We all know John Mayer is like the biggest hypocrite of all time for writing this song, but it’s still totally wonderful:
And it’s especially wonderful to me because I’m the father of two daughters, Gemma and Pippa – 3YO and 1YO, respectively. And my primary goal in life is to be good to those girls. And I have a throbbing ache in my heart for fear of not being good enough to them.
For this very same reason, Exodus 21 is decidedly not wonderful to me.
Like, the opposite of wonderful.
Like, pretty much on the same level of horrible as that notorious John Mayer interview.
And that’s because, no matter how you slice it, Exodus 21 casually endorses the ownership and selling of daughters. Here’s how it goes:
If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
Exodus 22 provides a bit more clarity on the ownership side of the equation:
If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.
In case it’s not clear, all of the above is printed in quotes in your NIV Bible, meaning that these are the words of God to Moses (and, subsequently, to the people of Israel). These social, civil codes are presented as direct revelation from Yahweh. And they include an approval of patriarchal ownership of children (daughters, especially), including both the selling of a young virgin daughter to a new husband in marriage (the “bride-price”) and the selling of a young daughter as a slave (“servant” – which is more palatable but indistinguishable from the idea of “slave” in the ancient world). Further, even the Exodus 21 passage is clear that sex is probably involved – whether implicit in the notion of “not pleasing the master” or explicit in the notion of marriage for the master’s son or himself. (Exodus 22 is explicitly about sex, as is Deuteronomy 22 where rapists are required to marry their victims so as not to dishonor the victim’s father.)*
Granted, the main interest of both these codes is restriction – making sure, in the first case, that the daughter may be bought back by her father if she’s unwanted, or that she receives her marital rights in the case of polygamy; and, in the second case, that dad still gets his money if a dude deflowers his daughter (ugh).
But, as you can tell, the restrictive tone takes nothing away from the endorsement of ownership, selling, and slavery.
Nor, the shocking reality of sex slavery, rape, and abuse. Sidenote here: as someone who is working on a campaign against the global sex trade, I can tell you that the selling of daughters (and sons) is not an uncommon thing in the developing world. And it gives us a good visual of what was probably happening between the lines of verses like these.
What is a Christian – and, specifically, a Christian father – to do?
Well, a few things have been done in the history of biblical theology to deal with passages like this, along with other unseemly and archaic-sounding codes that fill the Pentateuch. The most common is to make distinctions between the moral, ceremonial, and civil forms of law. By doing so, Christians are taught that the only binding form of OT law in the New Covenant dispensation (i.e., after the work of Jesus on the cross, i.e., now) is the moral law. Which is then dissolved down to the 10 Commandments. We are bound to keep the 10 Commandments but not the other stuff.
The other stuff is the ceremonial and civil law. The many civil laws, like the ones cited above, were for the nation of Israel in ancient times, and now that the church is comprised of every nation and tribe because of the work of Jesus (Gentiles included), we do not need to practice those civil codes. Likewise, the ceremonial law – Temple sacrifices, washings, feast days, and the like – were for the nation of Israel in anticipation of the Messiah, Jesus, who was the true sacrificial lamb and the one who cleanses us from sin. Jesus fulfilled them, so we are all good!
But not really. I spent a good deal of time learning from Reconstructionist and Theonomist Presbyterians in my Bible college experience, and these folks called shenanigans when Christians dismiss the civil form of OT law. They said that there’s no evidence Jesus intended to nullify these civil codes, only the ceremonial ones because his death literally replaced the Temple sacrifices, washings, eating restrictions, and holy days (see: Hebrews and Paul’s letters). No matter that “the Gentiles have come in” – the ideal scenario is for the church to so influence society that the civil laws of God become the civil laws of the land! Including the codes cited above.
It is no wonder that the Reconstructionist position is intertwined with hardcore political conservatism and oppressive social/familial patriarchy.
And Reconstructionist or not, both of these theological rationales are based on a highly conservative, inerrant, biblicist view of scripture, one that venerates all the words of the Bible as equally from the mouth of God (in quotes!). It is all literally true and good. And even if the civil law is relegated to a bygone period in ancient Israel, the fact remains that at that time it was the perfect word and will of God, and would be today if God was still working through a chosen nation.
In other words, God wanted fathers to sell their daughters in just this way.
And we’re still supposed to believe that God is just and loving, and Jesus lived and died for all people equally, and the Gospel is the word of freedom from captivity and oppression of all kinds?
Again, What is a Christian – and, specifically, a Christian father – to do?
We are living at a time in which Christians – and especially evangelicals, my tribe – must move beyond the pat answers, subtle inconsistencies, and radically disturbing rationales that have encrusted our lives as individuals and church communities, and derailed our witness to the world. Specifically, our view of the Bible must change to match an unapologetically Jesus-centered interpretation, one that unequivocally rejects the notion that God wanted fathers to sell their daughters (and lots of other things, too).
While we retain our belief in the authority of scripture (which is one thing that makes us evangelicals), we must begin to explain how that authority works. Namely, that Jesus is our God and King, the perfect and eternal Word, and the narrative of scripture revolves around him alone. That the Bible is true – but it is true as it progresses towards full clarity in Jesus and his good news, and fades out in explanations of that gospel and exhortations for the church.
Further, the Bible is true as Jesus-centered communities come together to discern its meaning and application by the leading of the Spirit of the King as the King himself reigns from heaven. Far from being God’s constitution that we intellectually debate and simplistically apply, it is a living, breathing story that we are living into as we grow in relationship to our Head, who is the living, breathing Christ.
Do you know what I mean?
I mean, in part, that something must change. Or else, rationalizing conservative leaders will keep defending slavery, like my Reformed Baptist pastor did when he declared just a few years ago, “The Bible does not say that slavery in and of itself is wrong!” Or else, black conservative theologians will keep trying to defend the careers of slavery-defenders. Or else, church communities and Christian families will keep knowingly and unknowingly subjecting their people – and most notably, their children – to oppression and abuse, even if it doesn’t look exactly like American chattel slavery or fathers pawning off their daughters.
I mean, in full, that I will never defend a practice that would have caused one of my precious girls so much pain, as being somehow endorsed by the God I worship.
Because I love Jesus too much.
(And because I don’t want to be an inconsistent jerk like John Mayer.)
It’s a long post, but what are your thoughts? How does this kind of conversation affect your view of the Bible? Do you think there’s an evangelical way forward?
*For a wonderful exploration of themes like this in a longer – and better written – form, check out Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood.