Exodus Chapter 21  PDF  MSWord

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Go to Bible: Exodus 21
Exo 21:1(top)
Exo 21:2(top)
Exo 21:3(top)
Exo 21:4(top)
Exo 21:5

“plainly says.” The Hebrew is emphatic and is the figure of speech polyptoton; it repeats the word “says.” In the Schocken Bible, this is translated as “says, yes, says.”

[See figure of speech “polyptoton.”]

Exo 21:6

“the judges.” The Hebrew is elohim, which can be God, a representative or representatives of God such as judges, or even pagan gods. In this case, the logical choice seems to be the local judges, because although during the period of the wilderness wanderings it would be easy for someone to go to the Tent of Meeting where God was, this regulation was also intended to be in force once Israel got settled in the Promised Land when it would not be convenient for a slave and master to travel to Jerusalem for this ceremony. Also, although the “door” or “doorpost” is not specifically indicated here, the most logical choice is that it is the door or doorpost of the master’s house because the slave was asking to be connected to the master’s household forever.

“and he will serve him forever.” The word “forever” in this case means for a long time, because the servitude ended in the year of the Jubilee (Lev. 25:39-41).

Exo 21:7

“she is not to go out as the male servants do.” Men who were sold into slavery were released after seven years. However, women who were sold into slavery were not released. It was the cultural norm that the master or someone in the master’s family would marry the girl (Exod. 21:8), and she would become a permanent part of that family.

Exo 21:8

“then he must let her be redeemed.” If the master married a girl who was sold into slavery, but she did not please him, then the master was to let her birth family buy her back. He could not sell an Israelite girl to a non-Israelite, a foreigner. However, what usually happened was the master would simply take another wife along with the unloved wife (concubine), but since wives cost money and time, he might simply sell the unloved woman back to her family.

Exo 21:9(top)
Exo 21:10

“clothing.” In this context, “clothing” also included housing whenever possible. Truly poor people often had to sleep outdoors in their clothing (Exod. 22:25-26), which then were both their clothing and their shelter. In this context of a man providing for his unwanted wife, he could not just give her clothing but not shelter if he could afford it—that would never be God’s heart in providing for the woman—so “clothing” here includes clothing and a sheltered place to sleep at night.

“marital rights.” The Hebrew word is `onah (#05772 עוֹנָה) and it occurs only here in the Old Testament, which has generated some scholarly debate about its meaning. However, from ancient times it has been understood to mean the sexual intercourse that occurs in marriage and was considered a wife’s right, and there is no solid lexical or logical reason to doubt that conclusion. Sexual intercourse with her husband was the only way a woman could have children, and children were absolutely necessary for a blessed life in the biblical world. The only reliable plan for old age and for protection in the biblical world was to have a large family (Ps. 127:4-5). This was so much the case that a barren woman was considered cursed.

Children were extremely important to women in the biblical world and the ancient world in general. Abraham’s wife Sarah was so upset about being barren that she told Abraham to have intercourse with her slave girl so she could have children through her (Gen. 16:2). When Jacob’s wife Rachel was barren she expressed her feelings to Jacob and said, “Give me children or I will die” (Gen. 30:1). When Naomi’s husband and two sons died, she told the people not to call her Naomi (“Pleasant”) but to call her “Mara” (“Bitter”). When Samuel’s mother Hannah was barren before giving birth to Samuel, she refused to eat, wept, was bitter in her soul about it, and her husband’s second wife provoked her about it (1 Sam. 1:2-10). Part of the blessings pronounced upon Israel if they would obey God and His law was that no one would be barren (Deut. 7:14). One of the great reasons for praising God was that He makes barren women become “the joyful mother of children” (Ps. 113:9). As we see in Exodus 21:11, if a husband refused to have sexual intercourse with a wife, God allowed her to leave him.

Exo 21:11

“she may go free, without paying any money.” Exodus 21:10-11 is very important for a proper understanding of marriage, marriage duties, and divorce. It is often taught in Christian circles that the only reason for divorce is adultery, and that opinion is based on verses such as Matthew 19:3-9. But there has been a lot of work done on the cultural debate about marriage at the time of Christ, and many competent scholars have shown that the debate about divorce was between competing rabbinic schools and involved a disagreement over the reasons that a man could divorce a woman (Matt. 19:3). Jesus addressed that to a point, but also said that he had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-18).

Jesus never addressed all the conditions under which a woman could leave a man, and there is no reason to assume that he changed the Mosaic Law of Exodus 21:10-11 on that point. Many Christians today feel trapped in their marriage because even though their spouse is mentally or physically abusive, or does not provide for them, or their marriage is loveless and sexless, because the spouse has not committed adultery the abused one does not feel free to leave. Marriage is a covenant made in good faith that both partners will fulfill their proper roles, and if that does not happen the covenant is broken, just as Israel broke their covenant with God. Adultery is not the lone “key” to a door leading out of marriage, as we see here in Exodus. God gave divorce as a way out of an abusive marriage because humans sometimes sin horribly against each other.

Was divorce God’s intention for unhappy marriages? Certainly not. God desires change and reconciliation, which is why He pleaded over and over with Israel to change her ways. Furthermore, there is no verse in the Bible that says a couple has to divorce. Many seemingly unredeemable marriages are saved by counseling, forbearance, and forgiveness. But God eventually divorced Israel because of her sin, hard-heartedness, and worship of other gods (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8), and Jesus was certainly not condemning his heavenly father for that. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), but hardness of heart gets involved between people (Matt. 19:8), and there are times when divorce can be a viable choice, just as it was for God Himself.

It should be said that although God allowed for a woman to leave a man for abuse and non-support, in actual practice it apparently must have been very uncommon for a woman to be able to leave. As often happens with biblical law, God’s law is righteous but people do not obey it. Women in the biblical world often had little or no control over their lives. Thankfully, that has changed in many parts of the modern world.

Exo 21:12

“must be put to death, yes, death.” The world today has a tremendous amount of evil and unjust killing, kidnapping, rape, and more. The world would be a better place if the people committing the heinous crimes in society were stopped, but how is that to be done? One of the biblical solutions to violent crimes is the death penalty. The Bible supports the death penalty in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, according to Scripture, the death penalty is perhaps the most important key to having a fair and just legal system and a safe society. The death penalty was not invented by humans to solve a social problem. It was God who commanded the death penalty so that men, women, and children can live better and safer lives.

It is common to hear people say that the death penalty is demeaning of human life, but the opposite is the case. The death penalty actually affirms the value of life. It is demeaning of human life when someone who murders someone “pays” for their crime with a penalty less than the death sentence. The message that a light sentence given to a murderer sends is that a human life is not worth much, something that most criminals believe already. The death penalty sends the clear message that life is very valuable and if a person takes the life of another, the only viable compensation is the criminal’s own life.

The death penalty is an integral part of the Old Testament Law and is in all five books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy), and in other books of the Old Testament as well. Furthermore, the New Testament supports it. The most common reason why people believe the Bible does not support the death penalty is that the King James Version and a few other English versions of the Bible translate the Sixth Commandment as, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17). But the Hebrew word translated “kill” in those English versions is better translated “murder,” which is the way it is translated in almost all modern English versions of the Bible. The Sixth Commandment is not forbidding the death penalty; it is a command not to murder or kill another man unjustly.

The death penalty is so integral to a safe society and establishing the value of human life that it is mentioned many times in the Law of Moses (cp. Exod. 21:12-14, 16, 28-29; Lev. 24:17, 21; Num. 35:16-21, 31; Deut. 19:11-13, 16-21; 24:7). Besides those doctrinal statements about putting criminals who commit capital crimes to death, many of the great leaders in the Bible put criminals to death. In Leviticus 24:10-23, Moses oversaw the execution of a man who had blasphemed. In Numbers 15:32-36, a man was executed for violating the Sabbath. In Exodus 32:25-29 and Numbers 25:1-15, people were executed for idolatry. Joshua executed Achan, who selfishly stole goods from Jericho and caused the death of about 36 people (Josh. 7:1, 5, 11, 12, 19-26). Samuel executed Agag, the Amalekite king, for “making women childless” (1 Sam. 15:33). David executed Recab and Baanah for murdering Ish-bosheth (2 Samuel 4:5-12). Solomon, often called the wisest man who ever lived, had his brother executed for trying to steal the kingdom from him (1 Kings 2:25), and had Joab executed (1 Kings 2:29), and had Shimei executed for breaking the law (1 Kings 2:46). So great men of God like Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon did not think that the death penalty was ungodly or inappropriate for capital crimes.

The New Testament also supports the death penalty. 1 Timothy 1:8-10 says that the law is good if a person uses it properly, such as for murders. When something is clearly established in the Old Testament as the will of God, it does not need to be repeated in the New Testament so we will know that it is still the will of God. When God wants to change something, like His laws concerning animal sacrifice or circumcision, He tells us. The proper way to interpret Scripture is to believe that God’s will is constant unless He tells us He has new rules for us. In the case of capital punishment for murderers, kidnappers, etc., God does not change His mind about those things, but instead, He confirms what He had said in the Old Testament (cp. 1 Tim. 1:8-10; see also Rom. 7:12). That is why when Paul was accused of causing riots, he said that if it could be proven he did those things he did not refuse to die (Acts 25:11).

There are some verses of Scripture that people have used to try to say that the death penalty is wrong, such as “Judge not lest you be judged” (Matt. 7:1) or the idea of “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) but those verses have not been correctly understood or rightly applied to the death penalty. Similarly, people have said the death penalty is not loving, but God is love and He gave the death penalty commands, so they reflect His love by keeping people free from fear and safe from harm.

Many people say the death penalty is harsh, but James Jordan comments on that: “Perhaps to our modern ears they may seem harsh, but we must be careful not to accuse God of sin. He gave these laws, and regardless of whether or not we should keep them today, surely they reflect His goodness. Doesn’t this harshness serve to show us that we have too lax a view of sin? Also, have our modern loose laws done us any good? Modern humanistic law is soft on the criminals and harsh on the innocent. Biblical law is harsh on criminals and thus protects the innocent, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the law-abiding.”a

In the future, when Jesus Christ sets up his kingdom on earth, there will be natural people there who still have a sin nature and would sin if left to themselves, just as people do today. How will Jesus Christ keep order in his kingdom? He will rule with a “rod of iron” (Ps. 2:9; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). Jesus’ rod of iron will ensure that the people in his kingdom will be safe and be able to live without fear. We could have a much more pleasant life on this earth today if we would deal with capital criminals the way the Bible says to and the way that Jesus will in the future.

Jesus himself affirms the value of the death penalty for unrepentant evil people. When he comes to earth he will kill the wicked people so they will not enter his wonderful kingdom on earth. Isaiah 11:4 says that when he comes, “with the spirit from his lips he will kill the wicked” (cp. Isa. 63:2-4; Matt. 25:31-46). Eventually, God will put to death all the wicked people because of the harm they have done and also so they will not harm other people (Rev. 20:11-15).

[For more on the death penalty being love, see commentary on Zechariah 5:3. When he comes, Jesus will kill the wicked (Isa. 11:4). For more on Jesus’ future reign on earth, see Appendix 3, Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.”]

“put to death, yes, death.” God emphasizes that the criminal must be put to death by repeating the verb that gets translated “put to death” twice. Thus, a somewhat more literal rendition of the verse might be “Anyone who strikes a person so that he dies must die, be caused to die. Repeating the verb twice with different inflections for emphasis is the figure of speech polyptoton, and the reader should not miss that God is emphasizing the fact that murderers must be put to death.

[For more on the figure of speech polyptoton and the way it is translated, see commentary on Gen. 2:16.]

James Jordan, The Law of the Covenant, 27-28.

Additional resources:

Video expand/contractWhat does the Bible say about the Death Penalty? (Part 1) (12:24) (Pub: 2012-10-11)

This teaching invites the listener to consider what the Bible says about national “self-defense,” personal self-defense, and social self-defense as it explores God’s perspective regarding the death penalty.

Verses: Gen. 9:6; Exod. 20:13; 21:12, 14; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:16; Deut. 19:11-13; 1 Tim. 1:8

Teacher: John Schoenheit

Watch on Youtube popout

Video expand/contractWhat does the Bible say about the Death Penalty? (Part 2) (11:44) (Pub: 2012-10-12)

God affirms the value of life by commanding the death penalty in Mosaic Law. Evil needs to be purged out of society in order to keep godly people safe. Some scriptures have clear instruction about crime and consequences, while others require understanding the context. Ultimately, it is God’s perfect love and our obedience to His commandments that promote a healthy and safe society.

Verses: Deut.19:18-19; Eccles. 8:11; Matt 7:1, 5, 24; 26:52; Luke 6:29; 22:36; Lam. 3:30; John 16:10; 14:15

Teacher: John Schoenheit

Watch on Youtube popout

Exo 21:13(top)
Exo 21:14(top)
Exo 21:15(top)
Exo 21:16(top)
Exo 21:17

“curses his father or his mother.” This is stated again in Leviticus 20:9. Exodus 21:17 is quoted in Matthew 15:4b and Mark 7:10, but the New Testament quotation follows the Septuagint more closely than it does the Hebrew text of Exodus.

Exo 21:18(top)
Exo 21:19(top)
Exo 21:20

“with a staff” Many men, perhaps even most men, carried a walking stick or staff. A man who lost his temper could easily strike a servant with it.

Exo 21:21(top)
Exo 21:22(top)
Exo 21:23(top)
Exo 21:24

“eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Exodus 21:24 was quoted by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38).

Exo 21:25(top)
Exo 21:26(top)
Exo 21:27(top)
Exo 21:28(top)
Exo 21:29(top)
Exo 21:30(top)
Exo 21:31(top)
Exo 21:32

“30 shekels.” Roughly 12 ounces (340 grams). A shekel was roughly .4 ounces (11 or 11.5 grams), (see commentary on Gen. 24:22, “shekel”).

Exo 21:33(top)
Exo 21:34(top)
Exo 21:35(top)
Exo 21:36(top)

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