Does Biblical law really allow a father to sell his daughter into slavery?
This is how you will often hear the question, which uses loaded terms like "sell" and "slavery". Although these terms are literal renderings of the underlying Hebrew text, they can lead to misunderstanding if you don't know the cultural background to the law.
7 And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. 8 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. 9 And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.Exodus 21:7-9KJV
A poor family with a daughter who wanted to be married (marriage is a Biblical covenant and [by definition] cannot be forced upon anyone) could allow her to commit herself in advance and start working in and serving the family that was going to be hers after marriage. In return, her parents would receive mohar, the Hebrew name for a bridewealth/brideprice payment, which would immediately relieve their poverty.
Bridewealth was a payment by the future husband to the family of the bride, which recognized the value of their daughter as a worker and contributor to the family. Bridewealth is not the same thing as "dowry," which is a word that is sometimes used interchangeably by people who do not distinguish the two concepts. Bridewealth stays with the bride's family (unless they choose to gift it to her, in which case it becomes part of her dowry). "Dowry" is wealth which the daughter brings with her to the marriage.
You find, generally, that cultures which value women have bridewealth, and cultures which devalue women only have dowry. Israelite culture (at least at that time) was a culture which valued women.
This law gave poor families who had economic difficulties an option to obtain the bridewealth early and allow the daughter to be economically supported by her future in-laws. Until the actual betrothal (the law refers to a status preliminary to betrothal: "designated"), the daughter would have the status of a covenant-member servant, with all the usual legal protections in Biblical law (she couldn't be "sold"/transferred to someone else), with the exception that she would not be "freed" (sent away either to fend for herself or return to her family) on the seventh year like "men-servants" were.
The law also accounts for families acting "in bad faith." Unscrupulous poor families with daughters might promise them to a rich man's son, send the girl into the household and receive the advanced mohar (bridewealth), without ever intending to agree to a future betrothal/marriage. Or the girl might refuse to cooperate in the new household, making herself unattractive as a future spouse. According to this law, when the seventh year rolled around, she could be not be freed like other slaves to return to her family. She would continue to be supported until her family could return the money which they got as an advanced mohar (bridewealth payment). The return of the original payment would redeem the girl from servanthood and allow her to return to her family.
- Douglas Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary, 2006, pp. 482-483