The Slave Wife

By highlighting the shadowy woman in the background, we get a rare, ironic glimpse of the dilemma of slavery in the Bible.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Parashat Mishpatim contains the Torah's first law collection, which--unlike all other ancient Near-Eastern law collections--begins with regulations concerning slavery. The Torah seems unable to imagine an economy without slaves, but it frowns upon Hebrew slavery. Consequently, for Israelites in debt, Exodus 21:2-6 prescribes indentured servitude, but limited to six years. If a man enters debt-slavery while married, the master must let his wife go when he is released. However, if the master gives him a slave wife, the master retains the wife and children. What happens if the debt-slave declares, "I love my master and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free" (21:5)? He then has his earlobe pierced with an awl, and he becomes a slave in perpetuity, which the Rabbis interpret to mean until the Jubilee, or fiftieth, year.

Liberal readers are often sympathetic to this noble fellow who relinquishes his freedom to stay with his slave wife and children. But how would this case look from the perspective of the slave wife? I will argue that it looks much different. Who is this slave woman? She is not the amah ivriyah (Hebrew indentured servant) the text speaks about in 21:7-12. In that case, a girl has been sold by a presumably impoverished Israelite parent into a wealthier family on the understanding that she will eventually be married to the master or one of his sons as a free woman. This practice is well attested in other ancient Near Eastern documents. Should the man take another wife, he must continue to support her. An Israelite woman may not be resold if her owner is displeased with her; instead, she must go free without any compensation to the master. Her servitude, too, is time limited.

In contrast, the slave woman in Exodus 21:5-6 is most likely a foreign bondswoman. As a non-Israelite, she will not become part of the master's family, and her slavery is perpetual, not limited. As property, she and a male Israelite slave can be mated by the master to breed more slaves, which cannot be done to an Israelite handmaiden. The foreign bondswoman does not choose her husband and cannot reject him. Both he and her children can be taken from her. As we learn from Exodus 21:20, 26-27, her very body is at risk, for masters may beat their own slaves without legal interference as long as they do not kill them or destroy a major body part. (Slave narratives from different parts of the world confirm that slaves were, and are, routinely battered and then expected to work. They may work less efficiently, but historically this has not been a sufficient disincentive to masters. The law cannot be said to permit battery of slaves; it is simply uninterested in such battery unless it results in major damage or death.)

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Rachel Adler

Rachel Adler, a feminist theologian, earned a Ph.D. in religion and social ethics from the University of Southern California jointly with Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, where she now teaches.