Exodus 21:4 – The Slave

We find numerous mentions of slaves in the Bible. Some verses even require a person to become a slave and permit another person to buy him.

The verse I will explain in this article is Exodus 21:4 which contains a strange rule about a Hebrew slave and his “family.”

First we need some background which is found later in the book of Exodus.

Background

Read these verses from Exodus 22:

Exodus 22

1. If a thief is found breaking in, …
2. If the sun has risen upon him, …; for he should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.
3. If the theft be at all found in his hand alive, whether it be ox, or ass, or sheep; he shall restore double.

These verses deal with the scenario of a thief that breaks into a house or building to steal things. The verses mention various consequences that can happen to the thief.

To avoid confusion and getting sidetracked, I’ve left out the parts of the verses that don’t apply to the situation I want to explore.

Notice in verse 22:2, the thief is required to pay the owner for whatever he stole from him. Also, if he is too poor to make the payment, then he is to be sold for his theft.

That is, the Jewish court who found him guilty of theft will sell the thief to another Jew. The thief then becomes what is called a Hebrew slave (in Hebrew: eved ivri).

In some circumstances the thief is required to pay two times the value of what he stole. However, that double payment does not play a role in the topic of this article.

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Exodus 21:2-3

Now we can start to understand our verse.

Exodus 21

2. If you buy a Hebrew slave [Hebrew: eved ivri], six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.
3. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he was married, then his wife shall go out with him.
4. If his master has given him a wife, and she has born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

In Verse 21:2 we learn more about what happens to this impoverished Jewish thief who was caught stealing in Exodus 22.

The Jewish court sells him and the purchaser (master) will own him for up to 6 years.

Slave or Servant?

21:2 Hebrew slave (Hebrew: eved, ayin-bet-dalet). Many English translations of this verse call him a “Hebrew servant.” The Hebrew word “eved” can mean either servant or slave and is used both ways throughout the Bible.

In this verse, I have chosen the translation “slave” because this man does not have freedom of action. For example, he cannot choose which days to work and which days to take a vacation.

In Verse 21:3 we are told that if the Hebrew slave has a wife and/or children, he is not separated from them. Essentially, the master also takes on responsibility for the wife and children.

Furthermore, when the Hebrew slave’s term ends, his Jewish wife and children leave with him.

Exodus 21:4

Now we are ready to dive into our main verse.

Parshat Mishpatim civil law

21:4. If his master has given him a wife, and she has born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

This verse raises several questions. Who is this wife? Why does the master get to keep her and her children?

Didn’t we just read in Verse 21:3 that his wife goes out with him?

The structure of this verse is a conditional sentence: if A, then B. The “then” is not explicitly written. It goes right after the semicolon.

Let’s dig into this verse phrase-by-phrase based on Daat Mikra, Rashi, and other commentators.

If his master has given him a wife The “wife” in this verse is not same woman who was mentioned in Verse 21:3.

This woman is a non-Jewish slave that the master owns. That is why the master can give her to the Hebrew slave. Also, the master can force the Hebrew slave to have relations with her.

Rabbi Sorotzkin points out that this verse speaks of one of the obligations of the slave toward the master.

and she has born him sons or daughters Who is referred to by the pronoun “him”? It can mean either the master or the Hebrew slave.

Rabbi Sorotzkin explains that she bore the children for the master, not the Hebrew slave.

the wife and her children shall be her master’s The wife already belongs to the master. That’s why he was able to give her to the Hebrew slave. We see here that her “marriage” to the Hebrew slave did not change her status of being a slave to the master.

We also learn that the children she gave birth to have her status. Because she is a non-Jew, they are non-Jews. Because she is a slave when she gives birth, they are also slaves.

Torah Temimah (based on Kiddushin 68b) states the children do not go out with the father. Their lineage is after her, not after him (the slave). If the lineage was after him (the slave), then the master would have no claim on them.

In fact, this is why the master gave her to the Hebrew slave. He wanted her to give birth to more non-Jewish slaves.

and he shall go out by himself At the end of his term, the Hebrew slave goes out free, but the non-Jewish wife does not go with him.

Conclusion

The verses that I’ve discussed in this article are part of Jewish criminal law. In many cultures thieves are treated with corporeal punishment or jail. The basic standard in Jewish law is that the thief is required to pay back his victim.

The male Jewish thief who cannot pay his victim is given the new status of “slave / eved.” However, he never loses his status of Jew. Hence he is called Eved Ivri or Hebrew slave.

Also, in these verses we see a Biblical basis for the idea of matrilineal descent. The Hebrew slave fathers a child with the non-Jewish woman. Those children inherit their status from the mother, not the father.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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