In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Moses gives Israel the following command, “When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her” (New International Version).
This passage is problematic to modern readers for various reasons: (1) God’s people are going to war against another nation; (2) they are taking captives; (3) Israelite men attracted to beautiful women among the captives are given permission to take them as wives; (4) the women who are taken as wives from the captured nation are to shave their heads and trim their nails; (5) if the Israelite man who took a wife from among the captives no longer found her pleasing, he is allowed to let her go; (6) this law appears to contradict a previous prohibition on intermarriage in Deuteronomy 7:3.
The reality of war and prisoners of war is assumed in this law. The issue of Israel conquering other nations (and taking captives) is a big one that won’t be treated here. Also, the apparent contradiction with Deuteronomy 7:3 is resolved by noting that God’s primary concern was preventing idolatry which may result from Israelites intermarrying with people of pagan nations (Deut 7:4). The fact that in Deuteronomy 21:10-14, permission is granted for an Israelite male to marry a non-Israelite woman shows that God’s concern over foreign marriages is not a matter of ethnic prejudice.
What follows is an analysis of this law which allows Israelite men to marry female captives of war. It assumes a situation in which war is undertaken against Israel’s enemies, victory is granted by God, and some of the enemies are taken captive. If an Israelite male sees a beautiful woman among those taken captive and desires her, he is allowed to take her as his wife. The marriage, however, was not to be consummated immediately.
The captive woman was to be taken back to the man’s home. There she was to shave her head, cut her nails, and discard the garment of her captivity. For a month she was to griever her father and mother. This could indicate the death of her parents in war or her removal by force from her parental home. Only after the end of this month was the Israelite permitted to have sex with her, thereby consummating the marriage.
If the Israelite changes his mind and no longer wants her as a wife, she is to leave as a free woman. The man was not allowed to sell her as a slave for money or to treat her as merchandise. The rights given to the woman seem to be designed as some sort of compensation for the losses incurred by the marriage and subsequent divorce.
There are a number of questions in this passage to which we don’t have clear answers: (1) why was the woman to “discard the garment of her captivity”? (2) Why should she “shave her head and cut her nails”? (3) What does it mean for the man to “have no pleasure in her? (4) In what way would he “have humiliated her”?
What is clear is that this law was not a license for Israelite men to use captive women as instruments of their sexual desires. On the contrary, it placed a moral restriction on an unjust practice that was customary and assumed in the ancient world. In fact, one doesn’t have to go very far in history to glimpse how inhumane women in an occupied nation can be treated when at the mercy of soldiers who have been deprived of sex during a war.
Historians estimate that between 50,000 to 200,000 young women (many of whom were minors) were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied countries (Korea, China, Philippines, etc.) before and during World War II. They are known as “comfort women.” They were taken to military comfort stations, which were created to reduce the incidence of wartime rape and venereal disease. Local middlemen often deceived young girls with promises of work in factories or restaurants, and then would lead them to the “comfort stations.”
Reading this passage in its original historical context, one sees that this law benefits the captured woman in several ways: (1) she is not to be raped or enslaved as a concubine, but is to be given full status as a wife of an Israelite; (2) she is to be given time to adjust to a dramatically new situation and to mourn the loss of her parents; (3) the Israelite is restricted from any sexual intercourse with her during this month of grieving and adjustment; (4) if the Israelite changes his mind and no longer wants her as a wife, she is to leave as a free woman. He is not to take advantage of her by selling her as a slave. This law is radically ahead of its time in that it gives a woman’s physical and emotional needs moral and legal priority over the desires and claims of a man.
Most modern readers live in a society where women vote, go to college, own property, are eligible to run for public office, etc. Today’s culture and basic values are fundamentally different from the world that Moses and the Israelites lived in. Rather than critique this law with our twenty-first-century standards of human rights, we need to ask: In which direction was God moving the needle in regard to women’s rights? There’s no question this law was revolutionary in its day. Whose interests was this law protecting? Obviously that of the female captive. Whose conduct is being restricted? The Israelite victorious soldier, who is standing in a position of power in relation to the woman. What are the underlying objectives and priorities of this law? To mitigate the worst effects of war by protecting its innocent victims as far as possible.
Jesus cautioned against taking specific laws in Deuteronomy and setting them as the bar for acceptable moral behavior in all situations (see Matt 19:8). In its original cultural context, this law represented a high moral advancement. This ancient law’s relevance and applicability go far beyond the realm of war to all kinds of similar situations where a weaker party is at the mercy of a stronger one. Like the law restricting a richer Israelite from lending with interest to a poorer Israelite (Deut 23:19), this law is a paradigm case of God’s concern to defend the weak against the strong. Jesus summarized the whole Law (Hebrew Scriptures) in these words, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12, English Standard Version).