Sex with a Female Slave

The law in Leviticus 19:20-22 dealing with a free man having sexual relations with a female slave who has been selected to be the wife of another man is very difficult to interpret because a key word in verse 20, the word biqqōret, appears only once in the Hebrew Bible and scholars debate its meaning. Below are five ways by which English translations have dealt with this word:

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

“If a man has sexual relations with a woman who is a slave, designated for another man but not ransomed or given her freedom, an inquiry shall be held. They shall not be put to death, since she has not been freed.

The Jewish Publication Society (TNK):

“If a man has carnal relations with a woman who is a slave and has been designated for another man, but has not been redeemed or given her freedom, there shall be an indemnity; they shall not, however, be put to death, since she has not been freed.”

The New International Version (NIV):

“If a man sleeps with a woman who is a slave girl promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed.”

The King James Version (KJV):

“And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to a husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.”

The American Standard Version (ASV):

“And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to a husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; they shall be punished; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.”

As can be seen by the emphasized words above, English translations differ in their understanding of the Hebrew word biqqōret and these different interpretations affect the way the law is understood. Below is an attempt at understanding the law dealing with a free man having sex with a female slave.

It is almost certain that this woman was a foreigner (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) since in the Old Testament most slaves were Israelites who sold themselves because of debt. If the woman was an Israelite female then this law would contradict another Levitical law which forbade an Israelite to make a slave of another Israelite or to sell them as slaves:

“If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves” (Leviticus 25:39).

“For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold” (Leviticus 25:42).

In the Old Testament, married people who commit adultery were subject to the death penalty: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).

According to the laws of Deuteronomy, sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who was betrothed to another man was considered to be adultery and for this reason both the man and the woman were liable to be stoned to death:

“If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).

However, the laws of adultery do not apply to the situation described in Leviticus 19:20 because of the status of the woman. The reason both the man and the woman were not put to death was because the woman was a slave and because she had not been set free. At the time of her betrothal the woman had not been set free from her status as a slave in the house of her master; she had not been emancipated. Because the woman had not been given her freedom, she still belonged to her master and not to her intended husband.

The Deuteronomic law says that when a woman is a free citizen and the man who attacked her did so against her will, the woman would not be found liable but the man who raped her would be put to death:

“But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death” (Deuteronomy 22:25-26).

However, according to Leviticus 19:20, the woman had not been set free by her master to marry her intended husband, thus, for all practical purposes, she has been given in marriage but the marriage has not been legally consummated because she had not been given her freedom.[1]

If the sexual intercourse had taken place after the woman had been set free, then she would be considered the betrothed wife of a man. As a result, both her and the man who had sex with her would be stoned to death. If the woman were a slave in the house of her master without being given in marriage to another man, she would be considered the property of her master and in this case of sex, the offender would have to pay a compensation to her master.

The betrothal of the woman presupposes that her master had already received the bridal price from the prospective husband. The sex act between the man and the woman means that now the master would have to return the bridal price to the intended husband since the woman, because of her situation as a violated woman, would not be accepted for marriage.

Since the female slave in the Levitical law was not yet married, the sexual intercourse between the woman and the man who violated her could not be considered a case of adultery and therefore could not be considered an action that deserved the death penalty. Erhard Gerstenberger said that the woman was raped.[2] However, the text is silent on whether the sexual act was rape or whether it was consensual.

To be Continued

NEXT: “The Marginality of the Female Slave

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Footnotes:

[1] Baruch J. Schwartz, “A Literary Study of the Slave-girl Pericope — Leviticus 19:20-22,”  Studies in Bible: Scripta Hierosolymitana (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1986), 245-46.

[2] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus : A Commentary (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1996), 274.

This entry was posted in Adultery, Book of Leviticus, Sex, Slavery, Slaves and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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