Holding Wife and Children Hostage

Men get a bad rap for being sex-obsessed — only concerned with how many notches they have on their bedposts. Yes, sex is important to men, but let’s remember that most men would literally risk their lives to protect their girlfriends or families. In fact, even men who “act like animals” would do this, for male animals, too, will fight to the death to protect their mates.

Let that be in the back of your head as you read Exodus 21:2-6.

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

But if the servant declares, “I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,” then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life

Those of us who object to the so-called morality of the Bible see this passage as cruel. A master may turn temporary indentured servitude into a lifetime of slavery simply by enticing his servant to marry and have children. At the end of his period of servitude, the servant will have the impossible choice of leaving his family behind forever or being a slave for life.

Paul Copan, in the book that has been the subject of my posts since December, defends this passage in several ways.

  • He claims it is not gender-specific, but could apply equally to an indentured woman servant who is given a husband. Although I think this is an unfounded assertion, I’m going to let it go because I don’t see what difference it makes as we consider the morality of the passage.
  • After his release, the man could “get a decent job” and save up to pay for his family’s release. But even Dr. Copan admits that that “it would have been very difficult for the man to support himself and earn enough money for his family’s debt release.”
  • The male servant could simply give up his freedom permanently. As if this is a good thing.
  • Consider this from the master’s point of view: He has made an economic investment to acquire the wife, so he deserves the planned return on his investment. It’s only fair that she stay. Once she had worked off her period of indentured servitude, she was free to go. To me, this is the only possibility of a humane “out” for this passage.

However, in that last scenario Dr. Copan fails to consider is that the wife might not be an indentured servant at all, but a foreigner — either purchased, or kidnapped in war. These women were slaves for life. See this post for more on the types of slavery in the Bible: Did God Command Slavery or Merely Tolerate It?.

The wife might even have been an Israelite sold by her father per Exodus 21:7-11. Such a woman was not indentured for six years, but had to stay in her master’s household as long as he provided “food, clothing and marital rights.” Since, according to the passage we are considering in this post, she “shall belong to her master” when her husband’s period of servitude expires, her master would presumably be free to give her in marriage to someone else.

Now I pose this question: If the master were a shrewd businessman, how would he maximize his profit?

The answer is clear: indenture a man for six years, but partway through that period “hook” his impoverished, sex-starved servant with a foreign (therefore life-long) slave as a wife. Do it early enough that by the time six years have elapsed, the servant has some adorable preschoolers who love their daddy. Then, give him the choice of abandoning his young family (possibly giving up his wife to another man), or becoming a slave for life.

Having had the pleasure of being the father of a six young children, I can tell you that they’re pretty darn irresistible. Giving up my wife would have been unthinkable. If I had been in that situation, whether I “loved my master” or not, I would have taken the slave-for-life option. Presto! The master has now paid for six years of of the man’s service, but will get it for a lifetime. As for his economic investment in the woman (if there was any — remember, she could be a war-captive), he will recoup that, too. If the servant somehow decides to leave his wife and children, no problem: the master can give her to another of his servants and try again.

That sort of arrangement is how the incentives in this passage point. Does that strike you as moral?

2 responses to “Holding Wife and Children Hostage

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

  2. Right – the Exodus passage doesn’t cover the probable situation of the man living his wife and kids but not the master, which does rather make it seem like a trick.

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