A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Protecting women from abuse. Has Exodus 21:10 been mistranslated in most English versions of the Bible?

The Old Testament sets down laws and precepts which were meant to protect women from abuse and mistreatment by powerful and callous men.

One of those laws can be found in Exodus 21:7-11 which is about the rights of Hebrew girls or young women who were sold into indentured service by their fathers. Most English translations of that passage give the idea that when a father sold his daughter into service, the wealthy master who bought the young maiden from her father was intent on having sexual intercourse with the girl.

…So most English translations of the Bible are effectively giving the ‘nod nod…wink wink’  to men who like to take advantage of young and vulnerable women.

But those translations might not be right.

We are reposting here an article by Ruth Magnusson Davis which sheds interesting light on this passage in Exodus 21.

But first, here is a brief reminder about William Tyndale:

In the early 1500s, William Tyndale translated the book of Exodus and many other books of the Bible into English. Tyndale did his translation work undercover – ingnito – because the English king prohibited translation of scripture into the mother tongue of ordinary people, and the Roman Catholic Church was hostile to anything which would diminish the power of the Pope. In 1536, the Roman Catholic authorities craftily captured William Tyndale to stop him doing what he was doing. They imprisoned him. Then they strangled him at the stake and burned his dead body. (link)

Daughters Sold into Service: Exodus 21, William Tyndale’s Translation [Internet Archive link]

by Ruth Magnusson Davis

Exodus 21:7-11 prescribes rules for the treatment of Hebrew girls or young women sold into indentured service by their fathers. Aside from financial considerations, it appears ancient fathers had good reason to do this: it was a way to find a husband for their daughters. In Exodus we learn that during a girl’s term of service the master might betroth her to a future husband. It seems he had not only the authority to do this, but also the duty. We discover that these Jewish masters sometimes promised to give or betroth the girls to their own sons. Finally, we learn what should happen if a young maiden was not given a husband, or if, when she had been promised to the master’s son, he took (or was given) another wife.

William Tyndale’s translation

Verses 1-11 in Exodus 21 have to do generally with the proper treatment of servants when their term of indenture comes to an end. Verses 1-6 cover menservants, limit the period they shall serve, and give special consideration to situations when the master gave the manservant a wife during his term of service, and, also, if the couple had children.

Verses 7-11 deal with girls sold into servitude by their fathers. Verse 7 says specifically that this is a different matter. No time of service is stipulated, and there is no mention of children. If her master found a husband for her, the maid would presumably remain in the master’s household until her season of betrothal ended. Then the wedding would occur and her status would change as appropriate in the circumstances. The main focus of the verses is what to do if the master did not like the girl and so did not give her a husband.

Here is Tyndale’s translation from the 1537 Matthew Bible:

1 These are the laws which thou shalt set before them.

2 If thou buy a servant that is an Hebrew, six years he shall serve, and the seventh he shall go out free paying nothing.

3 If he came alone, he shall go out alone: If he came married, his wife shall go out with him.

4 And if his master have given him a wife and she have borne him sons or daughters, then the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone.

5 But and if the servant say, I love my master and my wife and my children, I will not [do not wish to] go out free.

6 Then let his master bring him unto the gods [judges and princes] and set him to the door or the doorpost, and bore his ear through with a nawl [sic], and let him be his servant forever.

7 If a man sell his daughter to be a servant: she shall not go out as the menservants do.

8 If she please not her master, so that he hath given her to no man to wife, then shall he let her go free: to sell her unto a strange nation shall he have no power, because he despised her.

9 If he have promised her unto his son to wife, he shall deal with her as men do with their daughters.

10 If he take him another wife, yet her food, raiment, and duty of marriage shall he not minish [reduce or withdraw].

11 If he do not these three things unto her, then shall she go out free and pay no money.

So then, verses 7-11 discuss the master’s responsibility to a maiden who has come under his care and authority through an arrangement with her father. There was an expectation that the master would find a husband for the girl. If this did not happen, she must go free.

However, if the master had promised the girl to his son, he stood in loco parentis; that is, as an in-law, he stood in the place of a father to her and must treat her as his own (v9), as adopted into the family through marriage. But if the marriage to the son fell through, then what? In such a case, he had a continuing obligation to provide for her the three things set out in v10 – food, raiment, and duty of marriage – as a father would for a daughter. (We will explore what ‘duty of marriage’ means below.) However, in some circumstances it might not be feasible for the master to provide these things, or he might neglect or refuse to do so. If so, again she must go free.

Because he despised her

In v8, I believe Tyndale used ‘despise’ in the obsolete sense, “to treat with contempt in word or deed” (OED online). It meant that the master had spoken or acted against the girl, contemned her, rejected her. Why did despising her oblige the master to let her go free? The essence of his obligation was to advance her interests, especially her opportunity for marriage. This meant he should care well for her and represent her as worthy, but he had demonstrated that he could not or would not. In modern legal terms, he had repudiated the agreement. Therefore it must be treated as at an end. He might wish now to sell the maid away to strangers, but this he may not do.

But if there had also been an arrangement between the master and the girl’s father that the girl would marry the master’s son, the master still stood in loco parentis, pursuant to his promise. Verse 10 makes clear that his fatherly obligation continued. However, if he did not meet this obligation, v11 applied. His right and authority was terminated, he could not sell her, and she must be allowed to go out freely.

Duty of marriage: a home or shelter

Verse 10 requires the master not to diminish the provision of food, clothing, and “duty of marriage” to the maiden. What is ‘duty of marriage’? It is a general term. ‘Duty’ is old English for ‘that which is due.’ ‘Of marriage’ means by reason of marriage; that is, belonging to or arising out of the married state. In this context it must refer back to v9, which says betrothal to the son (which was considered as binding as marriage) obliges the master to care for the girl as his own daughter. Therefore she should have her food, clothing, and also this vague ‘duty’ or due, by reason of the promised marriage to the son.

The Hebrew translated ‘duty of marriage’ is one word: ‘ownah.’ According to Strong, it derives from a root word meaning ‘to dwell together.’ It has to do with living in the same household. In ancient times many households, especially those of wealthy men, were large, with many generations and extended family members dwelling together as a group, if not under one roof, then in a household encampment or caravan. Therefore in this context ‘duty of marriage’ means generally all that the girl was entitled to as an in-law dwelling with the family. But if the master fails or refuses to provide food, clothing, and a proper home, the girl shall go out free, as though redeemed. (This is further discussed in my long version of this paper, linked at the end.)

Duty of marriage: sex … or?

However, some interpreters consider ‘ownah’ or ‘duty of marriage’ to refer to conjugal relations; that is, sexual relations, such as were proper only between a husband and wife. This arises out of a different translation of v8 as changed in the Geneva Bible:

Exodus 21:8 in the Matthew Bible If she please not her master, so that he hath given her to no man as wife, then shall he let her go free: to sell her unto a strange nation shall he have no power, because he despised her.

Exodus 21:8 in the Geneva Bible If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he cause to buy her: he shall have no power to sell her to a strange people, seeing he despised her.

Instead of saying the master had given the daughter to no man, the Geneva says he had betrothed her to himself. Various suggestions of seduction and illicit relations between the master and the maidservant have arisen out of this. However, the main thing to note here is that this change does not follow the Hebrew. It follows an alternate rendering suggested by Jewish scribes in a marginal note on v8 in the Masoretic text.

Pastor Sam Powell explains:

It is fascinating. In the Hebrew text, there are certain places where the ancient scribes, for whatever reason, thought that there should be some changes in the text. But they had such a respect for God’s word, they wouldn’t dare change the text itself. So they made their “edits” in the margin, as notes to the reader. These became known as the qere (to read) as opposed to kethib (as written). The kethib was the exact consonants, as they were written. The qere were the marginal notes on how to read it. I believe that the kethibis inspired, and the qere you take with a grain of salt, as it were.

In Exodus 21:8, the kethib is lo’, which means ‘not.’ And that clause would be “whom he has not betrothed” – pretty much the way Tyndale has it. But the qere reading (in the margin) is low, pronounced the same, but with different consonants. It means ‘to him,’ rather than ‘not,’ so the translation would be “which he betrothed her to him” which is what the Vulgate, Septuagint [LXX], and all the English versions have from Geneva on down. Geneva was following the lead of the LXX, I believe. They did a lot.

So it depends on one consonant: lo’ or low. The Hebrew gives us “which he did not betroth her”; the other gives us “which he betrothed her to himself” If you take the consonants as written, Tyndale was right. (Private correspondence, May-June 2018)

We see therefore that Tyndale followed the Hebrew, the kethib, at v8. However, the Geneva revisers departed from the Hebrew to follow the qere. This changed everything, because later Bibles followed suit. It has led to a great deal of confusion about how sexual relations might be “due” if the parties never married.

For people interested in a closer study, and to see the full 1560 Geneva text, Martin Luther’s 1534 translation, and also that of the French Reformer Pierre Olivetan in 1535, see my longer pdf version of this paper linked below. It also includes John Calvin’s commentary on the passage and more explanations of the Hebrew from Pastor Powell: Long paper, Exodus 21 [Internet Archive link]

Many changes the Puritans made to the Scriptures are discussed in other articles on her blog.

Learn also about the Puritan condemnation of the translations of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale here: Puritan Rejection of Matthew Bible [Internet Archive link]

[End of paper by Ruth Magnusson Davis]


This paper by Ruth Magnusson Davis was originally published here [Internet Archive link], at her website.

Related article by Ruth

Sarah’s Covering: The Matthew Bible vs. the Geneva Bible [Internet Archive link]

Related posts at this blog

The Matthew Bible is the first complete English Bible, and Ruth M Davis is gently it updating for modern readers

“If thou hatest her, put her away, and give her a clothing for the scorn” – Malachi 2:16 in the Matthew Bible

Whose tears are covering the altar in Malachi 2? The Matthew Bible vs. the Geneva Bible, Puritans and Calvin

The notes in the October Testament are spiritually uplifting and illuminating


  1. Finding Answers

    Oh my….so hard not to bunny-trail all over Ruth’s website!!! (Shortening her name because it’s easier to type, not out of familiarity or disrespect.)

    Interesting how such a seemingly small translation difference can have such impact. And how it can be unquestioningly be carried forward.

    I enjoy the New Matthew Bible (The October Testament).

    I am so looking forward to the OT translation / updating….

  2. Donald B. Johnson

    The Hebrew Masoretic text with vowels added comes from the 10th – 11th centuries. The added vowels give what was the traditional reading at that time. But the original Hebrew text with just consonants is what counts.

    This text with the vowels missing is sometimes ambiguous, as vowel make up about 40% of words, so when you only have the 60% that consonants provide, there can be alternatives.

    Supposedly, the intent can be figured out from the context, but what is one to do if there are two or more seemingly possibly valid readings after looking at the immediate context?

    Welcome to the world of translators, where the translators need to make their best guess.

  3. M&M

    I see how this passage isn’t as harsh as it sounds, but some things in the Old Testament seem to encourage abuse. The passage above doesn’t allow the freed man to keep his wife and children and his freedom at the same time. Exodus 20:21 says it’s ok to keep slaves and beat them. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 says it’s ok to take captives as wives and expect sex a month after killing her family. The captive-taking in Judges 21 seems to be justified since God created the situation in verse 15. Yet the Old Testament also for forbids oppression in many places such as Exodus 22:21 and Isaiah 58:6. So why don’t slavery and captive-wives count as oppression?

    • Hi M&M, I’ve left your comment sitting in moderation all day because it will take me quite a bit of effort to reply to it.

      May I ask you in future to use the search bar on our blog, and dig into our categories and tags in order to see if we have already published posts that might address concerns like these ones you have raised. That would save me a lot of time!

      I suggest for Judges 21 you watch my YouTube presentation on The Levite’s Concubine. There is a link to it in the sidebar.

      Now to the Mosaic Legal Code.

      There are those who think that the Law given to Moses was the perfect rule given to all men for all time. When it comes to the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, this was certainly the case. But with regard to the case laws and the civil laws, the cultural situation in which they were promulgated — which included the practice of slavery, concubinage, bride price, female prisoners of war being made into wives for their captors — these things were never intended to be the perfect norm for God’s people for all time.

      The Bible teaches that since the Fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, the world has been under a curse. Men and women, and especially the relationship between the two, were cursed of God (Gen. 3:16). The Mosaic Law did not take away the curse, for the curse could only be taken away by the sacrifice and death of the Son of God, who obeyed the Law perfectly and suffered its ultimate penalty on our behalf.

      It might be said that the Mosaic Law had three main aspects:

      1) It gave the Ten Commandments, the moral law for all time as mentioned above. Realization of their failure to obey these commandments would drive people to recognize their need for the Savior-Redeemer — the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).

      2) It instituted sacrifices, ceremonies and priesthood, which all pointed to the time when God would provide the Redeemer. It was thus faith-building and reassuring for those having faith in the promised Messiah.

      3) And because sinful humans would not follow the Ten Commandments, it set out civil and case laws to regulate and restrain the most abusive out-workings of the curse.

      Exodus 20:21 does not say it “OK is to keep slaves and beat them.” I think you have given the wrong verse, for starters. Exodus 20:21 says, “So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.”

      I think you were referring to Exodus 21:21 and you misrepresented it. Look at that verse in context:

      Ex 21:20-21 (NKJV) And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.

      That law is on of the Mosaic Laws which aims to restrain and limit the most heinous types of sin which fallen humanity would get up to. It is one of the many case laws in the Mosaic Code that were aimed at protecting the most vulnerable: refugees and the homeless (the sojourner), indentured servants / slaves, wives, women bereft of husbands, orphans, victims of crime, etcetera.

      The same for Deuteronomy 21:10-14. It was intended to restrain Israelite soldiers from committing rape on the field of battle and using rape as a weapon of war. When there is war, the more powerful army usually takes prisoners — these are known as prisoners of war, or captives. In the Ancient Near East when a victorious army had a battle, it would treat the people it had taken captive as slaves. They would be made to do menial work, and were not allowed to return to their homeland. So a foreigner woman or man who was taken captive in that way would have to serve as a slave in Israel. Now, if an Israelite man wanted to treat a female prisoner of war as his wife, this law laid down restrictions on that man. The restrictions are to give the woman some dignity, allow her a period to grieve her losses, and then once he has made her his wife he must not later on discard her as his wife and treat her like a slave again by selling her on to others or treating her brutally.

      I recommend you study slavery in the Old Testament and how it was different from what we know as slavery these days.

      • minervasue

        Where is the dignity in being forced to be a conquering man’s wife? There’s no dignity in rape just because you’re “married” to the perpetrator.

      • There is no dignity in being a member of a nation that is conquered by another nation and being taken captive by the conquerors. War sometimes happens in this fallen world and many people including many women suffer because of wars.

        This Mosaic precept is meant to restrain one of worst types of injustice which befell women as a result of war. If Israel lost a war and Hebrew women were taken captive by the pagans who conquered them, the Hebrew women would suffer much more indignity than pagan women would suffer when taken captive by Israel.

      • M&M

        Barb, you are right about which numbers I intended to put for the Exodus verse. Thanks.

        Minervasue, I agree that there’s no dignity in the expectation of sex with a captor, but the only dignity is that a wife had more social status than a slave.

        In light of the New Testament, I can see how these laws weren’t meant to be for all time, but if I lived during the time of the Mosaic Law, I might not think that God wanted anything better for women. With only the Old Testament, I might think that the Pharisees were right and Jesus was wrong, although I’d want the Pharisees to be wrong.

  4. Starlight

    Where does this leave people who reject all other translations and only use the King James Version? Don’t translators look at God’s Law and God’s heart of a Father to determine His intent for putting these words into scripture? It seems that if a man derives an ‘evil’ meaning for self-serving purposes it should be apparent by looking at the over-all context – what God loves and hates (true to the character of God) to determine the original meaning and His intent for inclusion of a passage in scripture? The over-all picture we see in the Old Testament that slates a people for destruction vs. God’s love for and instruction to His own people should help with determining the truth God seeks to convey to the reader! Thank you for these posts, this is very interesting stuff!

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