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)
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.
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