Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Exodus 21

Exodus 21: Various laws; the concept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is introduced

There will be a lot of chapters in the Old Testament covering a lot of laws, and I haven’t yet really decided on a format, on how to cover them in this blog. So you’ll have to bear with me, for a while, until I get into a “law blogging groove”… For the time being, I’ll just put a law (or a couple of related laws), and give my thoughts on it. There won’t be as many specific links to specific verses listed here, so you can click on the link to the entire chapter, to read it, if you wish.

I was a long time putting this post together, because I had thoughts on every single law. I don’t know if that will continue or not; if it does, it means I’ll be posting a lot less often than once a day, for a while!


This chapter is a continuation of the commandments that the LORD is passing down to the Israelites. He hands down some rules regarding servants, and personal injuries.
  • When Hebrew male—as opposed to a foreigner—becomes a servant he is not a servant for life. He is to serve his master for 6 years, and in the seventh year is to go free. There are some additional aspects to this rule:
    • If he was single when he became a servant, he goes away single, and if he was married when he became a servant, than his wife will go with him when he goes free.
    • If he was single when he became a servant, and then his master gave him a wife, who bore him children, when he goes free, the wife and children do not go with him.
    • If the servant does not want to go free, he can declare that, and become a servant for life. His master will bring him before the judges, and pierce his ear with an awl, in a ceremony that declares this.
This partially makes sense to me, but not completely. It makes sense that Hebrew servants are treated differently than other servants; the Hebrews are God’s chosen people, and are to be set apart from the other peoples around them. This should instill a sense of community among the Israelites—just because your brother is down on his luck, and has to become a servant, it doesn’t mean you should be looking down on him.

What doesn’t make as much sense, on first reading, is the case where the single man becomes a servant, is given a woman for a wife, and has children, but then has to leave them behind, when he is set free at the end of his six years. (I guess it’s better for a Hebrew servant not to marry, while he’s still a servant!) My assumption is that this has to do with the issue of “property”; when the servant leaves his master, the master would be losing two servants, the man and his new wife.
  • If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she doesn’t go free in the seventh year, as men do. There are some specific aspects to this:
    • If she does not please her master, he must let her be “redeemed”. (This means he must let her family buy her back.) He is not allowed to sell her to foreigners.
    • He can select her as a wife for his son, in which case she must be given all the rights of a daughter.
    • If he—I assume “he” is referring to the son, who married the woman—marries another woman, he is not to deprive the first woman of her food, clothing, or marital rights. If he does, she must be set free, and she doesn’t have to pay anything.
Again, we have a case where some of this makes sense to me—and even seems somewhat progressive—and some seems very backwards. Already we can see that women in this society didn’t have the same rights as men, and that the law treated them differently. We also see, though, that there is concern that they might be mistreated, as a result of this; so, the part which makes sense to me is the part which says that a woman servant who marries her owner (or owner’s son) is to be given the same rights as any other woman who marries him; she is not to be treated any differently, once she becomes a wife, just because she used to be a servant.
  • Anyone who commits murder is to be put to death.
    • “Murder” meaning killing someone on purpose. If you kill someone by accident, there will be designated places where you can go, to hide from anyone who might come looking for revenge.
  • Attacking your father or mother is punishable by death.
  • Kidnapping is punishable by death.
  • Cursing your father or mother is punishable by death.
Again, some of this makes sense, and some doesn’t make as much sense. Having the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, or even attacking your father or mother, makes sense. (This law also introduces the concept of a “city of refuge”—although it doesn’t actually use that term in this passage—where people can go, if they’ve killed someone accidentally. The idea is that they can hide from relatives of the killed person, so that they won’t kill the accidental murderer in revenge. There will be more details about cities of refuge later on.)

Having the death penalty for cursing your father or mother seems a bit more extreme, until you take into account what the word “cursing” actually meant, to the Israelites. This wasn’t just mouthing off to Mom and Dad; a curse was akin to a prayer to God, asking Him to perform this harm on the person. In later chapters, there will be other people that the Israelites are not allowed to curse.
  • If two men are quarreling, and one of the men is confined to bed because of his injuries, but doesn’t die, the one who injured him is to pay for the time lost, and help the injured party get better.
Now how’s that for a strange law? If this law was actually enforced, I’m sure it would have drastically reduced fist-fighting for the Hebrews! Get into a bar fight, and end up caring for the person you fought!
  • If a man beats his slave to death, he is to be “punished”.
  • If a man beats his slave badly, but the slave is able to get up after “a day or two”, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his property (verse 21).
These laws seem horrible, to me. First of all, it’s good that people are to be punished if they beat their slaves to death—I’m sure other nations of the day didn’t have laws like that—but it’s not even specified how the person is to be punished. It just says that the person is to be “punished”. And then it says that the person has the full right to beat his slaves, as long as they don’t die from it! It surprises me, when reading these laws, that they were written this way. (It sounds like I’m questioning God, and that’s not my intent. I know that these laws were good, because they were instituted by Him—I just don’t understand them. See the General Thoughts section, below, for additional thoughts on that subject.)
  • If two men are fighting, and hit a pregnant woman, causing her to give birth prematurely, one of two things might happen:
    • If there is no serious injury—I assume this means that the baby and mother are both fine—then the one who hit her is to pay “whatever the husband demands and the court allows” (verse 22).
    • If there is serious injury, the concept of “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” is introduced:
      But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (verses 23–25)
I find this one interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s so specific. Second, I find it interesting that, for the case where there is no serious injury, the fine is “whatever the husband demands and the court allows”. That’s pretty vague, and so it gives the court a lot of leeway, in deciding what will be paid! This indicates, to me, that God is treating this as a very serious matter. In many ways, women in the Israelite society—just as in the societies around them—were given less rights than men, but this also makes them more vulnerable to be taken advantage of. The Hebrew laws often take that into account, as this one, which is looking out for pregnant women.

And, of course, the concept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is introduced. Normally, when people use this term, it’s in relation to revenge, however, that’s exactly what it’s not in the Bible. The “eye for an eye” concept is only used in the Jewish law, and its express purpose is that the laws should be fair. Some of the punishments may seem harsh to our eyes, but you won’t see people getting the death penalty for stealing; the general concept is that if you murder, you’ll be killed; if you steal, you’ll pay it back (with interest); if you cause injury, you’ll be caused injury.
  • If you seriously injure your manservant or maidservant—the passage specifically mentions destroying an eye, or knocking out a tooth—the servant is to go free, as compensation.
I suppose this relates to the law above, which has to do with seriously beating a slave; the master is not to be punished, but the slave is at least granted freedom. That being said, the earlier passage used the word “slave”, and this passage uses the words “manservant” and “maidservant”—it might not be the same thing.
  • If a bull gores someone to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat is not to be eaten. In this case, the owner is not to be held responsible. However, there are some exceptions:
    • If the bull has gored people in the past, and the owner didn’t do anything about it, then the owner is to be held responsible—and stoned, along with the bull.
      • BUT, if payment is demanded of him instead, he can redeem his life by paying it. It says by paying “whatever is demanded”, so there is no set limit, in this case.
      • Verse 31 says that “[t]his law also applies if the bull gores a son or daughter”—which means, I guess, that other laws treat children different from adults.
      • If the bull gores a slave, however, there is a set price to pay: 12 ounces of silver.
Again, in this part we see slaves being treated differently from everyone else.
  • If a man opens up some kind of pit—either by creating it, or by uncovering a pre-existing pit—and someone else’s animal falls into the pit and dies, the man is to to pay the animal’s owner for the animal. However, when he does, the dead animal will be his.
  • If a bull gores another bull to death, belonging to someone else, the two owners are to sell the live bull, and split the proceeds evently, and also to split the dead animal evenly.
    • Again, there is an exception: If the guilty bull had a history of goring, and the owner didn’t do anything about it, then he is to pay the entire cost of the dead bull, and the dead bull will be his.
I find these last laws interesting because they give a peak into the lives of people who depended on their livestock for their living.

General Thoughts

In Exodus 20, the LORD gave the Israelites the 10 Commandments, which we’re all familiar with—or at least know of—but we have to remember that God wasn’t just giving the Israelites some moral guidelines; He was turning them into a new nation, and giving them their national set of laws. In Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers, God will hand down a lot of laws—613, altogether, according to a note in my Bible at home—but these laws cover moral rules (like the 10 Commandments), religious laws (for the Jewish “religion”, being instituted), and civic laws, for the Jewish nation. So, really, 613 isn’t all that many rules for a nation, if you think about it.

Some of these laws don’t make sense, to me. In fact, some even seem abhorrent, because they’re so outside of my normal context; in some cases, I can see how the laws are very fair to people like servants and slaves, where other societies at the time would not have been, and in other cases, it really doesn’t seem like the case at all. Just the fact that slaves/servants are treated differently in the law, or don’t have as many rights, seems “wrong”, to me. (“Wrong” isn’t the right word, of course; I don’t believe that any of God’s laws would be wrong. But that word had the right emotional impact, so I used it.) However, I don’t live in a society that has slaves, so I don’t even have the right context for judging this. 

Many Christians have a concept that God has gradually brought us to understanding about some things. (For example, in the Old Testament times, it wasn’t specifically considered wrong for a man to have multiple wives, whereas by New Testament times, it was.) Which is fine, to a point, but even if that is true, God wouldn’t have handed down a law to the Israelites which would make them do something immoral. Again, using the polygamy example, if we assume for the sake of argument that polygamy is immoral, but for whatever reason God didn’t explicitly make a law against it, because He wanted to gradually reveal that through the course of history, He still might give a law saying “if you are going to have multiple wives, then this is how you have to treat the situation”. He would not, however, say something like “if such and such happens, you must marry more than one woman”—if polygamy is wrong, then God would not make a law which makes you do it. 

All this to say this: If I’m reading one of the laws, and don’t understand it, usually my first response is to try and understand the situation at the time. I may not understand a particular law about slaves, but first I have to put myself in the mindset of a society that has slaves, and then put myself in the servant’s place. That’s how I try and approach these laws, but that’s not to say that I always come away with an understanding of why God instituted the law.

Why is this important? Well, it’s very true that the laws laid out in this chapter don’t apply to me, personally. However, these laws give a view into what God values. The “eye for an eye” concept was very progressive, for those times, and made sure that the punishments in His laws fitted the crimes. I may not understand some of the laws, but part of the reason is my own ignorance of the times, and part of the reason is that we have a God who is unfathomable. In fact, it’s fairly likely that I think I understand some of the laws, and am wrong!

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