Tag Archives: Treatment of Women in the Bible

The work of William Webb and Gordon Oeste

I have really appreciated the research done by William Webb and Gordon Oeste in the book entitled Bloody, Brutal and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts. It was published in 2019 by InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, Illinois. The book is heavy reading and quite detailed, but I highly recommend it for those who are willing to put out the effort and the time to dig deeper into this topic. I will be sharing a number of insights from the book along with thoughts of my own in this blog and the ones that follow.

Webb and Oeste approach texts like Deuteronomy 21:10-14 from four perspectives. I will label these four with the capital letters A, B, C, and D, for easy comparison. The first perspective is to understand the reality of the times in which the Bible was originally written. The Bible is not directly addressing the issues of our times, it is addressing another world a long time ago. While human nature has not changed all that much in the last 3500 years, human culture and practice has changed quite a bit in more recent times. The Bible was not written to address our questions and concerns, it was written to address the world of the Ancient Near East. So “perspective “A: seeks to understand the wider world to which the Bible was written, as far as that understanding is available to us.

The second perspective, which I will label “B”, addresses the ethics of the Bible itself. In the Bible we see a God who understands human weakness, and does not expect His people to understand or practice the highest ethical levels that He is capable of. Instead, He encourages His people to “be all that they can be” in their fallen condition and in the context of a very messed-up world. The ethics of the Bible are, in a sense, “frozen in time”, God’s recommendations within a specific context, not God’s ultimate ideal. One of the key insights we learn from the stories of the Bible is how God meets people where they are. God encourages people to reach for the “ideal”, but is accepting of the “real” as humanity’s best effort. In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, we will come to see God “settling” for small, incremental improvements in His peoples’ understanding and practice.

The third perspective, which I will label “C”, approaches the Bible from the ethics of today. And while this may come as a surprise to some, the ethics of today are often better than whose of Bible times. Why would that be the case? In part, it would be the influence of the Bible as a whole on the culture and ethics of our world today. Whether or not people acknowledge it, we are living in the light of Jesus’ teachings and example, and the world is a much better place because of it. Given the influence of Jesus on our world today, the ethics of today can often seem superior to the ethics of the Bible, because we are reading from the perspective of a world that has gained much from the gradual influence of the Bible as a whole, when read in light of the life and death of Jesus.

The fourth perspective, which I will label “D”, reads the Bible in the light of God’s ideals and in light of the ethics of the final judgment. D discovers in the Bible the way that God always wanted to rule on this earth, but was not able to because of the hardness of human hearts. The final judgment will be a time when all the injustices of this world will be set right, and God’s true ethic will be clearly seen. Perspective D moves beyond God’s specific responses to specific situations to see the heart of God in the biblical text as a whole. The ethics of the final judgment will move far beyond the Geneva Conventions and other ethical advances of our time. But we are not there yet.

When you compare C (the ethics of today) with B (the ethics of the biblical text) the Bible often looks out of date. It can even seem repressive, a step back from what we know today to be right. But that is misreading the character of the biblical God, who steps into the sewer of human depravity to reach us where we are and take us a step or two in the right direction. He takes us no faster that we are able or willing to go. In so doing, He takes the risk of being misunderstood by later readers of the Bible. Instead, if you compare B (the ethics of the Bible) with A (the realities of the Ancient Near East) you will see in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 a tangible movement in a positive direction. It is an incremental, redemptive movement toward a better ethic that the ethic of the time. When we read the Bible in its original context, we will discover the goal of that strange text in Deuteronomy, better treatment of female prisoners of war. From our perspective (C) that step may seem too small, but it is a real step and led Israel to treat women much differently than their neighbors at the time did.

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.