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.