Exodus 21:1-32

Daybreak for Students

Exodus 21:1-32

Exodus 21
Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them. — Exodus 21:1

Have you ever played a game and come to a point where a question arose about the rules? I grew up in a home with three siblings, and playing games was part of our lives. From time to time, the fun of playing digressed into a disagreement about how the game should be played. After some discussion on both sides, someone usually found the rules and searched out the answer. The inventor of the game has the last word. He created the game, so he makes the rules. 

For the same reason, it is fitting that God the Creator set down rules for life. Sometimes people may question, “Who is God to tell us what to do? Why can’t we make our own rules and do what we think is right?” The answer simply is this: God created us. That gives Him the authority to establish the moral guidelines that are to govern our day-to-day lives. 

Just as the game creator had a reason for the rules he established for the game, God has reasons for His rules. It is obvious that without requirements and moral guidelines for society, there would be chaos on multiple levels. Governments have laws to maintain social cohesion and to preserve the rights of its citizens. Organizations have rules to regulate business operations, protect employees, and ensure safety. Families have rules designed to keep things running smoothly in the home and promote family values. Schools have rules to keep the students safe and encourage order. In fact, rules seem to be an inevitable part of any organized social interaction.

Even though the rules given in today’s text were specifically designed for the Children of Israel, they provide the basis for the criminal code and many of the moral laws we still have today. 

In Exodus 20, God gave the Ten Commandments. In this subsequent and more-detailed segment of the Law, God gave rules on how to handle specific situations. If we were to describe God’s judgment in a brief manner, we would probably choose words like “fair” and “simple.” God gave the Children of Israel all the necessary rules to live by in relatively few books and chapters. In contrast, think of the volumes of laws and interpretations of laws that have been written in the past hundreds of years! They would literally fill rooms, if not buildings, were they all assembled in one place. Yet there has never been an improvement on God’s instructions. 

We should look at this chapter as evidence that God cared enough for the Children of Israel to give them His Law, and realize that He cares just as much for us as He did for them.


In the previous chapter of Exodus, God gave the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel. This chapter and the next contain applications of those commandments as well as some punishments to those who broke the commandments. 

God wanted His people to live according to the principles He had given them, and He gave specific examples to help them understand how to implement His Law in their society. The treatment of servants (or slaves) is dealt with in verses 1-11. Poverty was the major cause for Hebrew servitude, and God’s instructions protected the servants’ rights. The Law applied to both men and women. 

Verses 12-17 discuss capital crimes (those for which the punishment was death). Premeditated murder was a capital crime, but accidental killing was not, and in those cases, provision was to be made for a place where the guilty party could flee. This was a preliminary step to the Cities of Refuge that would be established once the Children of Israel reached Canaan. To strike or curse one’s parents or to kidnap a man were also capital crimes.

Incidents causing personal harm are covered in verses 18-32. The details in these verses put a limit on the retribution for the specified injuries, thereby establishing guidelines for appropriate rather than excessive punishment or payment. Verses 24-25 are called the lex talionis, which means the “law of retaliation.” It limited the retribution to what the victim had lost. In many cultures of that time, extreme penalties were common, and God did not want His people to follow that pattern.

God made it clear that slaves had rights and personhood. Some injuries to slaves required that they be given their freedom. God’s Law specifically protected women and slaves, and made justice the same for all social classes.

Other civilizations of that time had codes of law. However, God’s Law included religious regulations and stated that He was the Creator and therefore the authority for prescribing justice. In contrast to other codes, the Law of God was outstandingly humane. The concept that God valued human life was clear. 


(Hannah’s Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
IV.   The revelation of the Law to Israel
     C.   The ordinances
           1.   Concerning the care of servants (21:1-11)
                 a.   Male servants (21:1-6)
                 b.   Female servants (21:7-11)
           2.   Concerning personal injury (21:12-32)
                 a.   Murder (21:12-14)
                 b.   Disrespect for parents (21:15)
                 c.   Kidnapping (21:16)
                 d.   Disrespect for parents (21:17)
                 e.   Bodily injury from a quarrel (21:18-19)
                 f.    Mistreatment of slaves (21:20-21)
                 g.   Miscarriage (21:22-25)
                 h.   Eye and tooth damage of a slave (21:26-27)
                 i.    Death by an animal (21:28-32)


  1. What are three of the offenses that were punishable by death?

  2. Why do you think God was so detailed in His instructions?

  3. Have you ever been involved in or observed a situation that was resolved by a modern law which has its roots in God’s Law? Explain the situation and the resolution.


God’s rules for the nation of Israel promoted justice, fairness, and peace in society, and are the basis for our laws today.