is healed. This law makes the perpetrator pay back what he has taken away, but does not allow the victim to take advantage of the situation. There are no allowances given for "emotional compensation." Retribution is only allowed as far as the physical condition allows.

It is irrelevant who started the fight. If a dispute comes to blows then either person involved would become liable if he severely injures the other.

20 If the servant is killed by an ox, the owner is fined thirty shekels (Exo 21:32). If the master destroys a body part the servant is to go free (Exo 21:26, 27). There is nothing here that would prevent the death penalty from being imposed, but it is less likely because the master killed his own servant, his own property. However, the master must be punished in some severe way because a servant is God's image bearer just as any other man or woman.
21 Since the master is already providing the servant with shelter, food, and clothing verse 19 is already built in. However, it is of no benefit to the master to have a seriously wounded servant who can not work.
22 In the proposed scene, two men are fighting and the wife comes to the aid of her husband. If she is pregnant and struck so that the baby is born prematurely and dies then the would-be parents are entitled to compensation. No predetermined value or limit is set for the compensation. The husband and the town judges would determine a fair settlement. The perpetrator is not put to death because the death of the child would be considered accidental.

It should be obvious from this passage that the life of a child in the womb is very important to God. If the accidental death requires such compensation it can be reasoned that a deliberate abortion would be a capital offense.

23 If in the process of protecting her husband the woman sustains further injuries, then those same injuries are to be inflicted in the perpetrator. This is another example of where God seeks to protect women from abuse, unlike the surrounding pagan cultures.

Lev 24:19, 20 and Deu 19:21 expand this law to cover everyone. Jesus speaks on this further in Mat 5:38.

24 In this chapter and the next there are several instances of restitution. Depending on the item and situation under which it was stolen or damaged, the perpetrator may have to pay up to five times the amount stolen. In the matter of human injuries, only a one-to-one restitution is required. This does not mean that God considers the loss of human body parts of lesser value than possessions. The perpetrator is God's image bearer and it would be wrong to afflict him beyond the extent of the harm committed. The perpetrator also has limited body parts to work with anyway (one life, two eyes, etc.). We should further recognize that afflicting the perpetrator would not restore the lost body part on the victim. And finally, for the victim who received a debilitating injury, it might be better to keep the perpetrator healthy so that they might be a source of income (Exo 21:19).
26 Masters could discipline their servants (i.e., slave, but they were not allowed such extremes as to disfigure them or destroy a body part. If the master did such a thing, the servant was to be set free from servitude.
27 Back then there was no way to reset a tooth that was knocked out.
28 An ox (or by extension any animal) that killed a human being would suffer the same consequences as a human murderer -- capital punishment. Even if the animal could be eaten, its flesh was put under the ban.
29 The negligent owner would be considered an accessory to the crime if he had not destroyed or at least confined a troublesome animal. Accessories are to be given the same punishment as the perpetrators.
30 However, in this case it was possible for the judges to fine the owner rather than execute him (see also Exo 21:22).
32 Again the ox is killed because it killed God's image bearer. However, because the human killed was considered "property" the owner paid a fine. Joseph's brothers had sold him for twenty shekels of silver (Gen 37:28), so whether this was a high price or a normal price, the ox's owner would pay enough to replace the servant plus restitution.
33 In this case of negligence the pit digger creates a dangerous situation and is responsible for replacing any animal that dies by falling into the pit. No provision is given for the case of people who fall in and are injured or killed. It is possible that the already mentioned cases apply.
34 The pit digger is to give the owner enough money to replace the lost animal. He is able to keep the dead animal, presumably to sell the hide and meat if possible.
35 In the case of oxen goring one another, both owners appear to bear the problem equally. Both owners lose in this situation. Note that the live ox may not actually sell very well since the new owner would have to keep the in mind verses 29, 32, and 36.
36 If the owner of a troublesome ox is negligent, then he must pay enough money to replace the lost ox. As with the negligent pit digger he is allowed to keep the dead animal to dispose of as best he can.