Exodus 21

The Word Made Fresh

1“Put these laws before the people:

2“When you purchase a Hebrew slave, he shall serve you but six years. You must release him without debt in the seventh year. 3If he is married or single when you purchase him, he shall depart with the same status. 4If the owner gives him a wife and she has children by the slave, they become his master’s property and he must be freed alone. 5But if the slave declares his loyalty to his master and wife and children and asks not to be released, 6then his owner shall bring him to the judges and he will be stood against a door post and his ear pierced, and he will then belong to his master for life.

7“If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be released in the seventh year. 8If the man who purchased her for himself is not happy with her he must allow her to be bought back. He may not sell her to a foreigner because he has not been fair with her. 9If he gives her to his son she becomes his daughter. 10Otherwise she is considered his wife, and if he marries another, he is not allowed to lower her living standard, or deny her conjugal rights as his first wife. 11If he refuses to do this for her, she is free to go without debt and without giving him anything.

12“If a man hits another man and kills him, he himself must be put to death. 13However, if he does not kill the man intentionally but allowed it to happen, then he may escape to one of the safe places I will designate later. 14Still, if anyone should kill another on purpose you must put him to death, even if he clings to my altar.

15“Anyone who strikes his father or mother must be put to death.

16“Anyone who kidnaps another must be put to death whether that person is still in his possession or has been sold.

17“Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.

18“If two men argue and one strikes the other and injures him so that he becomes bedridden, 19but then recovers enough to move about with a walking stick, the one who struck him must pay for his loss of time until he is fully recovered.

20“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a club, and the slave is killed, the man must be punished. 21If the slave survives, even if just for a day or two, there is then no punishment because the slave is, after all, his property.

22“If men fighting with one another injure a pregnant woman and causes her to have a miscarriage but there is no serious injury the man responsible must pay the woman’s husband whatever her husband demands, or as much of it as the court allows. 23But if there is injury then you must repay life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25injury for injury, blow for blow, bruise for bruise.

26“If a man strikes a male or female slave and permanently damages the slave’s eye, he must allow the slave to go free in compensation for the injury. 27Or if a tooth is knocked out, the slave must be freed to pay for the tooth.

28“If an ox gores someone to death the ox must be stoned and it’s meat may not be cooked and eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be held responsible. 29If the ox is known to attack people and its owner has been warned but has done nothing to restrain the ox, and the ox kills someone, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also must be put to death. 30But, if payment is demanded instead, then the ox’s owner must pay whatever is demanded for the victim’s life. 31The same rule applies if a child is gored. 32If a slave is gored the owner of the ox must pay the slave’s owner twelve ounces of silver, and the ox must be stoned.

33“If a pit is left uncovered and an ox or donkey falls into it, 34the pit owner must make things right by paying the dead animal’s owner. But the pit owner may keep the dead animal for himself.

34“If one man’s ox gores to death another man’s ox, the living ox must be sold. They will share the sale money and also share the meat from the dead animal. 35If the ox was known to have gored in the past but the owner has not kept it restrained, then the owner of the ox must give the owner of the dead ox another ox, but may keep the meat from the dead ox.


1: Moses is given more laws to pass on to the people.

2-6: It distresses us, of course, that God does not ban slavery outright, especially in light of the fact that the Israelites were themselves slaves in Egypt, from which slavery God has rescued them. But in a world where slavery was not only common, but in some cases essential to survival, God is willing to abide the practice as long as certain rules are observed. The laws in these paragraphs have to do with “debt slavery,” that is, slavery in payment of a debt. First, with regards to male Hebrew slaves (interesting that “Hebrew” is used here, recalling former days in Egypt), slavery is not to be a permanent condition. Regardless of the nature of his debt, he must be freed in the seventh year in the same marital state in which he became a slave. If he marries while a slave, then he has a choice: either leave his wife and children, or consent to being a slave permanently. The reasoning is that he cannot marry while a slave unless his owner provides him with a wife, and the wife (and any children born to that union) is thus considered the property of the slave owner. Our own nation’s experience of slavery tells us that surely many unpleasant situations arose out of such an arrangement.

7-11: In some cases, a man could pay his debt by giving his daughter to his owner. This was to be a permanent arrangement; in other words, it is a marriage. Her owner/husband will not have a right to sell her to anyone else, and if she is rejected by him, she can be redeemed, presumably by her father, although the text doesn’t specify what will happen if her father cannot afford to redeem her. Her owner may, instead of taking her for himself, give her to his son for a wife. Or, if he takes her for his wife and subsequently marries another, the slave wife will retain her position in his household. If he abrogates any of these provisions, she is free to go and the debt is dissolved. These provisions, while barbaric to us, were nevertheless a step up from the prevailing customs of the day.

12-14: Murder is punishable by death, even if the killer clings to the altar. If the death was accidental, then the killer is allowed to flee to what will later be termed a “city of refuge,” which will be described in subsequent provisions.

15: Striking a parent is a capital offense.

16: Kidnapping is a capital offense.

17: Cursing a parent is a capital offense.

18-19: One who injures another is responsible for the injured party’s “loss of time,” that is, loss of income, for the duration of their recovery.

20-21: If a slave is struck by the owner and dies, the owner is to be punished. The Hebrew in verse 20 is strong enough even to imply that the punishment is to be death, a remarkable provision indicating a high regard for human value, even of a slave. But that regard is immediately nullified by verse 21. If the injury is not immediately fatal the owner is off the hook. I have not found a suitable explanation for this in any of the commentaries.

22-25: We are beginning to see that these were violent times! If a pregnant woman is injured by two men fighting each other and a miscarriage occurs, then her husband has a right to sue for damages. If she herself is injured, the man causing the injury is to be punished in kind. If her eye is damaged, so shall his be. If her tooth is knocked out his is, too. And so forth and so on, for hand, foot, burn, wound, stripe, even life itself is to be exacted; a surprisingly high regard for the life of a woman given what we have seen in other passages.

26-27: Upon the loss of an eye or a tooth by violence, a slave is to be freed.

28-32: In the case of injury caused by a domestic animal, specifically an ox, the offending animal is destroyed. The owner is held harmless, but if he has been warned that the animal is prone to violence, he becomes responsible for whatever harm the animal causes, even to the extent of his own life.

33-34: If an animal falls into a pit dug by someone other than its owner, the pit digger must pay the owner for it.

35-36: Provision is made for injury resulting from an ox goring another ox. These laws are quaint and even disturbing, but they do provide a window into the world of that day.


These further rules basically explain how the Ten Commandments are applicable in a variety of particular situations. The Ten Commandments do not prescribe punishments; most of the remainder of Exodus is given over to just that.