Part 4 of the overview of the Exodus (ch. 21-24) story, with commentary.
Exodus Chapter 21:
God then gives Moses instructions on how the Israelites should conduct themselves in the land:
First are some rules about slavery. Israelite slaves can only work for six years but must be freed in the seventh year. If a slave man was single before then he will leave single, if he was married before then his family leaves with him. However, if he was single before and his master gave him a slave wife, then he must choose between staying as a permanent slave or taking his freedom and leaving her behind. If he stays, the master will pierce his ear with an awl and he will be a permanent slave. Slave women will become free when they married a free man or were bought back by their father or a male relative. If she divorced her free husband, then she maintains her freedom even though she started as a slave. If a slave woman married a slave man, he had the option of leaving her for his freedom, but she will stay with the master until her six-year term was up.
There is a death penalty for homicide, dishonoring or striking one’s parents, and kidnapping (doesn’t matter if the victims were sold or not). If someone were killed by accident, then the perpetrator can flee to a city of refuge for protection from the victim’s family, but only if there was no ill intent. If two men fight and one of them gets too injured to work but doesn’t die, the assailant is not punished but does owe compensation. If slaves are beaten and die, the owner is punished, but if they recover he is not punished. If two men are fighting and a pregnant woman gets hurt and gives birth prematurely but there is no other injury, the assailant must pay the husband a compensation amount approved by a judge. If the woman receives further injury, the man must lose what was lost: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise. If a man injures the eye or knocks out a tooth of his servant (male or female), he must let them go free.
If an ox gores a man or woman (or children) to death, the ox must be stoned and not be eaten, and the owner will not be held liable. However, if the ox has a reputation for goring people and the owner was warned, then the owner is liable. The owner gets the death penalty unless the victim’s family is willing to accept compensation, then the owner can pay whatever they ask instead. If the ox gores a slave then the ox will die but the owner also has to pay compensation to the slave owner of 30 shekels of silver. If someone digs a pit, fails to cover it, and an animal falls into it, the owner of the pit must pay full compensation to the owner of the animal, but he gets to keep the dead animal. If someone’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and the injured ox dies, then the two owners must sell the live ox and divide the price equally between them. They must also divide the dead animal. However, if the ox had a reputation for goring, then the owner must pay with his live ox as compensation for the dead one, and he may even keep the dead ox if he wants.
Comment: Various cultures around the world had slaves, including cultures in the ancient near east, like Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Arabia, Assyria, Sumer, etc. How slavery was practiced around the world varied with culture, most cultures had debt slavery where people sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts, and there were those who are made slaves by conquest.
Slaves in the Torah were for the most part people who became slaves to pay off debts (Lev 25:39-43). It was like washing dishes at a restaurant after eating food you couldn’t pay for, or working off late payments on a bill, in a modern context. Typically men with no skills, or thieves that couldn’t pay back what they stole were enslaved to pay off their debt (Ex 22:2-4). Kidnapping people was illegal, so no one could be forced into slavery (Ex 21:16, Deut 24:7). Slaves that ran away were automatically free and it was illegal to return them to their masters, so there was no fugitive slave law like what the gentile nations had. In fact, the Bible has a rule against returning runaway slaves (Deut 23:15-16). Slavery in Israel was nothing like the trans-Atlantic slave trade that we are all familiar with from more recent history.
Men who volunteered as permeant slaves usually did so because they had no skills nor any interest in managing a farm, and didn’t want the stress that goes with it. Even today, there are some that want to be their own boss and others who want to be employed. The debts for Hebrew slaves were limited to 6 years for those who were purchased and until Jubilee (every 50 years) for those who sold themselves. Those that sold themselves however were to be treated as hired workers, not slaves (Lev 25:39-43). Gentile slaves did not have a maximum of 6 years and had to work until their debt was paid. If the debtor died, the gentiles would continue working off the debt with the debtor’s descendants from “generation to generation” until it was paid. In addition, some groups like the Gibeonites, gave themselves to Israel as permanent slaves to be spared from conquest (Joshua 9:1-27).
There is a difference between men and women in liability and risk expressed in the work/slavery customs. Men were more expendable so they were the ones that fought in the war and dealt with more risky life choices (like theft) that could end up in debt slavery, or death. Meanwhile, women because they produce children they are less expendable, so they are given a certain amount of social protection. That’s why they were typically framed as daughters if they were single, wives, or widowed/divorced. Widows were typically provided for in the three-year tithe welfare system for orphans widows foreigners and Levites (Deut 14:28-29). Women in Ancient Israel didn’t typically own land unless they inherited it while single because there was no male heir (Num 27:1- 11, Num 36:1-13). Nor did they work in major trade skills, so they were usually only single daughters, wives, or servants. Free wives could however have side hustles, like the Proverbs 31 woman, but this was a “work from home” sole proprietorship, rather than being an employer.
Slave women had slightly different rules from men regarding the 6-year limit on Hebrew slaves. Ex 21:7 says that the female servants will not be released as the men are after six years. This seems to imply that only men are set free and given payment. However, Deut 15:12-18 mentions that male and female slaves are to be released after six years and given payment. In addition, Jeremiah 34:8-21 makes it clear that God told them to set all Hebrew slaves both male and female free after six years. Therefore, Hebrew slave women are freed at the end of six years by default just like the men. To understand how this works, notice that Exodus 21:1-11 focuses on marriage rules for slaves, which means it is talking about how slave women are treated differently in the case of marriage. That is why verses 3-6 talk about a male slave having to choose between freedom as a single person or staying married as a permanent slave.
As for the women, it says in Ex 21:8, that if the owner doesn’t like a slave woman he cannot sell her to a foreigner or anyone else, she can only be sold back to her father. Slave women were not likely to be enslaved for theft like men (Ex 22:3) but were usually sold by their fathers or sold themselves (with their father’s permission) to pay off debts, which is why she goes back to her father. This is based on the social protection rules mentioned earlier. Deuteronomy 15 and Jeremiah 34 are saying that if a slave wife is unmarried after six years then she would be free like the men. Meanwhile, Exodus 21 explains that if a slave woman marries the owner or his son, then she becomes a non-slave wife instantly. If she divorces a free husband, then she maintains her freedom even though she started as a slave (Ex 21:11). If a slave man leaves his slave wife, she stays with her master until the 6-year term of her contract is up and goes back to her father, since that is the default for unmarried slaves. At this point, she is free to permanently remarry her ex-slave-husband with her father’s permission, if the man wants her.
The males on the other hand have to work full-term and don’t have an early release clause through marriage. When their term is up they can choose to move on or stay permanently to keep the slave wives that were given to them by the master (Ex 21:4-6). For men selling themselves as slaves was a voluntary act and had a term limit, meanwhile, marriage was supposed to be a lifelong commitment (unless there was a contract breach), since the 6-year term limit on each slave could have been different, the debt obligation came first. A man could marry a slave wife whose term is about to end and then she will be free first, then he can work until his contract ends and take her with him. The wife only has to be left behind if her contract is not ended. Of course, it is possible the debtor can let her go early which would remove the choice for the male. The 6-year term limit was a maximum, not a requirement since debts can be paid off or canceled early. If these rules weren’t in place men could trade their wives in for another every six years, and women could rack up a lot of debt and then skip out on it by simply marrying anyone with a short time left on his term.
Exodus Chapter 22:
If someone steals livestock and kills or sells it, they must pay back 5 times the cost of an ox, or 4 times the cost of flock animals (sheep or goats). If the livestock is found with the thief he is to pay back double no matter the type of animal. Thieves must pay restitution, if they can’t afford to pay for what they took then they will become indebted and will be sold as a slave to pay it off. If a thief who breaks into a house is killed at night, it is not considered murder, however, if it is during the day it is considered murder.
If a person’s animal grazes on another person’s field or a person ignites a fire that destroys someone else’s crops, then the first person is to pay restitution from the best of his produce to the one that lost.
If a person entrusts a neighbor with money and a thief breaks in and steals it, and the thief is found, the thief must pay back double. If the thief is not found the trustee must swear before God that didn’t take them himself. If there is a dispute over ownership of an asset (animal or object), then the two parties must be judged by God and the one that is condemned must pay double. If someone entrusts a neighbor with livestock and it dies, is injured, or runs away then the trustee must swear before God that they didn’t steal it and if God sides with that person then there will be no restitution. If they did steal then they must pay restitution. If there is proof of a carcass showing that it was killed by a wild animal, then no restitution is required. If a borrowed animal is injured or dies while the owner is not present, then the borrower must pay restitution. If the owner was present no restitution is required. If the animal was hired out then the loss is covered by the hiring fee.
If a man fornicates with an unengaged or unmarried woman, he has to pay a bride price for her. Then he can marry her, but only with the father’s permission. If the father doesn’t permit he still has to compensate the family at the cost of the bride price. Sorcerers, idol worshipers, and those that have sex with animals are to be put to death. Israelites are not to mistreat foreigners, because they were once mistreated as foreigners in Egypt and should know better. God will destroy those who mistreat widows and orphans, for he is their avenger. God expects compassion when dealing with the poor, so when loaning money to the poor, the Israelites cannot charge interest to them. If they take a poor person’s coat as collateral, it must be returned by sundown, because that is all they have. God will listen to the cries of the poor and will avenge them. The people should never curse God or their leaders. Nor are they to delay their offerings of grain, olive oil, or wine. They are not to eat any meat that is torn up by wild animals, it is to be thrown back into the wild.
Exodus Chapter 23:
The people of Israel must not spread rumors and slander, or join with people who do in order to convict someone unjustly. They are not to favor a poor person’s lawsuit simply because they are poor, nor are they to deny a person’s lawsuit because they are poor. They are to keep away from fraud and must not condemn the righteous, for God will avenge them. Receiving bribes is also forbidden and perverts the course of justice. If an animal belonging to a person’s enemy is lost or stuck, they are to rescue it and return it to the person. It doesn’t matter that it belongs to an enemy, everyone is supposed to do good to everyone else. Reminder: they are not to mistreat foreigners, because they were once mistreated as foreigners in Egypt.
They are allowed to plant and harvest on the land for 6 years, but on the seventh year (the shmita), they are to let the land rest (including their vineyards). This way the poor can eat freely, and the wild animals will eat what is left. To reiterate, everyone both Israelites and foreigners, slaves and free, humans and animals, must only work 6 days a week and rest on the Sabbath (7th day of the week), so they all can be renewed. No false gods may be observed, nor their names invoked.
Three times a year the people must have special festivals for God. First is Pesach (the festival of Unleavened Bread), which starts in the middle of the first month (Abib/Nisan) and lasts seven days, and everyone must give sacrifices. Then Shavuot (the festival of the Harvest), 50 days after Pesach, is where they give from the first crops of the spring harvest. Lastly, Sukkot, (the festival of Tabernacles), is when they bring the final harvest of the year in the last month. For each festival, all the men are to appear before God’s presence. They must not offer the blood of any sacrifice with leavened bread or leave any fat overnight. Here is an idiom to remind them to bring the first and best of each year: “You are not to boil a young animal in its mother’s milk”. (The young goat represents the new year, but the mother’s milk represents the old harvest.)
God will send an angel ahead of them to protect them as they go through the wilderness toward the promised land. They are to follow the angel’s instructions and not rebel against him. They will be punished if they rebel and he will not forgive them. However, if they follow his instructions, then he will defeat their enemies and get them to the land. When they come in contact with the inhabitants of Canaan they are not to worship their gods or follow their practices. They are to destroy everything that represents their idolatry culture, including altars and temples. God promises to bless them with good health, many children, and provision. In addition, God will go ahead of them and put fear into their enemies, and drive out the Canaanites with terrors. However, this will not happen all at once because the land will become desolate and wild animals will take over. The Canaanites will be driven out gradually until Israel’s numbers have grown and they can fight the enemies themselves. God will set their boundaries from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the eastern wilderness to the Euphrates River. The people will be handed over to the Israelites, and Israel must not make any treaties with the people of the land, otherwise, they will introduce the Israelites to idol worship and sinful practices.
Exodus Chapter 24:
God then instructs Moses to bring Aaron, his oldest sons Nadab, Abihu, and 70 of Israel’s elders up the mountain. God warns that no one else can go up the mountain with Moses but everyone else can worship at a distance. Moses told the people all of the instructions he got from God and they agree to keep them. Moses wrote all of the regulations of God down. Then he built an altar at the base of the mountain and set up 12 large stones, one for each tribe of Israel. Moses had the young men offer burnt and peace offerings of oxen. He then collected half of the blood into basins and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he read aloud the covenant and its commands to all the people, and they responded with a promise of obedience. Moses then sprinkled the blood from the basin on the people, which signed and confirmed their covenant with God. Then Moses took Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders up the mountain, where they partially saw God up close. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of blue lapis lazuli. God allowed them to see this much without being destroyed. In fact, they ate a covenant meal in his presence. God then called Moses up to the summit and he brought along Joshua his assistant to receive the 10 commandments on stone tablets. Moses left the elders behind and put Aaron and Hur in charge to settle any disputes amongst the Israelites. Moses and Joshua went up and a cloud covered the top of the mountain for 6 days. On the 7th day, God called Moses into the cloud, where he stayed for the next 40 days.