Rights of Women and Slaves in the Old Testament Law

Turretinfan asks “What makes you think that a wife has greater rights than a slave?” I found myself quoted that way in the comment box of a blog. Unfortunately, the question was taken out of context, and some of the readers naturally arrived at some odd conclusions. For example, a woman going ironically by the handle “Mara” (Hebrew for bitterness, see Ruth 1:20) wrote:

What compels Turrentinfan to decide to believe that a wife is on the level of a slave. I smell a bitter man looking to gain control over (a female) someone else and trying to use the Bible as his club to beat that someone back into his control, er I mean under submission to him.
And so many want to believe that deep bitterness is mostly a female problem.

And again:

Yes, fortunately Steve is able to give a good answer. I’d just be like, “Dude, are you going through an ugly divorce? Or was your mother some sort of psycho? Why are you hating on women so much that you gotta use God and the Bible to reduce them down to slavehood?”

The question was clearly read as meaning that I place women and slaves on the same level, which I don’t. Since this confusion is natural given the acontextual quotation, perhaps some clarification is in order.


First, the context of the question was what was the status of a wife under the law of Moses (not what is the status of a wife in general or what is the status of a wife in western societies or in any other particular situation). Steve’s argument depended on a theory that wives had greater rights under the law of Moses than slaves did. I was asking Steve to demonstrate that. I don’t think Steve has, not that it matters for the purposes of this post.

Problem of Anachronism

The idea of “rights” as such is somewhat anachronistic. That’s not how the Mosaic law operated. When we analyze the Mosaic law in terms of “rights,” we need to be aware of the fact that we are analyzing it through a foreign paradigm.

Lack of Uniformity – Vagueness of Rights-based Analysis

One problem with the question (and with Steve’s claim) is that the bundle of “rights” is not easily defined. Rights are not like money in the bank. Moreover, the legal protections provided to wives and slaves do not line up. For example, the Torah itself does not usually say, “For a slave do this, but for a wife do that.” But we can consider some examples.

Right to Contract

Wives in the Torah had a limited right to contract, and the same rule applied to unmarried women/girls living with their fathers. Numbers 30 provides the details:

And Moses spake unto the heads of the tribes concerning the children of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded.
If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.
If a woman also vow a vow unto the Lord, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father’s house in her youth; and her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her; then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her.
And if she had at all an husband, when she vowed, or uttered ought out of her lips, wherewith she bound her soul; and her husband heard it, and held his peace at her in the day that he heard it: then her vows shall stand, and her bonds wherewith she bound her soul shall stand. But if her husband disallowed her on the day that he heard it; then he shall make her vow which she vowed, and that which she uttered with her lips, wherewith she bound her soul, of none effect: and the Lord shall forgive her.
But every vow of a widow, and of her that is divorced, wherewith they have bound their souls, shall stand against her.
And if she vowed in her husband’s house, or bound her soul by a bond with an oath; and her husband heard it, and held his peace at her, and disallowed her not: then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she bound her soul shall stand. but if her husband hath utterly made them void on the day he heard them; then whatsoever proceeded out of her lips concerning her vows, or concerning the bond of her soul, shall not stand: her husband hath made them void; and the Lord shall forgive her.
Every vow, and every binding oath to afflict the soul, her husband may establish it, or her husband may make it void. but if her husband altogether hold his peace at her from day to day; then he establisheth all her vows, or all her bonds, which are upon her: he confirmeth them, because he held his peace at her in the day that he heard them.
But if he shall any ways make them void after that he hath heard them; then he shall bear her iniquity.
These are the statutes, which the Lord commanded Moses, between a man and his wife, between the father and his daughter, being yet in her youth in her father’s house.

Notice that males generally were permitted to contract (make binding vows) but females could only do this if they were widowed or divorced. Unmarried women were under their fathers and married women were under their husbands. They could make binding vows, but those binding vows were conditional on the non-opposition of their husbands/fathers.
Notice that this principle makes no distinction between bond and free. Thus, with respect to the issue of making binding vows, a male slave had more “rights” than a wife had (although female slaves were treated the same as free women with respect to this provision).
Indeed, you may recall that one of the binding vows that a slave could make was the vow of perpetual servitude. As Exodus 21:1-6 explains:

Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them. 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 have 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 for ever.

(By the way, note that male Hebrew slaves by default were only subject to their masters for a maximum of six years, whereas wives were married for life, assuming no divorce.)
Female slaves received a different treatment (Exodus 21:7):

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.

On the other hand, wives obtained freedom on the death of their husband. Paul explains (Romans 7:3):

So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.

We also saw above how divorced and widowed women were free to make binding vows.

Right of Expectation

On the other hand, a wife generally had a right to expect certain things from her husband. For example, the first wife to bear a son was entitled to have her son treated as her husband’s firstborn, whether or not she was his most favored wife (Deuteronomy 21:15-17):

If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated: then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn: but he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.

There was no corresponding right that slaves had of their masters to expect anything from them. There is an exception for slaves who were also wives. Slaves who were also wives actually had either equal or greater protections of their expectations than ordinary wives (Deuteronomy 21:10-14):

When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, and seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; then thou shalt bring her home to thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.

This was also similarly true of Hebrew slave wives (Exodus 21:7-11):

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.

As a result, you may recall that Samuel’s mother, Hannah, received more favorable treatment than her rival wife, Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:4-5):

And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions: but unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the Lord had shut up her womb.


Wives and slaves are not on “the same level” in the Torah. Indeed, they are overlapping categories, such a slave could also be a wife. Even if, in some senses, a male slave may have had more “rights” than a wife, that may be misleading. For example, a husband has a greater moral obligation to his wife than a master has to his slave. A husband is called to sacrifice himself for his wife, as Christ did for the church. While masters are also called to a love of their slaves, it’s not the same love. Thus, even if legally a male slave had more “rights,” morally a wife has more “rights.”
More importantly, it would be foolishness for a man who hated women to seize on the legal inferiority of women as an excuse or weapon for his hatred. That would be very similar to an adult picking on the legal inferiority of children and using that as an excuse for hating them. I’ll add as well that the rules about slaves can be misused by people who hate other races. None of that misuse of Scripture is warranted.
I don’t blame “Mara” for misunderstanding, but I do think it is worth clarifying. Hopefully this post does help to clarify both the legal status and the difference between moral and legal status. Male and female are both in the image of God. Bond and free are both in the image of God. Even within the church men and women are not equals. Yet the clear-thinking reader will distinguish between the moral and legal statuses.


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