|Series Theme: Meditations in Lessons from the Law of Moses|
Meditation No. 16
Meditation Title: Women in Service
Ex 21:7,8 If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her.
Living in the enlightened times that we do, we probably have a tendency to look with askance on times such as these covered by these laws, when women appeared to be mere chattels – but perhaps that is just how it seems and the truth may be quite different. Without any doubt, in an under-developed country, most of us would agree that women are more vulnerable than men. They are vulnerable because mostly they are physically weaker than men, and also because sexually they could be preyed upon by stronger men. It is that recognition, I suggest, that is the cause for the distinction in verse 7: “she is not to go free as menservants do.” What follows is the explanation of that. In Laws that seem so far from modern life we need to remember that God is providing protection in a world very different and in some ways less civilised than our own.
In verses 7 to 11 which cover the female servant (and we have explained previously why this applies to servants and not slaves) the word ‘If” occurs five times, indicating five possibilities that are being covered by this law. The first one refers to a Hebrew father who has fallen into abject poverty (for that's only when this was allowed) and who is seeking to care for his children, as well as income for the family: “If a man sells his daughter as a servant.” (v.7) Arranged marriages, although alien to most of us today, often work better than the short term relationships we so often see in modern Western life. Here the father, in exchange for money, puts his daughter into the family of another to work “in service”.
This is so that she can prove herself, and it acts as a prelude to becoming the wife of the master, or even of his son. It was a practice of the Middle East and so the laws here are to protect her: “If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her.” (v.8) In other words, after he has taken her as a wife, if that relationship does not work out because for some reason she is unable to live up to the role of wife, then she is not to be sold off but must be redeemed by her family (implied). It is probable that this really means that this occurs if the Master decides not to marry her because she turns out not to be a virgin. Even within this practice, as alien as it is to us, there is care for the women and protection against her being sold.
In the third option the law covers the possibility that the master chose her for his son: “If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter.” (v.9) If she is taken on as the wife of the son, she is not to be considered a servant but is to have all the rights and privileges of a member of the family.
In the fourth option, it is unclear whether it applies to the master of the house or his son, but the same applies whichever it is: “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.” (v.10) In other words, if the man took a second (or even third wife) which was not uncommon, the first girl must not lose out in any way and must still be cared for and provided for.
If that does not happen, then the fifth and final option comes into play: “If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” (v.11) i.e. the contract is annulled on both sides.
We need to remember what may appear almost too obvious here, that these are simply possibilities. In a loving family context it would only happen if the family fell into hard times and could not cope, and the father's intentions are likely to include the welfare of his daughter. Yes, in every situation within the compass of the law, there would always be abuses, but wherever possible the law sought to provide for the care and welfare of everyone covered by it. The law, of course, cannot legislate attitudes which is why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, goes behind the act and DOES cover the attitude or thought behind it. In establishing a new nation, the best any legislators can do, is seek to provide for any eventuality – at least in terms of behaviour, and that is what we have been observing here in these verses today.
Although Israel was a sinful nation – in that all men and women are sinners – at this point in time when the Law was given, it had not fallen into many of the human abuses that came later, and which we tolerate in our modern society. It is obvious from the regular media reports, that many of our children are far more vulnerable than those in Israel at that time. The Law was necessary to legislate against sin, to curb its unrestrained working. Family life was far more highly respected and honoured than in much of the West today, but even so laws were still necessary to protect the weak and limit the potential abuser. As the apostle Paul was later to point out, there were distinct shortcomings in the Law, but in the absence of anything else, it was necessary until the Son of God came along and showed a better way.