During Season 2 of NBC’s Emmy award-winning West Wing television drama series, President Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) went on a humiliating tirade against “Dr. Jenna Jacobs,” a character closely modeled after Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and incorrectly stated that Ex. 21:7 condones “selling [his] youngest daughter into slavery.” Since this defamatory episode first aired, the same allegation, and many falsehoods like it, have been constantly circulating around the internet and other media outlets. Each of the glaringly non-factual assertions are based upon both a deliberate attempt to misinterpret the text and an anti-Semitic assumption of depraved indifference exhibited by the Hebrew fathers of Antiquity (Part 6 will contain a more thorough dismantling of this egregious cultural slur). It’s about time that believers started responding en masse to these offensive assaults upon the inerrancy and divine inspiration of the Bible. God Himself demands that we “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3).
When we look at the full context (Ex. 21:7-11) instead of merely quoting verse 7 as a pretext, it becomes readily apparent that this citation is not about slavery at all. It actually concerns the paying of a dowry for a wife. In fact, verse 10 refers to her “marital rights.” The passage also explains how a man may receive a single young woman as his own bride or present her to his son for betrothal. If he selects her for himself and later changes his mind, then he “has broken faith with her (v. 8),” which was a common Jewish idiom referring to marital unfaithfulness or the unjustifiable dissolution of a marriage covenant (Mal. 2:14). But if he chooses her for his son, then he must treat the maiden like a daughter which is the equivalent of today’s daughter-in-law (v. 9). Furthermore, the text requires that a wife be granted specific protections which were basically unheard of at that time. For example, verse 8 states that a husband has no right to treat his bride like property and sell her to another man. And verse 10 further mandates that a wife must never be deprived of her physical, conjugal, or other relational needs. Should she ever be denied any of these critical essentials, the woman would no longer be bound to her husband under such circumstances. She was then free to return to her parent’s home, and her ex-husband would be punished for his violation by not receiving any reimbursement for his original dowry payment (v. 11). Once again, to make things abundantly clear, this passage precludes the patently false notion that a Jewish man could sell his daughter or purchase another man’s daughter with the express intent of forcing her to remain only a servant or slave, instead of becoming a marriage partner. As verse 11 unambiguously demands, “If he does not provide her with these three things (food, clothing, and marital rights as verse 10 specifically indicates), she is to go free.” So, the man, in this case, must either marry her or allow his son to marry her or else grant her a release from all prior marital obligations. Those were the only three biblically authorized options. A virgin daughter was never to be purchased exclusively as a slave or servant. According to Deut. 21:14, Torah Law did not even permit Hebrew husbands to violate and dehumanize foreign women in this sort of inhumane manner – adamantly commanding that “you must not sell her or treat her as a slave.” It therefore makes absolutely no sense at all to slanderously assume that God’s people would impose a cruel and degrading system of subjugation upon the female virgins of their own nationality. Nor would typical Jewish fathers sink to such a level so as to essentially establish the widespread practice of pimping out their daughters. As any simple study of Israel’s history easily reveals, female slavery was the antithesis of their cultural ethos.
Many opponents of the Bible get intentionally hung up on the verb “sell” (vss. 7, 8), but once again, the broader literary and cultural context is crucial to bringing the precise meaning of this Scripture portion into clearer focus. The original Hebrew word in question is makar (to sell), and the term does typically refer to a financial transaction involving the exchange of property. However, in several other Old Testament texts, the exact same word is translated as “to be delivered over to the power of an enemy” (Deut. 32:30; Jud. 2:14, 3:8, 4:2, 9, 10:7; Est. 7:4; Nah. 3:4). In 1 Ki. 21:20, 25 and 2 Ki. 17:17, makar also refers to “giving oneself up (surrendering oneself) to do evil.” Similar interpretive principles apply to the vocabulary of every language – words often have different meanings depending upon their unique literary setting. Any objective student of the Bible should be aware of such hermeneutical basics. For example, even in English, we can “sell an idea” (to promote or persuade) or “sell a lie” (to deceive) or a person can “sell their body” (to prostitute). In each of these instances, the word “sell” does not denote the permanent relinquishment of ownership for monetary compensation.
Genesis 31:15 is one significant Scripture passage in which the word makar does clearly indicate that which was given to acquire a bride. In this verse, both Rachel and Leah alluded to the fact that their father Laban had “sold” (makar) them to Jacob to be his wives, not his slaves. The two sisters further complained that Laban had already “used up what was paid for” them. As the biblical narrative reveals, Jacob “paid” for his wives in the figurative sense that he dedicated fourteen years of his life to hard labor in order for them to become his wives, but the years “seemed like only a few days to him” because his husbandly affection afforded him the insight to rightly discern that a good wife is absolutely priceless and greatly prized (Gen. 29:20). Likewise, it is very important to note that several highly respected scholarly sources have identified one of the meanings of makar as a bride-price (dowry) given at the time of betrothal (engagement), including the Gesenius Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, Strongs Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, and Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, just to name a few. In the etymologically connected Semitic cognate languages of Aramaic and Syriac, makar refers to an amount paid to obtain a bride, and many lexicographers have confirmed the linguistic link to – and the possible loanword classification of – the Hebrew term. The grammatically related moker is also specifically defined as a bride-price in the rabbinical texts. Interestingly, George Lamsa’s Aramaic translation of the New Testament (Peshitta) utilizes a derivative form of the root verb makar to reference Mary, the mother of Jesus, being “espoused, betrothed” (engaged) to Joseph in Matthew 1:18.
A related objection to the clear marital purpose of Exodus 21:7-11 concerns the use of the term “servant” in the passage. As 1 Pet. 3:5-6 clarifies, this was a common designation, reflecting the relational dynamics of husband and wife (Abraham and Sarah, of particular note) in the patriarchal system of ancient Israel. Therefore, the word “servant” is not meant to imply that the Hebrew people were engaged in some sort of chattel slavery involving the female members of their society. It rather emphasizes the hierarchical roles governing the familial framework of that epoch. But even with this specific structure in place, Judaism, and later Christianity to a much greater extent, drastically elevated women to a place of considerable prominence within the social strata of Jewish life.
There is also a linguistic drawback to the absurd contention that the Bible sanctions the selling of one’s daughter into slavery. The Hebrew noun ebed comes from the primitive root abad (verb), and although these two terms can be rendered differently depending upon the context, they remain the optimal words for denoting a “slave” and “to be enslaved,” respectively. Abad was utilized to describe the Egyptian slavery of the Israelites (Ex. 1:13, Gen. 15:14), and ebed is interpreted as “slave” when referring to both the Egyptian slavery (Deut. 5:15) and the slavery of Joseph to Potiphar (Gen. 39:17, 19; Ps. 105:17). Each of these citations represents a veritable example of involuntary slavery, but the unmarried woman in Ex. 21:7-11 is identified as an amah, neither ebed nor abad are anywhere to be found in the passage. The feminine noun amah is most frequently translated as a “handmaiden,” and this same modifier was used to describe Ruth (Ruth 3:9), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:24, 41), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11, 16) and Bathsheba (1 Kings 1:17). However, each of these noteworthy heroines of the Bible were all free women, and none of them was ever enslaved at any point during their lifetimes. The title of handmaiden (amah) was basically employed to signify a position of humility in deference or respect to others (such as to a husband or authority figure). If the intent of Ex. 21:7-11 had been to enact a pro-slavery statute affecting young Jewish women, then the aforementioned, more precise terminology was readily available for usage by the biblical author.
Another salient detail worthy of highlighting in this biblical excerpt concerns the conspicuous absence of even the slightest reference to the six year time restriction for Hebrew bondservants. The very telling omission of this clause, which is clearly spelled out in Ex. 21:2 (males only), Deut. 15:12, 18 and Jer. 34:14, further reinforces the fact that the daughter of Exodus 21 was actually being given away in marriage since the relationship was intended to be for life. This truth should be especially obvious since the involuntary imposition of lifetime servitude upon any of their fellow Israelites, regardless of gender, was strictly forbidden as an unlawful breach of Torah Law. A life-long commitment to marriage, on the other hand, was the quintessential biblical model. Therefore, the phrase “she is not to go free” (v. 7) contains no insidious undertones that tacitly endorse female bondage, but it instead stands as a strong attestation of the indissoluble union which God intends to exist between each of the two spousal participants through holy matrimony. For this and each of the above stated reasons, the sex trafficking of women was and always will be out of the question for the people of faith. The New Testament reiterates this underlying principle by enshrining equality through the elimination of the prevailing disparities in spiritual standing and social status which were divisively separating the genders at the time (Gal. 3:28). It also cannot be overstated that every modern principle and privilege cherished by women living today throughout the Western nations of the world has originated out of the robust Judeo-Christian ethic that undergirds their respective legal/political systems.
Exodus 21:7-11 was merely the legal codification of a principle that God had long before imparted to his people and had been practiced by them for generations. Just like circumcision (Gen. 17) and the sacrificial system (Gen. 8:20-21, 15:9-20), each of which also preceded the formal giving of the Sinaitic covenant and laws, the dowry custom had for many years been incorporated into the marital traditions of the Jewish people. A case in point was the selection of Rebekah as a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24). Abraham’s servant Eliezer was sent to Aram Naharaim with an extravagantly sizable gift that took ten camels to transport, including an unspecified amount of gold and silver that was presented as a dowry payment to Rebekah’s family (Gen. 24:10, 53). The exorbitant amount that was given in this instance provides further evidence for the great value that was placed upon a Semitic daughter, and the family’s reticence to relinquish Rebekah lends further credence to that fact (Gen. 24:55-56). It is only through ethnocentric elitism or ignorance that anyone can assume otherwise. In an era of prearranged nuptials, the memorable marriage of Isaac and Rebekah also involved the unique aspect of female consent (Gen. 24:57-58). Likewise, the much beloved story of Ruth and Boaz is yet another exceptionable example of a mutually acceptable union, and even more interesting, Ruth was commended for boldly being the one who pursued and proposed marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3:1-11). Turning the traditional norms on their head, Ruth displayed the unheard-of moxie to pull off a rather risky and audacious role reversal. The residents of Bethlehem later declared to Naomi that her devoted daughter-in-law Ruth was “better … than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15); thus, they clearly honored and praised this famous female by bestowing upon her a superlative distinction which far exceeded that of her male counterparts by a ratio of seven to one.
The Torah also clearly broke new ground with its sophisticated introduction of an otherwise heretofore unknown women’s rights provision that allowed for female inheritance and ownership of tribal family lands, which is just another example of Jewish society being monumental strides ahead of the rest of the world’s cultures at that time (Numb. 27:1-8; Josh. 17:3-4). Of course, no one should ever forget the fact that Deborah served as one of Israel’s early and brave leaders of their fledgling nation (Judges 4-5). Despite the numerous inflammatory claims leveled against it, the Old Testament actually documents many nascent women’s rights concepts. The Torah, if anything, represented a radical upheaval and a drastic departure from the deep-seated marginalization of women that was prevalent during the particular historical period in which it was composed.
In other cultures, the bride’s family was required to provide substantial compensation to the groom’s family. However, as the Old Testament instructs, the Jewish culture wisely instituted a reversal of this pattern. When a young Jewish virgin woman was married, she would leave her family and would move in with her husband’s family. If anything, this law functions as a strong reaffirmation of the intrinsic value of a young woman to her family of origin. Therefore, the groom’s family was required to compensate the bride’s family for their significant loss. This stands in stark contrast to the modern misogynistic devaluation of women by objectifying, exploiting, and degrading them as nothing more than a means of sexual gratification.
As thoroughly demonstrated above, several streams of evidence converge to irrefutably corroborate that the Word of God does not authorize establishing a slave market for daughters. So, in the future, perhaps Hollywood should leave the theologizing to those who truly appreciate the Bible and understand its cultural milieu, rather than creating a fictional character who disingenuously distorts the truth in a way that is incongruent with the historical and literary context. Somehow I think the entertainment industry will unfortunately disregard my advice and find future provocative misrepresentations of the Bible too financially lucrative to resist.