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Exodus 21:1 Commentary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

1. Now ] And introducing a new element in the collection, viz. the ‘judgements’ contained in Exo 21:2 to Exo 22:17.

the judgements ] i.e. legal precedents, intended to have the force of law. The Heb. mishpâṭ means a judicial decision, (1) given in an individual case, and then (2) established as a precedent for other similar cases 1 [184] . No doubt, the decisions which Moses gave, when he ‘sat to judge the people’ (Exo 18:13; cf. on Exo 18:15-16), became thus the foundation of Hebrew legislation (cf. p. 161) 2 [185] .

[184] In its original sense, the word is a term belonging to civil and criminal law; but it is sometimes extended so as to include moral and religious injunctions (as Lev 18:4-5; Lev 19:15; Lev 19:35); it is also sometimes in EVV. rendered more clearly by ‘ordinance’ (e.g. Exo 15:25, Jos 24:25, Isa 58:2, Jer 8:7 RV.).

[185] ‘En-Mishpâṭ (Gen 14:7), the ‘Spring of judgement,’ as Ḳadesh (the ‘sacred’ place) was also called, was doubtless once a sacred spring, at which judicial decisions were obtained (cf. DB. iii. 67 a , v. 616 b ).

set before them ] Exo 19:7, Deu 4:44.

Chapters Exo 20:22 to Exo 23:33

The Book of the Covenant

The ‘Book of the Covenant’ (see Exo 24:7 in explanation of the name) is the oldest piece of Hebrew legislation that we possess. The laws contained in it are spoken of in Exo 24:3 as consisting of two elements, the words (or commands) and the judgements: the judgements (see on Exo 21:1) are the provisions relating to civil and criminal law, prescribing what is to be done when particular cases arise, and comprised in Exo 21:2 to Exo 22:17; the words are positive injunctions of moral, religious, and ceremonial law, introduced mostly by Thou shalt or shalt not, and comprised in Exo 20:23-26, Exo 22:18 to Exo 23:19: Exo 23:20-33 is a hortatory epilogue, consisting chiefly of promises intended to suggest motives for the observance of the preceding laws. The laws themselves were doubtless taken by E from some already existing source: the ‘judgements’ in Exo 21:2 to Exo 22:17 seem to have undergone no alteration of form: but the ‘words’ which follow can hardly be in their original order; moral, religious, and ceremonial injunctions being intermingled sometimes singly, sometimes in groups (see the following summary), without any apparent system (notice also Exo 23:4 f., evidently interrupting the connexion between vv. 1 3 and 6 8); and in parts (as Exo 22:21-22;Exo 22:24, Exo 23:9 b, Exo 23:23-25 a, Exo 23:31-33: see the notes) slight parenetic additions have probably been made by the compiler of J E.

The laws themselves may be grouped as follows:

i. Enactments relating to civil and criminal law:

1. Rights of Hebrew slaves (male and female), Exo 21:2-11.

2. Capital offences, viz. murder (in distinction from manslaughter), striking or cursing a parent, and man-stealing, Exo 21:12-17.

3. Penalties for bodily injuries, caused ( a) by human beings, Exo 21:18-27, ( b) by animals (a vicious ox, for instance), or neglect of reason able precautions (as leaving a pit open), Exo 21:28-36.

4. Theft of ox or sheep, and burglary, Exo 22:1-4.

5. Compensation for damage done by straying cattle [but see note], or fire spreading accidentally to another man’s field, Exo 22:5-6.

6. Compensation for loss or injury in various cases of deposit or loan, Exo 22:7-15.

7. Compensation for seduction, Exo 22:16-17.

ii ( a). Regulations relating to worship and religious observances:

1. Prohibition of images, and regulations for the construction of altars, Exo 20:23-26.

2. Sacrifice to ‘other gods’ to be punished with the ‘ban,’ Exo 22:20.

3. God not to be reviled, nor a ruler cursed, Exo 22:28.

4. Firstfruits, and firstborn males (of men, oxen, and sheep), to be given to Jehovah, Exo 22:29-30.

5. Flesh torn of beasts not to be eaten, Exo 22:31.

6 & 7. The seventh year to be a fallow year, and the seventh day a day of rest (in each case, for a humanitarian motive), Exo 23:10-12.

8. God’s commands to be honoured, and ‘other gods’ not to be invoked, Exo 23:13.

9. The three annual Pilgrimages to be observed (all males to appear before Jehovah at each), Exo Exo 23:14-17.

10. A festal sacrifice not to be offered with leavened bread, nor its fat to remain unburnt till the following morning, Exo 23:18.

11. Firstfruits to be brought to the house of Jehovah, Exo 23:19 a.

12. A kid not to be boiled in its mother’s milk, Exo 23:19 b.

ii ( b). Injunctions of a moral, and, especially, of a humanitarian character:

1. Sorcery and bestiality to be punished with death, Exo 22:18-19.

2. The ‘sojourner,’ the widow, and the orphan, not to be oppressed, Exo 22:21-24.

3. Interest not to be taken from the poor, Exo 22:25.

4. A garment taken in pledge to be returned before sun-down, Exo 22:26-27.

5. Veracity and impartiality, the duties of a witness, Exo 23:1-3.

6. An enemy’s beast to be preserved from harm, Exo 23:4-5.

7. Justice to be administered impartially, and no bribe to be taken, Exo 23:6-9.

These three groups of laws may have been taken originally from distinct collections. The terse form in which many of the laws in ii ( a) and ii ( b) are cast resembles that which prevails in Leviticus 19 (H). The regulations respecting worship contained in Exo 23:10-19, together with the allied ones embedded in Exo 13:3-7; Exo 13:11-13, are repeated in Exo 34:18-26, in the section (Exo 34:10-26) sometimes called the ‘Little Book of the Covenant,’ with slight verbal differences, and with the addition in Exo 34:11-17 of more specific injunctions against idolatry (see the synoptic table, pp. 370 2).

The laws contained in the ‘Book of the Covenant’ are, as has been already said, no doubt older than the narrative (E) in which they are incorporated: they represent, to use Cornill’s expression, the ‘consuetudinary law of the early monarchy,’ and include (cf. the notes on tôrâh, p. 162, and mishpâṭ, Exo 22:1) the formulated decisions which, after having been begun by Moses (Exo 18:16; cf. p. 161), had gradually accumulated up to that age. The stage of society for which the Code was designed, and the characteristics of the Code itself, are well indicated by W. R. Smith ( OTJC. 2 [180] p. 340 ff). ‘The society contemplated in it is of very simple structure. The basis of life is agricultural. Cattle and agricultural produce are the main elements wealth; and the laws of property deal almost exclusively with them (see Exo 21:28 to Exo 22:10). The principles of criminal and civil justice are those still current among the Arabs of the desert, viz. retaliation and pecuniary compensation. Murder is dealt with by the law of blood-revenge; but the innocent man-slayer may seek asylum at God’s altar (cf. 1Ki 1:50; 1Ki 2:18; 1Ki 2:29).’ Man-stealing, offences against parents, and witchcraft are also punishable by death. Personal injuries fall mostly, like murder, under the law of retaliation (Exo Exo 21:24 f.). These are the only cases in which a punishment affecting the person is prescribed: in other cases the punishment takes as a rule the form of compensation. ‘Degrading punishments, as imprisonment or the bastinado, are unknown; and loss of liberty is inflicted only on a thief who cannot pay a fine (Exo 22:3 b). The slave retains definite rights. He recovers his freedom after 7 years, unless he prefers to remain a bondman, and to seal his determination by a solemn symbolical act (Exo 21:6).’ He cannot appeal to the lex talionis against his master: to beat one’s own slave to death is not a capital crime; but for minor injuries he can claim his liberty (Exo 21:20 f., 26 f.). ‘Women do not enjoy full social equality with men. The daughter was her father’s property, who received a price for surrendering her to her husband (Exo 21:7); and so a daughter’s dishonour is compensated by law as a pecuniary loss to her father (Exo 22:16 f.).’ A woman slave was a slave for life, except when she had been bought to be her master’s concubine, and he withheld the recognized rights which she thus acquired (Exo 21:11). Concubine-slaves had also other rights (Exo 21:8-10). Various cases of injury to property are specified: the penalty is usually simple compensation, though naturally it is greater, if deliberate purpose (as in the case of theft, Exo 22:1), or culpable negligence, can be proved. Cases of misappropriation of property are settled by a decision given at a sanctuary (Exo 22:9).

[180] W. R. Smith, Old Testament in the Jewish Church, ed. 2, 1892.

From the point of view of ethics and religion, the regard paid in the Code to the claims of humanity and justice is observable. An emphatic voice is raised against those crying vices of Oriental Government, the maladministration of justice, and the oppression of the poor. Even an enemy, in his need, is to receive consideration and help (Exo 23:4-5). ‘The gêr, or foreigner living in Israel under the protection of a family or the community, though he has no legal status (cf. on Exo 22:21), is not to be oppressed. The Sabbath is enforced as an ordinance of humanity; and to the same end the produce of every field or vineyard must be left to the poor one year in seven. The precepts of religious worship are simple. He who sacrifices to any god but Jehovah falls under the ‘ban’ (Exo 22:20). The only ordinance of ceremonial sanctity is to abstain from the flesh of animals torn by wild beasts (Exo 22:31). Altar are to be of the simplest possible construction. The sacred dues are the firstlings and firstfruits; and the former must be presented at a sanctuary on the eighth day. This regulation presupposes a plurality of sanctuaries, which also agrees with the terms of Exo 20:24.’ The only sacrifices mentioned are burnt- and peace-offerings. The three pilgrimages, at which every male is to appear before Jehovah with a gift, celebrate three periods of the agricultural year, the beginning and close of harvest, and the end of the vintage. The only points of sacrificial ritual insisted on are the two rules that the blood of a festal sacrifice is not to be offered with leavened bread, and that the fat must be burnt before the next morning. The simplicity of the ceremonial regulations in this Code stands in striking contrast to the detailed and systematic development which they receive in the later legislation of P.

Some of the laws strike us as severe (Exo 21:15-16; Exo 21:21, Exo 22:18; Exo 22:20); but we must remember the stage of civilization for which they were designed: they were adapted, not for people in every stage of society, but for people living as the Israelites were circumstanced at the time when they were drawn up. They also, it is to be observed, are in many cases clearly intended to impose restrictions upon abuse of authority, or arbitrary violence. We may remember also that far severer punishments, such as mutilation and torture, were common not only in many other ancient nations, but even, till comparatively recent times, in Christian Europe; and in England, till 1835, death was the penalty for many trivial forms of theft. Of course some of the laws notably the one about witches have been terribly misapplied in times when the progressive character of revelation and the provisional character of Israel’s laws were not realized. But they were adapted on the whole to make Israel a just, humane, and God-fearing people, and to prepare the way, when the time was ripe, for something better.

The laws of J and E (except the section dealing with the compensations to be paid for various injuries, Exo 21:18 to Exo 22:15), expanded, and, in some cases, modified to suit the requirements of a later age, form a substantial element in the Deuteronomic legislation (Deuteronomy 5-28; see the synoptic table in LOT. p. 73 ff.): to some of the moral and religious injunctions there are also parallels (referred to in the notes) in the ‘Law of Holiness’ (Leviticus 17-26). The ceremonial laws appear in a partially developed form in Dt., and in a more fully developed form, with many minutely defined regulations, in the Priests’ Code (for an example in Exodus itself, contrast Exo 23:15 with Exo 12:14-20). A discussion of the differences between the laws of JE and the later codes belongs more to the commentaries on Lev., Numb., and Dt., than to one on Exodus; and they have been noticed here only in special cases. A detailed comparison of the different regulations will be found in McNeile, pp. xxxix xlvi, li lvi.

The promulgation of a new code of laws was often among ancient nations ascribed to the command of the national deity. Thus among he Cretans, Minos, the ‘companion of great Zeus’ ( Διὸς μεγάλου ὀαριστής , Od.19:179), was said to have held converse with Zeus, and to have received his laws from him in a cave of the Dictaean mountain (cf. [Plato], Minos, 319 b 320 b); his laws and those of Lycurgus are called ‘the laws of Zeus’ and ‘Apollo’ respectively (Plato, Legg. i. 632 D); and Numa’s laws were ascribed to the goddess Egeria (Dion. Hal. ii. 60 f.). The closest parallel is however afforded, on Semitic ground, by Hạmmurabi, who expressly speaks of his code as consisting of ‘righteous laws’ delivered to him by Shamash, the sun-god (see below, p. 418 ff.).

Consult other comments:

Exodus 21:1 - Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Exodus 21:1 - Joseph Benson’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

Exodus 21:1 - Calvin's Complete Commentary

Exodus 21:1 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Exodus 21:1 - B.H. Carroll's An Interpretation of the English Bible

Exodus 21:1 - Through the Bible Commentary

Exodus 21:1 - Adam Clarke's Commentary and Critical Notes on the Bible

Exodus 21:1 - Commentary on the Holy Bible by Thomas Coke

Exodus 21:1 - College Press Bible Study Textbook Series

Exodus 21:1 - Companion Bible Notes, Appendices and Graphics

Exodus 21:1 - James Gray's Concise Bible Commentary

Exodus 21:1 - Expository Notes of Dr. Constable (Old and New Testaments)

Exodus 21:1 - Expositors Bible Commentary

Exodus 21:1 - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)

Exodus 21:1 - Everett's Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures

Exodus 21:1 - Expositor's Dictionary of Text by Robertson

Exodus 21:1 - Gaebelein's Annotated Bible (Commentary)

Exodus 21:1 - Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary

Exodus 21:1 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Exodus 21:1 - Grant's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 21:1 - Hawker's Poor Man's Commentary (Old and New Testaments)

Exodus 21:1 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Exodus 21:1 - Biblical Illustrator Edited by Joseph S. Exell

Exodus 21:1 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Exodus 21:1 - Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

Exodus 21:1 - The Popular Commentary on the Bible by Kretzmann

Exodus 21:1 - A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical by Lange

Exodus 21:1 - Mackintosh's Notes on the Pentateuch

Exodus 21:1 - An Exposition on the Whole Bible

Exodus 21:1 - The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Exodus 21:1 - Peake's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 21:1 - Commentary Series on the Bible by Peter Pett

Exodus 21:1 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

Exodus 21:1 - The Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary Edited by Joseph S. Exell

Exodus 21:1 - The Complete Pulpit Commentary

Exodus 21:1 - Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

Exodus 21:1 - John Trapp's Complete Commentary (Old and New Testaments)

Exodus 21:1 - The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge

Exodus 21:1 - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges