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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 Sep 1 '19 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. – Peter Kirkpatrick Sep 2 '19 at 2:46
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    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 Sep 8 '19 at 5:06
  • @Lucian That makes sense. Thanks. – CMK Sep 9 '19 at 0:42
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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.

EDIT

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.

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