Laws Regarding Slaves. 1These are the ordinances* you shall lay before them. 2a When you purchase a Hebrew slave,* he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year he shall leave as a free person without any payment. 3If he comes into service alone, he shall leave alone; if he comes with a wife, his wife shall leave with him. 4But if his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children belong to her master and the man shall leave alone. 5If, however, the slave declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children; I will not leave as a free person,’ 6his master shall bring him to God* and there, at the door or doorpost, he shall pierce his ear with an awl, thus keeping him as his slave forever.
7When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go free as male slaves do. 8But if she displeases her master, who had designated her* for himself, he shall let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. 9If he designates her for his son, he shall treat her according to the ordinance for daughters. 10If he takes another wife, he shall not withhold her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. 11If he does not do these three things for her, she may leave without cost, without any payment.
Personal Injury. 12* Whoever strikes someone a mortal blow must be put to death.b 13However, regarding the one who did not hunt another down, but God caused death to happen by his hand, I will set apart for you a place to which that one may flee. 14But when someone kills a neighbor after maliciously scheming to do so, you must take him even from my altar and put him to death. 15Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.*
16A kidnapper, whether he sells the person or the person is found in his possession, shall be put to death.c
17Whoever curses* father or mother shall be put to death.d
18When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, not mortally, but enough to put him in bed, 19the one who struck the blow shall be acquitted, provided the other can get up and walk around with the help of his staff. Still, he must compensate him for his recovery time and make provision for his complete healing.
20When someone strikes his male or female slave with a rod so that the slave dies under his hand, the act shall certainly be avenged. 21If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.
22* When men have a fight and hurt a pregnant woman, so that she suffers a miscarriage, but no further injury, the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman’s husband demands of him, and he shall pay in the presence of the judges. 23e But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
26When someone strikes his male or female slave in the eye and destroys the use of the eye, he shall let the slave go free in compensation for the eye. 27If he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let the slave go free in compensation for the tooth.
28When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox must be stoned; its meat may not be eaten. The owner of the ox, however, shall be free of blame. 29But if an ox was previously in the habit of goring people and its owner, though warned, would not watch it; should it then kill a man or a woman, not only must the ox be stoned, but its owner also must be put to death. 30If, however, a fine is imposed on him, he must pay in ransom* for his life whatever amount is imposed on him. 31This ordinance applies if it is a boy or a girl that the ox gores. 32But if it is a male or a female slave that it gores, he must pay the owner of the slave thirty shekels of silver, and the ox must be stoned.
Property Damage. 33When someone uncovers or digs a cistern and does not cover it over again, should an ox or a donkey fall into it, 34the owner of the cistern must make good by restoring the value of the animal to its owner, but the dead animal he may keep.
35When one man’s ox hurts another’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide this money as well as the dead animal equally between them. 36But if it was known that the ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner would not watch it, he must make full restitution, an ox for an ox; but the dead animal he may keep.
37When someone steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for the one ox, and four sheep for the one sheep.f
* [21:1] Ordinances: judicial precedents to be used in settling questions of law and custom. More than half of the civil and religious laws in this collection (20:22–23:33), designated in 24:7 as “the book of the covenant,” have parallels in the cuneiform laws of the ancient Near East. It is clear that Israel participated in a common legal culture with its neighbors.
* [21:2] Slave: an Israelite could become a slave of another Israelite as a means of paying a debt, or an Israelite could be born into slavery due to a parent’s status as a slave. Here a time limit is prescribed for such slavery; other stipulations (vv. 20–21, 26–27) tried to reduce the evils of slavery, but slavery itself is not condemned in the Old Testament.
* [21:6] To God: the ritual of the piercing of the slave’s ear, which signified a lifetime commitment to the master, probably took place at the door of the household, where God as protector of the household was called upon as a witness. Another possible location for the ritual would have been the door of the sanctuary, where God or judges would have witnessed the slave’s promise of lifetime obedience to his master.
* [21:8] Designated her: intended her as a wife of second rank.
* [21:12–14] Unintentional homicide is to be punished differently from premeditated, deliberate murder. One who kills unintentionally can seek asylum by grasping the horns of the altar at the local sanctuary. In later Israelite history, when worship was centralized in Jerusalem, cities throughout the realm were designated as places of refuge. Apparently the leaders of the local community were to determine whether or not the homicide was intentional.
* [21:15] The verb used most often signifies a violent, sometimes deadly, attack. The severe penalty assigned is intended to safeguard the integrity of the family.
* [21:17] Curses: not merely an angrily uttered expletive at one’s parents, but a solemn juridical formula of justifiable retribution which was considered to be legally binding and guaranteed by God.
* [21:22–25] This law of talion is applied here in the specific case of a pregnant woman who, as an innocent bystander, is injured by two fighting men. The law of talion is not held up as a general principle to be applied throughout the book of the covenant. (But see note on Lv 24:19–20.) Here this principle of rigorous accountability aimed to prevent injury to a woman about to give birth by apparently requiring the assailant to have his own wife injured as she was about to bring new life into his family. However, it is debatable whether talion was ever understood or applied literally in Israel. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges his audience to find a deeper form of justice than the supposed equilibrium offered by talion (Mt 5:38–40).
* [21:30] Ransom: the amount of money or material goods required to restore the relationship between the relatives of the victim and the negligent owner of the goring ox.
a. [21:2–6] Lv 25:39–55; Dt 15:12–18; Jer 34:14.
b. [21:12] Lv 24:17; Nm 35:15–29; Dt 4:41–42; 19:2–5.
d. [21:17] Lv 20:9; Prv 20:20; Mt 15:4; Mk 7:10.
e. [21:23–25] Lv 24:18–21; Dt 19:21; Mt 5:38.