Exodus Chapter Twenty One

Principles of justice

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In our study of Exodus chapter twenty one, we look at the principles of justice that God gave to Israel in order for them to be a light unto the world.

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Exodus 21:1-4

"These are the rulings you are to present to them: "If you purchase a Hebrew slave, he is to work six years; but in the seventh, he is to be given his freedom without having to pay anything. If he came single, he is to leave single; if he was married when he came, his wife is to go with him when he leaves. But if his master gave him a wife, and she bore him sons or daughters, then the wife and her children will belong to her master, and he will leave by himself.

We see that, because of Israel's rejection of God's offer to transform them in chapter 20, we see God giving instructions to Moshe to share with the people. The first instruction has to do with slavery but it is not the slavery that most of us think of when we see the word. In this case, it speaks of a Hebrew man that owes a debt that he is unable to pay so he goes to be a servant for the one that he owes; he is going to work off his debt. We see that, if he came into this situation unmarried, then, that is how he leaves when the debt is paid or at the end of six years; whichever comes first. If he gets married during that time and wants to leave when the debt is paid, then, he must leave his wife and any children and go but if he came with a wife then he is to leave with the wife. This may seem rather complicated but the principle is that there is no profit in sin.

Exodus 21:5 & 6

Nevertheless, if the slave declares, 'I love my master, my wife and my children, so I don't want to go free,' then his master is to bring him before God; and there at the door or doorpost, his master is to pierce his ear with an awl; and the man will be his slave for life.

Now, we see the ruling in case the bondservant does not want to leave once his debt is paid. In that case, the master takes the man before the judges and pierces his ear as a sign that the man is a bondservant for life.

Exodus 21:7-11

"If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she is not to go free like the men-slaves. If her master married her but decides she no longer pleases him, then he is to allow her to be redeemed. He is not allowed to sell her to a foreign people, because he has treated her unfairly. If he has her marry his son, then he is to treat her like a daughter. If he marries another wife, he is not to reduce her food, clothing or marital rights. If he fails to provide her with these three things, she is to be given her freedom without having to pay anything.

This passage speaks of a father that is unable to provide for his daughter and it is like a biblical welfare system. If the man cannot provide for his daughter, then, he can sell her to a man and she will be a maidservant until she is old enough to marry the man or his son. If, after some time the man decides that it is not God's will for him to marry the girl, then, he is to allow her to be taken back by her closest relative. If the son of the man takes the woman to be his wife, then, she is to be treated as a daughter. If the man marries her and fails to provide for her, then she is to be set free. We also see a ruling where the man gets another wife and we are reminded that this is not the plan of God as described in Genesis 2. In this case, the man is not permitted to provide less for the first wife in order to provide for the second wife.

Exodus 21:12-14

"Whoever attacks a person and causes his death must be put to death. If it was not premeditated but an act of God, then I will designate for you a place to which he can flee. But if someone willfully kills another after deliberate planning, you are to take him even from my altar and put him to death.

This passage gives the penalty for causing the death of another man and the punishment is based on intent. If the act is planned and executed, then, the guilty man is to be killed but, if there was no intent, the man could flee to a sanctuary city and stay until a judgement was made in the case. If they found that it was done with intent, then, the man was executed but, if they found that it was unintentional, then, the man could live in the sanctuary city.

Exodus 21:15

"Whoever attacks his father or mother must be put to death.

If anyone hits their mother or father they are to be put to death.

Exodus 21:16

"Whoever kidnaps someone must be put to death, regardless of whether he has already sold him or the person is found still in his possession.

Anyone that kidnaps another person was to be put to death.

Exodus 21:17

"Whoever curses his father or mother must be put to death.

Anyone that even curses one of their parents was to be put to death.

Exodus 21:18 & 19

"If two people fight, and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist, and the injured party doesn't die but is confined to his bed; then, if he recovers enough to be able to walk around outside, even if with a cane, the attacker will be free of liability, except to compensate him for his loss of time and take responsibility for his care until his recovery is complete.

Next, we see that, when two men fight, if one is injured and cannot work, then, the one that caused the injury has to take care of him and compensate him for the work time that was lost.

Exodus 21:20 & 21

"If a person beats his male or female slave with a stick so severely that he dies, he is to be punished; except that if the slave lives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his property.

This passage speaks of a master disciplining his servant and, if he causes the servant to die, then, the master is to die but, if the servant recovers, there is to be no punishment.

Exodus 21:22-25

"If people are fighting with each other and happen to hurt a pregnant woman so badly that her unborn child dies, then, even if no other harm follows, he must be fined. He must pay the amount set by the woman's husband and confirmed by judges. But if any harm follows, then you are to give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound and bruise for bruise.

In this case, two men are fighting and they happen to hurt a pregnant woman, we see that she is to be compensated with the price set by the husband. If she has the baby and it was injured, then, proper restitution is to be determined by the elders (judges) after they have heard all of the facts. This all speaks of seeking God's will in the matter as the word for justice comes from the same Hebrew root word for prayer and the qualifications for these judges was set in chapter 18.

Exodus 21:26 & 27

"If a person hits his male or female slave's eye and destroys it, he must let him go free in compensation for his eye. If he knocks out his male or female slave's tooth, he must let him go free in compensation for his tooth.

This passage speaks of the responsibility of the master for the welfare of the bondslave and, if the servant is injured by anyone and has permanent damage, then, the servant is to be set free in compensation for the injury.

Exodus 21:28-32

"If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox is to be stoned and its flesh not eaten, but the owner of the ox will have no further liability. However, if the ox was in the habit of goring in the past, and the owner was warned but did not confine it, so that it ended up killing a man or a woman; then the ox is to be stoned, and its owner too is to be put to death. However, a ransom may be imposed on him; and the death penalty will be commuted if he pays the amount imposed. If the ox gores a son or daughter, the same rule applies. If the ox gores a male or female slave, its owner must give their master twelve ounces of silver; and the ox is to be stoned to death.

Here, we see that an animal that kills a person is to be put to death and, if the animal has done it before and the owner did not prevent the animal from doing it again, then, it is as if the owner intended to kill the person and so the owner of the animal is put to death. The owner's life can be spared if the family of the victim sets a price for redemption. We also see that, if the harm is to a servant, then, the master is compensated.

Exodus 21:33 & 34

"If someone removes the cover from a cistern or digs one and fails to cover it, and an ox or donkey falls in, the owner of the cistern must make good the loss by compensating the animal's owner; but the dead animal will be his.

This passage speaks of negligence that causes harm to the property of another person and, in that case, the owner must be compensated.

Exodus 21:35 & 36

"If one person's ox hurts another's, so that it dies, they are to sell the live ox and divide the revenue from the sale; and they are also to divide the dead animal. But if it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring in the past, and the owner did not confine it; he must pay ox for ox, but the dead animal will be his.

Finally, we see the responsibility of an owner for the actions of their animal hurting the animal of another person and the plan to compensate for the loss.

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