Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hebrew Servants (Exodus 21:1-11)

The following quote is taken from

"Sex Slaves - "When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are.  If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again.  But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her.  And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter.  If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife.  If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment."   (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)
            This quote is part of the larger chapter of Exodus 21, which deals with fair treatment of slaves and compensation for personal injuries.  You can read the whole chapter here:

            In the Ancient Near East, the class system was very different from most cultures today.  Many people, when becoming poor, destitute, or overly in debt, would have to sell themselves and their children into slavery in order to survive [1][2][3].  With this in mind, part of the Law concerned the fair treatment of slaves.  For example, a Hebrew who sold himself into slavery to another Hebrew could not be enslaved for more than 6 years (Exodus 21:2).
            This passage concerns a very specific instance in which a Hebrew man purchased the daughter of another Hebrew man.  The Hebrew word used for her is 'amah, which refers to a female servant who would eventually become a concubine or wife.  The price at which she was purchased included the bride price.  "The arrangement recognized her honor as an Israelite woman, one who could be a wife, even though she entered the household in service. The marriage was not automatic, as the conditions show, but her treatment was safeguarded come what may. The law was a way, then, for a poor man to provide a better life for a daughter" [4].
            Far from making her a "sex slave", this law protected the woman.  The man who bought her could not use her sexually without marrying her, nor could he sell her to anyone else.  If he broke the contract, that is, did not marry her as stipulated, she could only be bought back by her father.  If the man gave her to his son, she would have to marry the son and he would have to treat her as his daughter-in-law, not a slave.  If he married her and then took another wife, he could not neglect her or fail to provide for her needs.  If he did, she was to be set free.  This law prevented women from being trapped in a bad situation, and protected them from being used and abused by those who had more wealth and power. 
[1] Life and Society in the West: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Constance Brittain Bouchard, 1988.  Pg. 33.
[2] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 43.
[3] Life In The Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell, 1997.  Pg. 35-36.
[4] Footnote on, for Exodus 21:7.