Women, War, and the Bible: Reflections on Deuteronomy 21:10-14

The world as we experience it is a mess. There are mass migrations, leading to tragedy and cultural conflict. There are mass shootings in many places, particularly in the United States. This was rare, even in the recent past. Cries of genocide are voiced by Ukrainians in Russian-controlled territory, and by Gazans under assault by Israel. Children growing up today are faced with unprecedented levels of gender confusion. Concerns over climate are expressed all around the world. Artificial intelligence is feared as the potential cause of the extinction of the human race. There are more and more weapons of mass destruction, and more and more places are faced with a breakdown of law and order. Among these tragic events is the horrific treatment of women in war, as we can witness in places like Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, and also Haiti in recent days.

Is there a word from the Lord for our situation today? Do we have any idea how God would handle a mess like the one we are living through? I think we do. I believe that is a major reason why there are so many troubling and violent texts in the Bible. God has given us the Bible as a record of how He handled many messy situations over a period of 1500 years. These stories do not give us the last word on how to handle any situation we might face. But they do exhibit a God who gets deeply involved in the human condition, and often acts in ways that risk Him being misunderstood by those reading the stories later on. But these stories are written up as examples of the way God handles messy situations. These things were written down for those upon whom “the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11).

One of the messiest of all situations in the Bible is Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Like today there was a mass migration of people from one part of the world to another. Illegal immigrants were pouring over the border of Canaan. There appears to be a genocide of the original inhabitants of the land in order to make room for a whole new group of people. As a result, there were wholesale injuries and many premature deaths. Families were separated, there were refugees everywhere in the land. The fact that these things seem to have happened at the direct command of God makes them even more troubling for many.

A full exploration of Israel’s conquest of Canaan would be too large a project for a short series of blogs. I propose instead that we look at one specific aspect of that conquest, the treatment of captive women in the wake of war. God through Moses gives some very direct instructions on how captive women should be treated by the Israelite soldiers (Deut 21:10-14). At first glance, these instructions are troubling to the point of being offensive in the minds of many. But I believe that a careful examination of this passage will help us understand what God was trying to do in the conquest, and by extension, help us gain a clearer picture of how to deal with today’s messy world. That is what I hope to do in this series of blogs on women, war, and the Bible.

A word of caution. The Bible addresses issues like this with great frankness and sometimes graphic clarity. If this blog were aimed at children, I would not do this, because not everything in the Bible is intended for children. From here on this blog series will be for adults only. Stay tuned.

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