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Exodus 21 – Skeptic's Annotated Bible answered

A response and reply to the notes on Exodus 21 in the Skeptic's Annotated Bible (SAB).

King James Version

SAB comment

My comment

1 Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.

2 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

(21:2-6) "If thou buy an Hebrew servant..."
God's rules for buying slaves and splitting up their families.
You can buy one, but you must set him free on the seventh year. If you have "given" him a wife and she bears children, then you get to keep the wife and kids. If he refuses to leave his family when his seven years are up, then bore a hole though his ear and keep him forever. (That sounds fair!)
The fact that the Hebrew servant was free to leave after six years makes it clear that this wasn't the typical 17th/18th century slave trading. There were clear restrictions, and clear protections by the law.
What happened here is that someone sold his time for six years for a single lump sum, to the person he would serve. Perhaps the servant had come indebted, or he wished to help his family or pay for medical expenses. His master pays a single sum, to the servant. The sum isn't paid to a slave trader. Slavery in the sense of enslaving people against their will was expressly forbidden, see verse 16.
Another situation is mentioned by John Gill: someone being sold because of theft: to make repairs. There was no prison, which the Middle East would probably have viewed as a most inhumane form of punishment.

3 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.

4 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

"If his master have given him a wife" Does God approve of slavery?
What the Bible says about slavery
The servant's master may have had another servant and have given permission to his servant to marry her. Obviously the situation was different from someone who was free, not paying of debts or serving his time. And the servant did not have to marry her, there was no coercion.

5 And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:

6 Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.

(21:6) "His master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever."
I do not understand why the author of the SAB finds boring through the ear lobe injustice. It's done voluntarily every day by hundreds of girls. This was also a transaction between equals: the servant was free, he had served his time, and the master was free to accept him or not.

7 And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.

(21:7) "If a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant..."
How to sell your daughter -- and what to do if she fails to please her new master.
What the Bible says about parenting
"Exodus 21:7 says it's OK to sell your daughter into slavery. Not even in Nevada." -- Penn & Teller on the Bible
First of all, selling your daughter doesn't mean she was sold as some kind of modern slave with little protection under the law. Secondly, who would sell his daughter? Not if you didn't have to we can be sure.
The situation here is someone who was unable to care for his daughter, probably through poverty. Another family would take care for her by giving the parents a lump sum, which could be used to alleviate that poverty or pay of debts, and in return the girl would perform certain labours.
Any hint of selling your daughter into slavery is completely unwarranted by this and subsequent verses, but of course useful to heap scorn on the Bible, truth being the least important of things.
The phrase “she shall not go out as the menservants do” means that she got special treatment: she was released upon puberty, in the jubilee, or upon death of her masters.

8 If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.

9 And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.

10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.

(21:10) "If he take him another wife..."
God's rules for "taking another wife.
Is polygamy OK?
What the Bible says about marriage and polygamy
Although polygamy is regulated, it happened because of the hardness of their hearts, it is never blessed and it wasn't from the beginning.

11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.

12 He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.

13 And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.

14 But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.

15 And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.

(21:15, 17) "He that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death."
Kill unruly children.
A child who hits or curses his parents must be executed.
Does God approve of capital punishment?
What the Bible says about children, parenting, and capital punishment
God does not want children to die, but God wants sin punished. Is the author of the SAB advocating here that children can hit their parents without fear of punishment? Perhaps not, and the issue addressed here is the manner of punishment.
Let's first look at the definition of smiting. One of its meanings is: “to strike or hit hard, with or as with the hand, a stick, or other weapon: ” Another is: “To attack, damage, or destroy by or as if by blows.” So smiting is not some minor attack, but a hard hitting one, with the intent to destroy. It is a serious attack. God considered this such a serious crime under the laws of Old Israel that the maximum punishment should be death.
And one can wonder if Israel had more or less parents attacked by their children than countries with soft laws.

16 And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.

(21:16) "And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death."
Slavery is approved by God, and those who steal slaves must be killed.
Does God approve of slavery?
This verse says exactly the opposite as the author of the SAB has it! This verse condemns slavery, Capturing someone and selling him, i.e. slavery, is to be punished with death.

17 And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

(21:17) "He that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death."
This is smiting with the tongue as John Gill explains:

Though he does not smite them with his hand, or with any instrument in it, yet if he smites them with his tongue, reviles and reproaches them, speaks evil of them, wishes dreadful imprecations upon them, curses them by the name explained

18 And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:

19 If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.

20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

(21:20-21) "If a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and ... he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money."
Slowly beating your slaves to death
It's okay with God if you slowly beat your slaves to death. After all, they are your money. Just make sure that they survive at least a day or two after the beating.
What the Bible says about slavery and torture
Slavery was forbidden, see verse 16, so again, and again, this isn't about slaves, but about servants who have sold themselves voluntarily or were sold after having found out stealing and unable to make repayments.
The question that is decided here: was this punishment the cause of death, or was death accidental. Any judge will need to separate cause and effect, and this verse gives some guidelines. It isn't about beating them so they die, as that would be pretty stupid after spending all that money on them. And secondly, the punishment was also the loss of labour: if indeed there was an effect between rod and death, the master lost labour, which was probably a significant amount of money.

21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

(21:22) "So that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow"
If two men fight and cause a woman to miscarry, but do not hurt her, then the one who hurt her shall pay her husband an amount determined by the judges. Only if the woman dies is the punishment to be death. Apparently, then, with respect to abortion, God is pro-choice since he considers a woman's life to be more important than that of the fetus.
What the Bible says about abortion
As in verse 20, how to determine if the effect of the miscarriage was caused by the fight or not? And what kind of punishment to exact? Surely the legal standing of a foetus is different than that of an adult. And this verse is the exact opposite of pro-choice, because pro-choice means you can kill a baby just fine. But here the foetus is treated as a person and a fine follows.

23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,

24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

(21:24) "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth."
I wonder of the author of the SAB really has understood this verse. What is says is that the payment should match the crime. No death penalty for stealing: only an eye for an eye, not the entire body (i.e. the death penalty). A tooth for a tooth means only a tooth, your hand is not whacked off.

25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

26 And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake.

(21:26-27) "If a man smite the eye of his servant"
It's okay to beat your slaves; even if they die you won't be punished, just as long as they survive a day or two after the beating (see verses 21:20-21). But avoid excessive damage to their eyes or teeth. Otherwise you may have to set them free.
The author of the SAB claims that losing an eye or tooth is seen as more important than beating a slave to death. It isn't, obviously once the servant is dead, he cannot be set free. Secondly, this verse indicates that any form of punishment that results in physical disabilities would mean the freedom of the servant, basically guaranteeing no harsh forms of punishment were used as the penalty was the loss of the servant. Thirdly, if beating of the slave resulted in immediate death, it was simply murder.

27 And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.

28 If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.

(21:28-29, 31) Capital punishment for animals
(21:28) "The ox shall be surely stoned."
If an ox gores someone, "then the ox shall surely be stoned."
What the Bible says about stoning
This law is very similar to laws all over the world where for example a dog or shark is killed after it has attacked humans.

29 But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.

(21:29, 32) "The ox shall be stoned, and his owner shall be put to death."
If an ox gores someone due to the negligence of its owner, kill its owner and stone to death the ox.".
This law basically says that the instrument of death is not important when determining if someone is guilty of killing someone. Killing someone was taken extremely seriously. In many modern West European countries it has become a relatively small thing, a few years in prison at most, less than tax evasion.

30 If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him.

31 Whether he have gored a son, or have gored a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done unto him.

32 If the ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant; he shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

(21:32) "He shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver."
If an ox gores a slave, the owner of the ox must pay the owner of the slave 30 shekels of silver, and "the ox shall be stoned."
Does God approve of slavery?
On the word slave which the author of the SAB likes to use, see verse 4. Note here that the worth of the servant, whether bought for 100 shekels or 1 penny, is fixed as thirty: each on of them has an intrinsic worth.

33 And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit, and not cover it, and an ox or an ass fall therein;

34 The owner of the pit shall make it good, and give money unto the owner of them; and the dead beast shall be his.

35 And if one man’s ox hurt another’s, that he die; then they shall sell the live ox, and divide the money of it; and the dead ox also they shall divide.

36 Or if it be known that the ox hath used to push in time past, and his owner hath not kept him in; he shall surely pay ox for ox; and the dead shall be his own.