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The Law concerning Slaves


These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:

2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. 5But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” 6then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. 11And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

The Law concerning Violence

12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

18 When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.

20 When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.

22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23If any harm follows, then 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.

26 When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. 27If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.

Laws concerning Property

28 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

33 If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.

35 If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide. 36But if it was known that the ox was accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not restrained it, the owner shall restore ox for ox, but keep the dead animal.

1. Now these are the judgments. Both passages contain the same appointment, viz., that as to the Hebrews slavery must end at the seventh year; for God would have the children of Abraham, although obliged to sell themselves, to differ from heathen and ordinary slaves. Their enfranchisement is, therefore, enjoined, but with an exception, which Moses expresses in the first passage but omits in the latter, i e., that if the slave had married a bond-woman, and had begotten children, they should remain with the master, and that he should alone be free. Whence it appears how hard was the condition of slaves, since it could not be mitigated without an unnatural exception (sine prodigio;) for nothing could be more opposed to nature than that a husband, forsaking his wife and children, should remove himself elsewhere. But the tie of slavery could only be loosed by divorce, that is to say, by this impious violation of marriage. There was then gross barbarity in this severance, whereby a man was disunited from half of himself and his own bowels. Yet there was no remedy for it; for if the wife and children had been set free, it would have been a spoliation of their lawful master to take them with him, not only because the woman was his slave, but because he had incurred expense in the bringing up of the young children. The sanctity of marriage therefore gave way in this case to private right; and this defect is to be reckoned amongst the others which God tolerated on account of the people’s hardness of heart, because it could hardly be remedied; yet, if any one were withheld by chaste affection, and unwilling to abandon his wife and offspring, an alternative is presented, viz., that he should give himself up also to perpetual slavery. The form of this is more clearly pointed out in Exodus than in Deuteronomy; for, in the latter, it is only said that the master, in order to assert his perpetual right to the slave, should bore his ear; whereas in Exodus the circumstance is added, that a public process should first take place; for, if each private individual had been his own judge in this matter, the rich men’s houses would have been like slaughterhouses to put their wretched slaves to the torment in. 148148     “Pour tormenter, et gehener les poures serfs.” — Fr. We read in Jeremiah, (34:11,) that this law fell into contempt, and that the Jews, contrary to all law and justice, retained perpetual dominion over their slaves; nay, that when they were severely reprimanded under King Zedekiah, and liberty was anew proclaimed, the wretched men were immediately dragged back to their yoke of tyranny, as if they had been set free in mockery. Care was therefore to be taken lest, by secret tortures, they should compel the unwilling to continue as their slaves; and the provision against this evil was an open confession of their desire before the judges; whilst the boring of the ear was a kind of stigma upon them. For the Orientals were accustomed to brand slaves, or fugitives, or criminals, or those who were in any wise suspected; and although God did not choose to have this mark of ignominy imprinted on the foreheads of his people, yet, if any one voluntarily consented to endure perpetual slavery, He willed that he should bear this token of his servitude upon his ear. Still we must remember that even this slavery, although it is said to endure for ever, was brought to a close at the jubilee, because then the condition of the land and people was altogether renewed.

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