Sunday, July 25, 2004

Exodus 21

Even though the Hebrews have just escaped slavery with the Egyptians, Exodus 21 allows ... the enslavement of Jews by Jews! Intergenerational slavery of non-Hebrews is not forbidden, and can be applied to Hebrews by the simple expedient of providing a wife to a male slave and appropriating the woman's children.  Women are treated as property.   Even as concubines, they only have rights to food, clothing, and sex. All in all, the laws on slavery represent an extremely modest gain from the situation in Egypt. 

Exodus 21 differentiates homicide from manslaughter, and assigns responsibility in certain cases of negligence, such as leaving a pit unprotected or letting a bull known to gore people walk free. It prescribes death for homicide, parricide/matricide, kidnapping, or the cursing of mother or father.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Biblical Literacy) makes the interesting point that American slavery was clearly not based on biblical law, since the kidnapping that was intrinsic to slavery was a capital crime.  And, of course, American slavemasters were free to kill and mutilate slaves without fear of retribution.

Exodus 21 also prescribes "a life for a life, an eye for an eye" justice, which has become a byword for penal harshness.  However, as is pointed out by Telushkin, these represented maximum punishments, and therefore a milder justice than was commonly dispensed at the time.   


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