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The culture of slavery described in the economic system of the Israelites as they prepared to move into the Promised Land differed both from that of the surrounding pagan nations as well as from the modern experience of slavery in America. The divine ordinances placed a priority on freedom and protection deriving from the mercy of God rather than ruthless and oppressive exploitation.

Bruce Hurt: Exodus 21:1-23:33 is essentially a unit wherein Jehovah gives Moses a “manual” which prescribes pious practices for God’s possession so that they might manifest themselves among the pagan nations as a holy nation (Ex 19:6+) pointing to the one True and Living God. In Exodus 24:4 we read “Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD.” Then in Exodus 24:7 Moses “took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!””

Wiersbe: Though the Jews were permitted to own slaves from other nations, usually prisoners of war, they were not allowed to enslave their own people. Two scenarios are presented here: a man who voluntarily becomes a servant (Ex. 21:1-7), and a woman who is sold to be a servant (vv. 8-11).


“Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them.”

MacArthur: “ordinances” – A combination of casuistic (case-law) and apodictic (direct command) precepts laid down, as a detailed enlargement of the Decalogue, the framework for judging and resolving civil disputes in Israel. Such a combination continued to confirm the uniqueness of Israel’s law among the different ancient Near Eastern law-codes. Later in a special ceremony, God entitled these precepts the Book of the Covenant (24:7).


A. (:2) Conditions of Service

1. Terms of Service

a. Applies to a Purchased Hebrew Slave

“If you buy a Hebrew slave,”

James Jordan: The Bible draws a distinction between Hebrew slaves and slaves who had not previously been members of the covenant. . . The slave purchased from heathendom, although immediately circumcised (Ex. 12:44; Lev. 22:11; Gen. 17:12, 13), was not released in the sixth year (Lev. 25:44-46), but the law did guarantee him the right to save money and buy his freedom (Lev. 25:49, 26).

b. Term = 6 Years

“he shall serve for six years;”

2. Terms of Release

a. On the Seventh Year

“but on the seventh”

b. As a Free Man

“he shall go out as a free man”

c Without Payment

“without payment.”

John Hannah: Among the Israelites a person could sell himself and his wife into slavery due to poverty or debt (Lev. 25:39; Deut. 15:12; 2 Kings 4:1; Neh. 5:5), but the servitude was to be limited to six years (Ex. 21:2). Thus it was indentured service.

John Davis: This seventh year does not refer to the sabbatical year (Exod. 23:11; Lev. 25:4) but to the beginning of the seventh year after the man became a slave (Deut. 15:12). When the jubilee year came, however, a Hebrew slave was to be released irrespective of how many years he had served (Lev. 25:40). This law was designed to prevent perpetual involuntary slaver. In fact, the humanitarian aspects of Hebrew slave laws are very interesting and represent a very high ethic. . . This type of treatment of a slave finds no real parallel among other nations of the ancient Near East.

B. (:3) Normal Situations

You go out from slavery in the same condition you entered into slavery;

1. Alone

“If he comes alone, he shall go out alone;”

2. With His Wife

“if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him.”

C. (:4-6) Special Situations

1. (:4) Wife and Family Belong to the Master

a. Acquisition of Wife and Children Derives from the Master

“If his master gives him a wife,

and she bears him sons or daughters,”

b. Ownership Rights Belong to the Master

“the wife and her children shall belong to her master,”

James Jordan: If her husband has genuinely profited from his period of slave-apprenticeship, he will be able to save up money, and soon purchase her freedom. This is fair to all, since the master recovers the money he paid for the woman he provided the slave.

c. Male Slave Released Alone

“and he shall go out alone.”

David Thompson: Now suppose that a slave wanted to be free, but he also wanted his wife and children. If he left to be free, did this mean that he would never see his wife and children again? No way. There were at least three possible options:

(Option #1) -He could go to work somewhere else and wait for his wife and children to fulfill a six-year work assignment.

(Option #2) – He could go to work for someone else, earn enough money to purchase his wife and children and buy out the remaining contract.

(Option #3) – He could willingly decide to stay with the master keeping himself and his family working for this master for the rest of their lives.

2. (:5-6) Slave Seeks Permanent Servitude

a. Motivation

“But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’”

James Jordan: In other words, the slave has found true freedom in the service of this kindly master.

b. Process

“then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl;”

James Jordan: this piercing of the ear is a sign of adoption

c. Permanent Status

“and he shall serve him permanently.”


A. (:7) Different Situation for Female Hebrew Slaves

“And if a man sells his daughter as a female slave,

she is not to go free as the male slaves do.”

John Hannah: Some Hebrew fathers thought it more advantageous for their daughters to become concubines of well-to-do neighbors than to become the wives of men in their own social class.

B. (:8) Options for Change in Status if Found Displeasing

1. Possibility of Redemption

“If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed.”

Constable: Females did not enjoy as much freedom as males in the ancient Near East or in Israel. They were subject to the fathers or husbands in authority over them as well as to God (cf. Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18). Exodus 21:7-11 describe a girl whom her father sells as a servant (Heb. “amah, Exodus 21:7) for marriage, not for slavery. [Note: Kaiser, ” Exodus ,” p430.] In such a case the girl would become the servant of the father of her husband-to-be who would than give her to his son as his wife. She would remain in her prospective father-in-law’s household unless someone redeemed her before the consummation of her marriage. If for some reason her prospective father-in-law became displeased with her, he was to allow someone to redeem her (set her free by the payment of a price). Her redeemer could be herself or someone else (cf. Deuteronomy 24:1). Her master was not to sell her to some other person, a “foreign” person in that sense (Exodus 21:8). Such treatment was unfair to her because it violated her legitimate human rights

2. Prohibition of Being Sold to a Foreigner

“He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people

because of his unfairness to her.”

C. (:9) Married Daughter Status

“And if he designates her for his son,

he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters.”

Wiersbe: If the man had chosen her for his son, and the son came to dislike her and married another woman, then the son’s father had to be sure she was treated like a married daughter.

David Thompson: When you think this through, there were three options:

1) A woman could become the wife of a master.

2) A woman could become the wife of a master’s son.

3) A woman could be set free by redemption.

D. (:10-11) Options When Displaced as Wife

1. (:10) Provision of Basic Needs

“If he takes to himself another woman,

he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights.”

2. (:11) Provision for Freedom Without Payment

“And if he will not do these three things for her,

then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”