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Scripture reading: Exodus 21-22

Having established the Ten Commandments as the foundation of God’s Covenant with Israel, today’s Scripture reading states the practical and personal application of the Commandments. We read, “Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them” (21:1).

The following verses served not only Israel but have been the foundation of democratic law and government down through the centuries. You will find here the basis of your sense of justice and fairness. Yet, tragically, I fear the principles recorded here have been forgotten and discarded by leaders, politicians, and citizens of the 21st century.

Exodus 21 

Human Rights: Precepts for Slavery, Manslaughter, Rebellion, and Injury

Slavery and indentured servitude (21:1-11) have been practiced since ancient times and continue in some form to this day. Those who object to the inclusion of this topic in the Bible must realize it was a commonly accepted practice and had to be addressed righteously. Understanding poverty might reduce a man to slavery; the LORD instituted prudent principles that forbade injustice. Here we have guidelines to impart dignity to even the lowest household servant. Unfortunately, there is an epidemic of human trafficking and “sex slaves” today, perpetuating the shameful abuses God’s Law prohibits.

Slavery and Individual Sovereignty (21:1-6)

Should a Hebrew man become impoverished and reduced to slavery to pay his debt, he would serve his master no more than six years. Upon the seventh year, he was to be freed from his indebtedness and servitude (21:1-2). Should a married man be reduced to servitude, he, his wife, and his children would be released in the seventh year.

However, should a man take a wife during his servitude, he alone would be at liberty in the seventh year (21:3-4). Although freed from obligation, should the man love his master and not want to depart alone, he was permitted to choose to continue voluntarily as a slave (21:5). Such a man would have his ear bored through (21:6) and would serve either till the death of his master, or be set free with his family in the year of jubilee (which would occur every 50 years).

The Desperate Role of Daughters (21:7-11)

Poverty might sometimes force a father to part with his daughter and sell her to another as a household servant (21:7). Because this system was fraught with abuses, the Law provided guidelines to preserve the dignity and reputation of Hebrew daughters. For example, a poor man who desired a better life for his daughter sometimes permitted a wealthy man to purchase her and take her to his wife when she came of age. When she came of age, if the man or his son refused to marry her, they would send her away with a dowry enough to provide her food and clothing and with no further obligation to the benefactor (21:8-11).

The Sanctity of Human Life (21:12-14)

The sixth commandment stated, “Thou shalt not kill” (20:13). Prudently, God’s Law recognized a difference between murder and manslaughter (taking a life without intent, 21:12-14).

The Honor to be Afforded Parents (21:15, 17).

The fifth commandment said, “Honour thy father and thy mother” (20:12). Cursing or striking one’s parents was a capital offense, and death was mandated (21:15, 17). Still, we must understand that cursing or hitting one’s father or mother carried judicial stipulations. The commandments are filled with conditions, longsuffering, and love. In addition, all offenses were brought before a judicial body that ruled over offenses. As such, we do not have a Biblical account of any being put to death for this offense.

Justice and Fair Compensation for Loss (21:18-36)

Fair and adequate compensation was required for accidental injuries that did not result in death. Should a victim of injury be unable to provide for himself or his family, he was to be fairly and adequately compensated (21:18-32). The law states, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (21:24). Losses caused by one’s negligence were to be compensated (21:28-36). It did not require the offender to lose his eye, tooth, or life.

Exodus 22

Theft and Endangerment of One’s Livelihood were not Tolerated. (22:1-13)

The theft of ox or sheep was a serious offense (22:1-4) in an agricultural society where a man’s livelihood and his family’s well-being depended on farming and husbandry. Damage to a man’s vineyard or crops required fair compensation for the loss (22:5-6).

Personal responsibility and liability were important issues among God’s people, and fair compensation for losses, whether caused by theft or neglect, was mandated (22:7-15).

Loans and the Obligation of Debtors (22:14-15)

Exodus 22:14-15 states the obligation a borrower assumed when using another man’s property. For the sake of illustration, if a farmer borrowed another man’s ox to plow his field, and the ox was injured or died, the borrower became a debtor and was under obligation to “make it good” (22:14). In other words, one must choose to either repay or replace the ox.  An exception to the law of repayment or replacement was when the owner of an ox plowed another man’s field “for his hire” (22:15). Because he was hired to plow a field, the employer (owner of the field) was not under obligation to replace the ox.

Exodus 22 concluded with various laws that addressed moral and societal issues (22:16-23:19), including rape (22:16-17), witchcraft (22:18), bestiality (22:19), and idolatry (22:20).  The matter of borrowing, and indebtedness were addressed as well as charging excessive interest that imposed unnecessary hardships on the poor were condemned (22:25-27).

Closing thoughts:

The Law and its application to daily life necessitate honesty and integrity. Indeed, the need for spiritual principles and values is as great today as they were when they were given. Certainly, if we want the next generation to have integrity, they must be taught to be responsible. Justice and fairness demand that when one’s actions cause injury or loss, there is an obligation to make the injured party whole.

After all, sometimes saying, “I’m sorry,” is not enough! 

Questions to consider:

1) To pay a debt, a man might be forced to become an indentured servant (slave). What was the maximum number of years a man might be enslaved? (Exodus 21:2)

2) What would become of a man’s wife and children should he marry while enslaved? (Exodus 21:4)

3) What physical sign identified a man as a willing, voluntary servant? (Exodus 21:5-6)

4) The penalty for intentional murder was death (Exodus 21:12). What was the consequence of manslaughter (unintentional killing of another)? (Exodus 21:13)

Copyright © 2023 – Travis D. Smith

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