And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. — Leviticus 19:20

The text says that they would not be put to death because the girl was not free. What does it mean to not be free here, and why did that discount the fornicators from being put to death?

Thank you.

  • From the Hebrew text can it be determined that the culprit is the man to whom the woman was betrothed, but not yet married ?
    – Nigel J
    Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 15:54
  • I think the answer is along the following lines: (1) "not free" simply refers to her status as a slave. (2) The default penalty for adultery is death. (3) But in difficult cases the penalty may be different. This is the whole point of the Mosaic case law collections in Leviticus and elsewhere. (4) The reason this is a difficult case is that the current slave owner and the future husband both have rights under the general law. (5) Therefore if there are penalties, they must be proportionate to the facts of the case. Death would not be proportionate here. Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 2:46
  • 1
    she shall be scourged - Pretty much all other versions I am aware of (Romanian Orthodox, Romanian Protestant, German Lutheran, and Douay-Rheims) read they shall both be punished, but not with death. The (bound) woman obviously cannot be held responsible for somebody else's sin, since he swayed power over her; same reasoning as in Deuteronomy 22:25-27, except there the (over)power(ing) is physical, whereas here it's based on (social) authority.
    – Lucian
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 5:06
  • @Lucian That makes sense. Thanks.
    – CMK
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 0:42
  • Technically they were adulterers, as being betrothed meant you were already married in the eyes of the law.
    – Robert
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 17:40

4 Answers 4


First, let's answer this part of your question, what is the meaning of this:

And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her;

The woman is a slave, and is in that sense not free, i.e. not redeemed out of her enslaved status as a bondswoman. She is, however, engaged.

Next, why weren't both the slave woman and the man who had carnal knowledge of her executed? They are not executed because she is a slave, and penance can be made as described in Leviticus 19:21-22.

There is ambiguity in the translation of "scourged" from the original Hebrew. To be scourged means "to be whipped as a punishment." The KJV of Leviticus 19:20 phrases it as:

she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.

Other versions, e.g. ESV, of that passage read as follows:

If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free;

Instead of "scourged", the Hebrew word used could mean "investigated", see here

The original Hebrew text reads בקרת תהיה, “there shall be biqoreth”. This last word is variously translated as “investigation” or “punishment”, but it seems only the KJV applies this specifically to the woman. The Hebrew text doesn’t support this at all, so it’s unclear why the KJV translates the text this way. Perhaps this was a mistake; perhaps they had a variant text reading בקרת תהיה לה, “there shall be biqoreth to her”;1

Not only is the woman not scourged, but neither she nor the man are put to death.2 Instead, the man must do the following, see the rest of the passage from Leviticus 19:21 through 19:22 (KJV) 3

21 And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering. 22 And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the LORD for his sin which he hath done: and the sin which he hath done shall be forgiven him.


Here is a clearer exposition, from a non-StackExchange source! If the woman were not a slave, then both the woman and the man would have been executed.

If a man has carnal relations with a woman who is a slave and has been designated for another man, but has not been redeemed or given her freedom, there shall be an indemnity; they shall not, however, be put to death, since she has not been freed. 4

By making this offering, the man attones 5 for his sin:6

But he must bring to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, as his guilt offering to the LORD, a ram of guilt offering. With the ram of guilt offering the priest shall make expiation for him before the LORD for the sin that he committed; and the sin that he committed will be forgiven him.


And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. (Leviticus 19:20, KJV)

What might be easy to miss if one has not compared this passage with Exodus 21:7-11 is that a woman sold into slavery was understood to be engaged (KJV: betrothed) to her master. Essentially, women could not be "owned" without being considered as wives or wives-to-be.

  • Exd 21:7 And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
  • Exd 21:8 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.
  • Exd 21:9 And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.
  • Exd 21:10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
  • Exd 21:11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.

The very act of buying a woman slave (maidservant) was an act of betrothal/engagement. Perhaps it was like paying her dowry; she was to be his who had bought her.

If, therefore, she had already been engaged/betrothed prior to being sold into slavery, it would seem that the lines are blurred as to whom it is that she is actually engaged.

Going Deeper

Furthermore, dealing with a slave was not considered in the same context as that of a free person. A slave was considered as a form of property. Continuing from the same chapter in Exodus, we read this:

  • Exd 21:12 He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.
  • ...
  • Exd 21:16 And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
  • ...
  • Exd 21:18 And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:
  • Exd 21:19 If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.
  • Exd 21:20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
  • Exd 21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

It appears that the punishment for a slave dying under the hand of his or her master is quite different from any other case where someone might have struck someone else and caused his or her death. The reason that the slave "is his money" is given, perhaps as evidence to the fact that the slave owner is unlikely to have desired the slave's death, which would have resulted in pecuniary losses to the owner, thereby putting the death into a category other than murder.

Essentially, slaves were the property of their masters; and this changes their relationship with their owners in ways that impact other laws dealing with their treatment.

In the case of a woman, who was owned by a husband, if she were bought as a maidservant, her owner had essentially bought her as his wife as well.


Samaritan Pentateuch (SAM) applies the punishment only to the man (the subsequent context indicates – really - that only that man was liable to offer a sacrifice for his sin). In fact, Lange quoted SAM’s two sentences: “The Sam[aritan] reading is remarkable בקרת תהיה לו = ‘he shall be punished’, and then, in the sing. לא יומת = ‘he shall not die.’”, and after Lange glossed (bold is mine): “This gives a sense agreeing excellently with the reason assigned because she was not free, and hence the act did not legally constitute adultery which was punishable with death.”

Along these lines, NKJV Study Bible explains (bold is mine): “The concubine, a woman of low social standing and few rights, may not have the freedom to cry out when approached sexually. Therefore, she remains guiltless. Because the woman was a slave, the man escaped death but remained guilty before God. Atonement was necessary for him to receive forgiveness. ‘There shall be scourging’ may be rephrased as ‘damages must be paid’.” The woman’s owner [namely, her fiancé] probably received the [money’s] compensation, since the passage emphasizes that no money had yet been paid for her.”

Also one of them, Wordsworth, although he translated “she shall be scourged” in the main text, he was forced to admit, in the corresponding footnote: “she shall be scourged, rather, there shall be animadversion, visitation, bikoreth: Gesen(ius), pp. 136-7”]).

Really, the key-word (that a number of translators render ‘to punish’, and alike, or, even worse - as we have seen above - ‘to scourge’, is derived by the Hebrew conceptual root בקר, ‘to dig’, in the sense (also in English language!) of ‘to dig deeper into an affair’ (see also the usage of this term in Bible passages as Lev 13:36; 27:33; Psa 27:4).

Corrispondingly, the LXX has, in Lev 19:20, a term derived from the Greek verb επισκοπεω which means also (like Hebrew) ‘to inquire’.

Parkhurst commented: “The LXX have generally as a V[erb] rendered it by episkeptomai, ‘to look upon’, ‘survey’ ‘look accurately’ or ‘diligently’ […].” (A Hebrew and English Lexicon […], on בקר).

LXX (NETS): “And if one lies with a woman in a bed of semen and she is a domestic carefully guarded for a man but she by means of release had not been ransomed neither had freedom been given her, they shall get an inquiry. They shall not die, since she had not been freed, and he shall bring […].”

Accordingly, professor Giorgio Paximadi, a translator of Leviticus (for the edition of the publisher house San Paolo [Alba CN, Italy] – Nuova Versione della Bibbia dai Testi Antichi) renders: “…vi sarà un’inchiesta” [“there shall be an inquiry”], and, in the corresponding footnote he writes: “‘Inchiesta’. [Parola] derivata dal verbo […], ‘investigare’, ‘esaminare’ […]. […] il caso sarebbe meritevole di pena capitale se la donna fosse libera; l’inchiesta è dunque un atto dovuto, ma stante la condizione non libera della donna, la conseguenza non è la pena di morte.” [“‘Inquiry’. (A term) derived by the verb (…), ‘to investigate’, ‘to examinate’ (…). (…) the case would be liable to death penalty if the woman were free; the inquiry was, then, a (legal) instrument, but owing to the woman’s non-free condition, the consequence is not the death penalty.”] (Levitico, ad locum)

The same interpretation in the following Bible translations:

NLT: “If a man has sex with a slave girl whose freedom has never been purchased but who is committed to become another man’s wife, he must pay full compensation to her master. But since she is not a free woman, neither the man nor the woman will be put to death.”

Robert Alter translates: “[…] there shall be an inquiry”. Moreover, the corresponding footnote states: “A female slave, not being a free agent, would not receive the death penalty […]. After an inquiry, a monetary penalty will be set to be paid [by her master] to the man who betrothed her.”

ESV: “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall […].”

NJB: “[…] he will be liable for a fine […].”

JPS Study Bible: “[…] there shall be an indemnity […].”

CEI: “… [l’uomo] dovrà pagare un risarcimento.” “… [(the man) will must pay a claim.”

Reaching a conclusion…

Both Hebrew (as well as Samaritan Pentateuch) and Greek texts point to the fact that an inquiry (from בקר, in Hebrew; from επισκοπεω, in Greek) was carried out, and after having ascertain the facts, namely, that she was a not-redeemed betrothed slave, his master was found guilty but without deserving death penalty. He did must perform a sacrifice to God and pay a claim to the man who betrothed her (see Alter’s translation and NKJV Study Bible).

All this, is in full harmony with the balanced God's personality, according the Scriptures.

So, I ask myself, was now the engaged man capable to pay the ‘redemption’ price, so he was able to free his fiancée?

  • Addenda drawn by NET Bible: “‘When a man goes to bed with a woman for intercourse,35 although she is a slave woman designated for another man and she has not yet been ransomed, or freedom has not been granted to her, there will be an obligation to pay compensation." (to be continued) Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 10:14
  • The corresponding footnote says: "sn That is, the woman had previously been assigned for marriage to another man but the marriage deal had not yet been consummated. In the meantime, the woman has lost her virginity and has, therefore, lost part of her value to the master in the sale to the man for whom she had been designated. Compensation was, therefore, required (see the explanation in B. A. Levine, Leviticus [JPSTC], 130-31). Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 10:14

Quibbling over abolished institutions is inexpedient; unprofitable. Joseph, presumed father of the natural body of our Lord and Savior, is our example under the old law: Joseph, being a “just,” that is, upright, man, upon learning that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant due to no fault of his, did not angrily demand to cast the first stone, rather withdrew from the betrothal privately, so as to forgive and protect Mary for her presumed adultery. Our example under the new law is none other than Jesus our Lord and Savior. All have committed fornication and adultery against Him, the LORD of the cosmos,.yet He has paid our debt with His holy blood. Can we do less?

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    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 20:14

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