These small group studies of Exodus contain outlines, cross-references, Bible study discussion questions, and applications. Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.
Exodus 21 Inductive Bible Study
I. Commands regarding slavery (1-11)
II. Commands regarding murder (12-14)
III. Commands regarding conflicts and quarreling (15-27)
IV. Commands regarding animals (28-36)
I. Verses 1-11
What specific rules for slavery are mentioned here?
In what ways are these statutes different than most cultures’ view of slavery?
In essence, what did this 6 years of slavery accomplish?
Why might a man not want to leave his master?
Why might a person sell his daughter as a slave?
Why is she not allowed to leave in the 7th year like the male slaves?
What was the unstated purpose of this type of slaves?
Explain the phrase “acted treacherously.”
How did verses 10-11 protect these women?
Why did you think God allows slavery instead of abolishing it? What is the root cause of slavery? Do you think God’s ideal plan allows for slavery?
Colossians 3:22-25 – NT verses on slaves obeying their masters.
Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:13 – In the church there is to be no division including slave or free.
Leviticus 25:44-46 – Buy slaves of Gentiles.
Deuteronomy 23:15-16 – Do not return an escaped slave or oppress him.
Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7 – No stealing someone to sell him into slavery.
Exodus 20:10 – Slaves were required to keep the Sabbath (and therefore rest) just like everyone else.
Colossians 4:1 – Give your bond servants fair wages.
Verse by Verse Commentary
The first thing we need to say is that neither slavery in New Testament times nor slavery under the Mosaic covenant had anything to do with the sort of slavery where “Black” people were bought and sold as property by “White” people in the well-known slave trade over the last few centuries. No “White” Christian should think that they can use any slightly positive comment about slavery in these sections to justify the historic Slave Trade, which is still a major stain on the histories of both the U.S. and U.K.
The extreme kindness to be shown to slaves/servants commanded in the Bible among the Israelites was often prefaced by a reminder that they too were slaves at the hand of the Egyptians. In other words, they were to treat slaves/servants in a way that they wanted to be treated.
As we already know, slavery was common in the Middle East as far back as ancient Egypt. If God had simply ignored it, then there would have been no rules for their treatment and they could have treated them harshly with no rights. But since they did have rights and rules for their protection, it showed that God cared for them as well. However, this is often misconstrued for an endorsement of slavery, which it is not. God listed slave traders among the worst of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:10 (kidnappers/men stealers/slave traders). This is no new teaching as Moses was not fond of forced slavery either:
In light of such rules, slaves/servants in Israelite culture came about by their own actions, whether from among the Israelites or neighboring cultures.
This is the first type of bankruptcy law they encountered. With this, a government doesn’t step in, but a person, who has lost themselves to debt, can sell the only thing they have left, their ability to perform labor. This is a loan. In six years the loan is paid off, and they are set free. Bond servants who did this made a wage, had their debt covered, had a home to stay in, on-the-job training, and did it for only six years. This almost sounds better than college, which doesn’t cover debt and you have to pay for it!
A few pointers to remember:
1. Slaves under Mosaic Law were different from the harshly treated slaves of other societies, more like servants or bond servants.
2. The Bible doesn’t give an endorsement of slave traders but the opposite (1 Timothy 1:10). A slave/bond servant was acquired when a person voluntarily entered into it when he needed to pay off his debts.
3. The Bible recognizes that slavery is a reality in this sin-cursed world and doesn’t ignore it, but instead gives regulations for good treatment by both masters and servants and reveals they are equal under Christ.
4. Israelites could sell themselves as a slave/bond servant to have their debts covered, make a wage, have housing and be set free after six years. Foreigners could sell themselves as a slave/bond servant as well.
5. Biblical Christians led the fight to abolish slavery.
Concerning maid-servants, whom their parents, through extreme poverty, had sold, when they were very young, to such as they hoped would marry them when they grew up; if they did not, yet they must not sell them to strangers, but rather study how to make them amends for the disappointment; if they did, they must maintain them handsomely, v. 7-11. Thus did God provide for the comfort and reputation of the daughters of Israel, and has taught husbands to give honor to their wives (be their extraction ever so mean) as to the weaker vessels, 1 Pet. iii. 7.
1.Slavery in the Bible is not like the idea of slavery at least in the Western world. When a Western person thinks of slavery, he thinks of the slave trade where thousands of Africans were stolen from Africa by slave traders, transported in terrible conditions, sold in slave markets, kept as slaves permanently, mistreated and abused, all because of race. What was it then?
2.It was voluntary. Verse 16 says that a person who steals someone to sell them or for whatever reason is to be put to death. That means that according to the OT law slave traders in the 16th to 19th centuries were to be executed for their crimes. Why would anybody voluntarily agree to slavery? Obviously only as a last resort. Probably because of foolish life decisions, laziness, or excessive borrowing, a person would get himself into a pit too deep to dig out of. The only recourse would be to voluntarily sell himself as a slave. He has no other possessions and nothing of value, so he sells the last thing he has of worth, himself. This is in essence the first bankruptcy law, and frankly I think it is much more preferable to the bankruptcy laws today in the Western world. These days you can borrow, borrow, borrow tons of money and never pay it back (steal). Then after you borrow tens of thousands of dollars from credit cards, mortgages, loans, etc. you can just file some paperwork and say “I am not going to pay you back.” That is stealing and blatantly unfair. This person should be required to work it off. If they don’t want to work it off, they shouldn’t borrow in the first place.
3.It was temporary. Unlike the permanent slavery in the 16th to 19th centuries, this slavery was permanent, notably for 6 years. This means basically that the slavery was in essence indentured servant-hood. During those six years the master would take care of all of the slaves needs while the slave worked to pay off his debts. It is much more preferable than many nation’s practices to throw debtors into prison where they can’t work off anything! It was temporary for the husband and his whole family if he went into the slavery with his whole family.
4.The master might provide a wife for the slave. In this case the wife and children would not go out with the slave. This rule was known ahead of time. Therefore a wise man would consider his choices before getting married. The only two reasonable choices would be to decline the master’s offer of a wife or to accept it knowing that meant permanent slavery. I would assume that a man would only accept the master’s offer after carefully considering if he wanted to work for this guy forever. Only if he loved his master, felt at home, and appreciated the stability and fairness of that home would he agree to it. By stating the rules ahead of time, God made sure that slaves and masters were both protected and could make informed decisions.
5.Discuss the NT verses on slavery.
1.Selling a daughter was only an absolute last resort. A person who was faithful to his family and loved his children and treated them rightly was taught in other Scriptures would never do this unless he thought he had no choice. Jews in fact apparently did not allow this unless a man had nothing else of value to trade. You might ask as I did, why not sell himself? If he does, what would happen to his daughter? She would likely end up as a slave anyway, but this time without the protections afforded to her as taught in these verses.
2.A man would probably only get into this situation if he had sinned. For example gross laziness, gambling, borrowing beyond his means, or other such sins. Sin leads to big holes that are hard to climb out of with good solutions. Sometimes a person is in so deep there is not good way out and you almost have to choose the lesser of two evils. This seems to be one of those cases. It is a reminder that the sins of the parents affect the children.
3.The term for daughter likely refers to a young girl less than 12 years old.
4.It refers to selling a daughter as a wife for either the master or his son. In this regards it is similar to paying a dowry to the father/parents of a daughter before marrying them. This is not done nowadays in the States, but is culturally acceptable in many parts of the world. The purpose seems to show respect for the parents and pay them back for all of the money/time/care they spent on raising this child.
5.This is also like an arranged marriage. The father, in desperation, arranges a marriage (perhaps earlier than he intended and it seems that the daughter in this case has fewer rights than a typical arranged marriage) A good father would assuredly check out the background of the master to be sure he was upright, and honorable and would treat his daughter well.
6.The females sold to be wives were not to go free after 6 years. There are probably two reasons for this. Firstly, at that time ladies on their own would have a very tough time making it in society. Secondly, and more importantly, as an intended wife it would be improper to release them after 6 years. A wife is a wife for life, not just for 6 years.
7.If after purchasing the daughter, in the interim before she grows up old enough to marry the master discovers some character problems or whatever thing he doesn’t like about her, he is not required to marry her. He is to allow her to be redeemed, NOT SOLD again. I would assume like in the case of Ruth it refers to a relative buying her freedom.
8.The latter part of verse 8 refers to the man’s unfairness to her. This shows that he has obligations to her, not just her to him. Most importantly, he has the obligation to marry her (or marry his son to her). This appears to be the basis of the agreement. If whatever reason he doesn’t want to go through with it, he must allow for her redemption. This verse is very important in protecting her rights in this deal.
9.If she is for her son, he must treat her as a daughter. This is another important protection of her rights.
10.If he marries anyone else (since polygamy was sometimes practiced in those days, but NOT condoned in the Bible) he MUST continue to provide for her including food, clothing, and marriage rights (presumably so she could have children).
11.If he doesn’t fulfill his obligations to her in any way, she is free.
12.In summary, the Bible doesn’t encourage slavery, but in that culture when because of sin there was not other choice, the Bible regulates it to protect the rights of the slave so that they weren’t mistreated.
II. Verses 12-14
What was the penalty for murder? So what would you say to a person who claims that capital punishment is outdated, cruel, or inhumane?
Did God make any differentiation between levels of murder? What? What was the penalty for accidental murder?
1.This is another endorsement of capital punishment in the Bible. A murderer should be executed. Do you think this lowers the value of life? Some argue that this lowers the value of life. Actually it raises the value of life by raising the punishment for taking life. Life is so valuable (because we are made in the image of God) that the only punishment high enough for taking a life is executing the person who took it.
2.God does differentiate between different types of murder. If a person murders someone else by accident in the heat of the moment, perhaps in a fight, then that person need not be executed. Most modern laws make similar distinctions between pre-meditated murder and manslaughter. This kind of situation could include things like two men fighting and in the fistfight one hits his head on a rock and dies or they pick up objects to fight with and hit the other in the head and he dies. Why does God make distinction? God is concerned not only with our actions, but also with our heart and our motivations. Planning out a murder shows a different level of hate. This law doesn’t excuse manslaughter as the penalty for manslaughter is exile (something akin to prison since they couldn’t leave the city of refuge.) This is still a hefty punishment. It is a reminder to always be careful. Don’t engage in reckless or foolish behavior or fights. They could always end worse than you expect. One accident/mistake in the heat of the moment could alter the course of your life forever. Self-control is extremely important.
III. Verses 15-27
How serious is it to strike or curse a parent?
What was the penalty for injuring another person in a fight and causing that person to miss time at work?
What was the penalty for striking a pregnant women? Taking the context into account, what would the penalty be if the unborn child was harmed or died?
Explain the phrase “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.” What implication does this have for the topic of abortion?
Is this punishment too strict? How do you think enacting these laws in society might change a society? What effect would these laws have? Why were God’s standards so strict?
Did masters have the right to kill their slaves? How about to strike them? What was the penalty for causing permanent bodily harm to the slave? How do these laws protect the slaves?
Verse by Verse Commentary
15 – This is one of several OT laws that show how serious it is for children to be rebellious/hateful/disobedient to parents. If a child strikes his parents, it is worthy of death. I have seen children hitting their parents. This is yet another reminder that without grace there is no hope. Everybody has committed sins worthy of death. The world sometimes laughs at kids who hit their parents or say rude things thinking it is “cute” or “funny.” This is inexcusable. We should never laugh at sin. Sin is never cute. Hitting parents is evil.
16 – This verse tells us that stealing a person to sell them or any other reason, is a crime worthy of death. This is a great verse to share to skeptics who say that the Bible supports the slave trade. According to this passage, slave traders should all be executed. We can see that the world’s punishments for crimes fall far short of God’s punishments. The reason is perhaps that the world doesn’t take sin as seriously as God does.
17 – This is another verse laying out the law for parent/child relationships. Children who curse their parents deserve death. I’m guessing that this is also quite common. Children may not curse their parents to their face, but likely do it behind their backs, to their friends, or in their hearts. Remember that these were laws given basically to the Israelite “government.” I’m sure that not just anybody was allowed to carry out these penalties. So these verses are not to be taken as commands for parents to carry out to their own kids when their kids get out of line. Rather we should take them as a reminder of how serious sin is and a reminder to raise kids in the proper way to be respectful, polite, and obedient. (It should be noted that in Israelite history there is no record of any kids every being executed for either of these sins.) It seems this law was an effective deterrent (much more than more modern disciplines like “time out” “grounding” scolding or threats to leave the kid somewhere.)
18-19 – Law of restitution. A person is required to compensate the other party if a fight he is involved in keeps him from work. Many biblical laws contain principles for restitution. It is one area that modern law often neglects. Modern law will generally throw people in prison as punishment, but that doesn’t actually help the victim. If I was the victim, in many cases I would prefer restitution for loss and payment for health care costs instead of prison time for the criminal. This would actually have some positive benefits for the victim instead of just negative effects for the criminal.
20-21 – This law gives certain rights and raises the slave’s status from commonly accepted culture at that time. Generally masters could kill their slaves with no punishment. Here, they are not allowed to do so. The slaves are treated as a person (albeit a person who has given up certain rights when he sinned and was forced to sell himself as a slave.) It seems living for at least a day or two was evidence that the death wasn’t caused by the master. Common sense tells a master not to beat his slave as this would promote hatred, discourage work, and cause the slave’s efficiency to go down. Other commands tell people to love their neighbor as themselves, to not be cruel to animals, to practice self-control, to not be angry, to be a good steward, etc. So by combining all the principles in the Bible/OT, it is easy to conclude that God would never approve of a master beating his slave for no reason. HOWEVER, if the slave committed a crime of some kind it would be appropriate to punish the slave, BUT this punishment should never go to the point of killing the slave (unless of course the slave committed murder first.)
IV. Verses 28-36
Why should the animal be killed although they have no moral concept? Is this a good standard to apply today?
Why do so many laws here focus on animals? What does this show us about God’s laws (they are relevant since it was a culture based on agriculture)?
What does verse 29 tell us about the owner’s responsibility towards caring for his animals?
What is this concept of redemption in verse 30?
Use one sentence to make a summary of these commands (ie: Owners are responsible for their animals. Actions have consequences. You reap what you sow.)
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