Friday, June 26, 2009

The Plight of a Slave Girl

At this point in our study of the Book of Exodus, God has just given the popular version of the Ten Commandments and is continuing to provide commandments to Moses for the Israelites to obey. Collectively, all of these commandments will be the first complete set of laws which were given by God.

Because they are coming from God, not from man, it is reasonable to expect that these laws represent the epitome of justice. After all, if mankind can come up with laws which are more just than the laws which God provided, then it follows that God is not perfectly just. Besides, why would an infinitely wise God give man a set of morally imperfect laws? So let's take a look how God's laws stack up to our present-day morality. If there is a moral disconnect, either we need to change our morality or we need to recognize that God is not perfect in His justice.

The Plight of a Slave Girl
In most ancient cultures, women played a subservient position to men. They did not have equal rights. Today, while many countries have instituted equal rights for women under the law, many of those same countries still have strong cultural roles which maintain women as inferior beings. Even in the United States, a country born with the words “all men are created equal”, women were not given the right to vote until 1920 AD. And the former slaves in the U.S.? They didn't get true voting rights in the entire country until 1965 AD with the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the sluggish progress at times, it is clear that the trend in our morality is headed toward an egalitarian world view. Is that what God would want?

Depending on how you choose to parse the previous text, at approximately commandment number thirteen God begins providing laws which govern Hebrew servants, both men and women, in Exodus 21:2-11. These Hebrew servants were more like indentured servants than slaves, but the Israelites had true slaves as well (Leviticus 25:44-46). As best as I can discern, the rules for the slaves and the Hebrew servants were basically the same except that the Hebrew servants could become free again after 6 years of service. Well, at least the male servants, and the maidservants which sold themselves into bondage (Leviticus 15:12), could be free again.

According to Exodus 21:7, a maidservant sold by her father is not to be freed. (Notice that through this law God implicitly gives the father the right to sell his daughter into bondage.) The text of Exodus 21:7-11 seems to suggest that the reason for this is that this maidservant is only to be used for marriage, or at least some sort of consummated relationship. Some Christian commentaries go a step further and say that the reason why she is a maidservant as opposed to simply an espoused woman is that she is sold at young age, before puberty, so she is not fit to marry right away. That does not make make the situation any more morally appealing. Furthermore, it also suggests that the self-sold maidservants in Deuteronomy 15:12 as really being temporary concubines, because it implies that there are no other uses for maidservants.

Speaking of consummated relationships, this section has a couple to tackle. First, step back to Exodus 21:4-6 where you will see that if a master provides a wife for his servant, the wife and all of the resulting children belong to the master when the servant is freed. So much for the sanctity of marriage! Clearly, God finds that property ownership (the wife and children) trumps marriage. The only way the servant can keep his wife and family is to swear lifelong servitude to the master.

Second, we see in Exodus 21:10-11 that if “he” (which could be the master or his son) marries another woman and then neglects to provide the maidservant with food, clothing, and marital rights, she is free to leave without payment. That is at least somewhat fair, but you might expect some punishment to the husband for neglecting her for full justice. After all, few women were in the position to support themselves back then.

There is one more point to cover on the sexual role of a maidservant, but we have to jump to Leviticus 19:20-22. There you see that if a man has sex with a slave girl who was betrothed to someone else but not yet free, there is a given punishment. However, that punishment is not nearly as severe as it would have otherwise been if she was free (which would have been death). What this implicitly reveals is that unmarried sex with slave girls was normally acceptable. It is only because she was promised to be married that this was a sin, and the severity of that sin's punishment was reduced because she was still a slave. This is probably because part of a maidservant's expected duty was sex. Otherwise, it would make sense to treat it like any other case of adultery.

How maidservants were actually treated probably varied quite a bit from one master to another. However, putting the pieces together from our study thus far, it is reasonable to theorize that sexual gratification, with or without a marriage, was an expected duty of a maidservant.

What could you do if your maidservant did not “perform” for you? Well, as we saw above you could simply marry another woman and neglect the maidservant, thereby enacting a divorce. Also, because she is your property, you could beat your maidservant into submission, so long as she was still able to get up in a day or two (Exodus 21:20-21). Just try to avoid damaging an eye or breaking a tooth, because then she would be free to leave (Exodus 21:26-27).

The final point in our discussion reveals that slaves are not worth the same as free people. They do not get equal protection under the law. In case you did not catch that implication from the study above above, read Exodus 21:28-32 where you will see that if a man's wild bull kills a free person, the bull and the bull's owner get put to death. However, if that same bull kills a slave, the bull gets killed and the bull's owner only has to pay a fine to the slave owner.

So what did we learn here? God made laws regulating, not condemning, slavery, thereby providing implicit approval of slavery. Slaves and servants are considered property. Their marriages are subject to the rule of property. Men could sell their daughters into bondage. Maidservants likely had to fulfill sexual duties. Servants and slaves could be beaten severely as long as they were not killed, and as long as no eye or tooth damage was done. Servants and slaves do not get protection under the law equal that of free men, and furthermore their lives are worth less than free men.

These are God's rules, not mine. They seem to be contrary to our increasingly egalitarian society. And personally, they are offensive to my sense of morality. So what do you think? Is our society headed in the wrong direction by going down the path of equality, or is it simply that God does not have a sense of perfect justice?

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