Exodus 21: Judgments

There are three distinct sections of this chapter, and while the information contained is part of the Old Testament Law (the Torah), it is not the same type of all-encompassing-laws that we read of in Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments. The laws in this chapter around servants, violence and animal control are what are referred to as judgments, case law, or casuistic law. This means that the laws were created by God in response to specific recurring issues and problems that the Israelites were experiencing. The issues caused God to relay a judgment on each specific matter so that when these issues arise in the future, God’s pre-defined laws will prevent conflict and provide resolution. These laws also served to protect His chosen people in times of dispute, conflict, and injury.

Verses 1-11: Servants

This period in human history is very far removed from our own in terms of cultural development, human rights, and what was generally acceptable. At the time, a crisis such as being severely in debt could prompt a person to become a servant (or slave). These eleven verses address what should be the circumstance for when one of God’s people, a Hebrew, should become a servant.

Verses 2-6 say that a Hebrew servant should not willingly serve any longer than the seventh year. Sensible laws around leaving with or without his family at the time of the seventh year are stated. If the servant wished to remain after the seventh year, he can do so, but he must pledge his servitude to his master for the rest of his life and also symbolize this pledge by having his ear nailed to the doorpost of his master.

Laws concerning female servants are detailed in verses 7-11. Substantively, these laws and the others described in verses 2-6 grant Hebrew servants more rights than they would have normally. What these laws on servanthood do is essentially still allow for Hebrews to use servanthood as a means to pay off heavy debt but they also remove much of the terrible risk of insult, injury, loss and death that were likely to occur if these laws were not in place.

Verses 12-27: Violence

For certain violent acts, the punishment is death:

  • Kidnapping and kidnapping with intent to sell
  • Premeditated murder
  • Cursing father or mother
  • Striking father or mother

For violent acts that do not result in death, God has determined certain punishments and conditions:

  • If a man kills another man without premeditation, he must flee to another city
  • If one is the victim of violence, but recovers, the aggressor can go free, but he must pay the victim for the loss of his time and for his healing
  • If a man beats his male or female servant to death, he shall be punished, but if the servant recovers, there will be no punishment
    • For servants that experience severe wounds as the result of getting beaten by their masters, they will be set free (e.g., loss of eye or tooth)
  • If a pregnant female is hurt during the course of an altercation, that same hurt which the responsible party gave her will be imposed on him and his family / If she is unhurt, the woman’s husband will determine his punishment and a judge will determine how much he is to pay

Verses 28-36: Animal Control

The laws in this section are designed to protect man from both dangerous animals and irresponsible owners of animals. See verse 29 and notice the stress that is placed on a man being personally accountable:

“But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.”

A man was to protect his fellow citizens and resolve the problem of a difficult animal before it was able to harm another person. Adversely, if a man did harm to another man’s animal through negligence (an ox falling into a pit to its death), the owner of the pit is responsible for making good the loss. The same principle applies to animals that hurt or kill other animals.

The root of all of these casuistic laws is personal responsibility: responsibility for the debts one creates, responsibility for your property, responsibility to treat others with fairness in all situations. If your intent is evil or your approach is negligent, you will experience consequences. We can see God’s plan for our lives in the principles in this chapter as it relates to dealing with other people. While the examples are specific, the applications are once again broad, just as we saw in the previous chapter for the Ten Commandments. God expects for us to be aware of the hurt we can cause and He expects for us to prevent it. It is the beginning of doing unto your neighbor as you would have them do unto you. If we cannot be accountable for our behavior, our actions, and the results of all of our decisions, who can? God expects us to think ahead about these things and to consider others as we predict the outcome of our decisions.

Although we are accountable for our bad decisions and for the harm they do others, we cannot make up for them in terms of the spiritual deficiency that they leave. Paying 30 shekels of silver for a lost ox makes it up to our neighbor, but the sin of breaking God’s law requires a sacrifice that will be shown to not have an earthly answer as this dispensation under Moses lives on. In fact, the answer will have to come from God Himself by way of a virgin mother.

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