A Most Difficult Passage

Exodus 21:7-11

We have arrived at A MOST DIFFICULT PASSAGE in our study of the Book of Exodus. Exodus 21:7-11—

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. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her
with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

Most scholars skip right over this passage in their commentaries as though it were not even there. Immediately, that tells us it is A MOST DIFFICULT PASSAGE.

This morning we are going to exegete this passage. EXEGESIS is the science of making clear what is obscure. It is “to raise up out of” to expose the meaning by explanation, critical analysis, or interpretation.

To exegete a passage we must grasp its grammatical, historical and literary contexts.

The few who attempt to interpret this passage assume it deals with CONCUBINES—that is female slaves who are purchased to be secondary wives. Their interpretation goes like this:

1. A father sells his daughter to be a secondary wife—a concubine!
2. She is selected by the master before the sale to be a secondary wife.
3. If she does not please her master, he is permitted to marry another women, but he must continue to supply her basic needs, which includes having sex with her, or he must set her free.

Major problem—that is polygamy and adultery! On the day God gave these laws, He had spoken the Seventh Commandment—YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY. The historical, grammatical and literary contexts show that the laws of THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT are given by the LORD. If God allows concubinage, He becomes the Author of Confusion by violating and destroying marriage, which He instituted in Genesis 2:24—

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

From the very beginning with Adam and Eve, marriage meant one man and one woman becoming one flesh for one lifetime.

The Jewish writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls appealed to the creation narrative to argue against polygamy and to show God’s original plan for marriage was monogamy—being married to one person for life.

The translators of the Septuagint (the Greek OT) substituted “TWO” for “THEY” (in Genesis 2:24) so that it read “the two will become one flesh.”

By substituting TWO for THEY, the translators were trying to show that God opposed any practice of polygamy. Certainly, Jesus affirmed their interpretation of monogamous marriage when He quoted the Septuagint instead of the Hebrew text in Mark 10:6-12—

“At the beginning of creation God `made them male and female’. `For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Because some Jewish teachers allowed polygamy, they would not have seen marrying a second wife as adultery, even if they had agreed that the man was still married to the first wife after divorce. But Jesus eliminates the double standard; a man consorting with two women is as adulterous as a woman consorting with two men. Jesus’ point is to advocate absolute fidelity to one’s spouse in a monogamous marriage for life.

Divorce is not even mentioned in this law of the servant-girl purchased for a concubine marriage. Therefore, if the master marries the servant-girl and then sets her free or allows her to be redeemed to marry another and he marries someone else—adultery occurs with both the man and the woman! If that’s the right interpretation, God is legislating a way around the Seventh Commandment, contradicting it, as well as authoring confusion and disorder. 1 Corinthians 14:33, however, asserts—

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

The Bible makes it clear that concubinage results in devastating consequences, disorder and confusion.

For instance, Abraham took Sarah’s servant-girl as a concubine and fathered Ishmael, whose offspring are the Arabs—a major thorn in the side of Israel to this day. In Judges 19, adopting the ways of the Canaanites, a Levite took a concubine and plunged Israel into the cesspool of violence and immorality. Solomon’s many wives and concubines led him into apostasy resulting in the division of the nation.

The antagonism between concubines and wives recorded in the OT is paralleled by texts from other similar cultures. The account of the wives and concubines of Jacob and the subsequent ill will between the brothers indicates that concubinage was never a happy state of affairs.

The question we are faced with in our passage this morning is whether God is regulating the custom of polygamy or something else.

Not only Adam, but also Noah, the second founder of the human race, were monogamous. It is in the line of Cain that bigamy first occurs, as though to emphasize the consequences of the Fall. Hosea and other prophets constantly dwell upon the thought of a monogamous marriage as being a symbol of the union between God and His people; and denounce idolatry as unfaithfulness to this spiritual marriage-tie.

Deuteronomy 17:17 forbids kings to take many wives. Kings were the final authority in their kingdoms and could do as they please. Many had harems filled with concubines. But Israel’s kings were not to practice polygamy.

Polygamy and bigamy were recognized features of the family life and from the ANE point of view; there was nothing immoral in the practice of polygamy.

A slave woman in the ANE was legal property of her master and could enter in legitimate sexual relations with her master. In all elaborate polygamous societies, there are many levels of social stature; and the concubine was not a mere servant yet she was not free and did not have the rights of a free wife. Few concubines held a place of honor, but their children, especially sons, could become co-heirs with the children of the wife. In the ANE, the wife and the concubines were mere chattel of their husband and had no redress if wronged by the husband.

Concubinage was practiced by some OT worthies, but it certainly was never condoned by God. This law would be the only exception if we accept the secondary-wife interpretation, and thereby recognize God as the Author of disorder! If it does not regulate concubinage, what does it regulate? To find out, let’s exegete!

There are several SITUATIONS in this passage. We’ll look at each one separately. Verse 7 reads—

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.

SERVANT is the Hebrew word hma (‘amah), which simply denotes a maid-servant or female slave. Male and female servants were to go free after six years of servitude unless they voluntary had their ears pierced, thereby, becoming a willing servant for life. A problem arises with the fact SHE IS NOT TO GO FREE. The reason becomes clear in the second statement, verse 8—

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.

SELECTED HER FOR HIMSELF can be translated BETROTHED, ESPOUSED, APPOINTED or DESIGNATED, like our modern engagement before marriage. A marriage has not occurred at this point as it has when he marries another woman in verse 10.

THE MASTER IS UNMARRIED. What has occurred is that the master has purchased the girl from her father with the intent of marrying her—she is betrothed to him. The father either sold her because he is desperate and needs money to pay his debts or he wants to improve the economic status of himself as well as his daughter.

If the master marries the servant-girl, she will never go free since she is his wife—they have become one flesh. The terms of the transaction have been fulfilled. But what if he does not marry the servant-girl and complete the transaction?

During the betrothal or engagement period, usually a year, the master discovers he has made a bad purchase—the girl does not please him—she is not for him and he will not marry her. HE HAS BROKEN FAITH WITH HER since she was sold to him for the sole purpose of being his wife.

Now what are the servant-girl’s personal rights in this matter? The master must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners.

REDEEMED means to recover ownership of by paying a specified sum. The master must sell her back to her father or to a kinsman-redeemer. If her father redeemed her, he would presumably sell her to someone else for marriage. A kinsman-redeemer would marry her.

The master has no right to sell her to foreigners, literally a strange people. In other words, he must sell the girl to her father or to a relative who has the right to redeem her.

Verse 9 is the third statement and a different situation —

If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter.

This case is not connected to the previous case. The master-father is not pawning off on his son a servant-girl he selected for himself who does not please him. He purchased the servant-girl for the sole purpose of marrying his son.

Look what God has done! He elevates the personal rights of the servant-girl by requiring the master-father to grant her the rights of a daughter. She is no longer to be treated as a servant, but a daughter. Therefore, there is no reason for her to go free—she’s family!

You can see why a father who loves his daughter might want to sell her to a wealthy neighbor for marriage. He not only betters himself by the purchase price, but his daughter moves up the social rung.

I believe this was one of God’s ways of raising the status of females in a world that held them in low esteem. Sons were a great delight and joy at birth, daughters were received less enthusiastically in the ANE. This law chipped away at such prejudices.

The fourth statement is the most difficult. It deals with the servant-girl who is rejected for marriage and not redeemed by her father or a kinsman-redeemer. Verse 10—

If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.

Who is the HE in this passage? Is it the master-father or his son? Since the statement is closest to the statement on the father giving the servant-girl to his son, it could be the son. On the other hand, there is no indication that the subject of the pronoun HE has changed. Some translations substitute SON for HE. That’s the least of the difficulties.

The Hebrew word rav (sheh-ayr’) translated FOOD means KINSMAN or FLESH as with a near relation. This is the only place where this word is translated FOOD—you might wonder why? It is because of the next word in the sentence.

The Hebrew word twok (kes-ooth’) translated is CLOTHING, but it literally denotes COVERING. Certainly, COVERING can be CLOTHING, but I believe it stands for something else as we’ll see in a few minutes.

MARITAL RIGHTS is translated from the Hebrew word hnwe (`ownah). This is the only known occurrence of this word. Lexicons list it as a derivative of hne (`ana) which means to answer, respond, testify, speak, and shout. The Septuagint translates it with the Greek omiliain (omiliain) which appears only in 1 Corinthians 15:33, where it denotes speech—

Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.

If we understand MARITAL RIGHTS to be sexual intercourse, God advocates adultery as well as polygamy! If it is the RIGHT TO ANSWER and SPEAK, that is COMMUNICATE, it indicates the servant-girl was to be given her rightful place in the family as a daughter. RIGHT TO SPEAK makes much more sense than MARITAL RIGHTS if servant-girls were not permitted to speak unless spoken to.

Interestingly, the Sumerian and Akkadian texts list the three items of food, clothing and oil as the necessities of life in the ANE. Some think think this word stand for OIL. It seems unlikely, however, that OIL is meant here since Moses employs the common Hebrew word Nmv (shemen) for OIL in Exodus.

WOMAN does not appear in the Hebrew. I would translate verse 10—

If he marries another, he must not deprive the first one of her flesh, covering and communication.

These three things are Hebrew idioms that tie into verse 11—

If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

Those who comment on this passage believe that THESE THREE THINGS refer to food, clothing and marital rights.

I believe THESE THREE THINGS are the things mentioned in this case law:

1. Fulfill the contract by marriage.
2. Let her be redeemed by her father or kinsman-redeemer.
3. Treat her as a daughter.

That matches THESE THREE THINGS in my translation of verse 10:

1. Her FLESH equals redemption by her father or kinsman-redeemer.
2. Her COMMUNICATION equals being treated as a daughter.
3. Her COVERING equals marriage.

COVERING is the Hebrew idiom for marriage. The custom of placing the corner of a garment over a maiden is a symbol of marriage from the ANE and is even known among the Arabs today. The maiden came under the protection and care—the covering—of the man in marriage.

The Hebrew idiom of COVERING for marriage is illustrated in the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. Turn in your Bibles to Ruth 3:6-9—

So [Ruth] went down to the threshing-floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do. When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down.

In the middle of the night something startled the man, and he turned and discovered a woman lying at his feet. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.”

What Ruth said is of great importance. First, she said, I am your SERVANT Ruth. SERVANT in the Hebrew text is hma (‘amah {aw-maw’}). The very same word used in Exodus 21:7: “If a man sells his daughter as a servant”—hma.

Second, she said, “Spread the corner of your garment over me.” That’s a marriage proposal. Ruth is saying, “Marry me!”

Third, she said, “Since you are a kinsman-redeemer.” Boaz qualified as HER FLESH to be a KINSMANREDEEMER. The Moabite Ruth had been married to an Israelite relative of Boaz, who ha died. Through marriage she had become one flesh with her husband a kinsman to Boaz. According our passage, Boaz could redeem her for marriage if she were a servant. Ruth, however, was not a servant but she placed herself in the role of a servant to bolster her marriage proposal—“I am your servant Ruth.”

So what we have in Ruth 3:6-9 is an illustration of the redeeming of a servant for marriage as provided for in Exodus 21:7-11. The law of the Kinsman-Redeemer is what the Book of Ruth is about. Boaz as a kinsman-redeemer redeems Ruth and marries her. This redemption and marriage foreshadow Christ and His bride the Church.

Jesus fulfills one of the offices of Kinsman-Redeemer by purchasing with His blood a bride for Himself. That is a primary reason why the term REDEMPTION is used in the NT rather than ATONEMENT. The Moabite Ruth was an outcast because of the Mosaic Law; she could not enter the congregation of Israel except through marriage. Out of love, Boaz paid the price that Ruth could not. The debt we owed and could not pay was paid on the Cross, when Jesus cried, “It is finished.”

Observe in Ruth 3:10-13 that the Kinsman-Redeemer had to be willing—

“The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of noble character.

Although it is true that I am near of kin, there is a kinsman-redeemer nearer than I. Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to redeem, good; let him redeem. But if he is not willing, as surely as the LORD lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.”

WILLINGNESS to be with one’s bride is the point of Exodus 21:1-6. A servant out of love for his master, wife and children would place his ear to the door or the doorpost in order to be pierced with an awl and they become a servant for life. The NT shows that this act foreshadows Christ the Servant. Philippians 2:6-8 reveals that Christ—

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Paul emphasizes two things: Christ the Servant and Christ the man. Exodus 21:1-6 prophetically pictures the necessity of Christ becoming a Servant and Exodus 21:7-11 prophetically pictures the necessity of Christ being made in human likeness. In order to redeem the servant-girl for marriage, the kinsman-redeemer had to be of HER FLESH. Therefore, Christ had to become a man to redeem us as His bride. This most basic theological truth is painted in this most difficult passage.

In addition, it has a most important application for the nation of Israel. The fact that God redeemed Israel and married her is recorded many times in the OT. Chapter 16 of Ezekiel is an allegory of Israel as a homeless orphan, a maiden married by God, a degenerate wife, a prostitute and an adulteress wife. I want to read Ezekiel 16:8, where Yahweh describes His marriage to Israel at Mt. Sinai—

Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine.

The COVERING is the marriage—the OATH and COVENANT makes it so.

First and foremost, a believer’s relationship with God begins with redemption that comes together in marriage—whether it is the OT Saint or the NT Saint.

In the OT, after redeeming Israel from bondage as a slave, God asked Israel to marry Him at Mt. Sinai and they accepted His proposal in Exodus 24:3—

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.”

“I DO” was Israel’s oath to the wedding vows—the Book of the Covenant.

In the NT, Christ is the willing Kinsman-Redeemer. He died on the Cross to make ATONEMENT for our sins. ATONEMENT means TO COVER. He paid the redemption price for everyone, but not everyone becomes His bride.

Remember the prophetic illustration of Ruth and Boaz. Who did the asking? RUTH—the BRIDE. Christ is willing to marry everyone and anyone as Kinsman-Redeemer, but He will only marry the person who asks Him!

You can have an intimate love relationship with Christ if you ask Him to take you as His bride. He’s willing—if you are!

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