The Ordinances provide supplemental information to the Decalogue (the ten commandments).

Regarding Hebrew Slaves

It’s specified that the following rules apply only to Hebrew slaves who have been bought.

  • They are to serve for six years. In the seventh year, they are to be set free.
  • If he was single when bought, he must leave single. If he was married when bought, his wife goes with him.
  • If his master provided him with a wife during his term as a slave, she and any children they’ve had together belong to the master even after the slave’s term is finished. If he wishes to stay with his wife and children, he must be made a slave for life (in a ceremony that involves boring a hole through his ear).

I think it goes without saying that this gives masters huge manipulative power.

  • When a Hebrew girl is sold by her family, she doesn’t get to be freed as male slaves do. Rather, she “must be married at a marriageable age to her master or his son, or released” (p. 106, A Woman’s Place).
  • A Hebrew female slave is protected against being sold to foreigners, even if she “does not please her master” (Exod. 21:8).
  • If the Hebrew female slave is intended for the master’s son, “he shall deal with her as with a daughter” (Exod. 21:9), presumably even before the wedding takes place.
  • If, after buying his wife, he decides to take another, he “shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Exod. 21:10). If he fails in this, she is to be freed.

You read that correctly. The Bible just conflated being a wife and a slave. Take from that what you will.

Regarding Murder

  • Murder earns the death penalty.
  • However, if the murder was not in cold blood – “if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand” (Exod. 21:13) – the murderer is exiled instead.

Regarding Personal Injuries

  • Hitting your parents merits the death penalty.
  • Kidnapping merits the death penalty. It’s specified that this is the case regardless of whether the kidnapper is found with the victim or if he’s already sold his victim.

It’s often argued that slavery in the Bible wasn’t like the more modern forms, that it was merely a way for people to pay off debts and that slaves weren’t abused as they were in antebellum America. But this provides us a hint of just how silly that claim is. If slaves were merely debtors who willingly entered into slavery themselves, a kidnapper would not be able to sell his victim (as we saw in Genesis 37).

  • Cursing one’s parents merits the death penalty.

I think it’s important to point out that this doesn’t mean the kinds of cursing that we’re familiar with today, which would involve kids shouting profanities as they slam doors. At the time, a curse was believed to be capable of very real harm, and the act of cursing someone “released an inexorable power” (as my study bible puts it).

  • exodus-21If one person strikes another so that the stricken person must keep “to his bed” (Exod. 21:18) but is eventually healed, the striker must pay for the loss of time and have his victim healed.
  • If a slave dies when beaten by the master, the master shall be punished. If the slave survives a day or two before dying, there’s no punishment, “for the slave is his money” (Exod. 21:21).

The punishment for killing another human being in this case is not specified. Further, this passage has lead people like Philo to conclude “that one who kills his own slaves actually injures oneself more by being deprived of the slave’s service and property value” (p. 106, A Woman’s Place). Certainly, the argument is there that the loss of the slave’s value is punishment enough.

  • If two men are fighting and they hurt a pregnant woman causing a miscarriage but she is otherwise unharmed, the one who hurt her is to be fined.

I find this point really interesting in light of the abortion debate. Exodus 21:12 stipulated that the punishment for an unintentional or “heat of the moment” killing is exile. So the implication of this passage is that there is something qualitatively different between killing a person and killing a fetus. Further, the punishment given, a fine, is the same as we shall soon see given for property damage.

  • If the pregnant woman is harmed, the punishment is “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod. 21:23-25).

While it may seem barbaric on the surface (and certainly is by modern standards), I think it bears mentioning that this is less a call for vengeance and more a limitation on what otherwise might be an unending cycle of vengeance. It works two ways: The first is that if someone pokes out your eye, you can only poke out his in return, not kill him, for example. Secondly, because it’s written down that the punishment for poking out your eye is a loss of his own, he can’t then demand vengeance for the harm you have done. So penance is paid and the incident doesn’t become a much larger feud.

  • If a master ruins a slave’s eye or knocks out a tooth, the slave is allowed to go free.

As Sam Harris points out, “the only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we do not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth (Exodus 21). It should go without saying that this is not the kind of moral insight that put an end to slavery in the United States”  (p. 16, Letter to a Christian Nation).

(For more on the use of the Bible to both condemn and defend slavery, there’s a fantastic post over at Daylight Atheism.)

  • If an ox gores someone to death, it should be stoned at the flesh not eaten, but the owner is guiltless.
  • If an ox gores someone to death and has a history of goring but the owner neglected to keep it locked up, both the ox and the owner should either be killed, or the owner forced to pay a “ransom.”
  • If an ox gores a slave, the ox’s owner must pay a fine to the slave’s owner.
  • If a man leaves a pit uncovered and an ox or donkey fall in, he can keep the dead animal but must pay its owner.
  • If one man’s ox kills another man’s ox, both should be sold and the money split between the two men.

According to Collins, laws regarding damage done by livestock can also be found in the codes of Eshnunna and Hammurabi. The instructions in Exodus 21:35 for what to do if an ox kills another ox “corresponds exactly to the Code of Eshnunna” (The Hebrew Bible, p.71).

David Plotz says that these laws “are far more revealing” as a window into the daily lives of the ancient Israelites “than the more dramatic biblical stories. They depict the Israelites at the time of the Torah as obsessed with property rights and focused on the health of their livestock, on which their economic health depended.”