One of the often repeated objections against Christianity from atheists and biblio-skeptics is the complaint that the Bible allows for sexual slavery and the abuse of women in general. They claim that Judaism and Christianity are no different than Islam with the treatment of women.
There are a number of better responses than what I have probably offered, but I hope I can provide a quick and definitive answer for those who may encounter these objections.
Let me consider the first one, a sarcastic challenge to the notion of daughters allegedly being sold into slavery.
I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
The objection is taken from Exodus 21. I’ll reproduce the King James Version, seeing that the way the venerable translation reads is the culprit with internet biblio-skeptics:
7 And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
8 If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.
9 And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.
10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.
What I have always found amusing in my discussions with skeptics and cranks regarding what they think the Bible says, is how they, the unchurched, biblically illiterate persons, become instant experts in what the text says and means, and then they insist on explaining it to me.
The basic objection goes like this: The Bible is condoning slavery, but not just any kind of slavery. It allows for a father to sell his own children into slavery if he so chooses. And, making it even worse is how this passage tells us that God is okay with a father selling off his own daughter to be a sex slave to some dirty old man. It is a primitive practice of a prehistoric society; the kind of stuff we see in the backwaters of third world Islamic countries like Sudan or Pakistan.
Seeing that we live in a progressive, modern 21st century culture here in these United States, why would we want to appeal to an ancient book that allowed the sex trade to flourish in their society to inform us what we should believe?
Let me highlight three problems with this facile reasoning:
First of all is the assumption that the “slavery” described in the Bible is the same slavery we experienced here in America and fueled our Civil War. That is entirely false. In reality, the “slavery” described in Scripture is an indentured servitude designed to maintain the dignity of a person or family in extreme poverty or debt. A good portion of ancient slavery was that kind of servitude.
We still practice indentured servitude to a degree in today’s world. Only now we are paid for it differently. Granted, we go home to the wife and kids in the evening, but in the morning, we are required by our servitude to get up out of bed and serve a “master” of sorts in order to make a living.
Secondly, coming to the text in question, it is also wrongfully assumed that the daughter being sold is being sold to a man who immediately engages her in a sexual relationship. That is also false, as a careful reading of the text demonstrates.
The passage is establishing strict regulations that protect the girl’s purity. The idea is a man places his daughter into the service of another man as a maid servant. She was to serve him for at least 6 years, because on the 7th year she was to be released from her obligation as Levitical law informs us. If the man grows to love her and then has the intention of marrying her, he was to look after her as a daughter. If he had intended to marry her, but then doesn’t want to, he was to let her be released back her family, the idea of being redeemed (vs 8).
The same requirements were set up if the man wants her to marry his son. If the son marries someone else instead, the girl was to be taken care of and even allowed to be married to someone else. That is what it means when the text states, “not diminish … her marriage rights” as it is translated in the NKJV. In other words, she could not be forcible kept a virgin and never allowed to marry.
Third, OT scholar, Walter Kaiser, notes three important mistakes when translating the passage of Exodus 21 in his book, Toward Old Testament Ethics.
1) In verse 8, many translators follow the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew and miss the significant little word “not” that is important to the meaning. The verse would read, If she displeases her master so that he does NOT betroth her to himself. The idea is what I noted above: If the man does not want to marry her, he is to let her go. He can’t keep her in a perpetual state of chastity all of her life.
2) The translation of verse 10 as, If he marries another wife, is unclear because it implies the man now has two wives, the original slave girl and now a second woman. In other words, polygamy. But verse 8 has already noted that the original girl has been rejected for marriage. Rather than meaning he is adding to a harem of women, the text means he marries another woman other than the original girl in service to him.
3) In verse 10 and 11, if a man doesn’t marry the girl, or if a man has arranged for his son to marry the girl, yet the marriage doesn’t happen, she was to be allowed to marry someone else. That is the idea that she was to go free and it is the man or the family she served who lose financially, not the girl.
If the text is read carefully, rather than layering it with a slime that is read into it by the atheist’s twisted views of sexuality, the regulations are designed to protect the girl and her family who are in dire, financial need. They are not providing dirty old men the opportunity to sexually abuse teenage girls under a “divine” blessing.