3. Torah and Slavery: Impoverished Father Sells His Daughter to Be a ‘Secondary Wife’

Scripture: Exod. 21:7-11. In a culture of arranged marriage and widespread poverty, fathers in the ancient Near East did this long before the Torah existed. Now the Torah has to intervene and tell the men what the daughter’s legal rights were. This post also looks at polygamy.

Uncareful readers, especially harsh critics, may assume that the Torah commands the father to do this. No. Or at least they may assume that the Torah endorses this practice. No, again. Instead, this custom was done often enough by people of the ancient Near East, without or without the legal rulings. The Torah, taking reality as it was–taking cultural customs as people lived them–regulates the father’s desperation and the daughter’s new household.

If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com. I write to learn and understand Scripture.

Scripture

“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. (Exodus 21:7-11, NIV)

Commentary

Let’s remember to put those verses in their cultural context. Back then, the vast majority of people lived in small agrarian communities, worked the fields or in small cottage industries (household businesses), side by side, neighbor to neighbor. Please do not visualize a gigantic and impersonal modern city. The people in this legal ruling probably knew each other on some level.

I like to number my main points, for clarity and conciseness.

So now we see these textual realities:

(1) The father who sells his daughter was poor, so says the cultural context. The man to whom he sells his daughter was prosperous. Or how else could he afford her? So now the daughter is a “debt-slave.”

The word “if” indicates that the judges may come across this case. The Torah never says, “Thou shalt sell thy daughter if thou art poor!” Rather, the Torah assumes this was done sometimes. Now what rights does she have?

(2) The father sells his daughter to be a secondary wife, also known as a concubine. She is to be married as a concubine because of his debt. Those are the terms of the contract going in.

(3) This was not the case of selling her into prostitution:

29 Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, so that the land does not practice prostitution and become full of lewdness. (Lev. 19:29, NET)

The impoverished father was selling his daughter into a marriage.

(4) This arranged secondary marriage explains why she is not to go free, as if she were an indentured servant who agreed to work for six years and then was released in the seventh (Deut. 15:12-18).

Please see this post:

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

(5) However, human nature being what it is, he is not pleased with her for some reason. Deut. 24:1-4 discusses marriage and divorce between two free people, and divorce even for them was as easy as his writing a certificate of divorce. How much more easily could a man divorce his concubine? It was easy. No certificate of divorce is mentioned.

So far, the Torah is merely describing the scene, and it is clinical about it. It seems to assume that this is life as it is. If such-and-such (unpleasant) case happens, then [….]

(6) Now the ruling comes in because the girl was disappointed in the arranged secondary marriage. The prosperous man does not even make her his concubine. He has broken faith with her. He has not fulfilled the original contract. Let’s not skip over those words. The Torah says that he wronged her. Therefore, far from endorsing the entire custom, the Torah scolds the privileged and prosperous man when he mistreats the father and daughter.

So now, in the case of being wronged, what protection does she have?

(7) Her protection is that a kinsman has the opportunity to redeem her, that is, buy her from the man. Why is she allowed to be redeemed? John H. Walton says that in the ancient Near East, the Code of Hammurabi (sections 146-147) says that if the debt-slave bore children, she had protections. If she did not become his concubine and therefore does not bear children, then she loses those protections. So now she can be bought out of his household or redeemed (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Zondervan, 2016, comment on v. 8, p. 149).

(8) The man who purchased the girl is not allowed to sell her to foreigners on the open slave market, so that she is shipped off to distant lands and is mistreated among pagans who have their own slave laws. (We can imagine that these laws were not always “happy” ones, either.) Walter C. Kaiser writes: “Should the terms of the marriage not be fulfilled, it is to be considered a breach of contract, and the purchaser must allow the girl to be redeemed; she must not be sold outside the family (v. 8). Always she must be treated as a daughter or a free-born woman, or the forfeiture clause will be invoked” (Exodus: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Zondervan, 1990, comment on v. 8, p. 430).

(9) If the man arranges her marriage with his son, then she is adopted into the family and must be treated as the man’s daughter. To our modern ears, this new arrangement with his son would be an odd decision on his part, but arranged marriages happened back then. And who knows? Maybe the son took a fancy to her. But now she has family rights and she has an elevated status. She is free.

(10) If the man (the head of household) marries another concubine, then he must not slight the first one, but must care for her with “her food, clothing and marital rights.” She is part of the household, so she enjoys privileges. 

(11) However, if he fails in his marital duties, then she is to go free, but he does not have to pay her money, probably because he already did that up front. So now she returns to her father’s household. Or wherever she chooses to go, she is free.

Special Discussion: Concubinage (polygamy)

So does the Bible permit multiple marriages in Exod. 21:7-11? The Torah assumed that concubinage already happened in an imperfect, larger culture. In Exod. 21:7-11, the imperfect situation which prompted the concubinage was poverty.

Further, here is a text, next, that says “if any man has two wives” […]. It could also be translated as “Suppose a man has two wives” (NLT, NET); meaning, let’s consider a case that a judge may encounter. Note the problems that come up:

15 If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, 16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. 17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him. (Deut. 21:15-17, NIV)

As I noted in Part One, this passage does not say, “Thou shalt have two wives! Thou art commanded to do this! Thou must have two wives!” No. Instead, the Torah assumes that this was a cultural fact in ancient Israel, as it was elsewhere around the ancient Near East. Now the Torah steps in and regulates it.

From a New Testament perspective, Douglas K. Stuart is right:

This toleration comes within the context of toleration of human weakness in a considerable variety of areas. Jesus described the Mosaic covenant in these terms in Matt 19:8, as a covenant that included accommodation to sinfulness rather than a covenant that presumed only perfect behavior and motives. Without some means of accommodation to human frailty in any divine covenant, there can be no hope for humans to find acceptance with God, thus the importance of the forgiveness of sins in the preaching of the New Covenant. (Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, the New American Commentary, Holman, 2006, comment on v. 9, p. 483, note 116)

Thus, Stuart reminds us that Jesus said that the Torah itself accommodated man’s sinfulness in divorce laws, but the ideal was one man and one woman, together, monogamously, for life (Gen. 2:24). And so in Exod. 21:7-11 and Deut. 21:15-17, we see problems with multiple marriages. Polygamy was done (but not commanded) in the Bible, but wherever it appears, there is trouble in the household. The Bible, in this case, is teaching us through stories to have only one wife. The Bible also elevates the model in Eden: one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24).

One thing is certain: the custom of concubinage does not work today in modern society. Societies in various parts of the globe that practice it are going down the wrong path because of household strife and discord.

Jesus endorsed the Edenic model (Matt. 19:4-6). For Christians, his teaching is decisive. It would work for everyone who is not Christian, too.

Also, the epistles clearly spell out the norm: one man and one woman: Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Timothy 3:2 (for eldership); Titus 1:6 (also for eldership).

Comparative Case

See 1. Torah and Slavery: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar for a comparative case

At that link, William Wilbourn, who died in South Carolina in 1827, had a slave girl named Lucy, who bore him three (or four) children. She had no rights. In contrast, the Torah would have given her more rights.

How does our knowledge of the Bible in its own context of the ancient Near East grow?

Yes, slavery was a social fact of the ancient Near East. The Torah is merely recognizing this fact and regulating it. I see nothing in the Torah’s ruling that is oppressive. It does not endorse slavery. It does not even endorse polygamy; it assumed both slavery and polygamy already existed in its cultural context. It is the ancient culture that has slavery embedded in it that does the real harm–not the Torah itself. However, the Torah does protect the woman (and other slaves) wherever slaves existed. How?

I like how the Biblical Theology Study Bible frames the discussion on slave legislation in Exodus 21:

The legislation intends to prevent exploitation, although some Israelites subsequently ignored it (Jer. 34:8-16). Significantly, to have this material protecting the rights of servants (rather than chiefly those of their masters) makes this legislation distinct from other ancient Near Eastern legal collections, and it suggests that these servants should be treated as human beings rather than mere personal property (v. 21). This may explain the absence of servants from the property laws (22:1-15). (Zondervan, 2015, comments on 21:2-11)

And I like what Kaiser wrote, under the eighth point: “Always she must be treated as a daughter or a free-born woman, or the forfeiture clause will be invoked.” In other words, she had legal rights. If the man who bought her fails, she is free.

This freedom supports the big picture, as follows: the Grand Narrative in the flow of biblical history from Genesis to Revelation is liberty. That is the ideal that hangs over the entire Bible and the imperfections of feeble humanity as people make their way through their own flawed cultures. It is best to read the individualized regulations in that light.

We Christians interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and it always  proclaims human liberty and dignity.

ARTICLES IN THE SERIES

1. Torah and Slavery: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

3. Torah and Slavery: Impoverished Father Sells His Daughter to Be a ‘Secondary Wife’

4. Torah and Slavery: What Happened When Masters Punished Their Slaves?

5. Torah and Slavery: Protecting Slave Women from Injustice

6. Torah and Slavery: Foreign Slaves

7. Torah and Slavery: Marrying Captives of War

RELATED

Slavery and Freedom in the Bible (an overview, for the big picture)

The Biblical Norm for Marriage

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

5 Slavery in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

12 Polygamy in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

As for the two links to Islam and the Quran, even though the Quran was written 600 years after Jesus, it still follows a misreading of the Old Testament and permits polygamy, if the husband is rich enough to afford it. In contrast, Jesus endorsed the married couple in Eden (Matt. 19:4-6). Let’s not go backwards.

SOURCES

Works Cited

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