How to treat your Hebrew slave
- 1 The LORD told Moses:
Here are the rules I want you to give them:
- 2 If you buy a fellow Hebrew1 as a slave, you can keep that worker for six years. But that worker is free to go at the beginning of year seven. The worker owes you nothing then.
- 3 If the slave is a single man when it’s time to leave, he leaves alone. If he’s married, his wife goes with him.
- 4 If the slaveowner gave the slave a wife and the woman gave birth to children, the wife and kids belong to the slave master. The man leaves alone.
- 5 It’s different if the slave says, “I love my master, my wife, and children. And I would rather stay here than leave without my family.”
- 6 In that case, the slave master should do this. Take that slave to a place near God.2 There, take the man to a door or a doorpost. With that as a brace, use a hole-punch to pierce one of the man’s ears. That tags him as a slave for the rest of his life.
- 7 If a Hebrew man sells his daughter into slavery, she doesn’t get the same right to go free after six years, as a man does. She stays.
- 8 If the slave master reserves this woman for his personal use,3 and he isn’t happy with her performance, then he has to let someone buy her out of slavery. However, he can’t sell her to outsiders. That wouldn’t be fair to her.
- 9 If the slave master gave her to his son, the master has to treat her like a daughter. She’s not a slave anymore.
- 10 If the slave master marries another woman, he can’t start treating the slave badly by withholding food, clothing, or sexual intimacy.
- 11 If he does any one of these three, she’s free to go, with nothing to pay.
Punishment for hitting, goring, killing
- 12 Execute anyone who hits and kills another person.
- 13 But if there’s a fatal accident, the survivor may flee to a safe location I’ll designate.4
- 14 Execute anyone who schemes, traps, and murders another person, Drag that killer from my altar if you have to.5
- 15 Execute anyone who hits their dad or mom.
- 16 Execute anyone who kidnaps another person. It makes no difference if the kidnapper sold the person.
- 17 Execute anyone who disgraces6 their dad or mom.
- 18 Let’s say people get into a fight and one person hits another with a fist or a stone. And let’s say the injured person doesn’t die, but has to stay in bed to recover.
- 19 If the injured person can eventually get up and walk outside, with a walking stick if necessary, then the attacker simply has to pay for the injured person’s lost time and full medical expenses.
- 20 Punish anyone who takes a club to slaves and kills them. It doesn’t matter if the slaves are male or female.
- 21 Skip the punishment, however, if the slaves survive at least a day or two.7 Slaves are the master’s property.
- 22 Let’s say men get into a fight and a pregnant woman gets hurt and miscarries,8 but there’s no other injury. Then the man who hit the woman has to pay whatever fine her husband can convince the judges he deserves.
- 23 But if the woman’s injury is more extensive, follow the general rule about fair penalties: take a life for a life taken,
- 24 and take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot,
- 25 a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, and a bruise for a bruise.9
- 26 If you blind the eye of any one of your slaves, male or female, you have to let that slave go. The slave is free because of what you did.
- 27 If you knock a tooth out of your slave, male or female, free that slave because of what you did.
- 28 If a bull gores someone to death, don’t punish the owner. Kill the bull. Stone it to death but don’t eat it.
- 29 If that bull had a history of attacking people, and the owner knew it but didn’t do anything to keep it away from people, stone the owner with the bull.
- 30 But there’s a way for the owner to come out of this alive. If relatives of the victim are willing to accept a settlement, the owner can pay an agreed amount and live.
- 31 Rules are the same if a child is gored to death, boy or girl.
- 32 Rules for slaves are different. If a bull gores someone’s slave to death, the bull’s owner has to pay the slave’s owner a dozen ounces (342 grams) of silver.10
Payback when animals fall in a pit
- 33 If you dug a pit and left it open without a cover on top, and a bull or a donkey falls in and dies,
- 34 you just bought yourself some dead livestock. Pay the owner the value of the animal, and keep the dead animal.
- 35 If your bull injures another person’s bull and it dies, sell your bull and split the income equally. Share the meat of the dead bull equally, too.
- 36 But if your bull had a history of attacking people, and you knew it but didn’t do anything to keep it confined, switch animals. Give your bull to the owner of the dead bull, and take possession of the dead animal.
“Hebrew” is an early name describing people also known as Israelites, ancestors of today’s Jewish people.
Perhaps to an altar or to the tent worship center or, later, to the Jerusalem Temple. If not there, perhaps to a residence near there. Wherever it was, it seems to have been a place suggesting God was there, as a witness to the formal and public agreement.
We’re left to guess about what the slave master may have ordered her to do for him.
In Bible times, it was common for relatives of the dead victim to hunt down and kill the person they held responsible. But Exodus 21:13 allows the suspect to run to a safe place until judges or community elders could hear the case and decide what to do. Once the Israelites reached the Promised Land, in what is now Israel and Palestinian Territories, survivors of fatal accidents would have six “cities of refuge” to go to (Numbers 35:6-28).
Holding onto the altar was a bit like someone today taking refuge in a church, hoping to escape arrest.
The Hebrew word qalal can mean: to diminish, humiliate, despise, curse, slander, ridicule. A lot meaning. None of it positive.
The implication of 21:20-21 might be that it’s wrong for a slave master to beat a slave to death. But if a slave lingers for a day or two, it technically wasn’t the beating that killed the slave.
Some translate “miscarries” as simply a premature birth. But others say the context here, along with ancient Jewish tradition of written and oral laws collected in a body of sacred literature called the Halakha, indicate the woman lost the baby. Jewish scholars in ancient times concluded that since there was merely a fine for the death of the fetus, compared to execution for even an accidental death of the woman, that the fetus wasn’t yet a living person. And they said abortion should be permitted to save a pregnant woman’s life. Many Christian scholars dispute both this translation and the implication that abortion is acceptable for any reason. This is a hot topic of dispute even among people of similar faiths, perhaps partly because none of the Bible writers mentions abortion. So there’s a lot of room for speculation, presumption, and good intentions that can be helpful or hurtful.
This was a well-known general law of justice and retaliation in the ancient Middle East. It shows up first in the famous Code of Hammurabi, a set of laws from what is now Iraq, written in about 2000 BC, perhaps six centuries or more before Moses. That’s roughly the time of Abraham, father of the Jewish people. The law was intended to limit the punishment so it fit the crime. If you accidentally blind someone, you shouldn’t have to pay with your life. An eyeball, however, was another matter—or perhaps payment in its place, if you’re lucky and the prosecutor agrees to the settlement.
Thirty shekels. This will be the amount paid to Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus—the price of a slave (Matthew 26:15).