Monthly Archives: June 2024

Israel, guided by God, treated women differently

In the previous blog, we outlined the horrific way that women were treated in ancient wars. How does Deuteronomy 21:10-14 represent God’s incremental redemptive ethic in its historical context? While the Bible does not categorically state that Israel did not mistreat women after battle, there are a number of facts that make clear that Israel, guided by God, was very different than the ancient war practices summarized in the previous blog.

First of all, Israel’s warriors were not allowed to have sex with anyone during a campaign, not even with their spouses. Note the incident of David visiting the High Priest at the sanctuary while on a military mission. 1 Sam 21:2-5: “And David said to Ahimelech the priest, ‘The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, “Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.” I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ And the priest answered David, ‘I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread–if the young men have kept themselves from women.’ 5 And David answered the priest, ‘Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?’” The bread of the sanctuary was holy, and it could only be eaten by holy people. This indicates the military activity was considered as holy, with specific sexual requirements for the soldiers.

A similar passage is 2 Samuel 11:10-11: “When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house,’ David said to Uriah, ‘Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.’” The presence of the ark with the army meant presence of temple. Israel’s soldiers were to behave on the battlefield the same way they would behave in the temple. Sexuality forbidden in temple context. God’s temple was to be very different than the pagan temples. There was no temple prostitution in God’s plan for Israel. Furthermore, the presence of the ark in battle meant Israel’s soldiers were allowed no sexual activity.

As we have seen previously, the temple and the battlefield were the places in the ancient world where women were most vulnerable to coerced sexuality. Yahweh specifically excluded these two domains from sexuality of any kind, much less coerced sexuality. Uriah the Hittite clearly understood that these rules applied to him, even though he was away from the battlefield. He was on a mission to communicate messages from his general to his king. That meant it would be inappropriate for him to have intercourse, even with his wife. This has profound implications for Deuteronomy 21:10-14. In light of these strictures, it would be fair to wonder if female captives were completely off-limits to Israelite soldiers. Deuteronomy 21 expresses God’s concession to ancient practices, providing a way forward for a soldier who took a liking to a female captive. In the next blog we will take a second look at Deuteronomy 21:10-14, with a deeper awareness of the context in which God was operating.

War Treatment of Women in the Ancient Near East

To understand Deuteronomy 21:10-14, it is important to set those instructions into the context of how women were treated in war in the Ancient Near East. As noted by William Webb, God was introducing an incremental, redemptive ethic into a very messed-up social situation. Deuteronomy 21 shines much more brightly when seen in the context of practices that the ancient world took for granted as normal. To make this point, it will be necessary to spell out what the Ancient Near East was like. Warning: What follows may be a little hard to take at times, but it is necessary to understand what God was doing in Deuteronomy 21.

Sexual violation of women was a common practice in ancient war. In fact, it was a central part of how they celebrated military victories. For those who are into football, it was a little like spiking the football in the end zone after a touchdown. You spike the football in the very territory that the opponent failed to protect. Sexually abusing captured women enacted an enemy’s defeat at the deepest psychological level. They were abusing the persons and property that the enemy had failed to protect. It was less about passion than about exerting dominance over the “property” of the enemy. Captured women were part of the “spoils of war”.

The Old Testament bears witness to this common practice. In Judges 5:28-30 (ESV), the mother of Sisera (Canaanite general) is wondering why his return from battle is delayed: “Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ 29 Her wisest princesses answer, indeed, she answers herself, 30 ‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?– A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed materials for Sisera, spoil of dyed materials embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?’” The word “womb” (Hebrew: rachamah) here is a reference to the female vagina. Ancient understanding of human anatomy was not precise. They knew that a man went into the same opening from which babies later came out. So the word for “womb” here is sexual slang regarding the opening to the womb. This text shows that sexual violation of women was a standard Canaanite practice at the time. So much so, that Sisera’s mother was OK with it. It would be a valid excuse for tardiness.

Further evidence for sexual violence after battle is found in Isaiah 47:1-3 (ESV), which speaks about the future fall of Babylon: “Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones and grind flour, put off your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers. Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen. I will take vengeance, and I will spare no one.” This is a poetic description of a rape victim; on the ground, with private parts exposed. This is what would happen to Babylon’s women, when the city was conquered.

I share these texts only because they are necessary to fully understand what God was doing in inspiring texts like Deuteronomy 21 and preserving them for us to study. An even more graphic reference is found in Jeremiah 13:22 (ESV): “And if you say in your heart, ‘Why have these things come upon me?’ it is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up and you suffer violence.” This text also refers to the future fate of Babylon. Sexual violence toward their women was an ancient metaphor for military defeat. After the battle, the skirts of Babylon’s women will be lifted up and they will suffer violence.

This prophecy is not an indication that God is pleased with such actions or determines that they will happen, it indicates that God knows what ancient human beings will do when a city is conquered. Women were treated so badly after ancient wars that when a city was about to fall, men often killed their own wives, so they wouldn’t have to endure what was coming. This reality became personal for me when I discovered that several aunts were teen-agers in Berlin in 1945. When the city fell to the Russians, they were captured as a group, confined to a basement and rotated among enemy soldiers for five full days, until they were able to escape. It is no wonder that the aunt I knew best hated men and hated God (knowing only the severe picture of God that so many Christians portray).

Today, soldiers who participate in such actions often try to hide that fact, they are deeply ashamed of what they have done. But the ancients were not ashamed of this, they bragged about it. They enshrined images of sexual violence in their war memorials, in their temples, and on their city walls. They included accounts of sexual violence in their war annals. To them, such behavior was as normal as breathing. They expected to do this, and they expected that it would be done to them in return. This was the world in which Deuteronomy 21 was written. This was the world of the Bible. The question we need to address next is whether Israel was any different than the pagan nations around them on this point. When God sent the Israelites into battle, how were they expected to behave toward women afterward?