How to Sell Your Daughter

Did you know that the Bible allow you to sell your daughter? Exodus 21:7-11 sets out the conditions:

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed [bought back]. 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.

Although God promises prosperity to those who obey him, sometimes an Israelite would become so poor that he would have to sell his children. (Side question: What do you make of that? Do you think people are poor because they are bad?) Anyway, such dire circumstances did arise and Exodus 21 gives God’s instructions.

Paul Copan, whose book, Is God a Moral Monster?, has been the subject of the last several posts, is quick to point out that this passage only says, “If a man sells his daughter….” It is a law for how to deal with “specific examples that don’t necessarily present best-case scenarios.” That’s true: the passage does not command anyone to sell his daughter, nor does it come out and endorse the idea of doing so. However, it does endorse (even command) how the transaction is to go down given that it has been decided. Those of us who take moral objection to the Bible should not complain about the “if” situation, but we have every right to object to the “then” part that follows.

So what “then” is in store for the daughter in this passage? Are we talking servant-with-benefits — a sort of prostitution with the cover of another job — or an honorable state of matrimony?

Not surprisingly, Dr. Copan goes with the matrimony option. But then he finds himself in a tight spot: the passage considers what happens if the master subsequently “marries another woman.” If the daughter had really been purchased as a wife, then the passage has endorsed polygamy! How to escape this bind?

I think I can help.

The passage clearly says that the father has sold his daughter as a servant. Even people who claim the Bible is hopelessly misogynistic would admit that it does distinguish between servants and wives. Surely someone with a high view of scripture, such as Dr. Copan, would never say that the Bible accidentally used the wrong word!

Furthermore, the master is allowed to sell the daughter back to her father if she does not “please” him, no questions asked. Does that sound like a “’till death do us part” arrangement?

Finally, if the master totally neglects the servant girl, she is to “go free.” There is no mention of an official divorce. She just walks out the door. This is what happens in a cohabitation situation, not a marriage.

So she is a servant, not a wife. Or at least she is not a wife in the full sense of the word.

We seem to have evaded the polygamy issue, but if the term “marital rights” means what I think it means, then we have something even more objectionable. The passage says the servant girl must continue to have her “marital rights” even if her master “marries another woman.” Is the Bible specifically saying that the master must continue to have sex with his bought-and-paid-for servant girl (presumably so she is blessed with children) even after he marries a real wife? What kind of “traditional family values” would that be?

Dr. Copan dodges this as follows.

The problem with the translation ‘marital rights’ (‘onah) is this: it’s a stab in the dark with a term used only once in the Old Testament. … Some scholars have suggested more likely possibilities. For example, this word could be related to a word for oil … the servant girl should be sent out with three basic necessities: food, clothing, and oil. However, an even more plausible rendering is … the idea of habitation … We can more confidently conclude that quarters or shelter (though possibly oil) are in view here, not conjugal rights.

Well that’s interesting, isn’t it? In one breath Dr. Copan says any attempt to translate this term is a “stab in the dark” but in the next breath he is ready to “more confidently conclude” that his interpretation is correct.

If a sexual interpretation were just one of many “stabs in the dark” we would expect various translation committees in the 400+ years starting with the King James Version to have translated the word in a variety of ways. Thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to see if this has been the case. Using, you can see 21 translations of this passage side-by-side. The verdict?

  • 0 for oil
  • 1 for habitation
  • 20 for some term related to sex, ranging from the King James Version’s quaint “duty of marriage” to the frank “sex” in the God’s Word Translation.

So, I would “more confidently conclude” that this passage is about selling one’s daughter into a sexual relationship. If it’s a marriage, it’s a second-class one at best, lasting only as long as the master-husband is “pleased” with his purchase, and terminating without any need for paperwork. It does have some humane elements, urging certain rights for the servant-girl, but let’s not kid ourselves about what’s really going on here.

2 responses to “How to Sell Your Daughter

  1. Pingback: Is God a Moral Monster? (Book by Paul Copan) | Path of the Beagle

  2. Pingback: Holding Wife and Children Hostage | Path of the Beagle

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