Sunday Morning Greek Blog

February 5, 2012

Does the Structure of Exodus 21:1–27 Tell the Patriarchs’ Story?

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Exodus,Hebrew,Old Testament,Theology, Biblical — Scott Stocking @ 8:40 am

I really enjoyed my Old Testament exegesis classes in seminary with Dr. Gary Hall, who is retiring from Lincoln Christian Seminary this year. Each week, we had a passage to dissect, and we always followed the same pattern. The systematic method he taught us has stuck with me all these years, which is one reason why I love teaching hermeneutics. It has also opened up new depths of understanding to difficult passages, and has helped me discover the eternal principles behind the earthly stories of those who have gone before me.

Exodus 21 Assigned

One such passage that sold me on the value of discerning structure in the Bible is Exodus 21:1–27. I believe we had actually been assigned Exodus 21:12–27, which is set off in the TNIV with the heading “Personal Injuries.” However, when I looked at the passage in the Hebrew Bible that week, I noticed that vv. 1–27 were a complete paragraph. Dr. Hall had taught us to pay attention to such structural clues, so I took it upon myself to expand the assigned passage and see what I could discover from that. I was amazed at what I found, but I was even more amazed when I took into account the literary and historical context of the passage.

Here is the structure of the passage:

1 Introduction

    2–11 Hebrew Slaves

        12–14 Striking a man/conditionality

             15 Physically attacking Father/Mother

                16 Kidnapping

             17 Verbally attacking Father/Mother

        18–25 Striking a man or a pregnant woman

        [18–19 Striking a man]

    [20–21 Striking a Slave]

        [22–25 Striking a pregnant woman]

    26–27 Hebrew Slaves

Exodus 21 Considered

If you’ve read my posts regularly or if you’ve ever taken a class that talks about the structure of a biblical passage, you will instantly recognize this as a chiasm, a passage that presents ideas in one order and repeats them in reverse order. The key point about a chiasm is that whatever is at the center of the chiasm is the focus. So when I discovered this structure, I thought a couple things were unusual:

  1. Why were the two nearly identical laws about parents not together? and
  2. Why was “kidnapping” inserted between the two commands, especially when kidnapping isn’t mentioned in the Ten Commandments?

I need to answer both those questions together, because there is a connection. I do remember when I was looking at this passage in some English texts that one English version (I thought it was my RSV confirmation Bible, but I can’t locate it now to confirm) actually had the chutzpah to flip verses 16 and 17 around, because the translators thought as I did at first glance that they belonged together. The answer to my second question came when I looked at the Hebrew: the word “kidnap” is translated from the Hebrew phrase וְגֹנֵ֨ב אִ֧ישׁ
(wə·ḡō·nēḇ ʾîš, \wuh-goh-nayv eesh\), which literally means “the one stealing a man.” Aha! Stealing: now that is something in the Ten Commandments. Now I’m getting somewhere.

גָּנַב is the same word translated “steal” in the Ten Commandments. “Stealing” a man meant not only removing that man from his covenant community, but also taking away the life he had planned for himself. גָּנַב is often used of stealing things and people. It’s presence here, especially in the center of the structure (see above), indicates the seriousness of the crime of kidnapping. It is on a par with striking or cursing your parents, and the abuse and murder of slaves. All crimes listed here could be punishable by death, especially with the presence of the lex talionis at the end of this passage.

So now I was at least part way to an answer. Kidnapping was the ultimate form of mistreatment of another person. That is why it was at the center of the passage.

Exodus 21 in Context

But there was a larger question to answer. I had only dealt with the central elements, but what about the rest of the paragraph? I asked myself, “What do treatment of slaves, mistreatment of parents, and kidnapping have in common?” The answer stuck out like a sore thumb. Joseph. Joseph’s brothers kidnapped him. Strike one. They sold him into slavery. Strike two. They lied to their father Israel, which would be equivalent to a curse, about what happened to Joseph. Strike three. So the first story out of the gate after hearing the Ten Commandments is like a slap in the face to all of Israel. “You did it to Joseph, which is how you wound up in slavery in Egypt in the first place. Go and sin no more. Even though God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20), don’t let that be an excuse to try it again.”


I hope you can see how important structure and context is in determining the meaning and significance of a passage. Moses brilliantly structured Exodus 21 (or God did so for Moses) not only to communicate his statutes, but to place those in the historical context of God’s people.


Scott Stocking

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