Leaving Wife and Children Behind

15 Dec
Marriage Contract

from Google Images

Often the Biblical critic will compare the Mosaic Law, which allowed the master / creditor to separate a husband from his wife and children when the husband was released from his service, with 19th century American slavery, where the slave owner had supreme authority over his slaves, using them as he would an animal to sire more slaves for himself.[1] Marriage was not a consideration. Nevertheless, we have already seen that Israelite servants, under the Mosaic Law, had nothing in common with the institution of slavery conducted in southern and mid western America during our early history.

Let’s consider the Scripture used by the Biblical critic to support his position:

If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him forever. (Exodus 21:2-6 KJV)

First of all, what we need to keep in mind is that the above is an example of case law in ancient Israel. It doesn’t represent the ideal, but it does show how a certain social / financial problem was handled. To be sure, the Scripture seems to treat women and children unfairly, but is this really the case? At least up to this point, we have seen that the Mosaic Law had provided safety nets for the poorer class among the Israelites. Rather than oppressing the poor, the Mosaic Law protected them, and as we shall see, such is also the case in this Scripture.

Next, we need to ask, were the wife and her children permanently stuck in servitude to the master / creditor? If so, the Mosaic Law is silent in this regard. It certainly does not straightforwardly say they were to serve him permanently, yet if the husband decided to do so, there was an official, legal ceremony that was to be conducted (cf. Exodus 21:5-6 above). Why, then does the woman and her children remain with the master? It is assumed the master paid the bride price for the servant (Exodus 21:4; cf. 21:7-11). Anytime a master bought an Israelite maid from her father to be his wife, or his son’s wife, certain obligations had to be met or she would be set free according to Exodus 21:7-11. In the case of Exodus 21:4 the master provided the wife for a servant. It seems clear that the maid did not please the master enough that he would choose her for his own bride, therefore, according to the Law of Moses, he must permit her to be redeemed.

This being the case, according to the context of the Scriptures (case law at this point), the husband had to pay his former master the redemption price (equal to the dowry) for his wife and her children. Once that was done they would be as free as the husband / father who was set free in Exodus 21:2. Of course, if the husband liked working for his master, he remained with his master / employer as long as he lived and could pay the redemption price of his wife and children at his convenience (assuring the eventual freedom of his wife and children).

On the other hand, if he chose to go out free, he had other options. First, he could wait for his wife to pay off the debt of the so-called bride price or dowry.[2] Secondly, if he gained decent employment he could pay or help pay the dowry. If he paid his former master rent, he could probably live with his wife and children, while he paid off the debt, and there is no reason why he couldn’t work for his former master as a freeman. The point is that the Law of Moses provided a decent living for the woman and her children, while her husband became assimilated into normal society where each person provided for himself and his family. Once the man was capable of doing so, he would be able to rejoin his family as a freeman i.e. independent and clear of any debt or financial responsibility to another man.


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Concerning the bride price, see my study Does God Condone Rape?

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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in apologetics


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