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.
While the Israelite slave must be freed at the start of the seventh year, how might the foreign bondswoman obtain her freedom? There are three options: First, she could save money given to her as a reward or a wage. If, with her owner's permission, she contracts herself out for pay after finishing her other work, she might be able to accumulate money to buy her freedom. Mesopotamian records show that slaves were able to gain extra money as artisans and agents (see Gregory Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East); this practice might have existed in ancient Israel as well. Second, she could run away. Deuteronomy 23:16-17 says that a fugitive slave may not be returned to the owner. Third, an Israelite slave husband once released could buy his slave wife and children and free them. African-American history shows examples of former slaves who bought spouses and children or arranged for them to be secretly stolen and led to freedom. Harriet Tubman, whose code name was "Moses," had a long career of gathering slaves and leading them North. Implicit in these narratives is a desperate determination to be free.
In contrast, what does the Israelite slave husband accomplish by pledging himself to perpetual slavery? When he declares that he loves his wife and children, it is not a happy, free family he is talking about. He cannot insure that his family will remain intact. His wife and children could be sold at any time. Even when his family is united, all will suffer the terrible humiliations of slavery: lack of choice, being objectified as property, being brutalized without recourse. Will the slave-wife appreciate his sinking into helplessness and hopelessness alongside her, especially if she was counting on his determination to free her once he was freed?
What Kind of Love is the Love for One's Master?
When the debt-slave professes his love for his master (whom he mentions before his slave family in v. 5), what kind of love is this? It is a love of dependency, of not having to make decisions, of not having to struggle for a living, to choose a wife, or take responsibility for one's children. Beyond that, embracing slavery undoes the liberation from Egypt and rejects the liberating God. In BT Kiddushin 22b, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai explains why this man's ear is pierced with an awl: "The Holy One says, 'The ear that heard on Mount Sinai when I said, 'the people of Israel are my servants and not servants of servants' and went and got himself a human master, let that ear be pierced.'''
The bondswoman is not where she is because she volunteered to be a slave. Most likely, she is a captive taken in war, well schooled in the corrosive bitterness of slavery. She might see the Hebrew slave's renunciation of freedom not as a romantic gesture, but as a naive, even stupid one. He has surrendered his power to free her or their children. He may have been her best chance for freedom.
The Torah is truthful with us, although that truth does not always make us happy. Ancient Near Eastern law could not imagine a world without slavery; yet Israelite law wanted the people to remain free of all human appropriation. That dilemma resulted in the preservation of this vignette about the conflicting loyalties of the Israelite slave. By highlighting the shadowy woman in the background, we get a rare, ironic glimpse of the dilemma from her usually invisible point of view.
The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.