Selling Daughters into Slavery

exodus21I plan to revisit a few of my old articles I compiled interacting with the objections to a biblical, sexual ethic as outlined specifically in the Torah.

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.

31 thoughts on “Selling Daughters into Slavery

  1. Please, write more articles like this. What a good thing to have in a Christian toolkit when the atheists start hurling these accusations. It’s hard to be prepared for that sometimes, and writing like that surely helps. Thanks!

  2. Thanks very much for this. It is good to have an exposition of these verses as they are indeed twisted by unbelievers to wrongly challenge the word.
    Keep it up.

  3. HI, how do I take the second part of v.7 “she shall not go out as the menservants do?” I always thought that meant she wasn’t released after seven years as the men would be released.

  4. I think it has more to do with the roles of the maid servant as opposed to the men servant. The previous verses may provide that comparison, particularly as it pertains to marriage under the conditions of servitude.

  5. You can tell a lot about someone by what motives they impute to someone else. For example, the folks who can’t conceive of anything in this passage other than sex slavery show what their hearts are like.

  6. I love your analysis on these topics and have read most of your series here. And it’s good you point out the year of jubilee, which according to some commentary I read, Israel may not have been very good at keeping.

    I usually choose to go a different route. Please tell me why, according to somebody who has no God, that slavery, rape, or even murder are wrong.

  7. Fred, I think you need to cut theologically ignorant readers a little slack on this one. The KJV text clearly says “sell,” as does the NASB and ESV, so what is the average guy to think? Most Christians probably couldn’t explain it. I think it’s only natural to assume “sell” means what we all think it means. That’s why this post is necessary. I’d like to blame the translators, but knowing absolutely nothing about Hebrew, that would be silly. Is it possible this could have been translated differently to avoid the confusion?

  8. It could very well say “sell” in the Hebrew. I haven’t checked the language since writing this, but that is merely an expression speaking of indentured servitude. Making a family member financially viable.

  9. Good post Fred!

    I totally laughed when you commented on atheists thinking that they’re biblical scholars and thinking that they have to explain the text to you.

    I encounter that frequently too.

  10. Pingback: November 8 – 9, 2014: Truth2Freedom Daily Headline Alerts Weekend Collection | Truth2Freedom's Blog

  11. Thanks for putting this together. Sadly, I keep finding myself in comment threads with people who can’t be bothered to understand/learn that the context of slavery was different in the OT. It always comes back to “So, it’s OK for people to own somebody.” And that is even after I explain that it isn’t really ownership, but more like the employee/employer relationship that exists today.

  12. If the bible were written today, it would ‘endorse’ speeding:

    If a man exceeds the speed limit, he shall be subject to the following penalty …

    I’ve actually encountered atheists who read the verses you have given from Exodus and understand them this way – ‘if a man sells his daughter’: “do you see that, the bible tells you to sell your own family into slavery”. Then they wax lyrical as to how ‘disgusting’ this is!

    Regulating what happens if you do something is not the same things as actually telling you to do it.

  13. Pingback: The Sex Trade and The Bible | hipandthigh

  14. Pingback: Biblical and Theological Studies | hipandthigh

  15. ” 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”

    this is only half true you do realize that right? its meant for jews only and btw Jason Lisle is not a great place to learn about bible slavery

  16. I am right. There is no “half true” about anything I wrote. I seriously doubt if you attempt to engage me on this that it will be you who really has no clue about biblical ethics, but more than likely will pull secondary info from some hack atheist site.

    I have no clue what Jason Lisle teaches about slavery.

  17. thats not your your boss says

    “Slaves were acquired in several different ways. Many were prisoners of war (Num. 31:7–35; Deut. 20:10–14). They could also be purchased (Ex. 21:7; Lev. 25:44–46). Some people sold themselves into slavery (Lev. 25:39ff.; Deut. 15:12–17), others were sold to pay debts (2 Kings 4:1; Neh. 5:1–8). Slaves could be received as gifts (Gen. 29:24), or inherited (Lev. 25:46). Still others were born to slaves and remained in that role.”
    MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (228–229). Chicago: Moody Press.

    Jason Lisle claims ALL slavery in the bible permitted both old and new tesitment was about poor jews paying back debts

  18. I never denied the reality of slavery, nor that those specific instances of slavery existed. The point of contention is with what Exodus 21 is stating. There the text is clearly talking about indentured servitude.

    Again, I have no clue what Jason Lisle has said about slavery, nor do I care.

  19. but didnt you say that ” 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”? you said “scripture ” which suggests that the only kind of slavery that is okay in the bible is a form of indentured serviitude

  20. Yes i read the citiation in its context, if he said that slavery was only to repay back their debts he wouldn’t have claimed according to the bible you can herit slaves or be born into slavery
    as well Leviticus 25:44-46 doesn’t seem to refer to poor Jews paying back their debt.

  21. Again, I never stated that all slavery mentioned in the Bible is ONLY indentured servitude. I am addressing specifically what Exodus 21 says. There, once again, the text is teaching about indentured servitude.

  22. This is the kind of ministry that receives almost no recognition and sees little of the result on earth, but will be rewarded in Heaven. I admire the faithfulness to biblical truth, and my prayers go out to this ministry.

  23. Pingback: Responding to The “Shellfish Objection” | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely…

  24. What would God do without you apologists? God must be grateful to you to explain what He intended to say but could not in a clear language. so slavery may be noble or despiable depending on regions, right?.

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