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Exodus 21:1-6

Context
The Decisions

21:1 1 “These are the decisions that you will set before them:

Hebrew Servants

21:2 2 “If you buy 3  a Hebrew servant, 4  he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year he will go out free 5  without paying anything. 6  21:3 If he came 7  in by himself 8  he will go out by himself; if he had 9  a wife when he came in, then his wife will go out with him. 21:4 If his master gave 10  him a wife, and she bore sons or daughters, the wife and the children will belong to her master, and he will go out by himself. 21:5 But if the servant should declare, 11  ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out 12  free,’ 21:6 then his master must bring him to the judges, 13  and he will bring him to the door or the doorposts, and his master will pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever. 14 

1 sn There follows now a series of rulings called “the decisions” or “the judgments” (הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, hammishpatim). A precept is stated, and then various cases in which the law is applicable are examined. These rulings are all in harmony with the Decalogue that has just been given and can be grouped into three categories: civil or criminal laws, religious or cultic laws, and moral or humanitarian laws. The civil and criminal laws make up most of chap. 21; the next two chapters mix the other kinds of laws. Among the many studies of this section of the book are F. C. Fensham, “The Role of the Lord in the Legal Sections of the Covenant Code,” VT 26 (1976): 262-74; S. Paul, “Unrecognized Biblical Legal Idioms in Light of Comparative Akkadian Expressions,” RB 86 (1979): 231-39; M. Galston, “The Purpose of the Law According to Maimonides,” JQR 69 (1978): 27-51.

2 sn See H. L. Elleson, “The Hebrew Slave: A Study in Early Israelite Society,” EvQ 45 (1973): 30-35; N. P. Lemche, “The Manumission of Slaves – The Fallow Year – The Sabbatical Year – The Jobel Year,” VT 26 (1976): 38-59, and “The ‘Hebrew Slave,’ Comments on the Slave Law – Ex. 21:2-11,” VT 25 (1975): 129-44.

3 tn The verbs in both the conditional clause and the following ruling are imperfect tense: “If you buy…then he will serve.” The second imperfect tense (the ruling) could be taken either as a specific future or an obligatory imperfect. Gesenius explains how the verb works in the conditional clauses here (see GKC 497 §159.bb).

4 sn The interpretation of “Hebrew” in this verse is uncertain: (l) a gentilic ending, (2) a fellow Israelite, (3) or a class of mercenaries of the population (see W. C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” EBC 2:431). It seems likely that the term describes someone born a Hebrew, as opposed to a foreigner (S. R. Driver, Exodus, 210). The literature on this includes: M. P. Gray, “The Habiru-Hebrew Problem,” HUCA 29 (1958): 135-202.

5 sn The word חָפְשִׁי (khofshi) means “free.” It is possible that there is some connection between this word and a technical term used in other cultures for a social class of emancipated slaves who were freemen again (see I. Mendelsohn, “New Light on the Hupsu,” BASOR 139 [1955]: 9-11).

6 tn The adverb חִנָּם (hinnam) means “gratis, free”; it is related to the verb “to be gracious, show favor” and the noun “grace.”

7 tn The tense is imperfect, but in the conditional clause it clearly refers to action that is anterior to the action in the next clause. Heb “if he comes in single, he goes out single,” that is, “if he came in single, he will go out single.”

8 tn Heb “with his back” meaning “alone.”

9 tn The phrase says, “if he was the possessor of a wife”; the noun בַּעַל (baal) can mean “possessor” or “husband.” If there was a wife, she shared his fortunes or his servitude; if he entered with her, she would accompany him when he left.

10 sn The slave would not have the right or the means to acquire a wife. Thus, the idea of the master’s “giving” him a wife is clear – the master would have to pay the bride price and make the provision. In this case, the wife and the children are actually the possession of the master unless the slave were to pay the bride price – but he is a slave because he got into debt. The law assumes that the master was better able to provide for this woman than the freed slave and that it was most important to keep the children with the mother.

11 tn The imperfect with the infinitive absolute means that the declaration is unambiguous, that the servant will clearly affirm that he wants to stay with the master. Gesenius says that in a case like this the infinitive emphasizes the importance of the condition on which some consequence depends (GKC 342-43 §113.o).

12 tn Or taken as a desiderative imperfect, it would say, “I do not want to go out free.”

13 tn The word is הָאֱלֹהִים (haelohim). S. R. Driver (Exodus, 211) says the phrase means “to God,” namely the nearest sanctuary in order that the oath and the ritual might be made solemn, although he does say that it would be done by human judges. That the reference is to Yahweh God is the view also of F. C. Fensham, “New Light on Exodus 21:7 and 22:7 from the Laws of Eshnunna,” JBL 78 (1959): 160-61. Cf. also ASV, NAB, NASB, NCV, NRSV, NLT. Others have made a stronger case that it refers to judges who acted on behalf of God; see C. Gordon, “אלהים in its Reputed Meaning of Rulers, Judges,” JBL 54 (1935): 134-44; and A. E. Draffkorn, “Ilani/Elohim,” JBL 76 (1957): 216-24; cf. KJV, NIV.

14 tn Or “till his life’s end” (as in the idiom: “serve him for good”).



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