I originally wrote this as a paper for a class on Old Testament Law in its Ancient Near East context. For the last several months I’ve been trying to put it into words that would make sense for people who haven’t read a lot on Old Testament Law or Ancient Near East Law. Let me know how I did.
The inequity in the Old Testament laws between the value of women and the value of men has always troubled me. An example of this is Exodus 21:2-11. This is the beginning of the Covenant Code. It was given to Israel in the same stretch that they receive the 10 commandments. It is written as case law. This means that a case is presented, “If this thing happens…” followed by how that case should be dealt with, “Then do this…” Typically a few modifications of the case will be explored before moving on to the next case.
Here, we are given the case of the man sold into debt slavery (like an indentured servant) and the female sold into debt slavery. In the case of the man, we see that he is set free after six years unless he choose to remain with his master permanently. Limits on how long a person could serve to work off his debt were common in Ancient Near East laws. This was to protect the poor from being exploited and enslaved indefinitely.
2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. 5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (NIV)
But in verse 7 we see, quite clearly, that the daughter sold into slavery is not to be released after six years like the man. Instead she is to remain with her master indefinitely unless certain requirements are met (or not met).
7 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. (NIV)
I originally thought this was simply because of her gender, but it’s more nuanced than that.
The first hint that something is different is is that she is referred to as a daughter, not a woman, not a wife. Her primary identity is in relationship to her father. She is unmarried.
Then we she that she is “designated” for her master or for his son. Either way, she is given the rights of a daughter while in this designated state. She had been designated to marry him (either the master or the son). Until they are married, she is to be treated like a daughter. As a daughter her sexuality is protected.
If, she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself (v8) he must let her be redeemed. He cannot sell her to foreign people. Because he took her with the intention of marrying her, but chooses not to marry her, he cannot put her in a situation where she might be taken advantage of by another family or master. He cannot sell her to people who might not honor the intent of her original contract and either treat her like a slave or a prostitute. Instead, he must let her be redeemed. This means he has to give her family the option to take her back. It’s a little more complicated than that and money would probably have to change hands at this point but let’s keep it simple for now.
Verse 10 is a pretty strong indication that she was designated as a wife. It says that if he takes another wife, indicating that he already has a wife, the woman we’re talking about here. If he takes another wife he cannot diminish the first wive’s food clothing or marital rights. He must continue to provide for her as his wife, even if he gets another wife. If he fails to provide for her, she can go out without payment of money. This protects her as a servant/wife from being downgraded to servant if a better wife option comes along. It also means that she doesn’t have to pay off any debt or anything he might think that she owes him.
This is where it all ties together.
Back in the day when a couple married, the woman would bring a dowry (money or goods) into the marriage; this would contribute to the new family’s household. The husband would pay a brideprice to the woman’s family. The brideprice compensated the family for the economic loss of a daughter in the household. The bigger a woman’s dowry, the better her chances of marriage. This dowry was also her safety net. If her husband sent her away, he sent her dowry with her.
The woman in question, in verse 7 was too poor to provide a dowry. Instead, she went to go live with and work for/with the family she would marry into until she was married. They took on the financial burden of providing for her and got the financial blessing of an extra set of hands as she lived with them in anticipation of getting old enough to get married. If she leaves, they loose the extra set of hands. To some extent, they paid for her and could argue that if she were to leave they should be reimbursed for their financial investment. This passage says that isn’t the case. She must be treated well and if she’s not, she can leave and she owes them nothing.
As awful as this situation may sound to my 21st century North American sensibilities, it was a way for a father to provide for and protect his daughter. It was a way for her dad to find a husband for her if he didn’t have enough money to provide an attractive dowry. She gets married. He must treat her well and provide for her. This prevents her from being single her whole life (a worse proposition in ancient times than we would consider it today for too many reasons to go into) and it prevents her from needing to provide for herself (prostitution). She is legitimately a wife and is legally protected.
This law is designed to protect a very vulnerable member of ancient society the poor, single woman.
*Compare to Deuteronomy 15:12-18 where both the woman and the man serve for six years. This is another reason why I think Exodus 21:7-11 is a unique marriage situation, because a woman who serves as a normal indentured servant can go free after six years, like the man.