Biblical Slavery Part 3: Female Slaves

human_trafficking_by_me19leela1-650x346Today’s installment of my series on Biblical Slavery will focus exclusively on the plight of female slaves. My goal here is to get readers to resist the temptation to fall back on Christian counterarguments  and allow themselves to stop and think about the horrors female slaves were subjected to. A more detailed analysis of the apologetic arguments regarding Biblical Slavery will be forthcoming in Part 4 of this series.

In my view,  the ghastly nature of Biblical Slavery truly reveals itself when we consider how women were treated. Let’s look again at Deuteronomy 20:15:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When theLord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.”

This scripture reaffirms the patriarchal structure of Old Testament society: women were subhuman plunder, sexual prizes to be won in victory. Even Hebrew women were viewed as little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. And if there’s any doubt, Numbers 31 tells us exactly how female slaves were to be used:

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man,  but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

I know that there’s a huge temptation here to delve into the murderous side of this passage, but let’s set that part aside and focus instead on the last part. Why was it important for Israelites to select girls who hadn’t slept with man, and how exactly does one go about screening them?

I’m quoting this verse in its full context to address one of the most common apologetic defenses of it: namely that the Midianite women were at fault for the mess that started the battle that Numbers describes. In case you’re wondering, the enticement the passage refers to was tempting Israelite men into worshipping Baal by intermarrying across cultures.

Now to be fair, marrying across cultures during Biblical times wasn’t the same as doing so nowadays. Scholars estimate that the population of Palestine (which includes Judea and neighboring nations) never exceeded 1 million during the 7th Century BCE, when Deuteronomy was likely written. So any culture that lost large numbers of its men to rival religions risked extinction. And make no mistake: intercultural marriages weren’t any more romantic or respectful towards women than Israelite marriages were.

Of course, that doesn’t justify the severity of Moses’ command. We know from Numbers 31 that 32,000 girls were captured that day. It goes without saying that that these captives were not willing participants in their fate. We know that the primary value of female slaves in Biblical times was their reproductive ability (and, let’s face it, sexual gratification for the victors).

Biblical Law forbade men from committing adultery even if it was cross-cultural, and it also condemned unmarried women who were not virgins to death by stoning. I recommend Joe Pranevich blog if you’re curious about Old Testament marital customs. He has an excellent overview of virginity tests and the consequences newly married wives faced for failing them. (Long story short: a bloody sheet from a broken hymen was the key piece of evidence.)

Given that Israelite soldiers wanted to avoid the sin of having sex with nonvirginal slaves in the first place, pubescent female slaves were most valued since they could bear children, but they were not old enough to be married or savvy enough to rebel. Young girls also eliminated adultery concerns, and the nature of their enslavement meant that they were forced to marry and have sex with the men who slaughtered their families. If you have any doubts about the idea that female slaves were coveted for sexual gratification, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 emphasizes that girls were in face selected  for that reason:

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

Stop and think about what this must have been like for these young women. How many of them were willing participants in their marriage? How many chose not to leave simply because life cast out of society was worse than being marriage to your conqueror?

Many Christians will insist that allowing female captives a month of mourning was exceedingly compassionate. But we’re talking about institutionalized rape, molestation, subjugation, and physical abuse. A month of mourning hardly qualifies as compassion, and I doubt anyone could cope with a traumatic experience in such a brief window of time, especially since there was no escape from it. If you were a female prisoner of war, you wouldn’t get freed after seven years like male Hebrew slaves, since you were your rapist’s wife and the mother of his children. The verse that permits sexually unfulfilling slaves to be freed doesn’t indicate compassion either, since these women were now sexually tainted and therefore unwanted pariahs in a strange land that would have treated them worse than slaves.

I want to emphasize this point again: by any moral understanding of a woman’s dignity and her rights as a human being, the Old Testament instituted a system of socially condoned rape. Under the Law slaves did not own their bodies; their masters did. Their best case scenario would have been a variation of Stockholm Syndrome, where the woman would have fallen in love with her captor and rationalized her fate as a blessing so she could cope with it.

Like I said in my last post, when we think of Biblical slavery, we should pay respect to those who suffered under it and keep in mind that these were real people, not characters who exist only to teach moral lessons to future Christians. By acknowledging the full scope of what female slaves endured, we reflect the kind of compassion and empathy Jesus called us to embrace. Anything short of that condones the dehumanization and subjugation of women.

(The artwork at top was made by Daniella at Deviantart.)

9 thoughts on “Biblical Slavery Part 3: Female Slaves

  1. Pingback: Biblical Slavery Pt 1: Facing The Problem | Christian VagabondChristian Vagabond

  2. A great post! And thank you for citing my blog, though I admit that the younger me that wrote the post that you linked to could have used a better editor…

    I wish I could find a way to read this part of the Old Testament and not feel ashamed. Of course, many ancient and modern cultures do not share the value that we place in the equality of the genders, and yet to see it spelled out in a core book of our faith that women are no more than sex objects or– possibly worse– is distressing.

    You have to go to rabbinical commentary, but one of the few times that the Old Testament appears to refute this is with a particular reading of the story of Hagar. In Genesis, Hagar was the concubine of Abraham who fathered Ishmael when Sarah was unable to conceive. What is a concubine– a servant– other than a type of slave? Abraham had no problem casting both her and Ishmael out into the desert to meet their fates. And yet, God protected them– implying at least that their lives had value. In fact, Ishmael would be the patriarch of great nations in opposition to those to be fathered by Jacob. But later in Abraham’s story, he marries again: a woman named Keturah. There is a tradition around Keturah being another name for Hagar (just as Abraham and Sarah had two names) and that their reunification in love was in some way a reward for the evils that Abraham had committed against her in the past. What to believe? Your mileage may vary.

    Thank you for giving me something to chew on this evening!

    • You’re welcome, Joe. And thanks for the insights. It’s difficult to find people willing to give a balanced critique the problematic parts of the Bible. It’s difficult to find people familiar with the Jewish take on scripture. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, arguments over the Tanakh tend to get folded into comparisons to the NewTestament and theodicy debates.

  3. Not a comment pertaining to this post but wanted to tell you that I thought yours was the most thoughtful and accurate comment on TGC’s post re: celebrity pastors on March 18. What is now happening with MD began many, many years ago…and you point that out brilliantly.

  4. Good series. I find it very difficult to put myself in the female slaves shoes. There’s the gender barrier plus a very foreign culture.

    How many of them were willing participants in their marriage

    How many women were willing participants in any marriage in OT times? Did the women see their role, the same as the men did? Did it matter which man picked their husband? Isn’t the fact that their lives were spared the one benefit of being female? My guess is that stereotypical female behavior is a darwinian response to that environment. That environment also favored stereotypical males.

    • Those are some good points, Eric. It’s not a black and white issue where there were more enlightened cultures who treated women well. And certainly there were cultures that treated women even worse than Israelites did. But we don’t have the detailed guidelines for how to treat women and slaves that the Old Testament gives us, and the religions that directly competed with Judaism at that time died out. If Egyptian polytheism had flourished to modern times, we”d certainly be debating their treatment of women and slaves.

      In a historical sense I totally agree that it’s wrong to impose modern values of ancient cultures and judge them for not being more feminist or enlightened. But giving a critical view of slavery is necessary when people argue that the values of the entire Bible are inherently praiseworthy, or that they should be models for our modern values.

      This particular installment was unique in that I didn’t address those kinds of counterpoints, since I’m saving them for the last two installments.

  5. One thought that I had which might be interesting in your research, although I have never looked at it in mine, is whether or how much the institution of slavery changed in Deuteronomy verses Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers.

    Depending on your view, you could read Deuteronomy as Moses expounding on his own beliefs, softening or hardening the law that was received at Sinai after forty years in the desert. Alternatively, you can read Deuteronomy as a later composition that reflects the beliefs of Judaism at a different stage. In either case, you can probably make some interesting observations about the differences.

    I saw “probably”, because I haven’t checked if slavery laws are one of the ones that are repeated in both places. I can only vaguely recall what I found when I looked at this the last time.

    I am blogging the slowest trip through the bible ever. I’ve been doing it three years and am still only up to Genesis 27! (Admittedly with some long interludes due to real life commitments and a desire to write about some other shiny part of the bible.)


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