Divorce and the Law—Part 3

As indicated below, a Hebrew slave was to be released after six years of service. The following passage describes what was to be done if the slave married a woman belonging to his master.

(Ex 21:2) If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
(Ex 21:3) If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.
(Ex 21:4) If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself.
(Ex 21:5) And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:
(Ex 21:6) Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.

Ex 21:2-4 describes how a Hebrew slave was to leave his master when he became free. Ex 21:4 does not say that it was alright if the freed slave left his wife and his children. It only says that if his wife belonged to his master, he could not take with him his wife and his children. If a man could not send away his wife except in case of adultery, it must be also the case that a freed slave could not abandon his wife except in case of adultery. Therefore, a slave had to realize that if he married a woman belonging to his master, he had to remain a slave or redeem his family. About the redemption possibility, note that in Ex 21:5 we do not read "I love my wife and my children" but "I love my master, my wife, and my children". He wanted to stay not only because he loved his family, but also because he loved his master. If the only possibility to keep his family was to remain a slave, we would have read just "I love my wife and my children" and not "I love my master, my wife, and my children". It follows that if he did not want to stay with his master, there was another way to keep his family. The master could have set free his family without cost, but since the commandment did not obligate him to do it, we can infer that this could have been a considerable loss. However, if the family of the slave was redeemed (paid for), the loss of the master would have been covered, and the master could let them go. Redemption must have been always a possibility, for according to the law, Hebrews were to treat one another as brothers. Thus, if the master could have helped the freed slave, such as by letting his family be redeemed, he should have done it.

Though Jacob was not a slave, the time that he spent with Laban, his father in law, provides an illustration of ownership and redemption. Jacob served Laban seven years and then he was given Leah and Rachel. At that time, Rachel was given to Jacob in exchange for seven more years of service (Ge 29:27-28). By acquiring Leah and Rachel, Jacob acquired also all that belonged to them, including the handmaids that their father gave them (Ge 29:24, 29). After Jacob married Leah, since Leah was already "paid for", Laban could not claim that any of her children belonged to him. However, if Rachel would have given birth during the seven years in which Jacob paid for her, Laban could have claimed that her children belonged to him, since she was not yet paid for. Now, Rachel gave birth after this seven year period (Ge 30:25). Therefore, Laban could not claim her children. Moreover, when Jacob paid for Rachel, he acquired also everything that belonged to Rachel. Therefore, Laban could not claim the children of Bilhah, the handmaid of Rachel, since she belonged to Rachel. Thus, at the end of the seven years of service in which he paid for Rachel, Jacob was free to take his family and return to the land of Canaan (Ge 30:25-26).

(Ex 21:7) And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
(Ex 21:8) If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.
(Ex 21:9) And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.
(Ex 21:10) If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
(Ex 21:11) And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.

In Ex 21:11 we read that the woman was freed without any redemption. The woman had to leave because she was abandoned. If she was no longer provided for her needs because of a new wife, it was as if she had been divorced by her husband. Therefore, she had to leave. The passage does not say that the man was free to take another wife. The passage does not say either that he was free to divorce the woman. Rather, it says what to do if that happened. Moreover, note that Ex 21:8 does not give a permission to divorce either. This can be seen by examining the text in the original language. Note that the translations of the Old Testament typically follow the Masoretic interpretation of the Hebrew text. According to the Masoretic interpretation of Ex 21:8, the word לא "not" should be changed to לו "for him". However, if the Hebrew text is translated as written, then Ex 21:8 does not have "who hath betrothed her to himself" but rather "who hath not betrothed her". Then, since she was not betrothed, there was no divorce if she was redeemed, since they were not married. Since she was just an ordinary female slave and not a wife, she could be redeemed. He could not sell her to somebody else, for she was sold to him in the hope of working for him, not for somebody else. Moreover, he was dealing deceitfully with her because he initially acted as if he would take her to work for him. Now, the statement in Ex 21:7 that "she shall not go out as the menservants do" seems to be added because of slave women who were betrothed. If a woman was betrothed, then she could not go out after six years, for that would have meant divorce. On the other hand, if the woman was not betrothed, it would seem that she was to be released after six years, just like the male slaves. This conclusion can be reached based on De 15:17, which prescribes the same procedure for male and female slaves who committed themselves to remain with their master.

(De 15:16) And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine house, because he is well with thee;
(De 15:17) Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also unto thy maidservant thou shalt do likewise.

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