Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Exodus 21

By Joseph Benson


Verse 1
Exodus 21:1. The first verse is the general title of the laws contained in this and the two following chapters. Their government being purely a theocracy, that which in other states is to be settled by human prudence, was directed among them by a divine appointment. These laws are called judgments; because their magistrates were to give judgment according to them. In the doubtful cases that had hitherto occurred, Moses had particularly inquired of God, but now God gave him statutes in general, by which to determine particular cases. He begins with the laws concerning servants, commanding mercy and moderation toward them. The Israelites had lately been servants themselves, and now they were become not only their own masters, but masters of servants too; lest they should abuse their servants as they themselves had been abused, provision was made for the mild and gentle usage of servants.

Verse 2
Exodus 21:2. If thou buy a Hebrew servant — Either sold by himself or his parents through poverty, or by the judges for his crimes, yet even such a one was to continue in slavery but seven years at the most. See the texts referred to in the margin.

Verse 3
Exodus 21:3. If he came in by himself — That is, single, he shall so depart: if married, his wife was to depart with him.

Verse 4
Exodus 21:4. Her children shall be her master’s — Having become his in consequence of the right which he had to the parents. He shall go out by himself — But was not this separation of man and wife inconsistent with the first institution of marriage, by which that bond is made indissoluble? Answer, 1st, That bond was not necessarily dissolved by this law, both because the separation was at the man’s choice, who might have stayed if he pleased, and because the distinction of their habitations might consist with the right use of matrimony, which the master would probably permit for his own advantage.

Verse 6
Exodus 21:6. His master shall bring him to the judges — In the original, gods, magistrates being often so called as the visible representatives of God upon earth. In the Septuagint it is προς το κριτηριον θεου, to the tribunal of God, meaning probably the sanctuary. The sense seems evidently to be, that the master was to bring his slave to the temporal judges, that they might take cognizance of the case, and that the agreement, being publicly and solemnly confirmed, might be irrevocable. He shall bring him to the door — To wit, of his master’s house, as is expressed Deuteronomy 15:17, in token that he was fixed there, and must no more go out free. Shall bore his ear through with an awl — We find from Juvenal and Petronius that this continued to be a custom in Syria and Arabia many ages after this. And it fitly represented the servant’s perpetual obligation to abide in that house, and there to hear and obey his master’s commands, Psalms 40:6. For ever — As long as he lives, or till the year of jubilee.

Verse 7
Exodus 21:7. If a man sell his daughter — A Hebrew, as appears by the opposition of one of a strange nation, Exodus 21:8. To be a maid-servant — Which was allowed in cases of extreme necessity; she shall not go out as the men-servants do — Gaining her liberty after a servitude of six years, but upon better terms, as being one of the weaker and more helpless sex.

Verse 8
Exodus 21:8. Who hath betrothed her to himself — For a concubine, or secondary wife. Not that masters always took maid-servants on those terms. Then shall he let her be redeemed — Either by herself or her friends, or any other person that will redeem her. To sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power — This was prohibited, because a heathen would keep her for a perpetual servant, which the Israelites might not do.

Seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her — In breaking his promise of marriage made to her, or in disappointing the hopes he had encouraged her to entertain of it.

Verse 9-10
Exodus 21:9-10. After the manner of daughters — He shall give her a convenient portion, as he doth to his own daughters. Duty of marriage — Termed due benevolence, 1 Corinthians 7:3 : or, her dwelling, as the word is often used. Thus the three great conveniences of life are included, food, raiment, and habitation, all which he is to provide for her.

Verse 12-13
Exodus 21:12-13. He that smiteth a man — Knowingly and wilfully, as appears from the next verse; shall be surely put to death — Neither the friends of the person slain nor the magistrate shall give him a pardon, or accept a ransom for him, Numbers 35:31. If God deliver him into his hand — As the Scriptures teach us to acknowledge God in every thing that falls out, so when a man is killed by what we call accident, without any intention of the agent, he is said to have been delivered into his hand by God, without whose divine foresight and permission the event could not have happened. I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee — It is probable, that while the Israelites were in the wilderness the place of refuge was the camp of the Levites or the altar. Afterward, it is well known, certain cities were appointed for that purpose.

Verse 14
Exodus 21:14. If a man come presumptuously — Do this boldly, purposely, and maliciously; for so the word signifies, thou shalt take him from mine altar. God so abhors murder that he will rather venture the pollution of his own altar than the escape of the murderer.

Verse 15
Exodus 21:15. He that smiteth his father, &c. — So sacred and inviolable is that reverence which children owe to their parents, that, by the law of God, it was death not only to strike them, but even to curse or outrageously revile them, Exodus 21:17, and Matthew 15:4. The reason of this law is, that such crimes are a sign of most audacious wickedness. It appears, however, from Deuteronomy 21:18, that children were not to be put to death for the first offence of this kind, but if, after repeated admonitions from their parents, they still persisted in their undutiful carriage, without hope of reformation, then, upon the accusation of their parents, they were to be put to death.

Verse 16
Exodus 21:16. He that stealeth a man — Whether he keep him in his own hands for his own use, or sell him, still it is a theft of a heinous kind, and the man-stealer deserves death. It appears from 1 Timothy 1:9-10, that this law was not meant to be of a merely temporary nature, but of standing force.

Verse 18-19
Exodus 21:18-19. With a stone — Or any other instrument fit for such a mischievous purpose. The loss of his time — Of the profit which he commonly made of his time in the way of his calling. Shall cause him to be healed — Shall pay the charges of his cure.

Verse 20
Exodus 21:20. With a rod — The usual instrument of correction, whereby is implied, that if he killed the person with a sword or any such weapon he was to be put to death; and he die under his hand — While the master is correcting him; he shall be punished — As the magistrate or judge shall think fit, according to the circumstances.

Verse 21
Exodus 21:21. He is his money — His possession, bought with his money; and, therefore, 1st, He had a power to chastise him according to his demerit, which might be very great. 2d, He is punished by his own loss. And, 3d, May be presumed not to have done this purposely and maliciously.

Verse 22-23
Exodus 21:22-23. And yet no mischief follow — That is, if the woman die not, as appears from the next verse, or the child was not formed and alive in the womb; he shall be surely punished — The woman’s husband shall impose the fine, and if it be unreasonable, the judges shall have a power to moderate it. If any mischief follow — If the woman die, or if the child was formed and alive, the offender was to be punished with death. Thou shalt give life for life — By the judgment of the magistrate.

Verse 24-25
Exodus 21:24-25. Eye for eye, &c. — This is termed the law of retaliation; and from hence heathen lawgivers took it, and put it among their other laws. It seems probable, that it was not necessary always to take it strictly and literally, but that it might in some cases be satisfied with pecuniary mulcts, or with such satisfaction as the injuring party would give, and the injured accept. Indeed, the injustice of the literal execution of it, in many cases, is apparent; as, when a man that had but one eye or hand, would be thereby condemned to lose it, which to him would be a far greater calamity than he had brought upon his neighbour, by depriving him of one of his eyes or hands. It is especially to be observed, that the execution of these laws was not put into the hands of private persons, and that they were not allowances for private revenge, but rules to regulate the magistrate’s decision, who might go thus far, if he judged the heinousness of the offence required it, but no further; and, no doubt, might abate of this rigour when alleviating circumstances appeared to render it proper so to do.

Verses 26-28
Exodus 21:26-28. He shall let him go free — A very fit recompense to a servant for such a loss, and certainly meant to be extended to every other material personal injury. If an ox — Or any other creature.

Verse 30
Exodus 21:30. If there be laid on him a sum of money — By the avenger of blood, the next akin to the party slain, who is willing to exchange the punishment, or by the judge.