The Marginality of the Female Slave

Slave Market Egypt & Nubia
by David Roberts, (1845-1849)

Note: This post is a continuation of my previous post, Sex with a Female Slave. If you have not read the first post, I strongly suggest that you read that post before reading the present post.

What happened after the man had sexual intercourse with the female slave is debatable. The Hebrew says: “there will be a biqqōret.” Scholars do not agree on the meaning of the word biqqōret because it appears only here in the Old Testament.

The problem in understanding what happens to the female slave hinges on the meaning of the Hebrew word biqqōret. Since this word is unique in the Hebrew Bibe, scholars debate its true meaning. According to some scholars the word comes from the Akkadian word baqārum and it means “to make compensation for damage.”

This translation is followed by 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.”

This presupposes that the offender had to pay the bridal price to the owner of the slave woman since her proposed husband would not accept a violated woman as his wife. If the woman’s future husband had already given the engagement money to the woman’s master, then he would receive the compensation as a repayment for the bridal price. However, the text does not say whether the compensation was to be paid to her master or to her future husband.

The translation of the TNK is based on law codes from the Ancient Near East which state that if a female slave is sexually molested by a free man, the man who had sex with the female slave would compensate the slave owner for the assault on the woman and would be exonerated from his action.[1]

Other scholars translate the Hebrew word biqqōret as “to make an inquiry.” This translation is followed by the 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.”

This implies that since the woman’s master had received some compensation at the time of the betrothal, he had no right to receive additional compensation. Therefore, an inquiry should be made to ascertain what happened.

Probably the reason for the inquiry was to ascertain the status of the woman, whether she was a free woman or a slave or whether adultery had been committed. It is also probable that the inquiry was designed to find the identity of the guilty person and ascertain the consequences of his action. Another possibility for the inquiry was to ascertain whether the master of the woman or the intended husband deserved compensation.

The view that the word biqqōret should be translated as “to make an inquiry” fits the judicial context of the case. According to Milgrom, in capital cases, such as apostasy, the Deuteronomic law requires that the leaders of the community “shall inquire and make a thorough investigation” (Deuteronomy 13:14) before judgment was rendered. Since the status of the woman was unclear, a court had to decide whether she was still a slave or a free woman.[2]

Other translations, following Jewish tradition, translate the word biqqōret as “punishment.” The NIV simply says that “there must be punishment.” Although the NIV does not says who should be punished, the vagueness of the translation presupposes that both the man and the woman are to be punished.

The American Standard Version (ASV) says that both the man and the woman should be punished: “they shall be punished.” The translation of the KJV which says that “she shall be scourged” places the blame on the woman and is based on the view that the word biqqōret refers to an oxide scourge. This interpretation is based on rabbinical interpretation. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan reads:

“And if a man lie carnally with a woman, and she be an (Israelitish) handmaid (about to be) made free, and betrothed to a free man, but her redemption not altogether completed by (the payment of) the money, or the written instrument of liberation not having been given to her, let inquisition be made for judgment: she is liable to be chastised, but he is not. But it shall not be considered a matter of putting to death, because she was not altogether free” (Leviticus 19:20 PJE).

Thus, according to the Targum, because the sexual act between the free man and the slave woman was considered to be a sin, the female slave was severely punished by being scourged. Milgrom says this interpretation is not supported by the text in Leviticus. He wrote: “There is no indication in the text as to who is punished and how; this rendering is unsupported by any etymology; the punishment is never the subject of a sentence.”[3]

The man who violated the woman was required to bring an offering to God:

“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; but he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the LORD, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram as guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of guilt offering before the LORD for his sin that he committed; and the sin he committed shall be forgiven him” (Leviticus 19:20-22).

The man who violated the female slave had to make an atonement for himself by bringing a “ram of guilt offering before the LORD” because he had committed a great sin. In this case only the man is considered to have committed a sin before the Lord. Nothing is said of the female slave because, as was common in the Ancient Near East, a slave did not have the same rights as a free citizen.

According to Milgrom, the man who violated the woman had committed a “great sin” because he had violated the commandment against adultery, therefore he had to make an atonement for his sin. Milgrom wrote: “The seducer of the betrothed slave-girl is indeed guilty of adultery and though her slave status renders the death penalty inoperable, the ‘great sin’ against God still must be expiated.”[4] Although the man was not put to death on a technicality (because the woman was not a free woman at the time of their liaison), the man committed a great sin because he had violated the right of the woman’s future husband and had committed a great sin against God.

According to Ellens, the law in Leviticus 19:20-22 marginalizes and objectifies the woman.[5] The law also reveals how marginal a female slave was in the house of her master. As Milgrom wrote: “Herein is revealed the true marginality of the case: on the one hand, because she is betrothed, the master is, in effect, only her partial owner and therefore not entitled to compensation; on the other hand, because she still is a slave, the laws of adultery are not applicable and their penalties cannot be imposed on her paramour.”[6]

The marginality of the woman is revealed by her situation: because her master has given her into marriage to another man, she is betrothed, her master does not have full claim over her. Because she is betrothed but the marriage has not yet been consummated, the prospective husband does not have the right to the claims of a husband.

The marginality of the woman slave is also revealed in the way the law deals with the sexual violation of the female slave. Because the woman was a slave and because she was still not free from her master’s house, the man who had sex with her goes out free of the death penalty because he was a free citizen and she was not. Not only that, because he offered an offering, he is assured of God’s forgiveness (v. 22), but nothing is said about her being forgiven.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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[1] Jacob Milgrom, “The Betrothed Slave-girl, Lev. 19:20-22,” ZAW 89 (1977): 46.

[2] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 1670.

[3] Ibid, 1669.

[4] Jacob Milgrom, “The Betrothed Slave-girl,” 49.

[5] Deborah L. Ellens, Women in the Sex Texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy: A Comparative Conceptual Analysis (New York: T & T Clark, 2008), 113.

[6] Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, 1665.

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

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