Because You Woke Up This Morning Wondering Why the Slave Girl Was a Slave for Life when the Man was Set Free after Six Years.

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.

“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. 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. 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. “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 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).

It reads:

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 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. 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.

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A Lie Revealed. A Victim Set Free. An Relationship Restored.

I have never been particularly shy about talking about my dad’s brokenness and the impact it had on my life.  I want to be respectful of him, but I also want to tell my story, a story in which his brokenness plays a significant role.

My dad was an alcoholic when I was little but, when given the ultimatum between alcohol or his family, he chose his family. A choice I am very grateful that he made.  Because he never dealt with the issues that drove him to alcohol he was emotionally distant and often angry.

In my twenties I became aware that my view of God was pervasively shaped by my view of my dad. When asked to describe God I would give a good, technical answer, “All-powerful, all-knowing, the creator of the universe, the sustainer of all life.” And, almost as an afterthought, “Love.  God is love.”  These things are all true.  But, with the exception of love, they do not reveal a highly relational view of God.  They show an academic view of God. Additionally, I worked really hard not to disappoint him and tried to avoid doing things that would annoy him.  I didn’t want to bother him with my problems.  Something like how I interacted with my dad.  I knew God was generous, so was my dad, and this generosity shaped me as well.  I also knew God has a lot of grace for sinners, as did my dad, but I wasn’t sure if he would putting up with his children who kept messing up.

As I realized that my view of God was insufficient, I longed more and more to experience God as what I knew a father could be.  A God who was gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.  I wanted to feel like a prize.  I wanted to know that I had been accepted, that God delighted in me.  But as much as I know these things are true in my head, I seem categorically unable to experience them in my heart.

This longing for acceptance and approval impacts my life profoundly.  In my last job, as a Resident Director in a dorm full of college girls, I was almost always available to them.  I truly loved them and wanted to be with them and minister to and with them, but I also struggled to maintain any type of boundaries and would often put the needs of the students over my own health or the needs of my family.  A good thing in me, compassion, was compromised by my unmet need for approval, an approval that I got when I knew I was making a difference in the lives of my students. I suffered.  My family suffered.  My ministry suffered.

As I have processed this deficit in my life, I have come to believe that if I had a healthier dad who had made me feel loved and accepted, I wouldn’t have had the deficit that I have been trying to fill my whole life. I came to this conclusion, in part, because there seemed to be a pretty clear correlation, in my interaction with college girls, between the girls who perceived their homes as loving and the girls who made relatively good choices and the a correlation between the girls who came from broken homes and made bad choices.

Recently, as I had a chance to listen to other women share about their dads and their dads’ impact on their lives I realized that I had developed a victim mentality in relation to my dad.  “If only he had loved me better, then I would be healthier.”  It was his fault that I was the way that I am.  And, because I was handicapped in this way, it wasn’t my fault.  While this is, to some extent, true, our pasts do shape and sometimes handicap us, we have to move beyond that and take responsibility for our own actions.  I had been playing the victim card for too long and knew I needed to stop.

Then, as I heard one woman talk about the godliness of her dad and the deep love he had for her, I found myself very jealous of her experience.  She talked about the tears that welled up in his eyes when she shared her story of abuse with her dad and how it broke his heart to see his daughter hurt at the hands of another.  I found myself welling up with empathetic tears and very distinctly felt the Holy Spirit impress two things on my heart 1) “make this the image of a father in your head” and 2) “the empathy you feel now is the empathy you inherited from your (heavenly) father.”  The way I feel with broken people is something that comes from my heavenly dad.  I may have my earthly fathers blue eyes and intellect, but I have my heavenly father’s heart.  For the first time, I felt a kinship with my heavenly father.  Part of his DNA was in me.

I suspect our relationship is opening up in a whole new direction.  And, as I look forward to getting to know my heavenly father better, I will be forever grateful for what my earthly father taught me and that he did mirror so many positive godly characteristics so that, despite the fact that my image of God is incomplete, it is there.  He got me started thinking about God and talking about God; he just wasn’t able to show me a full picture of God because he didn’t have the full picture himself.

My dad’s 60th birthday would be in a week and a half if he hadn’t passed away nearly six years ago.  I cannot express how glad I am that he is now in the presence of Jesus and that he now see God for all of who God is.  My dad now knows as he is fully known.  And, someday, he and I will stand before our heavenly father, in perfect relationship.  All of us together.  All of us seeing clearly.  All of us whole