Deuteronomy 21:10-14: How Israelites Should Treat Female Captives After Battle

Deut 21:10-14:
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.”

Are you OK with these instructions? Should we make this passage the law of the land today? After all, it’s in the Bible. And the kind of battle this passage is talking about is a God-directed battle. It is God who “gave” these captives into the hands of Israelite soldiers, so the instructions that follow the battle must represent His will in some way. One option many choose is to say, “If God says it, it must be OK.” But for me and many Bible-believing readers of the Bible, that answer is not good enough. We expect God’s actions and directions to be on a higher ethical level than our own.

There are at least five aspects of this passage that trouble me. 1) The description in this passage is all about the male soldier, the captive woman’s opinion about what is going on doesn’t count. She is treated as an object. She is “spoils of war”. She is treated as property, rather than as a person with thoughts and feelings. 2) The focus is entirely on her outward beauty, not her character or her personality. The Hebrew behind “beautiful woman” combines two Hebrew words that could be translated “beautiful in shape”. The soldier is not attracted to her as a “soul-mate”, it is all about her looks. The text as written seems to reduce women to the sum total of their physical attractiveness. 3) The captive woman gets one month to grieve the loss of her parents. Keep in mind that she has not only lost her parents, she has lost her home, her friends, and her neighbors. She is a victim of war trauma. She may have seen her parents killed with her own eyes. A month would not be nearly enough to get over all of that. 4) This ruling doesn’t require her to agree to the marriage (verse 13 uses the language of a marriage covenant). This is a “shotgun wedding”. What the captive woman wants or feels is not being considered. 5) The man is not required to gain her consent for sexual intercourse after the marriage. It is treated as normal that he can have that privilege once he has waited a month and gone through the appropriate ceremony.

If I’m really honest, many things about this text seem ethically deficient. At the same time, this passage is part of the Bible, the Word of God. Shouldn’t the Bible always encourage the highest of ethical standards? Atheists often point to texts like this as reasons to reject the God of the Bible. They see the God of the Bible as someone they cannot respect and, therefore, they assume or wish that the God of the Bible didn’t exist.

The problem is that people today tend to read texts like this through the lens of contemporary culture. We are all familiar to some degree with the the Geneva Conventions and the Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts. Civilized people today are expected to treat captives in humane ways, and some of the actions recommended in Deuteronomy 21 could be prosecuted as war crimes today. But shouldn’t the Bible at least equal our ethical standards, if not exceed them? That is the challenge a passage like this poses for many readers today. I will seek to address issues like these in future blogs.

3 thoughts on “Deuteronomy 21:10-14: How Israelites Should Treat Female Captives After Battle

  1. Moses Tan

    An honest and brave scholar !! Personally, i have always believed that God comes down to the context and human levels in dealing with us.

    2Sam 12:8 after David’s sin with Bathsheba. God said to David if he had wanted more wives, God would have given him. This cannot be understood except that God treats not with absolute standards (all have sinned) but in the contact of the culture. Its confusing to many but real.

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