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Friday, August 26, 2011

God and Sex Slaves

One of the ever-so-popular objections that skeptics and critics like to raise is the complaint that the Bible approves of slavery. Now, I've already dealt with that. Remember two key points. First, regulating something is not approving of it. (We see this quite clearly in the parallel of divorce.) Second, slavery in the Bible was not the same thing as the slavery we recognize today. But this doesn't smooth too many ruffled feathers (as if reasoned arguments are what would do so), and when they get hold of the more powerful "ammunition", they think they really have something. What ammunition is that?
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 (Exo 21:7-11).
Well, there it is in plain language. God has approved of the sex slave trade. Worse, He has approved of selling your daughter into sexual slavery! Talk about morally reprehensible!! What a fiend!!!

Now, remember, we are to "honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). Is there a response that would "make a defense"? Let's see.

The most common defense I see is appalling to me. "That was then; this is now." It's "Old Testament" and we don't do that anymore. The suggestion is that somehow God changed. I'm not sure how. Maybe He figured out it was a bad idea. Maybe He saw the light and came around to a better way. Maybe He didn't really have an opinion back then, but has a more reasonable one now. This approach admits that God ordained the sex slave trade and we're just past it now. No, thanks. I'm not going with that answer.

Others suggest that this isn't real. It is indicative of a time, written about by men, not condoned in any way by God. It is simply the rules they made for themselves. It should not be used to reflect negatively on God. This, of course, eliminates the Bible as "the Word of God" and, as such, a reliable authority for faith and practice in the Christian life. Not going there, either.

Let's try out the text and see what it says. First, for purposes of transparency, I will point out that older translations indicate that she was sold as "a maidservant", but almost all newer translations say "slave". Having given that caveat, it should be abundantly clear that this is not intended to be a command. No father is commanded to sell his daughter. There is no command to do so. Instead, this is clearly an attempt to protect people in this condition. (We'll need to get to what "this condition" is, but let's finish this first.) The buyer can marry her, have his son marry her, allow her to be redeemed, or release her without obligation. He can't use her, sell her, abuse her, or diminish her. These are not bad things. These are protections.

"Yeah, sure," I can hear the critics saying, "but it's still a sex trade!" Why do they say that? Well, it says, "If she please not her master" which is clearly a reference to how good she is in bed. He takes her for a "trial spin" and if he "likes how she performs in bed", he can marry her. There it is, plain as day. Really? What in the text requires such a reading? Indeed, doesn't it violate the rest of the Law that forbids sex outside of marriage? Are we going to go with an irrational God as well as an evil one? I don't think so. So let's look at what else it might be saying.

First, the various translations do differ. Is it "slave" or not? The question is there because "slave" in the Near East in this time was a different concept than today. A "slave" could be someone owned for work or someone hired for work or even someone who was lower on the social ladder (see A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2 vols). Raymond Westbrook (ed). Brill:2003.). These don't really meet our vision of "slavery". Second, that culture operated on a different method of courtship ... as in, not at all. The parents arranged the marriages. Marriages included a price paid for the bride. Indeed, the dowry was called "the bride price". In other words, every father "sold" his daughter. It was a means of insuring her welfare. So there is ample reason to question whether or not this is slavery in the sense that we understand the term, and that is why the various translations differ.

Now, it would appear from the text that the family is in financial crisis and almost all commentators agree. This isn't the normal "bride search" kind of thing. The term applied for this situation is "concubine". Today's "concubine" is a mistress, not a wife, but among the people of those days, a concubine was a secondary wife, usually of inferior rank. It wasn't that they weren't considered married. It simply means that there was a "primary" wife and she was a "secondary" wife. Often, the concubine's offspring weren't considered heirs. So this would appear to be the situation here. The discussion is not regarding a sex slave trade, but protecting a daughter by giving her for the purpose of marriage to someone else for a price. Note that the purpose is clear. It is not a sex slave. No such possibility existed. The one who paid the price could marry her, give her in marriage, allow the debt to be paid by someone else, or release her without obligation. I'm looking ... I'm looking ... nope! Nothing in there about "Keep her around as a sex slave to abuse as he wishes."

It would appear to me that we're the victims again of a smear campaign without any real basis, lazy attackers intent on diminishing God and His Word. Slavery in those days was not the slavery we know. Further, marriages were arranged. Clearly this text is a protection scheme for people in financial problems who need to collect money. Their daughters are protected, offered as wives, and not as sex slaves. The only way to come to another conclusion is to begin with the premise that the only means by which a woman can please a man (Exo 21:8) is sexually. I would suggest that that is a thoroughly reprehensible perspective. We don't sell ourselves into jobs to pay off debts anymore and we don't think it's reasonable for parents to arrange marriages anymore (at least, most of us don't), but these are the things in view here, not selling into lifelong abuse and ownership. Sorry. That just doesn't work with the times, the text, or the character of God.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Another triumph, Stan! You previously asked for suggestions and I couldn't think of any, and here you go giving one I should have suggested! I deal with this often in our book table ministry. I have given similar answers (protection for what is taking place, not a command to do so).

Others are charges that God has Israel kill the enemies including children, but has then take the women and rape them - i.e., forcing them to be wives. Ya wanna tackle that one?

Stan said...

I've taken on the "God having Israel kill everyone" one. No one liked that one. The answer, "We're all sinners and deserve whatever death we get", doesn't fly very well. ;)

I'm also fascinated that so many skeptics automatically connect "rape" with "marriage" in these instances. It's the common view of the passage I just did. It's the common view of the one you mentioned. Really? Are you guys sure you want to make "marriage" the equivalent of "rape"?

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

They call it "rape" because the woman has no say in the marriage, and would especially be averse to it since she just watched her family killed.

Stan said...

In other words, a 21st century value overlaid on a BC culture. Most people have no idea that the concept of having a say in marriage is remarkably new ... and not necessarily a good thing. Arranged marriages were the norm for most of the history of marriage and still are the norm in some cultures today. They were even occurring in American culture as late as the 19th century. I'm sorry, but calling that "rape" is a function of ignorance, not value judgment.

Marshal Art said...


I know which situation you're referencing. Dan T. brings it up all the time. I'm not sure where to find it. It has to do with conquering a town, and coming across a girl or woman who is attractive and taking her for a wife, giving her time to mourn, etc. I'd like to see Stan address that one as well.