The Captive of War

This week’s post continues last week’s theme of wartime rape and sexual violence, but today I want to focus on Deuteronomy 21:10-14, the law of the captive woman. In Deuteronomy, various laws protect the poor, unfavored wives and their sons, widows and orphans, slaves, and others on the outskirts of society. Because of these laws, Deuteronomy is often regarded as an ethical pinnacle in antiquity—a law code concerned with the establishment of social justice and human rights in Israel. The law concerning the captive woman is sometimes cited as an example of Deuteronomy’s ethical stance:

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 NRSV).

It was common practice in the ancient world to enslave the women, children, and slaves of a captured city. Across the ancient Mediterranean world slaves were considered sexually available to their masters, to be used for the master’s pleasure like any other piece of property: in Virgil’s Aeneid, Andromache, one of the captives of Troy, calls herself a “slave allotted to serve the lust of a conquering hero’s bed” (3.388 [Penguin Classics]). Certainly the Old Testament is aware of this practice (note Deut. 28:30, Judges 5:30). Read against this backdrop, the law of Deut. 21:10-14 offers some protection for the captive woman. The captor is not allowed simply to enslave her and use her as he will. The woman is given one month to mourn her family—a time to change her identity from daughter to captive to wife. Finally, the captor cannot change his mind and re-enslave his new wife; her rights are protected even if he is dissatisfied with his captive.

This law is not wholly good, though, is it?1 In Deut. 21:11, the woman is reduced to a beautiful, desirable object to acquire. The objectification continues in verses 10-12: the male Israelite warrior (“you”) is the actor, going to war, taking captives, seeing and desiring and taking a woman; the captive woman is the grammatical object who is seen, is taken, is brought into the warrior’s home to be married. The law reflects a patriarchal, militaristic division of society into boys and men, identified as dangerous enemies to be dispatched, and girls, women, and livestock, identified as the booty of a captured city to be taken and used (cf. Deut. 20:13-14). The woman’s only action is to mourn, and even that is forced upon her.

The vocabulary of Deuteronomy 21:10-14 emphasizes the woman’s lack of options. Dishonor in verse 14 refers specifically to the dishonor of illicit sex, often rape (especially when it is used with words like take, seize, or force). In fact, “dishonor,” “desire,” and “satisfy” all appear together in one other story in the Old Testament: the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. Dinah is seen, taken, and dishonored by Shechem (verse 2); Shechem desires (or loves) her (verse 8), and he is satisfied (or takes delight) in her (verse 19). Despite Shechem’s insistence on his desire, delight, and love for Dinah, her family understands that Shechem has raped her (note verses 5-7), and they respond by attacking Shechem’s village—killing the men, and taking the women and children captive. Genesis 34 and Deuteronomy 21 are linked by a shared vocabulary, the story of seeing and desiring a woman and taking her without her father’s consent, and the theme of war and captivity. These connections help us hear the captive woman’s story as a story of rape.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 assumes the point of view of the male soldier. We have to do some extra work to hear the woman’s perspective. The experiences of women who have been taken captive in modern conflicts can help us here.2 Women in Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Sudan have been abducted by militants who kill or injure their families, loot and destroy their homes, and then force the women to “marry” them. The women must cooperate with their captors to some extent, cooking and cleaning and sleeping with them. Some captors sell their “wives” to other soldiers when they are transferred, or have leave. Aid workers, psychologists, and doctors in these regions report that abducted women feel grief and anger. They also feel guilty and ashamed: guilty that they are alive while their husbands and children may have died, ashamed because they have had to collude with their captors—perhaps with the very one who killed or abused their family members. If these women are set free (or run away), they often find that their families and communities reject them out of a sense of shame, and they struggle to support themselves. They also suffer from post-traumatic shock. We can assume that the captive woman of Deut. 21:10-14 would have similar reactions to her situation: grief, fear, and shame at the loss of her home and family, at her forced collusion with her captor, at the uncertainties of her future.

The recognition of the woman’s vulnerable position is central to Deuteronomy 21:10-14. She is clearly identified as a captive, an outsider and enemy by definition. She is given time to mourn for her parents—because her parents have been killed in the war by her captor’s people. She must be given legal protection in case her captor changes his mind and sends her away, lest he sell her as a slave. Perhaps this law would make a soldier think twice before acting on his desire for a captive woman. But the law does not go far enough: the woman remains a possession, a passive object, booty to collect and discard. Why not forbid taking women and children captive? If this law reflects a desire to protect women in time of war, why not forbid going to war at all?

What then do we do with a text like Deuteronomy 21:10-14? We could read it as the beginning of a trajectory: this law does make some progress towards recognizing the rights of the woman, and if we continue on that path we could end up with an even better law that recognizes women as full persons, agents in their own right, rather than property. We can also use it as reason to remember, and tell the stories of, women throughout history who have been taken captive and experienced the horrors of captivity. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 can remind us of the thousands of women around the world who still experience these horrors today.

1I’m certainly not the first to read Deuteronomy 21:10-14 in this way. See also H. Washington, “Violence and the Construction of Gender in the Hebrew Bible: A New Historicist Approach,” Biblical Interpretation 5.4 (1997) 324-363 (344); S. Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2010), 111-112.

2See T. Sideris, “Rape in War and Peace: Some Thoughts on Social Context and Gender Roles,” Agenda 43 (2000) 41-45; M. Turshen, “The Political Economy of Violence Against Women During Armed Conflict in Uganda,” Social Research 67.3 (2000) 803-824; T. Gingerich and J. Leaning, “The Use of Rape as a Weapon of War in the Conflict in Darfur, Sudan,” Program on Humanitarian Crises and Human Rights (François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, October 2004;; and A. Maedl, “Rape as Weapon of War in the Eastern DRC? The Victims’ Perspective,” Human Rights Quarterly 33.1 (2011) 128-147.

One comment on “The Captive of War

  1. revmarkw says:

    Thank you for your perspective. So often we just read these ancient texts as background fluff to the “real” story. But I appreciate how you connect to the plight of women today. I am happy we have made some progress since Deuteronomy.

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