In Exodus 21:11, a female slave could go free if she is not provided for by her husband/master.

And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.

Aside from no longer being a slave, what did it mean to be a free woman in ancient Israel?


Ancient Jewish and Israelite culture was both agrarian and patriarchal. In this environment women were either slave or free. Roman customs were less agrarian but extremely patriarchal to the point of misogynistic. Let us observe the following about free women:

  • The ancient Israelite patriarchal society did not prevent women from inheriting property. Num 27:1-11, 36:1-12, Josh 17:3-6.
  • Women could be significant leaders, eg., Deborah. Judges 4.
  • Women could be prophets of God; eg, Miriam (Micah 6:4, Ex 15:20, 21), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20), Isaiah’s wife (Isa 8:3), Anna (Luke 2:36), The four daughters of Phillip (Acts 21:8, 9), etc.
  • Women could buy and sell property. Prov 31:16.
  • Women could earn independent income and use it at their discretion. Prov 31:11, 16, 18, 20, Acts 16:12-15, 40.
  • Men were required to treat women and wives with great respect, in fact, they were to treat wives as Jesus would love them – enough to give His life for them. Eph 5:25.
  • A man could not divorce his wife on whim and marry another without being guilty of adultery. Matt 19:9 (very different from Roman law), Gen 2:24.
  • A man could not deprive his wife of marital privileges. 1 Cor 7:2-4. (The same was equally required of women.)
  • Paul had female co-workers in Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2, 3) as well as Junia the apostle (Rom 16:7). Nympha appears to be the leader of the church that met in her house at Laodicea (Col 4:15). John also addressed an epistle to a female church leader (2 John 1).
  • Women are specifically mentioned as being deacons (using the masculine noun for the female in the Greek!!). Rom 16:1, 2, 1 Tim 3:11.
  • The New Testament church was specifically instructed to care for elderly women who could not support themselves . 1 Tim 5:9-13.
  • Women were allowed to teach men. The female leader, Priscilla taught the Apostle Apollos “more adequately”, Acts 18:26. It is significant that Priscilla is listed before her husband, Aquila, in this passage. King Lemuel was taught by his mother, Prov 31:1-9.
  • Gal 3:28 declares that all gender distinctions are out of place for the Christian congregation

There are numerous examples in the Bible of women being treated very badly, just as there are throughout history, even into the modern times. This does not make such appalling behavior acceptable, according to the above Bible ideals.

  • Thank you for your holistic answer, Dottard. :-)
    – Philip
    Jul 22 '20 at 12:03

The most likely scenario for such a woman can be found in https://biblehub.com/exodus/21-11.htm

Pulpit Commentary
Verse 11. - If he do not these three unto her. Not the "three" points of the latter part of ver. 10; but one of the three courses laid down in vers. 8, 9, and 10. She shall go out free - i.e., she shall not be retained as a drudge, a mere maidservant, but shall return to her father at once, a free woman, capable of contracting another marriage; and without money - i.e., without the father being called upon to refund any portion of the stun for which he had sold her.

Proverbs 31 describes the perfect wife which is also applicable to any woman:

13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
16She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
21When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

There are also the exceptional women of prophetess Deborah and Hulda. Deborah was a judge (Judges 4:4-5), the wife of Lapidoth and a mother (Judges 5:7). A woman could not be a priest but she could be a prophet. Huldah, the wife of Shallum, prophesied to King Josiah:

2 Kings 22:15 She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, 16‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read.

Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, a female was always attached to a male figure, either father or husband. After being freed by her former husband, she would automatically go back to her father. What happened afterward would heavily depend on her personality and talents given by God. In any case, she was free from the authority of her former husband which is essentially the meaning of Exodus 21:11.

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