To understand this, we have to return to two concepts we have used already a few times when looking at strange and unacceptable cultural practices and patterns. First of all we have to say simply: times were different. Second, we have to remember that within the different times, people were the same, and God worked with them to restrain and root out their sin, and bring them to faith in his work in the world within the context where they found themselves.
I'd also like to add a third consideration though, that we have been thinking through as a pattern for how women experience life in the world. This is the idea that because of the physical factors of being a woman and bearing children, women are often both categorically and individually in positions of less power than the men around them. Though women are equal in value, (or you could argue that our unique ability to nurture new life makes us even more valuable!) we find ourselves in dependent positions in life because of the very thing that makes us so special: we have babies.
If the law had been penned by American intellectuals in modern times, surely our experts on morality, human rights, and ethics would have struggled to find some way to make life look more similar for the two main kinds of people there are in the world. But that "law" could only do so by writing off what women can uniquely accomplish with their bodies. Attempts to frame our moral law in this way have led to strategies as extreme as abortion, and switching genders, to make sure everything is equal and fair. But the law written by God is different. It operates in consideration of the relative vulnerability of women, and what to do with that in a culture of powerful men. (Is ours ultimately so different in that respect?)
What we learn about women
- Women had very little legal power and life agency in the culture the law pertains to, and under the law enslaved women were near the ultimate bottom of the power totem pole.
- The law allows marriage to wives who are enslaved in some circumstances.
- A woman's consent for marriage is not mentioned in these passages where women are in captive situations.
- There are different conditions required for male and female slaves to gain freedom. Women pay a lower price for redemption. But without paying for freedom, they are not necessarily freed after 6 years as men are.
What I'm wondering
- Why are there different laws in Ex 21 for male and female slaves regarding freedom?
- Is God ok with the Israelites having foreign wives or not? If they are slaves, is that the difference that makes it acceptable enough to legislate?
- What was the status of the rare captive wife who attained freedom when her husband neglected or was displeased with her? Where did these women fit in Israel? Did they?
- How does all this apply to our modern culture where we have provisions for women other than marriage to avoid physical danger and starvation? What would a modern civil Christian law look like regarding women? Or is this even necessary to consider since we know from Jesus's teaching that all of the law is contained in the commandments to love God supremely and to love our neighbors as ourselves?
The passages about women as slaves and captives
Ex. 21: slaves and their wives, freedom for male and female slaves and/or wives
Lev 19: sex with a slave girl promised to be married to another man - "since she is not a free woman, neither the man nor the woman will be put to death" followed by instructions for the forgiveness of the man's sin.
Lev 29: value of male and female people for "redemption"
Nu 31: virgin girls listed as plunder
Deut: 15: 17 ear-piercing as a symbol of a servant who wants to stay with his master's family applies to female servants too
Deut 21: a captive woman may be married after she has time to mourn for the family she lost in war. She cannot be sold or demoted to slave status if she displeases her husband.
Hebrew slaves, wait what?
When Moses meets God on Mount Sinai, the first instructions he brings down for the people are the ten commandments. But surprisingly, immediately after that, and before instructions for setting up the Tabernacle, we have rules dealing with slaves. How strange, that for this people whose whole identity is established in the moment they are freed from slavery, among the first of the regulations God gives to them are what to do, "if you buy a Hebrew slave."
The laws do say that a Hebrew slave is not a slave categorically and must be freed after 6 years. However they also give instructions for what to do if a slave is happy with his master and wants to stay on permanently. Even more interesting for us, the main reason given for why someone might want to stay has to do with marriage.
Remember, we are in a world where conditions of life are very different from our current ideals. We know from reading both history and the news that the human rights we want for each person are harder to come by in the world than we'd like. Twenty-first century Americans are at a high water mark for individual power compared with most of the rest of civilization throughout history, and yet still divisions between the haves and the have-nots, and oppression of the weak by the strong, are pervasive problems. Should we have expected to find in God's law the formula for a society where these dynamics are avoided? We certainly wanted to expect that. But let's do the exercise of really opening our minds to consider that maybe our ideas are influenced by our own culture (the same way we'd like to explain the standards we find here), and that in Scripture we are receiving revelation from God, applied to a particular culture, but according to truth that stands forever. With that in mind, let's do our best to imagine the context, and look for the truth that speaks to it, then bring our own context under that same truth.
So back to Hebrew slaves, and considerations for them about marriage, family, and freedom. In a world where the sharp edge of economic inequality forged from a combination of circumstance and human influence could cut deep enough to kill, a person might decide to offer their full service in exchange for sustenance. God does not rule this strategy out, clearly, but he also says that it must not be permanent. A person who does this must be considered to be in a particular situation, not to be a particular (inferior) kind of person. So at the end of six years, a slave must be offered freedom. But at that time the person's own assessment of his or her status as a slave/dependent on a master can be taken into consideration, and if a person finds himself weak and prefers to rely on the authority of a good master for life, he or she is allowed to stay. This scenario strikes me as neither categorically bleak nor optimistic. It takes into account how complex and unequal life can be.
The male-female power dynamic again
The part here about women though, puts them even less in control than male slaves. The first part of the text says that if a man was single when he became a slave, he will "leave single" and if he brought a wife with him, she too will be free when he is. But the interesting third circumstance here is if a man was single when he became a slave, but his master "provided" him a wife and they have children. In that case, the wife and children would stay with the master and the man alone would be free. This is a perplexing situation. If the man wants to stay with his family, he has to declare "I love my master, my wife and my children. I don't want to go free" (emphasis mine). And then he can become a permanent slave in a ceremony where before God, his ear is pierced with an awl into the doorpost. Ouch. But what if the slave would like to be free, but would not like to leave his family? It appears that he has to choose. This is because these women who are sold by their families into slavery are not freed at the end of six years.
Before we try to figure out why, notice in all this discussion that women are being given and taken and sold. They are not the decision-makers here. We really squirm with all of this because we don't like the idea of women with no power being forced into situations they didn't choose, with no recourse if they don't like them. But we are going to have to bust our molds again and think back at what we know about authority: that it is an obligation to help and protect. Women in Israel were clearly not in a powerful situation, probably partially due to the physical factors women always face, and partially due to cultural patterns set up around those physical facts, patterns that can wind up having equal or greater force than physical factors. In this way of living, men were in de facto authority. Because of that fact, they were responsible to care for, provide for, and protect the women in their lives. It was their responsibility not to take advantage of women, but to nurture them. We can look back with cynical hindsight at what often happens in these relationships. But the ideal itself could have been good.
The rest of the Exodus passage is anticipating the cynicism we are experiencing. It restricts men who have female slaves from selling them to foreigners (who would have no scruples about nurturing women) if they are displeased with them, denying them full daughterhood when they marry sons, or neglecting them in the inadvisable circumstance that they take another wife. (Ugh this is here again! I guess if Abraham, and Israel himself, did it we should not be surprised to see polygamy acknowledged in the law though.) As we'll see in a bit, I don't think it's entirely clear whether the other wife is an additional wife, or a different wife. If a first wife married out of slavery is neglected, this is the only way the text allows her to be freed.
Laws about wives who are slaves
Sorting through all these scenarios about marriage and Hebrew slaves, I realized I need some outside interpretive help. I found several interesting articles dealing with Hebrew slavery and how difficult it is to understand. Some of the articles also look at the other passages we have in our list above. Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 both talk about freeing slaves after 6 years. Deuteronomy's version is not so caustic to our ears, either, it says that both male and female slaves should be freed after 6 years. Why the difference? A third passage in Leviticus gives us some clues, though it wasn't on our list of parts of the law about women specifically. This passage also links us to the other difficult verses for this post about women who have been captured in war. In Leviticus 25, there is more discussion of slavery in general. The key part for us comes in verses 44-46.
This passage shows that the law actually allows permanant slavery for non-Israelites. Some think this means the enslaved women who are not freed after 6 years are women captured in war, non-Israelites. Since God called his people to be set apart from the unredeemed nations around them, he would not allow those who were not his people to live in community with them. As slaves, they could be in a dependent position, but not full members of society. I presume, that if they would turn to worship the true God, they could be counted as true Israelites and the laws that applied to them would change?
I'm actually not sure that "foreign women" argument holds up though, because in the Exodus passage, the female slaves have been given into slavery by their fathers, not taken in war. But I did find a direct Hebrew translation here (https://thetorah.com/hebrew-slave-exodus-leviticus-and-deuteronomy/) that to me gave a lot more help in how to understand what Exodus is saying.
I read in this article (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-slave-wife/) that daughters could be given into slavery temporarily, almost in place of a dowry, with the understanding that at the end of 6 years they would be married either to a man or to his son, and become full daughters/wives. And that seems to go along perfectly with this translation. (It sounds exactly like the arrangement Jacob entered into with Laban to marry his daughters, in fact.) The idea is more palatable as well, as a provision for a family whose daughter could otherwise not afford to marry.
I find this to be one of the most difficult passages related to women in the law to understand, but I feel somewhat satisfied by the servanthood/dowry agreement theory.
Women captured in battle
Next let's turn to Numbers 31 and Deuteronomy 21 which are about marriage to women captured in battle. This is probably has it's closest modern association in our minds with ISIS or Boko Haram. Phew. Again, we will need to time travel with our mindsets. The whole concept of the kind of warfare we find in the Old Testament is jarring to modern Americans. (Although, to be honest, as I watch Game of Thrones, fast forwarding a lot, I feel like I'm getting a whole new context for what the world was like in Bible times.) The ideas that redemption is possible for everyone, and things like wiping out enemies completely and using the death penalty are categorically wrong, come from Christian gospel principles. These principles have since been co-opted and applied by non-believers who always want mercy on physical life without concern for the weightier spiritual truths involved. Here in the Bible, in God's battles, physical life is not spared, showing the judgment deserved by all those who live apart from him in sin. The pagan armies that oppose the Israelites are generally not asking for mercy and if they too can live God's way. They are out to horribly destroy, and must be stopped by killing. But often the women, who have not been violently opposing the Israelites can be spared. This is a world where women living alone are not able to survive in safety and prosperity. So what to do, but place them in households where they will be supported and protected, and expected to contribute by working? And it makes sense that their rights are restricted since they are not pledged to live under God's law.
We do hear that these captured women may be taken as wives though. And we have the passage where if a man has sex with a female slave who is committed to become someone else's wife, he must pay a brideprice for her, neither of them are punished since she was not free. This is followed by instructions for his purification. You can see why a captive woman would not be punished for having sex with (or maybe even being raped by?) a free man, and the man is the one who would need to be purified. But maybe we are to read this as the man having to marry her, similar to the law we'll talk about later to do with what happens if a man seduces any virgin. But the woman's consent is not even thought of in any of these passages. It is apparently a more modern idea.
Later on in the Bible, and even just later in the law, though, we see God's great displeasure at marriages between the Israelites and "foreign women" who lead them away from God's commandments. How did the slave wife fit into this picture? Was God ok with foreign women being taken as wives, as long as they maintained a lesser status? That seems totally odd. I think perhaps the key is our romantic ideal of marriage (the source of a lot of relationship trouble these days, amiright?) versus the cultural structure of marriage that kept the weaker members of society, the women and children, taken care of.
Women captured in battle would have been completely vulnerable and needed to be somehow worked into society. They could be simply female slaves, or taken as wives by the Israelites. Presumably captive wives would have legitimately joined the civil and religious society, while slaves would only have been supported and managed. This distinction would fit with the instructions in Deuteronomy 21 for the transition of a captive woman from a slave to a wife. She is given time to mourn the loss of her family, and then is free to be married. But if later the husband is displeased with her, she cannot be demoted to a slave. She must be set free, echoing the passage in Exodus we looked at above.
Maybe the difference that causes God's later disapproval of marriage to foreign women comes when Israelite men marry women who were not vulnerable, who were living within their own communities, and would have been able to influence their husbands to accept their cultures rather than the reverse?
How much is a person worth?
There certainly is a LOT to stew on here. Before we finish, one last observation from to do with women and slavery from Leviticus 27. The way that either a male or female slave can be freed under the law is through the payment of a redemption price. In this passage, the prices for men and women for redemption are different. Men can be redeemed for fifty shekels of silver, women for thirty. I think the obvious reason for this seems correct, that men are generally bigger and stronger and can do heavier work than women. The value of the work they do is greater, therefore their prices as laborers is more.
This brings us full circle to the beginning of the post when I was wondering if you could actually say that women are worth more as people because of the ability we have to bear children. I don't actually think that. People find themselves in whatever circumstances they are in, weak or strong, able bodied or not, rich or poor, male or female, tall or short, sick or well. Their ultimate value is in their humanity which lives and learns to work within these circumstances. Value other than our humanity can only be assigned relative to certain categories. Men are worth more for carrying bricks. Women are worth more for carrying children. The well are worth more for considering possibilities, the sick are worth more for considering limitations. The rich are worth more for providing resources. The poor are worth more for stretching those resources. The true value-determining factor for everyone is the orientation of their heart, how completely it is set on loving God and trying to please him. What quantity of bodily resources we have to accomplish that aim are not what really counts.
On that note, let's wrap up. There is plenty here to file away as observations and questions, and save for continued context as we keep moving. The main thing to hold on to I think, is the factor of the difference in cultural structure in a far less gentle world than the one in which we currently live. This culture did not promote equality, but did require the protection of the weak by the strong.