I have often been asked to explain how Exodus 21:7-11 can be reconciled with the goodness of God.
And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.
I’ve had many skeptics point to this passage as an example of the atrocities in the Old Testament, and I’ve had several Christians tell me that they struggle with this passage as well. I recently had a Christian write to me and say:
I don't understand the part of the young girl who can be sold and if she pleases not her master, etc. I was pretty shocked by that verse
Here is the response that I sent back:
It might help to illustrate the verse with a practice that was fairly common in ancient cultures.
Let's say that a man named Jacob owes his friend Samuel a large debt and cannot pay it back. Now, Samuel has a son named Micah, and Jacob has a daughter named Elizabeth, so Samuel approaches Jacob regarding the debt and suggests that if Elizabeth were to marry Micah, then Samuel would give Jacob a bride price equal to the amount that is owed. Jacob agrees to this, and Elizabeth is brought to Micah to become his wife. However, during the betrothal (engagement) period, Micah discovers that he really doesn't care for Elizabeth's personality, and he decides to break off the engagement. What is to be Elizabeth's fate in such a case?
This question is what the passage answers when it speaks of the girl not pleasing her master. In most ancient cultures, Elizabeth would have been considered the property of Samuel, and he would have been free to dispose of her however he desired. If his son did not want to marry her, Samuel could just make her another one of his servants, or he could sell her to whomever he could find to take her as either a servant or a wife.
Under biblical law, however, if Micah decided not to marry Elizabeth, Samuel and Micah would still be bound to treat Elizabeth with the same respect that she would be due if Micah had gone through with the marriage. Samuel would be legally required to either allow Elizabeth to be redeemed back to her father, or to treat her as his daughter for the rest of his life. He would not be allowed to treat her as a servant.
Also, if Elizabeth's father chose not to redeem her, Micah would be required to give her all the privileges due to a wife regardless of whether he went through with the marriage or not, and he would have to do this even after he married someone else. Micah would owe Elizabeth the same duties of protection and provision that he would owe her if he had married her.
I hope that this helps you to understand the passage a little bit better. Instead of being shocking, this passage should actually comfort you in the knowledge that God is very protective of the girls who follow Him. He didn't allow them to be bartered and traded like the young men. God's girls are precious to Him, and anyone who said that he would marry one of God's daughters was required to take care of her for the rest of her life unless her earthly father agreed to let him off the hook.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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