Shemot Twenty-One: An Eye for an Eye

Having received the ten commandments, the people are now given more rules that they must follow. The chapter begins with regulations about personal slaves. I find it interesting that this is being discussed so soon after the people leave slavery in Egypt. Weren’t we supposed to learn from that experience that slavery is bad? Instead, we see that slavery was an enduring part of Israelite culture. However, unlike the Egyptians, the Israelite slave owners had regulations to ensure that they treated their slaves in a humane manner.

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing (Exodus 21:2).” Here, we learn that slavery isn’t a permanent state. Unlike in Egypt, where the people served for generations, an Israelite can’t keep a slave for his or her whole life. They have a limited term of service, and cannot be kept in eternal bondage. However, if the slave doesn’t wish to leave his master, he can then be kept forever. A society in which even slaves have rights strikes me as remarkably progressive for the time in which this was written. It shows that even though they were subject to the will of their masters, they were still seen as human beings. While today, this would be scandalous and a clear human rights violation, it was definitely revolutionary for the ancient Near East.

In addition to slave law, we learn about punishments for many transgressions. “And he that smites his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death. And he that steals a man, and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. And he that curses his father or his mother, shall surely be put to death (Exodus 21:15-17).” What strikes me as interesting about this section is that killing ones parent and cursing them carries the same weight and punishment. While obviously neither are acceptable, are they really equivalent? Many commentators say that cursing in this case is threatening, or wishing evil upon someone. While maybe this isn’t always a death sentence, being this disrespectful to a parent is apparently an unforgivable sin.

Later on in the chapter, we are given some of the most famous words of Tanakh. “But if any harm follows, they you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:23-25).” This premise of reciprocal punishment is employed by cultures around the world. It stands on the idea that in order for the punishment to fit the crime, one must mirror the other. For example, if a man breaks another man’s hand, his hand must be broken in return. This concept still exists today in much of the Middle East, and sometimes manifests extremely violently. Is this the way to handle things? Or are other biblical concepts, such as turn the other cheek, the ones that we should follow?

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