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Before we look at Exodus 21 we need to finish the previous chapter:

Exodus 20

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not let God speak to us or we will die.’


God, coming to Earth and speaking with his creation, was beyond their understanding and they really were terrified: ‘they trembled with fear’. Somehow Moses was able to approach God and they were happy for him to do that – and now they really were prepared to pay attention to what he said: ‘we will listen


20 Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’


Did that work? Does the fear of God, or the love of God keep us from sinning?


21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.


Having established the Ten Commandments as the basis for the ethical and spiritual way of life for his chosen people, God now begins to expand on these, starting with the command that he knows will be the first to be broken (Exodus 32:1-4).


22 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites this: “You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.


God himself had come to earth to meet with his people in a most dramatic and memorable way. There should never again be any doubt in the people’s minds that man-made idols could ever compare with his power and glory.


Note too, that God is well aware that the people will fail in this, and will go after other man-made gods – but he would still be there: other gods might be ‘alongside him’ but they could never usurp him.


24 ‘“Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honoured, I will come to you and bless you. 


What do you understand by ‘Wherever I cause my name to be honoured, I will come to you and bless you’?

Matthew 18:20 ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them’


25 If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. 26 And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.”


Why should it be made of earth or found stones, why couldn’t it be made more attractive?


Altars to heathen gods would often be high, ornate edifices and often used for superstitious rituals. The only purpose for God’s altar was to provide a convenient flat surface. The structure was to simply be made from what God had created. It was the sacrifices themselves, also God’s creation, that were important to God; any attempt for man to introduce something of himself into the offering, to ‘improve’ it would only debase it in the eyes of God.


Exodus 21

1 ‘These are the laws you are to set before them:


2 ‘If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 


Slavery was an accepted fact in the time of the Exodus and no-one questioned whether it was morally or ethically right, but just now it was fresh in the minds of everyone. They had for many generations lived as slaves in Egypt and had only recently been released.


But there were several reasons why in the future they could find themselves as slaves again. What might they have been?


Any person, who had become a slave for whatever reason, was to be set free after six years. These were God’s people; no-one could ‘own’ them.


3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.


This seeks to clarify a grey area. The master may have had female slaves, possibly foreign women where verse 2 doesn’t apply, or Hebrew women not yet due to be released; or he may possibly have given one of his own daughters. The basic rule here is that ownership may not be transferred to the slave through marriage.


5 ‘But if the servant declares, “I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,” 6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the door-post and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.


The judges had to witness the ceremony so there was no going back. The piercing into the door or door-post may have signified the slave’s connection to the master’s house, but piercing the ear of a slave seems to have been a common custom. Ear-rings were also commonly worn.


7 ‘If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.


Throughout history, women have been regarded as man’s property to be given or taken, bought or sold. Here God states that she too has rights. Often it was assumed that a female slave (or servant) would provide sexual services. If a woman had been bought, but was no longer wanted, she must be returned to her family, not sold on to others. If he bought her as a wife for his son, then she must be fully included as part of his family. If he bought her as his own wife, and then chose to marry another, the first wife must either be allowed full rights as wife, or allowed to go free.  


Having given some laws, God emphasises that they are not just suggestions – his laws must not be broken; if they are, there will be dire consequences.


12 ‘Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. 13 However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate. 14 But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.


Man, the pinnacle of God’s creation was uniquely his. He had given him life, no-one else could presume to take it. But the God who gives and maintains life is also one who decides when it will be taken away, and anyone who goes against God is liable to forfeit his right to life. There must be no escape for the guilty person, even if he tries to claim ‘sanctuary’ (1 Kings 2:28-32)


So it will be that not only the sin of murder, but the breaking of many of the commandments will also require the death of the offender.


Why should God be so ‘harsh’?


Some thoughts:

From the time of Adam and Eve God had established that disobedience led to eternal death, and it still remains the final punishment for breaking any of his commandments – unless we accept the salvation offered by the Lord Jesus Christ.

Man could not choose to ignore God’s command with impunity, imagining he was above God. For that he must die.

Before the Israelites could become a true nation, enforceable laws had to be established.

As they travelled for 40 years through the desert in tents, imprisonment would be virtually meaningless, and fines would be largely ineffectual when all that the people had was what they carried with them.


15 ‘Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death.

16 ‘Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.

17 ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.


15 and 17 is a reminder that God is our father, we are his children. In the same way that God watches over us, as parents we have a special responsibility to our children, to nurture and protect them, to teach them right ways, and to regularly bring them to God in prayer.


A child who rejects his parents is in God’s eyes similar to Man rejecting God.


The ‘Children of Israel’ were a people with God as their father, their leader. The people were to be organised within tribes, and the authority of the tribal elders would be important if the whole tribe was to survive. Within each tribe there were clans, with clan chiefs, within each clan were families, with family heads.


It was essential that the family structure would be maintained, and authority must be enforceable. ‘Breaking up the happy home’ was not an option.


18 ‘If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, 19 the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.


Verses 16 and 18 can also be taken together. Kidnapping someone is effectively ‘taking their life’.


No-one should take the law into his own hands. Disagreements and arguments are bound to arise but they should be settled within the tribal structure. If instead the argument turns to fighting, and someone gets hurt, the rights and wrongs of the case will be ignored – the one who has caused injury is considered guilty and must be made to make restitution. The well-being of others is paramount, even down to paying the injured person for ‘any loss of time’ and seeing ‘that the victim is completely healed’.


20 ‘Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

22 ‘If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 


Slaves (usually foreigners) also have the right to life. And unborn children must be protected and their mothers treated with special care.


23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.


There is to be a marked distinction between a person and his possessions. Things can be mended or replaced. A person’s body must be treated with respect. If someone causes another personal injury, they must know that the same will be done to them – whatever the justification may have been for the original attack. But this does not permit personal retaliation; it would be for the elders to oversee such punishment (and see proverbs 24:29, and 20:22!).


26 ‘An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.


In those days it was permissible for slaves may be bought or sold, but they must not be regarded as ‘things’. They have full rights as humans and their owners had a responsibility towards them. If they were to ill-treat them, their rights of ownership would be taken away.


28 ‘If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. 29 If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death. 30 However, if payment is demanded, the owner may redeem his life by the payment of whatever is demanded. 31 This law also applies if the bull gores a son or a daughter. 32 If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull is to be stoned to death.

33 ‘If anyone uncovers a pit or digs one and fails to cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the one who opened the pit must pay the owner for the loss and take the dead animal in exchange.

35 ‘If anyone’s bull injures someone else’s bull and it dies, the two parties are to sell the live one and divide both the money and the dead animal equally. 36 However, if it was known that the bull had the habit of goring, yet the owner did not keep it penned up, the owner must pay, animal for animal, and take the dead animal in exchange.


We cannot go through life in a bubble, we have responsibility to others. We are liable for our own actions, and for the actions of our children, our animals and those working for us. As we expect God to be continually looking out for us, it seems right that he expects us to have the same concern for those around us.


These days we are governed by ‘Health and Safety’ legislation, but it amounts to the same thing: avoid potential dangers to yourself and others. If you don’t and it is your fault that somebody suffers, you are liable and must make restitution.


Laws are good, God’s laws are best! Punishments may have changed over time, but the laws laid down by God must still be kept. And as Jesus says, that is just the beginning! (Matthew 5)


See also studies on Luke 6 and John 5



Exodus 20Exodus 22








Free small group Bible Study guides, commentary, lessons, questions and other material. For the PDF version click   HERE  

Exodus 20:18-25, 21:1-36 Some laws expanded. Attitude to God and our fellow humans