7. Torah and Slavery: Marrying Captives of War

Scripture: Deut. 21:10-14. War was a fact of life in the ancient Near East. When a soldier whose army was victorious saw a woman he was attracted to, what could he do? The Torah regulates this cultural fact.

As usual, I write to learn.

If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.

Let’s begin.


10 When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 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. 14 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. (Deut. 21:10-14, NIV)


The text is straightforward, except a few customs, noted under point no. three. Let’s look at the elements one by one.

(1) A war was fought between two sides in a distant land (20:15). This is not a war within Canaan or with the neighboring Canaanites. This is not a raid with the purpose of kidnapping, which inflicted the death penalty on the kidnapper (Exod. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). Israel is victorious in a war.

(2) A soldier notices a beautiful woman and is attracted to her, but he must take her as his wife. This is not the same as rape. The Torah says no. It is marriage or nothing.

(3) The Torah recommends these ancient customs: shaving her head, trimming her nails and replacing her clothing. Earl S. Kalland says that these actions symbolize moving past her former life because her family may have been killed. If they were still alive, then she still needed to move on. “These cleansing rites (cf. Lev. 14:8; Num. 8:7; 2 Sam. 19:24) initiated the woman into the Israelite family [….] (Deuteronomy: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Zondervan, 1990, comment on vv. 10-14, p. 132).

(4) Then she may mourn for a full month, since she lost her family.

(5) After that, the soldier may take her as his wife and consummate the marriage.

(6) However, if for some reason the soldier is not pleased with her, he may let her go. Deut. 24:1-4 allows for divorce when two Israelites get married by the man writing a certificate of divorce. Here, no such certificate is brought up, so the divorce may be easier.

(7) But he must not see her as a business product and sell or enslave her. He would profit unjustly from her, as a human being. He dishonored her because he rejected her after he had sex with her (Kalland).

John Walton in the NIV Cultural Background Study Bible (Zondervan, 2016) says this about parallel texts in the ancient Near East.

The Mari texts also instruct that clothing and jobs be provided to captive women. The rights given to the former captive are similar to those given to Israelite women and demonstrate that there was no reduction of her status if divorce were to occur. Similar concerns are reflected in Assyrians laws, in which married former captives are required to dress like ordinary Assyrian women of that social class. (comment on vv. 10-14, p. 331)

How does our knowledge of the Bible in its own context of the ancient Near East grow?

The law is clear. I see no need to go past what the NIV Biblical Study Bible says, so I let the commentator summarize it:

The law relates to the previous commands dealing with human life and war and the following command regarding polygamous marriage. Both laws show the importance of respecting human life in compromising situations. The first law is striking in its limitation. A perennial problem in war is rape, but this was forbidden in Israel. If a soldier was attracted to a woman, he had to marry her, and he could do so only when she had lived with him in a state of humiliation and mourning for a month. If he changes his mind after they were married, she had to be granted her freedom. Her dignity had to be guarded, and she could not be treated as a slave. The fact that female prisoners of war could be taken as wives by the Israelites does not sanction the practice so much as regulate and transform it. (comment on vv. 1-14)

I really like how the commentator says that the Bible does not necessarily approve of the custom of marrying captives of war, but regulates it. So the Torah, once again, was accommodating and guiding and regulating ancient Israel, which was situated in its larger culture. Rape after war happened often, but the Torah says no to this awful act. Instead, the Torah says marriage only, before sex.

The Torah upholds the rights of captive woman by requiring the soldier to marry her before sex and not allowing him to rape her before marriage (or any other time).

This law appear primitive by our twenty-first-century standard. (The closest we come is once in a while one hears about a soldier marrying a woman of the land, like a Korean or a Japanese, but she was not a captive and the two parties are willing). In any case, the ancient Israelites don’t live in our times; they lived in theirs. And the Torah provided the captive woman with some dignity and status and legal protections.


1. Torah and Slavery: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

3. Torah and Slavery: Impoverished Father Sells His Daughter to Be a ‘Secondary Wife’

4. Torah and Slavery: What Happened When Masters Punished Their Slaves?

5. Torah and Slavery: Protecting Slave Women from Injustice

6. Torah and Slavery: Foreign Slaves

7. Torah and Slavery: Marrying Captives of War


Slavery and Freedom in the Bible (an overview, for the big picture)

The Biblical Norm for Marriage

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

5 Slavery in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

The link to Islam has a section on having sex with female captives of war without marrying her. And so even though the Quran was written 600 years after Jesus, it still follows a misreading of the Old Testament. Let’s not go backwards.


Works Cited


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