Answers in Exegesis: Can a Father Sell His Daughter into Slavery?

I would probably need to take off my socks and shoes in order to be able to count the number of times that I have been in a discussion with an atheist (I loathe to call them “debates” as some do because there never was actually a case made) and the issue of God’s law comes up. And it almost seems to be a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the atheist to say something to the effect of, “I’m thinking of selling my daughter into slavery. How much should I ask?


Without a doubt, because many Christians have never actually read the New Testament in its entirety, much less the Old Testament, that they have never come across the Mosaic Law Code (MLC), or much less have studied it in any meaningful depth. Most Sunday School lessons, once Moses gets the Decalogue, jump to Joshua, or Ruth, or some other character because to work through the MLC, as moderns, requires learning how to understand terms that are translated as “slave” in a method that does not reference the African slave trade that flourished during the 16th to 19th centuries in Europe and the Americas. It’s difficult for moderns to put down our distractions and focus on pesky things like “historical” and “cultural” contexts. Apparently it’s too difficult for atheists because they, even though they claim to be rational and skeptical, will make dogmatic assumptions about terms without checking their understanding. So much for being rational and skeptical.

When we apply just a little skepticism, just a moment of questioning to an issue, such as the one found in Exodus 21:7-11, and define our terms, the question will be answered meaningfully and truly.

The passage begins with somewhat of a troubling statement*,

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

This statement must be understood in the context of the larger passage that begins at 21:1, which establishes the primary means of securing labor, or protecting ones life from death.
I’ll allow the translators of the English Standard Version to make my case, as they write in the introduction to their translation,

[A] particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that requires a range of renderings—“slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery particularly in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). (Emphasis added)

So, in deference to women (how women might have been seen or characterized in ancient times is irrelevant), the statement from v.7 is meant to differentiate the relationship that a woman might have in such a situation with her “owner” which is simply a legal term that is being employed, that would be different from that of a man. Such differences are illuminated in the following verses. But just spitballing, that would include doing the cooking and cleaning, as house staff, all the way to marriage.

Notice that the last phrase of v.7 says, “[…]she shall not go out as the men do.” Now this has to be understood in the context of a semi-nomadic life that Exodus is setting up for, since the overview of the law is centered around Hebrews (i.e. Israelite), that once a man, for whatever reason (poverty, debt, criminal) at the end of his service, he was free to go, unless circumstances caused him to change his mind. Also, the debt holder/owner could sell the debt to someone else if he saw that he would be unable to fully provide as was his duty in the culture. Women however, were to be immune to this practice, which seems to say something about the actual biblical view of women, namely that they weren’t simply property that could be bought and sold like cattle, the only way that they could be “resold” was either to her father or a similar kinsman redeemer, and no one else.

So upon what reason would a father “sell” his daughter?

  1. Human capital—rather literally, in that culture, the surest means of securing oneself was through being able to sell even oneself in order to gain capital. It was not just time or talent that was being sold, as today, but ones whole body. This gave security in a rather unstable society and time, especially if one were poor.
  2. Debt repayment—much like point 1, a person might have to sell themselves or a child, to pay a debt. We recoil away from such a concept because of a hamstrung view of the capacities of children, but in the ancient near east, in a context of human capital, everyone is worth something.
  3. Marriage—”Ew, it’s barbaric!” Yeah, yeah, whatever, it was simply the way it was. In ancient near eastern culture, if you wanted to get married you, or most likely your parents, would approach the family of the person you/they wanted to be married to, and you/they would negotiate a fair price. As Richards and O’Brien write in their insightful tome Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

Arranged marriages are much more common in collectivist cultures, because it goes without saying that, in this most important of decisions, the community should decide what’s best for the young people. Marriage is not simply between a man and a woman. One family marries another…This might sound restricting to you. It does to most Westerners. But many non-Westerners view this supervision as helping: How can you abandon a poor twenty-two-year-old to make such an incredibly important decision on his or her own? To do so would be calloused and uncaring. (p.98, LOGOS Bible Software Version) (Emphasis added)

The JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus adds here,

In the ancient world, a father, driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. (LOGOS Bible Software) (Emphasis added)

The fact that women could not just be bought and sold, but had to be protected is, for lack of a better term, progressive. This even extends to the care of the woman in that position, namely as a woman secured for marriage, which is what the following verses seem to imply, such as v8,

If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. (Emphasis added)

Notice that v.8 seems to assume what the JPS commentators do, as does v.9,

If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter.

Hmmm. It seems as though the woman is not merely property, but is to be considered as family. V.10, seems to throw a little bit of a curve ball,

If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights.

I’ll let the JPS Commentators handle this one,

The Torah extends this protection to the slave girl and here specifies three basic necessities of life to which she is entitled. The formulation once again gives every appearance of being ancient technical legal language. It is generally agreed (1) that Hebrew sheʾer, literally “flesh,” is an ancient word for “meat,” perhaps, like leḥem, extended to cover food in general, and (2) that kesut is certainly “clothing.” It is the unique word ʿonah that has generated debate. The Septuagint, Peshitta, and Targums all understood it to refer to the woman’s conjugal rights. This interpretation, which has no philological support, is also found in rabbinic sources. If correct, it would reflect a singular recognition in the laws of the ancient Near East that a wife is legally entitled to sexual gratification. (Emphasis added)

Well, that certainly puts a different spin on things.

Okay, so what’s the takeaway here?

A couple of things:
1. Words like “slave” and “owner” are translations of words that actually reflect something more nuanced than our simplistic thinking about the terms.
2. Women had a protected status that did not apply to men. Once “bought” a woman, under the MLC was not merely a piece of property she had the protection of the social status of “wife” or “daughter” and could not be gotten rid of easily.
3. The woman could leave if she was neglected and would not suffer recourse.

All of that to say, if an atheist drops the question that he’s wanting to sell his daughter into slavery, and wants to know how much he should ask, remind him that the MLC sets the standard at a month and a half wages of the average wage. Last time I checked, the average hourly wage was something like $10.85(USD), multiply that by an 8-hour work day at 50 days wages, that works out to about $4300. But he can always ask for more. In case you were wondering: that’s called “a joke”. And it should only be taken that way because the atheist that asks such questions is making a straw man argument: he thinks that what we mean by morals is what the MLC says outright rather than what Christians mean that we seek to understand and apply the principles that underlie the law and apply them, he however is obligated to follow the laws of the nation in which he lives.

Also, this video by Paul Copan covers much more of what terms meant in the ancient context.


For more on issues related to the Mosaic law see here, here, and here.


*All Bible quotations taken from the English Standard Version.



  1. […] Having read actually read the Bible, as well as studying the original historical and cultural context into which the revelation of God went, I can honestly say, that there are no such instructions. However, I can point to certain Islamic traditions where that seems to be the case. In fact, one of my first posts in the Answers in Exegesis series dealt with such an accusation as well as several posts since, see here and here. […]

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