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Exodus 21

Exodus 21:1-6

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

1. Haec sunt judicia quae propones eis.

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

2. Si emeris servum Hebraeum, sex annis serviet: septimo egredietur gratis.

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.

3. Si cum corpore suo ingressus fuerit, cum corpore suo egredietur: si maritus mulieris erat, egredietur et uxor ejus cum ipso.

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.

4. Si herus ejus dederit ei uxorem, et pepererit ei filios, vel filias, uxor et filii ejus erunt heri sui: ipse vero egredietur cum corpore suo.

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

5. Quod si dicendo dixerit servus, Diligo herum meum, et uxorem meam, et filios meos, non egredietur liber:

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

6. Tunc adducet eum herus ejus ad judices, et applicabit eum ad ostium, vel ad postem, perforabitque herus ejus aurem ejus subula, et serviet ei in saeculum.


1. Now these are the judgments. Both passages contain the same appointment, viz., that as to the Hebrews slavery must end at the seventh year; for God would have the children of Abraham, although obliged to sell themselves, to differ from heathen and ordinary slaves. Their enfranchisement is, therefore, enjoined, but with an exception, which Moses expresses in the first passage but omits in the latter, i e., that if the slave had married a bond-woman, and had begotten children, they should remain with the master, and that he should alone be free. Whence it appears how hard was the condition of slaves, since it could not be mitigated without an unnatural exception (sine prodigio;) for nothing could be more opposed to nature than that a husband, forsaking his wife and children, should remove himself elsewhere. But the tie of slavery could only be loosed by divorce, that is to say, by this impious violation of marriage. There was then gross barbarity in this severance, whereby a man was disunited from half of himself and his own bowels. Yet there was no remedy for it; for if the wife and children had been set free, it would have been a spoliation of their lawful master to take them with him, not only because the woman was his slave, but because he had incurred expense in the bringing up of the young children. The sanctity of marriage therefore gave way in this case to private right; and this defect is to be reckoned amongst the others which God tolerated on account of the people’s hardness of heart, because it could hardly be remedied; yet, if any one were withheld by chaste affection, and unwilling to abandon his wife and offspring, an alternative is presented, viz., that he should give himself up also to perpetual slavery. The form of this is more clearly pointed out in Exodus than in Deuteronomy; for, in the latter, it is only said that the master, in order to assert his perpetual right to the slave, should bore his ear; whereas in Exodus the circumstance is added, that a public process should first take place; for, if each private individual had been his own judge in this matter, the rich men’s houses would have been like slaughterhouses to put their wretched slaves to the torment in. 148148     “Pour tormenter, et gehener les poures serfs.” — Fr. We read in Jeremiah, (34:11,) that this law fell into contempt, and that the Jews, contrary to all law and justice, retained perpetual dominion over their slaves; nay, that when they were severely reprimanded under King Zedekiah, and liberty was anew proclaimed, the wretched men were immediately dragged back to their yoke of tyranny, as if they had been set free in mockery. Care was therefore to be taken lest, by secret tortures, they should compel the unwilling to continue as their slaves; and the provision against this evil was an open confession of their desire before the judges; whilst the boring of the ear was a kind of stigma upon them. For the Orientals were accustomed to brand slaves, or fugitives, or criminals, or those who were in any wise suspected; and although God did not choose to have this mark of ignominy imprinted on the foreheads of his people, yet, if any one voluntarily consented to endure perpetual slavery, He willed that he should bear this token of his servitude upon his ear. Still we must remember that even this slavery, although it is said to endure for ever, was brought to a close at the jubilee, because then the condition of the land and people was altogether renewed.

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