Q. Exodus 21:10 says that if a man marries another woman, that he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. What is exactly meant by "marital rights" here?
If we take a look at the first two items - food and clothing - then we can clearly understand from the scripture you reference that a man who takes another wife shall not lower the standard of living of the first or other wives in order to increase family size. This statute exists to protect existing wives from unscrupulous and unspiritual men who might be tempted to neglect a first wife in order, in his eagerness, to get another one.
In commenting on scriptures like this we must always bear in mind the background and ask ourselves such questions as: 'To what kind of man is this statute being addressed?' 'Were first wives being neglected by these recently liberated Hebrews?' 'Just what sort of attitude did men have to women in those days that required such a statute in the first place?'
As I have written elsewhere, when examining the Law of Moses with reference to the perfect New Covenant in Christ, we must remember that it was defective in many areas. A whole nation - indeed, a whole race needed re-educating in the ways of Yahweh. Furthermore, they deliberately and consciously rejected the opportunity to come to Yahweh to get personal revelation along the pattern of the New Covenant but instead chose to use an intermediary - Moses - as their source of instruction for the personal government of their lives. In so doing, they rejected the higher way of a personal relationship with Yahweh and of generally living by conscience, but chose instead to follow a set book of rules. This was taken to its logical and disasterous conclusion in the rabbinical Judaism of the Pharisees and Sadducees with their numerous and voluminous Talmudic writings.
To those of us living in the New Covenant, the idea of diminishing a first wife's basic standard of wife in order to get a second wife is unthinkable. The spirit of the New Covenant - for those truly anointed by it - simply would make the need for such a statute unnecessary. But then we keep on forgetting just how spiritually dark these first Israelites were after their long sojourn in a pagan land (Egypt).
Now practically-speaking when a new wife enters a family there are always adjustments to be made when it comes to material things. We, as a family, have been through good times and bad. And when the bad times come everyone accepts that our standard of living must drop.
But what we must not forget is that this particular statute, which is framed within vv.2-11, specifically concerns Hebrew servants or slaves. The purpose of these statutes is to assure that those men and women who are purchased as slaves nevertheless continue to be treated as brethren or sisters under the same family covenant of Yahweh. Thus a Hebrew slave could not, for example, be sold to a gentile and to a far different kind of slavery. And so, if this slave-concubine did not receives the 'three rights' of food, clothing and marital relations, she was to be released as a free woman (v.11).
The hope, in so selling a daughter, was that she would be married within her master's home, but in the event of this not transpiring, was to be given generous provision when she was released.
"Exodus 21:1-11 - The father, who because of circumstances was forced thus to dispose of his daughter, was not selling her into cruel bondage, but sending her into a household where she would be as well treated as at home" (from The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1962 by Moody Press).
The subject of slavery, I know, makes most of us uncomfortable, but one thing we must remember is that Hebrew slaves were not treated like the slaves of the surrounding nations. They were treated like a member of the family. Indeed, we discover that sometimes they loved their masters so much that when given the opportunity to be released, they would often desire to remain because of love (vv.5-6). We therefore do a disservice to these statutes if we look at them through the lenses of the pagan nations where slaves were treated little better than animals, were used for industrial labour (as by the Greeks in the mines) and worked to death. The Law of Moses specifically protected slaves. These passages in Exodus 21 must therefore be understood with that in mind.
The same kind of considerate care given to slaves is emphasised by Paul in his letter to Philemon.
Specifically, the term "marital rights" (NIV) or "her duty of marriage" (KJV) is not explained in the texts but translates the Hebrew onah meaning 'habitation' and possibly 'sexual rights', though this is not clear. Because of the ambiguity, the passage is rendered differently by various translators - the CEV renders it "treat her as a wife" and the TEV "the same rights she had before". The concept is not so much a quantitative one of having the same number of hours of bedroom rights but a qualitative one of being continued to be treated as a wife in a general sense. Thus a man taking a second wife is not to stop visiting her, or to look upon her to treat her as anything less than a proper wife, as often happens in the pagan world where men take mistresses and neglect their first wives. In other words, the same basic kind of lifestyle she was accustomed to before he took a second wife is to be assured. What this doesn't mean is that her previous way of life shall remain exactly as it was before in every detail, which thing is clearly impossible and incompatible with the whole idea of plural marriage.
Many commentators try to compare this passage with 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 and whilst there are certainly some analogies the comparison is limited.
The emphasis in the Mosaic statute is both on a continued decent standard of living (the first wife is not to be suddenly reduced to abject poverty in order to support a second wife) and have her status as a wife fully upheld. This would include, of course, not neglecting her bed.
A final word about the KJV "diminish" (Heb. gara) which is a little misleading, as it may either be translated "diminish", "WITHDRAW" (Young's) or "WITHHOLD" (Strong's). Since it is inevitable in a polygamous situation that all but the most athletic husbands and those with much time on their hands will be forced to 'diminish' the amount of time they spend with their wives in the bridal chamber, it follows that the sense here is that a husband shall not WITHDRAW or WITHHOLD his sexual relationship with his first wife/wives. That readustments in bridal chamber routines takes place as a family increases cannot be avoided - but the sense here is that all are treated alike and that the first wife/wives especially are not left to feel that they have suddenly ceased to be 'wives'. What Yahweh was clearly anxious to prevent was a case of pseudo-polygamy - of a husband transferring his romantic affections from one woman to another. Rather, to live in this way, he is to continue treating his first wife/wives as bone-of-his-bone and flesh-of-his-flesh, by having a full sexual relationship with her as man and wife.
Once again we are alerted to the necessity of carefully checking the translations of men in order to make the right sense of some otherwise difficult passages to understand.