It’s easy to pluck Scripture out of its context—especially when it comes to the weird laws. Weird laws are challenging because sometimes one word can carry different meanings.
Take for example, the word “sell.” We all know what that means! But “to sell” also means “to persuade.” You can even “sell the game” by playing badly. For the Brits, “California is a bit of a sell” (a disappointment). Then add the word “slave.” This Hebrew word (evid) also means “servant” (e.g., Moses was an “evid of God”).
So “if a man sells his daughter as a slave,” what does that mean (Exodus 21:7-11)?
The context of this law is “debt servitude.” Debt servitude was the only option for families who could not pay their debts and found themselves living in poverty. So “if a man sells his daughter as a slave,” it is in the context of debt servitude—not sex trafficking. But even so, why would a family in dire, financial straits do this? In the ancient world, females were particularly vulnerable. They had no career paths to take. Insert poverty to the mix and you have a crisis.
A careful reading of the text reveals that a poor man’s daughter could be “sold” to a fellow as a “maidservant.” Notice the poor father’s expectation in the deal: either the gentleman or his son will marry her. If neither one ties the knot with his daughter (“she does not please” them), the gentleman has acted deceitfully, that is, “he has broken faith with her,” as Moses puts it. The gentleman must give his maidservant back to her family (“let her be redeemed”). The law of the poor man’s daughter provided hope and protection for young women with no resources, no future, nothing.
If the gentleman does marry her, and another woman, the poor man’s daughter retains all the privileges of a wife—including conjugal rights. Yes, the law of the poor man’s daughter ensured sexual gratification for her. She was not a sex slave. She was not owned property. If the arranged marriage was not fulfilled, she was free to leave. That, my friends, is not slavery.
Although it’s easy to assume the meaning of words and difficult to understand the ancient custom of arranged marriages, it is simply irresponsible to twist the law of the poor man’s daughter into an issue of human trafficking.
God’s laws protected the dignity and rights of ancient society’s most vulnerable. Apparently, the Bible’s weird law of the poor man’s daughter isn’t so weird after all.