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The Ordinances

21 [a] “These are the ordinances that you will set before them:

Hebrew Servants

[b] “If you buy[c] a Hebrew servant,[d] he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year he will go out free[e] without paying anything.[f] If he came in[g] by himself[h] he will go out by himself; if he had[i] a wife when he came in, then his wife will go out with him. If his master gave[j] him a wife, and she bore sons or daughters, the wife and the children will belong to her master, and he will go out by himself. But if the servant should declare,[k] ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out[l] free,’ then his master must bring him to the judges,[m] and he will bring him to the door or the doorpost, and his master will pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.[n]

“If a man sells his daughter[o] as a female servant,[p] she will not go out as the male servants do. If she does not please[q] her master, who has designated her[r] for himself, then he must let her be redeemed.[s] He has no right[t] to sell her to a foreign nation, because he has dealt deceitfully[u] with her. If he designated her for his son, then he will deal with her according to the customary rights[v] of daughters. 10 If he takes another wife,[w] he must not diminish the first one’s food,[x] her clothing, or her marital rights.[y] 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, then she will go out free, without paying money.[z]

Personal Injuries

12 [aa] “Whoever strikes someone[ab] so that he dies[ac] must surely be put to death.[ad] 13 But if he does not do it with premeditation,[ae] but it happens by accident,[af] then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. 14 But if a man willfully attacks his neighbor to kill him cunningly,[ag] you will take him even from my altar that he may die.

15 “Whoever strikes[ah] his father or his mother must surely be put to death.

16 “Whoever kidnaps someone[ai] and sells him,[aj] or is caught still holding him,[ak] must surely be put to death.

17 “Whoever treats his father or his mother disgracefully[al] must surely be put to death.

18 “If men fight, and one strikes his neighbor with a stone or with his fist and he does not die, but must remain in bed,[am] 19 and then[an] if he gets up and walks about[ao] outside on his staff, then the one who struck him is innocent, except he must pay[ap] for the injured person’s[aq] loss of time[ar] and see to it that he is fully healed.

20 “If a man strikes his male servant or his female servant with a staff so that he or she[as] dies as a result of the blow,[at] he will surely be punished.[au] 21 However, if the injured servant[av] survives one or two days, the owner[aw] will not be punished, for he has suffered the loss.[ax]

22 “If men fight and hit a pregnant woman and her child is born prematurely,[ay] but there is no serious injury, the one who hit her[az] will surely be punished in accordance with what the woman’s husband demands of him, and he will pay what the court decides.[ba] 23 But if there is serious injury, then you will give a life for a life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.[bb]

26 “If a man strikes the eye of his male servant or his female servant so that he destroys it,[bc] he will let the servant[bd] go free[be] as compensation for the eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his male servant or his female servant, he will let the servant[bf] go free as compensation for the tooth.

Laws about Animals

28 [bg] “If an ox[bh] gores a man or a woman so that either dies,[bi] then the ox must surely[bj] be stoned and its flesh must not be eaten, but the owner of the ox will be acquitted. 29 But if the ox had the habit of goring, and its owner was warned[bk] but he did not take the necessary precautions,[bl] and then it killed a man or a woman, the ox must be stoned and the man must be put to death. 30 If a ransom is set for him,[bm] then he must pay the redemption for his life according to whatever amount was set for him. 31 If the ox[bn] gores a son or a daughter, the owner[bo] will be dealt with according to this rule.[bp] 32 If the ox gores a male servant or a female servant, the owner[bq] must pay thirty shekels of silver,[br] and the ox must be stoned.[bs]

33 “If a man opens a pit or if a man digs a pit and does not cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit must repay the loss.[bt] He must give money[bu] to its owner, and the dead animal[bv] will become his. 35 If the ox of one man injures the ox of his neighbor so that it dies, then they will sell the live ox and divide its proceeds,[bw] and they will also divide the dead ox.[bx] 36 Or if it is known that the ox had the habit of goring, and its owner did not take the necessary precautions, he must surely pay[by] ox for ox, and the dead animal will become his.[bz]


  1. Exodus 21:1 sn There follows now a series of rulings called “the decisions” or “the judgments” (הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, hammishpatim). A precept is stated, and then various cases in which the law is applicable are examined. These rulings are all in harmony with the Decalogue that has just been given and can be grouped into three categories: civil or criminal laws, religious or cultic laws, and moral or humanitarian laws. The civil and criminal laws make up most of chap. 21; the next two chapters mix the other kinds of laws. Among the many studies of this section of the book are F. C. Fensham, “The Role of the Lord in the Legal Sections of the Covenant Code,” VT 26 (1976): 262-74; S. Paul, “Unrecognized Biblical Legal Idioms in Light of Comparative Akkadian Expressions,” RB 86 (1979): 231-39; M. Galston, “The Purpose of the Law According to Maimonides,” JQR 69 (1978): 27-51.
  2. Exodus 21:2 sn See H. L. Elleson, “The Hebrew Slave: A Study in Early Israelite Society,” EvQ 45 (1973): 30-35; N. P. Lemche, “The Manumission of Slaves—The Fallow Year—The Sabbatical Year—The Jobel Year,” VT 26 (1976): 38-59, and “The ‘Hebrew Slave,’ Comments on the Slave Law—Ex. 21:2-11, ” VT 25 (1975): 129-44.
  3. Exodus 21:2 tn The verbs in both the conditional clause and the following ruling are imperfect tense: “If you buy…then he will serve.” The second imperfect tense (the ruling) could be taken either as a specific future or an obligatory imperfect. Gesenius explains how the verb works in the conditional clauses here (see GKC 497 §
  4. Exodus 21:2 sn The interpretation of “Hebrew” in this verse is uncertain: (1) a gentilic ending, (2) a fellow Israelite, (3) or a class of mercenaries of the population (see W. C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” EBC 2:431). It seems likely that the term describes someone born a Hebrew, as opposed to a foreigner (S. R. Driver, Exodus, 210). The literature on this includes: M. P. Gray, “The Habiru-Hebrew Problem,” HUCA 29 (1958): 135-202.
  5. Exodus 21:2 sn The word חָפְשִׁי (khofshi) means “free.” It is possible that there is some connection between this word and a technical term used in other cultures for a social class of emancipated slaves who were freemen again (see I. Mendelsohn, “New Light on the Hupsu,” BASOR 139 [1955]: 9-11).
  6. Exodus 21:2 tn The adverb חִנָּם (hinnam) means “gratis, free”; it is related to the verb “to be gracious, show favor” and the noun “grace.”
  7. Exodus 21:3 tn The tense is imperfect, but in the conditional clause it clearly refers to action that is anterior to the action in the next clause. Heb “if he comes in single, he goes out single,” that is, “if he came in single, he will go out single.”
  8. Exodus 21:3 tn Heb “with his back” meaning “alone.”
  9. Exodus 21:3 tn The phrase says, “if he was the possessor of a wife”; the noun בַּעַל (baʿal) can mean “possessor” or “husband.” If there was a wife, she shared his fortunes or his servitude; if he entered with her, she would accompany him when he left.
  10. Exodus 21:4 sn The slave would not have the right or the means to acquire a wife. Thus, the idea of the master’s “giving” him a wife is clear—the master would have to pay the bride price and make the provision. In this case, the wife and the children are actually the possession of the master unless the slave were to pay the bride price—but he is a slave because he got into debt. The law assumes that the master was better able to provide for this woman than the freed slave and that it was most important to keep the children with the mother.
  11. Exodus 21:5 tn The imperfect with the infinitive absolute means that the declaration is unambiguous, that the servant will clearly affirm that he wants to stay with the master. Gesenius says that in a case like this the infinitive emphasizes the importance of the condition on which some consequence depends (GKC 342-43 §113.o).
  12. Exodus 21:5 tn Or taken as a desiderative imperfect, it would say, “I do not want to go out free.”
  13. Exodus 21:6 tn The word is הָאֱלֹהִים (haʾelohim). S. R. Driver (Exodus, 211) says the phrase means “to God,” namely the nearest sanctuary in order that the oath and the ritual might be made solemn, although he does say that it would be done by human judges. That the reference is to Yahweh God is the view also of F. C. Fensham, “New Light on Exodus 21:7 and 22:7 from the Laws of Eshnunna,” JBL 78 (1959): 160-61. Cf. also ASV, NAB, NASB, NCV, NRSV, NLT. Others have made a stronger case that it refers to judges who acted on behalf of God; see C. Gordon, “אלהים in its Reputed Meaning of Rulers, Judges,” JBL 54 (1935): 134-44; and A. E. Draffkorn, “Ilani/Elohim,” JBL 76 (1957): 216-24; cf. KJV, NIV.
  14. Exodus 21:6 tn Or “till his life’s end” (as in the idiom: “serve him for good”).
  15. Exodus 21:7 sn This paragraph is troubling to modern readers, but given the way that marriages were contracted and the way people lived in the ancient world, it was a good provision for people who might want to find a better life for their daughter. On the subject in general for this chapter, see W. M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, 31-64.
  16. Exodus 21:7 tn The word אָמָה (ʾamah) refers to a female servant who would eventually become a concubine or wife; the sale price included the amount for the service as well as the bride price (see B. Jacob, Exodus, 621). The arrangement recognized her honor as an Israelite woman, one who could be a wife, even though she entered the household in service. The marriage was not automatic, as the conditions show, but her treatment was safeguarded come what may. The law was a way, then, for a poor man to provide a better life for a daughter.
  17. Exodus 21:8 tn Heb “and if unpleasant (רָעָה, raʿah) in the eyes of her master.”
  18. Exodus 21:8 tn The verb יָעַד (yaʿad) does not mean “betroth, espouse” as some of the earlier translations had it, but “to designate.” When he bought the girl, he designated her for himself, giving her and her family certain expectations.
  19. Exodus 21:8 tn The verb is a Hiphil perfect with vav (ו) consecutive from פָּדָה (padah, “to redeem”). Here in the apodosis the form is equivalent to an imperfect: “let someone redeem her”—perhaps her father if he can, or another. U. Cassuto says it can also mean she can redeem herself and dissolve the relationship (Exodus, 268).
  20. Exodus 21:8 tn Heb “he has no authority/power,” for the verb means “rule, have dominion.”
  21. Exodus 21:8 sn The deceit is in not making her his wife or concubine as the arrangement had stipulated.
  22. Exodus 21:9 tn Or “after the manner of” (KJV, ASV); NRSV “shall deal with her as with a daughter.”
  23. Exodus 21:10 tn “wife” has been supplied.
  24. Exodus 21:10 tn The translation of “food” does not quite do justice to the Hebrew word. It is “flesh.” The issue here is that the family she was to marry into is wealthy, they ate meat. She was not just to be given the basic food the ordinary people ate, but the fine foods that this family ate.
  25. Exodus 21:10 sn Traditional Rabbinic interpretation, affirmed in spirit by the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor 7:5, understands the term עֹנָה (ʿonah) to refer to rights to sexual relations within marriage. The term only occurs in this verse and its precise nuance is unclear. An alternate opinion is proposed by S. Paul, “Exodus 21:10, A Threefold Maintenance Clause,” JNES 28 (1969): 48-53. He suggests that the third element listed is not marital rights, but ointments, since Sumerian and Akkadian texts list food, clothing, and oil as the necessities of life. But none of the three are cognates to the words in the Hebrew list (a cognate term for “clothing” was not used) and the sequence is different than the Akkadian, so it is unlikely that it represents a shared standard legal formulation. The point is that the husband cannot play favorites and functionally demote his first wife.
  26. Exodus 21:11 sn The lessons of slavery and service are designed to bring justice to existing customs in antiquity. The message is: Those in slavery for one reason or another should have the hope of freedom and the choice of service (vv. 2-6). For the rulings on the daughter, the message could be: Women, who were often at the mercy of their husbands or masters, must not be trapped in an unfortunate situation, but be treated well by their masters or husbands (vv. 7-11). God is preventing people who have power over others from abusing it.
  27. Exodus 21:12 sn The underlying point of this section remains vital today: The people of God must treat all human life as sacred.
  28. Exodus 21:12 tn The construction uses a Hiphil participle in construct with the noun for “man” (or person as is understood in a law for the nation): “the one striking [of] a man.” This is a casus pendens (independent nominative absolute); it indicates the condition or action that involves further consequence (GKC 361 §116.w).
  29. Exodus 21:12 tn The Hebrew word וָמֵת (vamet) is a Qal perfect with vav consecutive; it means “and he dies” and not “and killed him” (which requires another stem). Gesenius notes that this form after a participle is the equivalent of a sentence representing a contingent action (GKC 333 §112.n). The word shows the result of the action in the opening participle. It is therefore a case of murder or manslaughter.
  30. Exodus 21:12 sn See A. Phillips, “Another Look at Murder,” JJS 28 (1977): 105-26.
  31. Exodus 21:13 tn Heb “if he does not lie in wait” (NASB similar).
  32. Exodus 21:13 tn Heb “and God brought into his hand.” The death is unintended, its circumstances outside human control.
  33. Exodus 21:14 tn The word עָרְמָה (ʿormah) is problematic. It could mean with prior intent, which would be connected with the word in Prov 8:5, 12 which means “understanding” (or “prudence”—fully aware of the way things are). It could be connected also to an Arabic word for “enemy” which would indicate this was done with malice or evil intentions (U. Cassuto, Exodus, 270). The use here seems parallel to the one in Josh 9:4, an instance involving intentionality and clever deception.
  34. Exodus 21:15 sn This is the same construction that was used in v. 12, but here there is no mention of the parents’ death. This attack, then, does not lead to their death—if he killed one of them then v. 12 would be the law. S. R. Driver says that the severity of the penalty was in accord with the high view of parents (Exodus, 216).
  35. Exodus 21:16 tn Heb “a stealer of a man,” thus “anyone stealing a man.”
  36. Exodus 21:16 sn The implication is that it would be an Israelite citizen who was kidnapped and sold to a foreign tribe or country (like Joseph). There was always a market for slaves. The crime would be in forcibly taking the individual away from his home and religion and putting him into bondage or death.
  37. Exodus 21:16 tn Literally “and he is found in his hand” (KJV and ASV both similar), being not yet sold.
  38. Exodus 21:17 tn The form is a Piel participle from קָלַל (qalal), meaning in Qal “be light,” in Piel “treat lightly, curse, revile, declare contemptible, treat shamefully.” (See its use in Lev 19:14; Josh 24:9; Judg 9:26-28; 1 Sam 3:13; 17:43; 2 Sam 16:5-13; Prov 30:10-11; Eccl 7:21-22; 10:20.) It is opposite of “honor” (כָּבֵד, kaved; Qal “be heavy”; Piel “honor,” as in 20:12) and of “bless.” This verse then could refer to any act contrary to the commandment to honor the parents. B. Jacob (Exodus, 640) cites parallels in Sumerian where people were severely punished for publicly disowning their parents. “21:15, 17 taken together evoke the picture of parents who, physically and verbally, are forcibly turned out of the house (cf. Prov. 19:26)” (C. Houtman, Exodus, 3:148).
  39. Exodus 21:18 tn Heb “falls to bed.”
  40. Exodus 21:19 tn “and then” has been supplied.
  41. Exodus 21:19 tn The verb is a Hitpael perfect with vav (ו) consecutive; it follows the sequence of the imperfect before it—“if he gets up and walks about.” This is proof of recovery.
  42. Exodus 21:19 tn The imperfect tense carries a nuance of obligatory imperfect because this is binding on the one who hit him.
  43. Exodus 21:19 tn Heb “his”; the referent (the injured person) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
  44. Exodus 21:19 tn The word appears to be the infinitive from the verb “to sit” with a meaning of “his sitting down”; some suggest it is from the verb “to rest” with a meaning “cease.” In either case the point in the context must mean compensation is due for the time he was down.
  45. Exodus 21:20 tn Heb “so that he”; the words “or she” have been supplied in the translation for stylistic reasons.
  46. Exodus 21:20 tn Heb “under his hand.”
  47. Exodus 21:20 tn Heb “will be avenged” (how is not specified).
  48. Exodus 21:21 tn Heb “if he”; the referent (the servant struck and injured in the previous verse) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
  49. Exodus 21:21 tn Heb “he”; the referent (the owner of the injured servant) has been supplied in the translation for clarity.
  50. Exodus 21:21 tn This last clause is a free paraphrase of the Hebrew, “for he is his money” (so KJV, ASV); NASB “his property.” It seems that if the slave survives a couple of days, it is probable that the master was punishing him and not intending to kill him. If he then dies, there is no penalty other than that the owner loses the slave who is his property—he suffers the loss.
  51. Exodus 21:22 tn This line has occasioned a good deal of discussion. It may indicate that the child was killed, as in a miscarriage; or it may mean that there was a premature birth. The latter view is taken here because of the way the whole section is written: (1) “her children come out” reflects a birth and not the loss of children, (2) there is no serious damage, and (3) payment is to be set for any remuneration. The word אָסוֹן (ʾason) is translated “serious damage.” The word was taken in Mekilta to mean “death.” U. Cassuto says the point of the phrase is that neither the woman or the children that are born die (Exodus, 275). But see among the literature on this: M. G. Kline, “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” JETS 20 (1977): 193-201; W. House, “Miscarriage or Premature Birth: Additional Thoughts on Exodus 21:22-25, ” WTJ 41 (1978): 108-23; S. E. Loewenstamm, “Exodus XXI 22-25, ” VT 27 (1977): 352-60.
  52. Exodus 21:22 tn Heb “he will surely.”
  53. Exodus 21:22 tn The word בִּפְלִלִים (biflilim) means “with arbitrators.” The point then seems to be that the amount of remuneration for damages that was fixed by the husband had to be approved by the courts. S. R. Driver mentions an alternative to this unusual reading presented by Budde, reading בנפלים as “untimely birth” (Exodus, 219). See also E. A. Speiser, “The Stem PLL in Hebrew,” JBL 82 (1963): 301-6.
  54. Exodus 21:25 sn The text now introduces the Lex Talionis with cases that were not likely to have applied to the situation of the pregnant woman. See K. Luke, “Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth,” Indian Theological Studies 16 (1979): 326-43.
  55. Exodus 21:26 tn The form וְשִׁחֲתָהּ (veshikhatah) is the Piel perfect with the vav (ל) consecutive, rendered “and destroys it.” The verb is a strong one, meaning “to ruin, completely destroy.”
  56. Exodus 21:26 tn Heb “him”; the referent (the male or female servant) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
  57. Exodus 21:26 sn Interestingly, the verb used here for “let him go” is the same verb throughout the first part of the book for “release” of the Israelites from slavery. Here, an Israelite will have to release the injured slave.
  58. Exodus 21:27 tn Heb “him”; the referent (the male or female servant) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
  59. Exodus 21:28 sn The point that this section of the laws makes is that one must ensure the safety of others by controlling the circumstances.
  60. Exodus 21:28 tn Traditionally “ox,” but “bull” would also be suitable. The term may refer to one of any variety of large cattle.
  61. Exodus 21:28 tn Heb “and he dies”; KJV “that they die”; NAB, NASB “to death.”
  62. Exodus 21:28 tn The text uses סָקוֹל יִסָּקֵל (saqol yissaqel), a Qal infinitive absolute with a Niphal imperfect. The infinitive intensifies the imperfect, which here has an obligatory nuance or is a future of instruction.
  63. Exodus 21:29 tn The Hophal perfect has the idea of “attested, testified against.”
  64. Exodus 21:29 tn Heb “he was not keeping it” or perhaps guarding or watching it (referring to the ox).
  65. Exodus 21:30 sn The family of the victim would set the amount for the ransom of the man guilty of criminal neglect. This practice was common in the ancient world, rare in Israel. If the family allowed the substitute price, then the man would be able to redeem his life.
  66. Exodus 21:31 tn Heb “it”; the referent (the ox) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
  67. Exodus 21:31 tn Heb “he”; the referent (the owner) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
  68. Exodus 21:31 tn Heb “according to this judgment it shall be done to him.”
  69. Exodus 21:32 tn Heb “he”; the referent (the owner) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
  70. Exodus 21:32 sn A shekel was a unit for measure by means of a scale. Both the weight and the value of a shekel of silver are hard to determine. “Though there is no certainty, the shekel is said to weigh about 11,5 grams” (C. Houtman, Exodus, 3:181). Over 400 years earlier, Joseph was sold into Egypt for 20 shekels. The free Israelite citizen was worth about 50 shekels (Lev 27:3f.).
  71. Exodus 21:32 sn See further B. S. Jackson, “The Goring Ox Again [Ex. 21, 28-36],” JJP 18 (1974): 55-94.
  72. Exodus 21:34 tn The verb is a Piel imperfect from שָׁלַם (shalam); it has the idea of making payment in full, making recompense, repaying. These imperfects could be given a future tense translation as imperfects of instruction, but in the property cases an obligatory imperfect fits better—this is what he is bound or obliged to do—what he must do.
  73. Exodus 21:34 tn Heb “silver.”
  74. Exodus 21:34 tn Here the term “animal” has been supplied.
  75. Exodus 21:35 tn Literally “its silver” or “silver for it.”
  76. Exodus 21:35 tn Heb “divide the dead.” The noun “ox” has been supplied.
  77. Exodus 21:36 tn The construction now uses the same Piel imperfect (v. 34) but adds the infinitive absolute to it for emphasis.
  78. Exodus 21:36 sn The point of this section (21:28-36) seems to be that one must ensure the safety of others by controlling one’s property and possessions. This section pertained to neglect with animals, but the message would have applied to similar situations. The people of God were to take heed to ensure the well-being of others, and if there was a problem, it had to be made right.