5. Torah and Slavery: Protecting Slave Women from Injustice

Scripture: Lev. 19:20-22. One OT scholar says that this law protected a slave woman when she was caught in the middle between three men.

Yes, slavery was a fact of society in the ancient Near East (and elsewhere around the ancient world, and even today). The Torah does not produce a radical revolution to overthrow it, which would explode the economies back then. Instead, the Torah regulated this flawed institution, when ancient people broke the rules.

Before reading the verses, let’s remember to put them in their cultural context. The vast majority of people lived in small agrarian communities, side by side, neighbor to neighbor. Please do not visualize a gigantic and impersonal modern city. The four people assumed in this ruling probably knew each other.


Here are the verses:

20 “‘If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed. 21 The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the Lord. 22 With the ram of the guilt offering the priest is to make atonement for him before the Lord for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven. (Lev. 19:20-22, NIV)


In v. 20, “There must be due punishment” could be translated as “there must be an inquiry” or “an investigation” (NIV footnote, plus other scholars). An investigation indicates that the Torah moved away from mob justice in the heat of the moment. People were not allowed to pick up stones to execute the woman. Evidently, the outcome of the investigation was that illicit sex happened. Now what?

Let’s restate the verses in simple English.

The slave girl, owned by someone, was betrothed to another man by an agreement, but he is not yet married to her. If a third man has sex with her before she is redeemed (bought) from the owner or before she is freed in another way, he has committed a sin, and he must make sacrifice for it and pay a fine. A virgin slave girl commanded a higher bride price. So her value decreased with his sin. But neither she nor the interloping lover deserves the death penalty.

How do the published commentators interpret the two verses?

In Leviticus: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, (Zondervan, 1990) R. Laird Harris explains, referencing another scholar:

Speiser (pp. 128-31) has clarified the matter remarkably well by comparison with Mesopotamian law. He reconstructs the situation thus: a slave woman is betrothed to a man, i.e., is assigned in advance, but not yet given her freedom (the man presumably was a free man), and then a different man sleeps with her. In such a case normally the penalty was death. But the slave girl was presumed to be not free to resist or not so guarded by a father. So the penalty was not death, but she is not marriageable to the original man. Therefore the original suitor must be reimbursed; the damages would be a fine […] paid to the original suitor or slave owner. Then the moral offense would be dealt with by the second man (vv. 21-22). Here again (cf. 5:15-16) Speiser […] calls attention to the antiquity of the legislation. (p. 607)

The ancientness of the law is explained by the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan, 2016):

The violation does not call for the death penalty, as it would if a woman possessed the power of consent belonging to a free woman (Deut. 22:22-23), provided that the inquest confirms her status, along with determining the amount of compensation due to her owner (Lev. 6:4-5). Compare the Mesopotamian Law of Urnammu and Laws of Eshnunna, according to which a man who deflowers a slave woman must pay the owner. (John H. Walton, comment on 19:20)

Everywhere throughout the ancient Near East, people practiced slavery. Fitting into its own times (not ours), the Torah steps in and regulates it and protects the slave woman. The Torah deals with reality as it was, when the sacred text was written.

Jewish commentator Bernard Bamberger offer his clear interpretation (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981):

The slave woman and her lover. Biblical law prescribes the death penalty for an adulterous couple (20:10). Moreover, a woman was regarded as married–and liable to the penalty for adultery–from the time she was engaged to a man by his payment of the bride price, even though the marriage was not yet consummated (cf. Deut. 22:23-27).  The present case concerns a slave woman who is about to be set free so that she can be married. The prospective husband has not yet “redeemed her,” that is, purchased her freedom from her master; and the latter has not liberated her from his own accord. If at this point she has sexual relations with another man, neither of them is subject to the death penalty, for she is still a slave and therefore not legally married. Her lover must, however, pay an indemnity (probably to the prospective husband, perhaps to the owner) and then bring a guilt offering. As usual, a guilt offering is only valid after financial restitution is made (cf. 5:20-26) (comment on 20-22, p. 897)

The seduced woman does not have to pay a fine, but he does.

In Leviticus: The New American Commentary, vol. 3a. (Broadman and Holman, 2000),  Mark F. Rooker writes:

Verses 20–22 deal with a man who has sexual intercourse with a slave girl who had been promised to another man (Exod 21:7–11; 22:16–17; Deut 22:23–27). Since she was still a slave, the guilty parties were not given the death penalty. Rather there was to be “due punishment” and the guilty man had to offer a guilt offering to the priest to atone for his sin. This punishment rendered the man guilty of adultery even though capital punishment was not prescribed. It is worth noting that only the man was considered blameworthy, not the female slave. Being a slave, the woman may have felt she had little recourse in resisting a male who was a free man and thus more powerful both in the social and economic spheres. That the free man must bear responsibility is suggested by the fact the female slave was not required to bring the guilt offering sacrifice. (comment on vv. 20-22)

Rooker also notes that only the interloping lover paid the fine, but she did not. She did not even have to bring a guilt offering.

The Biblical Theology Study Bible says she was betrothed to a suitor but not yet married because he had not yet paid the bride price, so she still belonged to her master. (In those days a man paid a higher bride-price for marrying a virgin than for a non-virgin; see Exod. 22:16-17 and Deut. 22:13-21.) If a third man (other than the suitor who is betrothed to her) has sex with her, then an investigation must be done. If sex occurred, then there is no death penalty because she was not free.

The NET Bible says:

That is, the woman had previously been assigned for marriage to another man but the marriage deal had not yet been consummated. In the meantime, the woman has lost her virginity and has, therefore, lost part of her value to the master in the sale to the man for whom she had been designated. Compensation was, therefore, required […].

The Bible Knowledge Commentary summarizes the issues:

According to the next chapter, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife,” they “must be put to death” (20:10). However, the man and the slave girl in these verses were not to be put to death since she was still legally a slave who had not been ransomed or given her freedom. Nevertheless there had to be due punishment (perhaps damages to be paid either to her owner or her promised fiancé), and a guilt offering was required for atonement. (F. Duane Lindsey: Leviticus. The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck. Vol. 1. Victor Books, 1983, comment on 19:20-22)

So the slave girl has some legal protection; and as noted, she was not sentenced to death and only the interloping seducer is fined and has to sacrifice an animal.

Here is how it works out. Let’s give them biblical names, for clarity.

Slave girl = Miriam

Owner = Joseph

Prospective husband (original suitor) = Jonathan

Interloping seducer = Haman (boo!)

Miriam is not yet free because Joseph has not liberated or emancipated her out of his own accord, or Jonathan has not yet redeemed her (bought her from Joseph). However, if Haman (boo!) comes along and seduces her and has sex with her, then an investigation is initiated. If the accusation is true, the death penalty is not imposed either on Miriam or Haman (boo!) because she is not yet free and therefore she is not married or fully betrothed. The death penalty is imposed only when a married or betrothed person (and the bride-price has been paid) has sex with a third party. Instead, Haman (boo!) has to bring a guilt offering to the temple (or tabernacle) and pay an indemnity (fine), to the prospective husband or to the owner–or both. Miriam is not marriageable to the original suitor (Jonathan). (But I can imagine that Jonathan may still want her, depending on the circumstances.)

So this rule takes away the sentence of death and instead merely imposes a guilt offering and a fine on the seducer (Haman–boo!) only.

So Harris rightly calls this section: The Protection of Slave Girls.

Men were not allowed to have sex with slave girls whenever they wanted. This fact is also true for the owner.

Comparative Case

Human nature the world over can go astray.  A man was not permitted to have sex with a servant girl, whether his own or someone else’s.  In May 1686, the Minutes of the Provincial Council of Philadelphia state that councilman Luke Watson was accused of having carnal knowledge with his brother-in-law’s servant, and he was asked to give an account.

The board ordered Luke Watson to be called and told him that he was accused of having carnal knowledge of this brother-in-law’s woman servant and further that he then stood bound to the peace for misdemeanors and therefore until he appeared in law innocent of those great offenses he was accused of, they could not admit him to sit amongst them, upon which he went forth.

For this sexual misconduct and other misdemeanors, it took several years for Watson to be readmitted to the council, so he experienced redemption in the end.  (No word on whether Mrs. Watson gave him redemption, if he was married.)

So no record shows that the servant girl was punished, but she had some protection and was not blamed, because of the power relationship. He was a member of the Provincial council, the highest governing body in Pennsylvania at the time, while the unnamed servant girl sat at the bottom of society. He was punished; she was not.

The Torah also reflected its own culture and gave protection to the servant girl. She was unfree and therefore unpunished. So we have a remarkable equivalency between the two eras. I point out, however, that the Torah comes from the ancient world, and this case comes from seventeenth-century America, then a close colony of England. This shows that the Torah was advanced for its time.

Redemption of Councilman Luke Watson in Philadelphia

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

The Torah does not endorse this practice of seduction–of course not! Instead, it merely steps into the community of sinful humanity and sorts out for the judges how to punish the guilty parties. For sure, the girl will not be punished. She was not totally free, socially or legally. Yes, this means that slaves did not have high status, but how is this different from the rest of society, from then until slavery was abolished, even in the New World? (In America it was abolished in 1865 and the Thirteenth Amendment). So how can we blame the Torah for taking life, including slavery, as it was in the ancient Near East?

Thus, far from oppressing the wronged girl, the Torah protects her.

Yes, it is difficult to understand ancient slave laws for us today (never mind that slavery still exists, and critics who complain about the Torah don’t seem to lift a finger to stop it today). It is difficult to understand ancient life, especially when Speiser says this particular aspect of slavery is really ancient, even for the Torah. So this means that the Torah had to deal with the ancient background and regulate slavery, not overthrow it in a day, and gave the girl rights and protections.

Further, consider these mitigating circumstances:

(1) Every nation in the ancient Near East practiced slavery.

(2) The ancient economies depended on it.

(3) Therefore, abolishing it in ancient Israel would have moved too quickly and blown up their economies. Instead the Torah regulated it.

(4) In the Year of Jubilee (Hebrew) non-foreign slaves were freed, so the law moved towards liberty.

(5) The New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament) assume that slavery existed in the Roman empire, but the NT does not condone it. In fact, Paul wrote that if a slave who converted to the Jesus Movement could get his freedom, he should go for it (1 Cor. 7:21). But if he cannot, then he should serve the master and his household with sincerity and honesty, as unto the Lord (Eph. 6:5-8). In this case, the slave living in household harmony for a witness was the goal.

(6) However, Paul denounced slave traders (1 Tim. 1:10). Get rid of traders and their trade, and slavery disappears over time. In denouncing slave traders, he probably had these verses in mind:

Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.(Exod. 21:16, NIV)

If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deut. 24:7, NIV)

The severity of the penalty indicates the severity of the crime.

Further, Paul also writes in the slavery section of his epistle to the Ephesians:

[…] the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:8-9, NIV, emphasis added)

If masters were not allowed to threaten them, then they were not allowed to beat them. God will settle the accounts if a master treats the slave unkindly. So Paul regulated the brute fact of the Roman empire, just as Moses did in his own culture.

(7) The Grand Narrative in the flow of biblical history from Genesis to Revelation is liberty. It is best to read the isolated regulations in that light. We Christians interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and it is always in favor of liberty for humanity.


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

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

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


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

As for the link 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 a downgraded version of slavery. Let’s not go backwards.


Works Cited

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