Exodus 21-23: Expansion of the Law

The law is one of the most misunderstood and confused portions of the Bible. These misunderstandings are often the cause of disbelief, the source of argument, and a stumbling block for believers who are unsure (and often unaware) of the what and how the laws apply. It is important to understand that God's moral law still stands today, but the judiciary law which delegates punishment for breaking the law does not. Before we start talking about the laws Moses gives the Israelites in Exodus 22 & 23, take a minute to brush up on how Biblical law applies today, if you are confused. I have a post discussing this issue entitled The Law.


The law is one of the most misunderstood and confused portions of the Bible. These misunderstandings are often the cause of disbelief, the source of argument, and a stumbling block for believers who are unsure (and often unaware) of the what and how the laws apply. It is important to understand that God's moral law still stands today, but the judiciary law which delegates punishment for breaking the law does not. Before we start talking about the laws Moses gives the Israelites in Exodus 22 & 23, take a minute to brush up on how Biblical law applies today, if you are confused. I have a post discussing this issue entitled The Law.


God tells the Israelites to build an altar of earth where they could sacrifice to Him. He reminds them that wherever He records His name, He will come and bless them. This is a reminder that He is not confined to Mount Sinai or any other location, but free to come and go as He pleases. If the altar is made of stone, He specifies that it cannot be made of cut stone. God also prohibits the people from ascending the steps of the altar.


As a descendant of African slaves it is easy to be tempted to follow those who shun the Bible for its views on slavery, but in order to understand the Word of God, you must be willing to look at the bigger picture, to dig through the details, and put away fleshly emotion. There are many differences between American slavery (which is the first thing that pops into most of our minds when slavery is mentioned) or Human trafficking (another problem our society today) than what is discussed in the Bible. The questions that you want to answer is how can slavery be justified, what are these differences, and what does the Bible say about slavery.

How Can Slavery Be Justified?

The first question we should tackle is how slavery can possibly be justified. Owning a person? By our standards today, any sane person would say that this is a ridiculous idea, old fashioned, and definitely immoral. So why does the Bible condone it? There are a couple things to be taken into account when talking about Biblical servants. The first thing to think about is that there was no such thing as welfare or public housing during Biblical days. Remember welfare didn't start in the U.S. until 1935[1] and during this time many descendants of freed slaves were still share-croppers[2] (which even though they were legally free, they weren't treated as such). So what did poor people do during those times? They sold themselves into slavery. Whites in the US used a combination of misinterpreted Bible references (such as the Curse of Canaan) and eugenics to declare that Africans were inferior and thus deserved to be slaves. Due to this "inferior status" they declared slaves to be 3/5 of a person. However the Bible clearly states that all men are created in God's image, no one is inferior or superior and all lives are equally valuable. During Biblical times selling yourself into servitude was a way of survival. You did work where your payment was a place to stay and food to eat, but your work wasn't necessarily enough to pay for the roof over your head or the food you ate. Think about being a child today. You are essentially a slave; you have to do what your parents tell you and go where they tell you, you can't vote, you can't make certain decisions for yourself, but each child has a different experience. Some parents abuse their children, just as some masters abuse their slaves (which is condemned in the Bible), and some parents are wonderful to their children just as some masters were wonderful to their slaves. As you will see below, there were laws in place to protect the slave and forcing someone into slavery against their will was punishable by death!

Laws Pertaining to Servants

Law Bible Verses
1 Hebrew servants are to be set free at no cost in the 7th year. If he brought with him a wife, he is to take his wife with him. If the owner of the servant gives the servant a wife (who would be one of the owner's other servants likely), the wife and her children were not set free with the man. The servant may proclaim loyalty to the master and serve him forever to stay with his wife and child. Exodus 21:2-6
2 Women were generally sold with the expectation of becoming a wife. They were to be given the rights and treatments of a wife. Refusal to do so meant she could go free. Exodus 21:7-11
3 A man who buys a woman to be his wife, but is displeased with her does not have the authority to sell her to another land. Exodus 21:7-11
4 If a man buys a woman and betrothed her to his son, she is to be treated the way a daughter would be treated. Exodus 21:7-11
5 Stealing a man and selling him into slavery or keeping him as a slave is punishable by death. Exodus 21:16
6 If a man kills his servant, he is to be put to death Exodus 21:20
7 If a man permanently injures his servant, the servant is to be set free Exodus 21:26-27
8 If a man strikes his servant, but no damage is done, no punishment is given. Exodus 21:21
9 The Israelites were not to vex or oppress strangers in their land. Exodus 22:21



There is much more to slavery in the Bible than just what is captured in these chapters. In the New Testament, the popular quote of slaves obey your masters is followed by the less frequently quoted masters be good to your slaves of Ephesians 6:5-9. I will compile these verses into a post specially for the topic of slavery, but for conciseness, I will simply point out a few important points that stand out in these verses.

The law actually provides protection for slaves, something that was unheard of at the time. Most people cite the laws listed as number 1 and 8 above as proof that the law was immoral, but neglect the surrounding laws and logic. If the slave owner gave the slave a wife, and thus kept her after freeing the slave he didn't have to return to the master as a slave. He could work to buy the wife's freedom—he would have had to pay a dowry if she was free, and if he'd never become a slave she would have been a slave and he would have had to pay. The law that no penalty is to be paid for a master striking a slave that is neither killed nor permanently injured is also true for non-slaves—the law states that if a man strike another man and he continues on, he is to be compensated for the time he lost being down, but in the case of the slave it is the master who has lost money while the slave couldn't work, which is why no penalty is charged.

As you will see below in the judicial laws concerning oxen, if an ox killed a slave, the ox was still required to die. The fact that the owner was required to pay the owner of the slave 30 shekels of silver suggests that the slave was considered property (like the oxen itself), but also shows that the life of the slave was considered important. Remember in American slavery, people used dogs to kill and maim slaves all the time, that's what they were trained to do and it was never considered wrong. The judicial law of the Bible is clearly stating that the slave life is just as important as the freeman's life.

Another point to be made is that the Israelites are told not to vex or oppress strangers in their land as the Egyptians had done to them. This means that while laws such as the one stating that a Hebrew slave was to be freed after seven years may be specific to Hebrews, they were expected to treat strangers, including slaves, with decency. Futhermore, Joshua who becomes the prominent figure in Israelite history after Moses' death, is described as being Moses' servant in Exodus 33:11 and Numbers 11:28.

Murder and Violence

Murder is prohibited by the ten commandments, but how is it to be handled when it does occur? God specifies in the judicial law that death is the penalty for murder. He says that He can deliver a murderer (which I assume means to confront and intervene, the way He did with Cain), who will then be appointed a place to flee instead. If the murderer tries to claim sanctuary on the altar, he was still to be put to death. The following are the judicial laws on murder and violence, outlined in Exodus 21-23.
Law Bible Verses
1 Murder is punishable by death Exodus 21:12-15
2 An attack that ended in injury required the attacker to provide compensation for any money the injured lost during said injury. Exodus 21:18-19
3 If some strikes a pregnant woman and causes her to deliver her baby prematurely or lose the baby, the husband can decide the punishment of the aggressor and the judge determines the fine that must be paid. Exodus 21:22-23



Oxen were were kept by the Israelites as well as used in sacrifices. These oxen were viewed as valuable the way we view money today, but oxen can also be dangerous (money can too, but not in the same way). The judicial law provided terms for incidents in which someone's oxen injured or killed someone.
Law Bible Verses
1 If an ox killed someone, it was to be stoned and discarded; no one was to eat the ox. Exodus 21:28
2 If it is found that owner negligence played a role, the owner is to be put to death as well. The owner can pay a ransom to keep his life in this situation. Exodus 21:29-30
3 The law was applicable regardless of the gender of the deceased and regardless of age. Exodus 21:31
4 The ox was to be stoned if a slave was killed, and the master was to be paid 30 shekels of silver. Exodus 21:32
5 If a man digs a pit and another man's ox falls into the pit, the man who dug the pit must compensate the other for his dead ox. Exodus 21:33-34
6 If a man's ox hurts another, they are to sell the live ox and split the money. However if the owner of the aggressing ox could have prevented it, he is to pay in full. Exodus 21:35-36


Law Bible Verses
1 Theft of a sheep or ox required restitution; 4 sheep for a stolen sheep and 5 oxen for a stolen ox. Exodus 22:1
2 If a thief is killed breaking into someone's home at night, the killer does not have to be punished, but if the death occurs in the light of day the killer must be punished. Exodus 22:2-3
3 A thief is to make full restitution for that which he steals; if he is unable to pay he is to be sold into slavery. Exodus 22:3
4 If a thief is caught with the stolen goods in his hand, he is to restore it double. Exodus 22:4
5 If a man allows his animals to eat the harvest of another man's field, he is to repay the man with the best of his own harvest. Exodus 22:5
6 If a man starts a fire and it causes another man's field to burn, he is to pay the man who lost his field for the damages. Exodus 22:6
7 In the case that a man leaves money or belongings with his neighbor to keep, and it is stolen from the neighbor's house: if the thief is found, the thief should pay double, otherwise the neighbor is to be brought before the judges, to see whether he committed the theft. Exodus 22:7-8
8 For any mixup or misdoing they are to bring it to the judges. Who ever is found at fault is to pay double. Exodus 22:9
9 If a man leaves an animal with his neighbor to keep and it dies, gets hurt, or runs away, but there are no witnesses, an oath of the Lord is to be between them both, that the neighbor did not harm his goods. The owner should accept the oath and the neighbor does not have to pay. However if it is stolen, from the neighbor, he is to pay the owner restitution. (note the neighbor would receive restitution for the stolen goods that did not belong to him, that is the money that should be given to the owner). Contrarily, if the object is torn in pieces, the neighbor is to bring it before a witness, and then he does not have to pay. Exodus 22:10-13
10 In the case that a man borrows something of his neighbor's (an ox or something) and it is hurt or killed: if the owner is present for the injury/death, he does not have to pay, but if not he must pay the owner. If it is a paid situation (e.g. the owner is paid to use his ox), then that is the payment. Exodus 22:14-15


Law Bible Verses
1 When lending money to the poor, the Israelites were forbidden to use high interest rates. Exodus 21:25
2 If they were to take a man's clothes as his pledge, they were to return it before sundown. Exodus 22:26-27
3 People are not revile the "gods" or curse the ruler of the people. (It is thought that the word translated to gods actually means judges.) Exodus 22:28
4 The first of everything is to be given to God on the eighth day. Exodus 22:29-30
5 Animals killed and torn apart by other animals are not to be eaten. Exodus 22:31

Ethics & Bribery

Law Bible Verses
1 No one is to file a false report Exodus 23:1
2 You are not to follow a crowd to do evil (e.g. mob mentality) Exodus 23:2
3 You are not to delight in the circumstance of poor people. Exodus 23:3,6
4 You are to help your enemy if you see him in need. Exodus 23:4-5
5 You are to stay out of lies and false accusations. Exodus 23:7
6 You are not to condemn innocent people. Exodus 23:7
7 You are not to take gifts or bribes Exodus 23:8
8 The names of other gods are not to be spoken Exodus 23:13


Law Bible Verses
1 Cursing your mother or father was punishable by death (I'm betting 90% of us today would be dead based on this law). Exodus 21:17
2 If a man seduces a woman that is not betrothed, he is to make her his wife. If her father refuses to give her to him, he has to pay money according to the dowry of virgins. Exodus 22:16-17
3 Witches are to die. Exodus 22:18
4 Bestiality is punishable by death Exodus 22:19
5 Sacrifice to another god is punishable by death. Exodus 22:20
6 The Israelites are told not to vex or oppress strangers in the land. Exodus 22:21
7 Widows and fatherless children are not to be afflicted. If afflicted, if they cry out to God, He promises His "wrath shall wax hot, and [He] will kill [them] with the sword" so that their wives will become widows and their children will become fatherless. Exodus 22:22-24
8 Fields are to be sown for 6 years. In the 7th year the crops are to be given to the poor. Exodus 23:10-11


  1. "How Welfare Began in the United States". Constitutional Rights Foundation. 2015
  2. Muhammed, Brian. "Sharecroppers: Definition & History". 2015

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