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?

One thought on “War Treatment of Women in the Ancient Near East

  1. Betty

    Hi, one of my family history stories is that a cousin of father, in Prague, during WWII hid his wife to save her from the soldiers by burying her for a time in a coal pile with only an air hole for breathing….apparently it worked…but the story attests to your post.

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