Exodus 21: Slavery, Capital Crimes and Responsibility for Property

Figurine of a Semitic Slave, Acient Egyptian figurine, Hecht Museum

Exodus 21: 1-11 On Slavery

 These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:

 2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” 6 then his master shall bring him before God.1 He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

 7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

For many people, once they have reached the Ten Commandments, they stop reading Exodus. Some may return for the story of the Golden Calf, but most people skip or skim over these passages which expand on the type of society the people were to construct. Yet, I think that, like the similar passages in the book of Deuteronomy, these ordinances provide an interesting opportunity to think ethically about the type of society they were attempting to create and the society we as people of faith advocate for. There is a slightly different take on the issue of slavery in Deuteronomy 15: 12-18.

When we talk about slavery in modern times it is easy to assume that ancient people should have naturally chosen a democratically structured society which outlawed slavery, but trying to impose our values on another time only insures that we will either not understand or not value the society they were trying to create. In the ancient world slavery was assumed. It was a way in which a person could pay back their debt. It is also tempting to frame slavery in the manner it occurred in the United States in the time prior to the Civil War and this can be deceiving. On the one hand, slaves had less value than a free person and you will see this in some of the coming punishments. On the other hand, at least for the Hebrew people the slave was both property and person and there were limits placed on that servitude.

The people have been brought out of the house of slavery and, in many ways, they were to be an alternate society to their experience in Egypt. For men, and the Bible is written from a predominantly androcentric point of view, this servitude is limited to six years. Typically, it is younger, unmarried members of a family that would assume debt servitude on behalf of the family and so a time of service of six years still allowed for the family to be debt free and the individual to have time to begin their own family. There were apparently times where slaves married into a family or married another slave in a household and while the male slave would be able to go free, the female and children could not. There are several situations where a person could choose to remain a slave to maintain family unity or because their life in the household of their master was better than the house they had to return to. Yet, at least in the law, the man has an ability to choose to remain a slave and must state this before the LORD and then receive a pierced ear as a sign of his lifelong servitude.

Women in the ancient world do not have the same set of protections, but even for women there are some protections. The woman may not be sold into slavery to a foreign people if she does not please her master and her life is bound to the new family. She may serve as a spouse for the master or one of his descendants and they cannot take away her rights to food, clothing and marital rights. Assuming a family’s debts appears to be one of the methods for acquiring a young woman as a bride. In Deuteronomy 21: 10-14, similar protections are afforded to captured women which are brought into the household.

I would hope that even the most ardent biblical literalist would not advocate for the reestablishment of slavery. But I do think this presents some interesting points to consider for our own society. Both young men and women enter into slavery for economic reasons and for a period, or in the case of young women for their life, they are no longer their own person. Yet, there are many people today who find themselves staggered under a debt that they cannot pay. Sometimes these debts may be a result of poor choices but other times they may result from an unforeseen disaster or medical bill. Perhaps one of the places for reflection would be should there be a limit to the time one must work to pay back a debt. Is there a place where a person in effect becomes a bond slave or indentured servant with little free will of their own?

Perhaps another place for reflection is with the image of the woman who is sold into servitude so that she becomes the spouse of the man who assumed the debt for her family. Marriage is an economic transaction. I know this is an unpopular statement when people believe they are marrying for love, but anyone who has gone through a divorce will realize there is truth in the statement. I wouldn’t want to go back to a culture of arranged marriages where man and woman may have little say in who they will marry, yet I do think it is important to realize that there is an economic and a relational stake in every marriage. This is one of the few places where divorce is alluded to in the Hebrew Bible but there is an understanding that the woman in a relationship is entitled to both her physical needs but also that there are marital rights that she too has a claim to. Dealing with indebtedness or marriage are difficult ethical issues, but they are issues that arise frequently in life and often in interconnected ways.

Peter Paul Rubens, Cain Slaying Abel, (1608-1809)

Exodus 21: 12-27 Unfolding the Commandment on Murder

 12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

 15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

 16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

 17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

 18 When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19 but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.

 20 When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.

 22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

 26 When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. 27 If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.

From one controversial topic to another, this time the death penalty. In the United States, the use of the death penalty is still debated, yet in the ancient world capital punishment is assumed as an appropriate punishment for certain crimes. Lex talionis (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth) it the underlying principle of justice for these crimes. The retaliation against a person is to be equal to the crime- what is sought is justice and not revenge. This may seem a harsh justice but I think it is important to wrestle with how they thought of these various offenses (even if we disagree with their evaluation of the appropriate sentence).

Underlying these ordinances is the desire to construct a society where the neighbor is protected. The person who commits murder in Israel was to be put to death. It is a life for a life when the murder is premeditated. However, there is an understanding that not every death is premeditated and sometimes a death may be an accident. Here, and more fully in Deuteronomy 19: 1-13, there are to be set aside cities of refuge where a person may flee to so that the judgment may be fair.

Striking or cursing mother or father also are offenses that in Exodus merit death. In Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 there is further discussion of the community’s role in carrying out this sentence. These are probably referring to adult children who strike their elderly parents who are not able to defend themselves. I think this does provide an interesting opportunity to consider the issue of elder abuse and how society protects its vulnerable members. In an ancient society where children would provide for their aging parents in their old age to curse or abuse one’s elder parents could put their lives at risk.

Kidnapping, presumably with the intent to sell a person into slavery, is also a capital offense. The people were not to be a society that was based upon slavery and exploitation and apparently kidnapping was viewed as stealing someone’s life.

Justice can be retributive but at its best it is directed towards restoration. Here when a person is injured and does not die the assailant is to pay for the lost time and to pay for the recovery.

Again, the issue of slavery enters the conversation with the slave who is beaten. The slave is somehow not completely a person. When a slave is beaten to death the owner is to be punished but some level of beating is assumed and if the slave recovers the owner is faultless. Yet, there are some limits-loss of eye or tooth is paid back with freedom but the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth justice do not apply here.

Neither is an unborn child here regarded as a citizen. Causing a woman to miscarry results in a fine but placing this type of incident next to the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth explanation of lex talionis means, in the words of Rabbi Jonathon Sacks.

One thing, however, is clear on this interpretation. Causing a woman to miscarry—being responsible for the death of a foetus—is not a capital offense. Until birth, the foetus does not have the legal status of a person. Such was the view of the sages in the land of Israel. (Sacks, 2010, p. 169)

Early Christians, pulling from the Greek translation of this passage which translates the word for ‘further harm’ as ‘form’ made distinctions, based on the passage, on whether the fetus was formed or not, but the Hebrew makes no such distinctions. Ultimately on controversial topics, like abortion, people will have strong opinions. The distinction here in the Hebrew Scriptures is that it is not considered at the same level as murder.

Exodus 21: 28-36 Responsibility for the Actions of One’s Animals

28 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31 If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

 33 If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.

 35 If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide. 36 But if it was known that the ox was accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not restrained it, the owner shall restore ox for ox, but keep the dead animal.

Unless one lives in a rural setting one is not likely to be gored by a bull, but underlying these sets of commandments is defining the responsibility that the owner of an animal has for the actions of an animal. Perhaps closer to our time would be issues around a pet dog who attacks a child, an adult or another pet. In Israel, an animal who attacks lethally was to be put to death and the benefit of the animal (its use as food) was lost. Animals that attack once do not reflect on the owner’s lack of responsibility, but animals with a history of attacking that are not restrained do bring strong penalties (here a death penalty) for the owner. If an animal is attacked there is to be restitution for the lost animal and if the irresponsibility of another person causes an animals death there is to be restitution made.

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