Chapter 21 begins with commandments about slaves. First are rules about male slaves. Note that this is talking about slaves that are themselves Israelites. The Bible does discuss slavery as we understand it as Americans: the capture of a free person who is sold into slavery (see below). That is not what is being discussed here. This is an Israelite that has sold himself into slavery because of debt. Here we see that the slavery ends in the seventh year, an allusion to the Sabbath rest.
Note that if the slave goes out, he goes out the same as he comes in. However, he has a choice to remain in slavery if he loves his master and his family he grew while in slavery (v. 5). In verse 6 we are told that this is done before God, and that the master is to quite literally earmark the man as forever his possession. This is a pointer to believers as slaves of Christ. As Christians, we carry the “earmark” of God in name (see the third commandment, Ex 20:7), but we are also to display that earmark through our deeds. That mark should communicate that we love our Master and will not go out from Him.*
We see in verses 7-11 a standard being set by God. There are many commands of the law that are given because of sin. In other words, the commands protect the offended party when sinned against, even though it is not necessarily prescriptive in all events. We see this in Jesus’ explanation of divorce (see Matt 19:8-9). Divorce was given to protect the offended party, usually the “weaker” party (women had virtually no rights in the ancient world, and many of these commands are specifically for their protection). The commandments here in Ex 21:7-11 are given for this reason.
In the following verses, we see the Ten Commandments put into practice. Laws about what is and is not murder (v. 12-14, 18-32) and about honoring parents (v. 15 and 17). In verse 16 we see that command against capturing free men and selling them into slavery, or buying them. In verses 23-25, we see limits on retaliation. This is not a command to retaliate, it is placing a limit on what is fair retaliation. This retaliation is what Christ tells us to willingly forego as His followers (Matt 5:38-40), a practical outworking of loving God and neighbor.
Exodus 21:33-22:15 talks specifically about restitution for wrongdoing. This is both a command to make restitution when in the wrong, but also a limit on what can be exacted by the offended party. Verse 16 is another protection for women. We then have a prohibition against occultism (v. 18), a prohibition against bestiality (v. 19), and against sacrificing to other gods (v. 20). These all run contrary to what man was created for.
Kindness is then commanded for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, once again the practical outworking of our love for God (vv. 21-24 – see Matt 25:40). Generosity is commanded in verses 25-27. Both kindness and generosity are earmarks of the servant of God. In verse 28, we have another example of an earthly honor that reflects our honor for God (see Rom 13:2).
Verse 29-30 again reminds the Israelites of their salvation from Egypt (remember the first fruits and the consecration of those saved from death?) Chapter 22 ends with the prohibition from eating meat not killed according to God’s prescription. This shows the “uncleanness” of death (we will see this idea later in the Torah), but also that God has authority over death.
As we read through the commands in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it is very easy to gloss over them, because we can easily get the idea that they are a long line of disconnected rules. This is not so. Everything in Exodus chapters 21 and 22 (and even the end of chapter 20) is an exposition by God of the Ten Commandments He just gave. Each and every specific command falls under the umbrella of one or more of the Ten. And each and every one is a practical outworking of the greatest commandment.
*The first sermon I ever preached was on Exodus 21:2-6.