Deuteronomy 5:14 reads:

But the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Yahweh your God; you shall not do any work, or your son, or your daughter, or your slave, or your slave woman, or your ox, or your donkey, or any of your domestic animals, or your resident alien who is in your towns, so that your slave and your slave woman may rest as you rest.

There are also other references in the OT in which slave(men) and slave women are mentioned separately. Is it that the roles entrusted to them were different ? Is there any historical background mentioned in Catholic Church's teachings which would mandate such distinct mention of slaves and slave women ?

  • 3
    I'm by no means certain of the Hebrew, but my strong assumption is that the two words are simply of different genders. Often the masculine would suffice for inclusiveness, but sometimes both masculine and feminine would be used in order to emphasise the point that both men and women were referred to. I doubt any church ascribes any doctrinal significance. (By the way, other translations deal with this differently: the NRSV reads "your male or female slave".) Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 16:55
  • 1
    I am aware of no Biblical answer to your question, and unless it is enumerated there, any other explanation would probably be seen as an opinion. Your question may meet with better answers on the Hermeneutics site as it may be something separated by traditions of the era.
    – BYE
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 17:27
  • I agree with @lonesomeday. First off, you can check out different treatments of the passage here: biblehub.com/deuteronomy/5-14.htm. Notice how various translations handle the gendering of the slaves/servents. Strong's gives us different words for gendered slaves. I'm not sure if these are the words used in the passage, but they should give you the gist: biblehub.com/hebrew/5650.htm biblehub.com/hebrew/519.htm Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 12:15
  • Female donkeys also seem to merit special mention. My son noticed this when we read the Bible at bedtime ;)
    – user22553
    Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 17:03

1 Answer 1


Most, but not all, English-language Bibles include phrases such as "male slave or female slave". Many readers find them puzzling. What, they wonder, does "male slave or female slave" mean? It appears to mean neither more nor less than "slave". But, in that case, why doesn't it just say so?

To understand this we must first look at the Hebrew text, and then at principles of translation. The Questioner particularly asks about whether there is an implied distinction between men's work and women's work, and whether there is any Catholic rule mandating that male and female be mentioned separately.

Hebrew Text

The phrase from Deuteronomy 5 14, translated in the Lexham English Bible (LEB) version as "your slave or your slave woman" is based on two Hebrew words ebed and amah (Strong's 5650 and 519). These are often translated as "male servant" and "female servant".

These words are sometimes used by a speaker to refer to himself or herself as "your servant" when respectfully addressing a person as of higher status. Hannah refers to herself in this way when addressing Eli, and Jacob refers to himself this way when meeting Esau.

The word ebed is also applied to household servants in relation to the householder, government officials in relation to a king, worshipers in relation to God, soldiers in relation to commanders, serfs in relation to owners, and a vanquished people in relation to a conqueror, amongst others.

The words do not apply to any specific occupation. Rather, they are relationship words. They describe the relationship of one person to another. The context is always relational. Just as nobody can simply be "a brother", but only a brother in relation to somebody else; in the same way one can only be an ebed in relation to someone else, such as an employer, king, commander, overlord etc. As no particular type of work is meant, it follows that they do not distinguish between "men's work" and "women's work".

Like many relationship words in many languages a different word is used for a man or boy than is used for a woman or girl. The phrase immediately before the example in the question refers to "your son or your daughter". Few English speakers will wonder why son and daughter are mentioned separately - it is simply the conventional way we speak.

So, in the Hebrew, mentioning male slave and female slave separately, is no more, and no less, significant or emphatic than mentioning son and daughter separately. (Indeed the point of the verse in question is that there is no distinction to be made, as regards the Sabbath, between sons, daughters ,slaves, strangers and even farmyard animals. All alike must rest.)

So then the question is why not simply say "slaves" in English. Some versions do, but most do mention male and female separately.


There are different ways in which meaning in language is conveyed. These include the explicit, the implicit and the tacit.

Consider the following three questions:

  • Do you have any siblings?
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • Do you have any male siblings or female siblings?

These three questions are identical in meaning, but differ in emphasis. The first question tacitly includes both sexes. It does not say so, but we understand that the question relates to both male and female siblings, as well as older and younger siblings, hairy and smooth siblings, and any other types of sibling. The second question implicitly includes both sexes, the distinction is there but it is not emphatic. To most English speakers it is the most natural way to ask the question. The third question explicitly includes both sexes, and comes across as placing a certain emphasis on doing so.

The Hebrew "ebed and amah" implicitly includes both sexes. It is simply not possible to translate this into modern English in a way that preserves the implicitness. We can use a phrase which explicitly includes both sexes, and so introduce an emphasis which is not in the Hebrew. Or we can use a phrase such as "slaves" which only tacitly includes both sexes, and so, arguably, loses something from the Hebrew. But we cannot use a phrase which implicitly includes both sexes without any emphasis, because we do not have different words in modern English. The King James version, and some other older versions, use "manservant" and "maidservant" and this is fairly implicit, as it uses different words; but in modern English we do not say manservant or maidservant.

So, if we must err, do we err on the side of explicitness, or on the side of tacitness?

One of many considerations in Biblical, and other, translation is the distinction between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Very basically, formal equivalence aims at an almost word-for-word translation, whereas dynamic equivalence aims more at a thought-for-thought translation. This article, by Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem goes into this, and many other aspects of Biblical translation.

It includes a list of several common Bible versions, which it arranges in a spectrum from those it regards as most formal and literal, to those most dynamic and paraphrastic. The ways some of these translate the phrase mentioned by our Questioner, is tabulated below (going from formal at the top to dynamic at the bottom):

  • NASB or your male servant or your female servant
  • KJV nor thy manservant nor thy maidservant
  • NKJV or your male servant or your female servant
  • RSV nor thy manservant nor thy maidservant
  • NRSV or your male or female slave
  • NIV nor your male or female servant
  • GNB your slaves
  • NCV your male or female slaves
  • GW your male and female slaves
  • NLT your male and female servants
  • CEV your slaves
  • LB your (sons, daughters,) slaves (, oxen)

Those translations which go for a formal equivalence tend to replace ebed by male servant and amah by female servant. Those in the middle are a little freer, the word servant or slave is mentioned only once with the male or female bit mentioned separately. Those at the bottom are more tacit, with no mention of the two sexes at all.

There is nothing in Catholic teaching that mandates that male slaves and female slaves must be mentioned separately in English translations, or that opposes dynamic equivalence translation generally.. Both the CEV and the LB, and other dynamic translations, have Catholic editions, with all 73 books.

The version quoted in the question appears to be from the Lexham English Bible which is a very formal and literal translation, intended to assist people to understand the underlying Hebrew or Greek text as closely as possible.

It may be noted in passing that translations of almost anything other than the Bible, with the possible exception of legal documents, are typically much freer than even the most dynamic Bible translation. With the Bible we are dealing with what many believe to be a divinely inspired original, and so it is seen as important not to miss anything out, even if it appears merely incidental. Even some with a generally low view of Biblical inspiration may accept that the ten commandments (the Questioner's example) were, quite literally, written in stone, by God Himself.

A local newspaper reported that:

"The Pensioners' Christmas meal was cooked and served by the kitchen staff, waiters and waitresses of the Carlton Hotel. Entertainment was provided by the boys and girls of St. Mary's School, and transport was provided by their parents."

Probably few readers would notice that, although we are told the waiting staff and entertainers were of mixed sex, we are not told whether the pensioners, kitchen staff or parents were. The reporter was simply using the usual terms, and almost certainly did not intend to convey or withhold the gender makeup of any of the groups. However, when translating the Bible, these sort of apparent minutiae, are not readily dismissed, but very carefully considered and weighed.

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