Sunday, May 20, 2012

Marrying A Captive Woman (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

The following quote is taken from

"Rape of Female Captives - "When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house.  But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive's garb.  After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife.  However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion." (Deuteronomy 21:10-14, NAB)

Once again God approves of forcible rape."

Let's examine this passage in further detail.  You can read the entire chapter here:

            As mentioned in my previous article ("War Against Distant Cities"), slavery as a result of being taken prisoner in war was common in the Ancient Near East [1][2].  Another common practice was women marrying those whom had conquered their city or tribe.  In this instance, the Law set down the procedure for an Israelite man who decided to marry a woman from among those who had been captured as prisoners of war.
            Again, as in previous passages, this passage must be considered in a cultural and historical context.  We must consider the situation of the woman who was taken captive.  Her parents, or at least her father, were most likely dead as a result of being killed during the war.  It is likely that any brothers or other male family members that she had were also dead.  This left her in a desperate situation [3][4].  The only choice that she would have to survive would be slavery or prostitution.  However, there was another way that would slightly elevate her social status and give her a better future - marriage.
            There were clear regulations set down in this instance.  For example, the man could not have sex with the woman that he chose to take home as his wife immediately.  It is clear that this passage is not approving rape.  The situation was very specific - she was not a sex slave or a victim of rape; the man was to take her to his house with the intention of marrying her.  Before they could be married, she had to shave her head (an Eastern custom symbolizing the transfer from one nationality/religion to another, also used as a sign of purification and new status; see Leviticus 14:8 and Numbers 8:7), trim her fingernails, and put away the clothes she was wearing when she was captured, signifying the end of her old life and the beginning of her new life.  She was then to mourn for her parents for a month (verses 12-13), and then the man could marry her and they could have sex.  This gave the woman time to grieve her losses and adapt to her new situation.
            We must remember when reading this passage that people, especially women, who lived in the Ancient Near East had little to no choice who their spouse would be.  Parents arranged marriages for their children [5].  With this in mind, the woman taken captive would be in a similar situation, marrying a man that she had not chosen.  It may seem strange in our modern Western culture, but this was the situation in ancient times.
            Finally, there was a law in this passage that protected the woman.  If the man who had married her decided he no longer wanted her, he could not then enslave her or sell her as a slave to someone else.  He had to let her go free (verse 14).
            Far from being an approval of forcible rape, this passage set clear boundaries for men who wanted to take home captive women, detailing the proper procedures and providing protection for the woman involved.   

[1] Code of Hammurabi (written circa 1772 BCE), translated into English by L.W. King (1915) #27-29, 32, 133-135
[2] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 43.
[3] Exploring the World of the Bible Lands, Roberta L. Harris, 1995.  Pg. 35.
[4] The Gospel of Ruth, Carolyn Custis James, 2008.  Pgs. 77-78.
[5] Life In The Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell, 1997.  Pgs. 52-54.