January 29

Exodus 19-21


The Decree of the Law                 Exodus 19-24


The Three-Fold Division of the Law (Exodus-Leviticus)


It has been suggested that the Law that God gave to Israel could be summarized into three categories or divisions:

Commandments Governing Moral Life (19-20)-10 Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17; Deuteronomy 5:7-21)…in it we see the absolute perfection of God and our own exceeding sinfulness.

Judgments Governing Social Life (21-23)-rules governing diet, sanitation, taxes, military, marriage, etc., there are some 70 basic regulations (Exodus 21-23; Leviticus)…here we discover how God desires for us to live in a way that is in keeping with His holiness.

Ordinances Governing Religious Life (24)-7 Levitical feasts, 5 Levitical offerings, other ordinances (Exodus 35-40; Leviticus)…this shows us through the practice of religious observances the way back to God when we have sinned.


Exodus 19-20          Commandments Governing Moral Life


Exodus 19-The rest of Exodus, plus Leviticus and the first 10 chapters of Numbers contain the majority of the teaching that is called the Mosaic Law.

Exodus 19:1-6-God establishes a covenant with them.  What an incredible promise God gave to Israel...to be His “own possession” ("peculiar treasure", KJV).  If they would “obey My voice and keep My covenant”…then they would be to Him a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.  As priests, they would all have access to Him, and as a holy nation they would be separated from all others and totally dedicated to Him.

Exodus 19:7-Moses tells the people of God’s covenant and they accept it.  He then reports back to God.  God tells them to prepare themselves for Him to come into their presence in three days. The people were not to even touch the mountain because God was coming down and it was to be treated as "holy".  They had to prepare themselves to meet Him, "consecrate" themselves.  It is interesting that Moses added to what it says God told him...that they were to abstain from "sexual relations".  On the third day God descended on the mountain in fire…and there was a great earthquake. The sound of thunder and smoke and fire when God descended on the mountain caused fear in the people.  Moses told them to not be afraid...but that God had come to "test" them..."so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."  This physical manifestation of the glory of God was to be a permanent reminder of Who He is so that the people would remember to be obedient to Him.  God called Moses to come to the top of the mountain.  God tells Moses to go back down the mountain, to warn the people to not touch the mountain or they would die, and to then come back with Aaron.

Exodus 20-23-God gives the Hebrews the 10 Commandments (20:1-17), and also gives them additional Civil laws (21-23).

Exodus 20:1-17-Based on the covenant relationship that the Hebrews have with God…“I am the LORD your God”… He now gives them the Ten Commandments, or “Ten Words” of the Law (cf. 34:28).  They were written on two tablets of stone (cf. 31:18).  Verse 5 speaks of the cumulative affect of sin in general.  While an individual person is only accountable for the sin he commits…never the less, the sins he commits may have an affect on other people.


The Jews regard verse 2 as the first commandment and verses 3-6 as the second.  Roman Catholics also group verses 3-6, but regard them as the first commandment; then they divide verse 17 into two commandments in order to have a total of ten.  Most Protestants consider verse 3 to be the first commandment; verses 4-6, the second; and verse 17 the tenth.

The Ryrie Study Bible, 20:2 footnote, p. 123


  1. (:3) You are not to worship anything other than God
  2. (:4-6) You are not to make an idol of anything so that you may worship it
  3. (:7) You are not to use God’s name in a thoughtless manner that did not honor Him
  4. (:8-11) You are to keep the Sabbath day as a “holy” (separate from the others) day…not working on it, but worshipping and resting on it
  5. (:12) You are to honor your parents…if you do this you will live longer
  6. (:13) You are not to commit murder
  7. (:14) You are not to commit adultery
  8. (:15) You are not to steal
  9. (:16) You are not to lie about another person
  10. (:17) You are not to covet (to desire something belonging to someone else so much that you take actions to get it for yourself).

Exodus 20:18-20-The people were greatly afraid of the lightning and smoke.  The fear of God should lead us to forsake sin.

Exodus 20:21-26-The LORD told Moses that since the people had seen that He has spoken to them from heaven…it should lead them to worship Him, and Him alone.  He then gave instructions on how they were to build an altar for Him.


Exodus 21-23          Judgments Governing Social Life


Exodus 21:2-11-The laws concerning Hebrew slaves (laws for foreign slaves…Lev. 25:44-46).  A Hebrew person would usually be sold into slavery when they had a debt that they could not pay (cf. Lev. 25:39; Amos 2:6; 8:6)…but he was to be treated as a hired laborer.  After 6 years he was to be offered his freedom.


Excursus: Slavery and Slave Laws in Ancient Israel

The various Hebrew terms translated by terms such as “servant,” “slave,” “maidservant,” occur more than a thousand times in the Old Testament. The present passage reflects the broad semantic range encompassed by these terms and the concepts to which they refer. Although the laws in Exod 21:1–11 address primarily the circumstances of six-year contract servants, they do not implicitly distinguish among categories of employees. The most common vocabulary word used for the servant is ʿebed, which can mean “worker,” “employee,” “servant,” or “slave.” Anyone in any of these categories came under the protection of Yahweh’s covenant law. The laws of this section also do not differentiate types of employers: the standard term used here, baʿal, can mean “boss,” “employer,” “master,” or “owner.” Similarly, the words translated “buy” in 21:2 (qānâ) and “sell” in 21:7–8 (mākar) can refer to any financial transaction related to a contract, much as in modern sports terminology a player can be described as being “bought” or “sold” from one team to another. Players are not actually the property of the team that “owns” them except as regards the exclusive right to their employment as players of that sport.

Much misunderstanding of Israelite law has arisen from failure to appreciate the analogous distinction that prevailed in ancient Israel. When the law was properly followed, persons who were servants/slaves/workers/employees held their positions by reason of a formal contract that related primarily to the job that they had “signed up” to perform, for a period of time, much as one enlists in the military today. In addition, some of the misunderstanding of biblical laws on service/slavery arises from unconscious analogy to modern Western hemisphere slavery, which involved the stealing of people of a different race from their homelands, transporting them in chains to a new land, selling them to an owner who possessed them for life without obligation to any restrictions and who could resell them to someone else (although such did also occur in the ancient world). Whether one translates ʿebed as “servant,” “slave,” “employee,” or “worker,” it is clear that the biblical law allowed for no such practices in Israel. Indeed, the law reflects the fact that when obediently practiced by “boss/employer/owner” and “servant/slave/employee/worker” alike, Israelite service could be so beneficial to a worker that he or she would choose to enlist for a lifetime with the same employer (21:5–6).

What were the different categories of servant/slave? First, there were foreign-born servants whose lives were spared in war and who were allowed to live indefinitely, on the condition that they become permanent workers in Israel (Josh 9:23; 1 Sam 4:9). This is frequently referred to as “chattel slavery.” Second, there were six-year servants who contracted to work for an employer for six years in return for wages and other benefits. Third, there were servants born in the boss’s household who owed the boss something for the housing and food he had provided them until such time as they might choose to leave his property and/or employment. Fourth, there were various sorts of temporary employees and permanent employees who may have worked for a given individual under various sorts of arrangements, including day laboring. These categories of slaves/servants/workers were employed in all sorts of ways: as personal servants, as farm workers, as conscript laborers (1 Kgs 9:21; 2 Chr 8:7–9), as temporary “hired hand,” and the like.

We should note also that virtually all industry in ancient times was “household” or “cottage” industry. Corporations or business partnerships as we know them in modern times did not exist. Almost all business was “small business” in the sense of family owned and family operated business, and someone who was in any sense an “employee,” not the owner of his own business, worked for the head of a family, usually lived with or near that family on its property, and was paid according to a formal written or verbal “contract” that was somewhat more like the terms of enlistment used to enroll someone into military service today than a casual agreement expecting only certain hours to be worked at a place of employment.

Finally, Israel’s service/slavery laws should be understood in terms of their own history of slavery in Egypt. The Egyptians made the Israelites slaves on the basis of their ethnicity, forced them to serve as slaves for life, did not compensate them properly, if at all, and worked them unbearably hard as a means of keeping them weak and/or causing at least some to die under the burden of their slavery (1:9–14). Against this sort of historical experience, the Bible’s laws protect all sorts of workers, guaranteeing them the right to gain their freedom after a set period of time (21:1–4) as against the Egyptian practice of permanently enslaving Israel. Biblical law allowed service out of love rather than out of necessity (21:5–6) as opposed to involuntary service under oppressive masters in Egypt. Biblical law also gave immediate freedom to those who had in any way been physically abused (21:26–27) as opposed to the severe abuse the Egyptians had imposed upon the Israelites. God’s laws, then, provided divinely enforced covenant protections for those who worked for former slaves and made sure the former slaves did not return evil for evil once they had the opportunity to do so. Indeed, God’s laws implicitly condemned the Egyptian treatment of the Israelites as illegal by prohibiting the very practices the Egyptians had used to suppress and weaken God’s people in Egypt.

Exodus, NBC (Twenty-first Century Edition), T. D. Alexander, 108–10; Logos Bible Software


Exodus 21:12-35-The punishment concerning personal injuries to another person (capital punishment, kidnapping, lex talionis-law of retaliation, attack by animals, etc.)

Exodus 21:12-The punishment for premeditated murder

Exodus 21:13-The punishment for either self-defense or manslaughter…a person could flee to a city of refuge (cf. Numbers 35:11)


Verse 13 addresses the exception to murder: unintentional/accidental homicide. Any sort of causation of another person’s death without intent is encompassed by this law: fatally running over someone with a wagon, fatally hitting someone with a tool, unintentionally killing an ally in battle in what today would be called a “friendly fire incident,” and the like. In much of the ancient world a mandatory vengeance system was built into the unwritten societal code of conduct. Under this system, you or someone in your family were expected to take the life of anyone who had taken the life of someone in your family, whether or not that person had done so purposefully. Virtually no distinction was made between purposeful and accidental homicide. In the logic of the vengeance system, the causing of a death required the parallel causing of a death to “satisfy” the grievance and make things equal. If family A had lost a member by reason of the actions of someone in family B, then family B ought to lose a member by reason of the actions of someone in family A. Intent was not considered in such cases.

To this way of thinking the true God responded with: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deut 32:35). The present law anticipates the system of cities of refuge with the wording “a place I will designate.” These six cities, spread throughout Israel, would be controlled by Levites and would give sanctuary from the “avenger of blood” (the person who set out to avenge the death of a member of his family by seeking to kill the one who had taken his life) until such time as full, careful, patient legal processes could look into the fatality and rule fairly. God’s covenant thereby eliminated for obedient Israelites what had been a long-established but inherently unfair practice that dominated the way of life in the ancient Near East, blood vengeance.

Logos Bible Software: The New American Commentary, Exodus 21:12-14


Exodus 21:14-The punishment for premeditated murder, cont’d…there was no place of refuge for this act

Exodus 21:15-The punishment for a child murdering a parent

Exodus 21:16-The punishment for kidnapping

Exodus 21:17-The punishment for a child cursing a parent


This description does not envisage minor physical abuse (slapping, a single punch thrown in anger, or the like). The hiphil of nkh rather connotes at least the kind of physical attack designed to disable someone and leave him motionless on the floor or ground (i.e., the verb means at least to “beat down”). It is not uncommonly translated by “kill” (e.g., Gen 4:15) and can have the sense of “assault and leave for dead.” But serious as the crime has to be for the death penalty to be applied, it does not have to result in the death of the parents. If someone attacks his parent(s) severely enough so that they might have died, he must lose his life. Parents are thus protected by this law above the general citizenry (21:18–19) or servants (21:20–21), whose actual murder must take place for the death penalty to apply. By contrast, the mere attack on parents itself is a capital crime, even if the parents should eventually recover.

Logos Bible Software: Stuart, D. K. (2006). Exodus (Vol. 2, p. 487). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.


  1. He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death: The idea is of an adult child who threatens their parent. Though this law is severe, it preserves a critical foundation for civilized society: respect between generations.
  2. It also has a built-in protection for the rights of the child, according to Deuteronomy 21:18-21. This passage states that the parent did not have the right to carry out this punishment, but they had to bring the accused child before the elders and judges of the city. This meant that the parent - against all contemporary custom - did not have the absolute power of life and death over their children. As a practical matter, the judges of Israel rarely if ever administered the death penalty in such cases, yet the child was held accountable.
  3. Yet the law discouraging conflict between generations is important. The elder generation, as they grow older, is at the mercy of the younger generation. If the younger generation is allowed to carry on open warfare with the older generation, the very foundations of society are shaken.

David Guzik :: Study Guide for Exodus 21,



Exodus 21:18-19-The punishment for injury resulting from two men fighting

Exodus 21:20-21-The punishment for injury resulting from punishing a slave

Exodus 21:22-25-The punishment for a miscarriage caused when a woman is accidentally struck when two men are fighting.  In verse 22, the word “miscarriage” suggests that the woman goes into labor and the baby survives.  In verses 23-25, there is punishment if the baby dies.  This is commonly referred to as “lex talionis”…the law of retaliation.

Exodus 21:26-27-The punishment for injuring a slave


  1. (22-25) Laws of retribution.

"If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

  1. He shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him: This is an example of a case of retribution, where a pregnant woman is injured in a conflict, and she gives birth prematurely. A penalty is only to be assessed if there is lasting damage.
  2. If no lasting damage results, there are no damages awarded. Here, God recognizes that some bad things just happen, and we get over them - and move on.
  3. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye: If lasting damage results, retribution is always limited by the eye for an eye principle. This law was meant to block our desire for vengeance, and not given as a license for revenge.
  4. Our tendency is to want to do more to the offending party than what they have done to us. This principle can apply to our modern practice of assessing huge punitive damages in lawsuits, and this law presents the principle that only the loss itself is to be compensated.
  5. (26-27) The law of retribution as it regards masters and servants.

"If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.

  1. If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye: The principle of eye for an eye has a different application for servants. The servant, if injured by the master, received something more precious than an eye - his freedom.
  2. If he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free: "If this did not teach them humanity, it taught them caution, as one rash blow might have deprived them of all right to the future services of the slave; and this self-interest obliged them to be cautious and circumspect." (Clarke)

David Guzik :: Study Guide for Exodus 21,



Exodus 21:28-32-The punishment for injury caused to a man by an ox

Exodus 21:33-36-The punishment for injury caused to an ox


For an additional explanation of these laws see:




Prayer: Lord, life is difficult.  You gave these laws to give structure to relationships.  And yet, so many times people come into conflict with each other and break Your laws.  Our ego is weak and our pride is strong.  Sometimes we react without thinking.  Sometimes we think and still react.  We are so self-centered and self-defensive.  Please let Your Holy Spirit rule in my life so that the law of love will guide me.

This entry was posted in Read thru the Bible and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a reply