Understanding Violence in the Old Testament Part I: Prisoners of War and Forced Marriage



Thank you all for your responses to my reader and content survey. I am culling through them, and the responses are great! I will now immediately follow some of your suggestions and deal here with a topic regarding violence and perceived unethical behavior in the Bible, which was prompted by a Facebook post of Metropolitan Savvas (Zembillas) of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh. In it, we are going to do something a bit different (also prompted by Met. Savvas), in that we are going to look in detail at early Jewish exegesis as a segue to looking at how Orthodox Christians might understand it.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 presents commandments regarding the taking of female prisoners of war, and the process of how a soldier may go about taking his female prisoner of war as a wife.

10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive,  11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife,  12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails.  13 She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn 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 And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her. (NKJV)

Immediately, we blush at the notion of God giving instructions on what and what not to do in regard to forced marriage of female prisoners, and herein lies our problem, which is an apparent ethical disparity between the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age and our own day. Before we look at Christian interpretations of this passage and some possible ways we can resolve this disparity in our own minds, let’s look at Jewish exegesis of this passage to see what these men, who spent their entire lives meticulously contemplating the Torah, had to say.


Jewish Exegesis

Most Jewish copies of the Torah meant for personal study are arranged in a series of volumes known as the mikra’ot gedolot, “The Great Scriptures.” Such volumes consist of the Hebrew text of the Torah, the Aramaic Targum Onqelos beside it, and rabbinic commentary surrounding or below it. My edition contains seven commentators for this passage alone, so there is a lot we can tell just from this one volume.

Rashi, probably the most well known of all Rabbinic commentators, offers us several points to consider (which I will not quote directly due to the abbreviated nature of Rabbinic commentary):

  • This concerns optional wars, not thse commanded by God during the conquest of Canaan.
  • The commandment was given because of the evil inclination (yetser  hara’)
  • It is commanded because, if the soldier were to marry the captive woman immediately, he would grow to hate her in relation to his Israelite wife. (c.f. Deut 21:15, “If a man has two wives, he will love one and hate the other.”
  • The “clothes of her captivity” would be here finest adornments, because Gentile women would dress in finery to seduce their captors.
  • By bringing her to his house, the captor will have to constantly be around her.
  • She is allowed to mourn because it will create a difference between the captive woman (who is sad) and the Israelite wife of the soldier (who will be happy).
  • The Israelite wife should dress up and make herself attractive, while the captive woman should appear repulsive to her captor.

Okay, let’s untangle this potentially confusing set of circumstances. In the course of ancient warfare, it was likely that a town which fell under attack would be completely destroyed including all of the people in it. The only recourse to avoid death was to become a prisoner of war, so a woman in a town under attack might dress in her finest clothes and maker herself look as attractive as possible in order to seduce one of the attacking soldiers to take her as a spoil of war. This explains the reference to “clothes of captivity.” When an Israelite soldier takes a Canaanite woman captive in war, he must taker her to his house, where she will have to live around the family already there. She must take off her fine regalia and dress in clothes of mourning, shave her head, and trim her fingernails. In other words, she is to make herself look as unattractive as possible. Why so? Rashi says, it is because of the evil inclination. This is the Rabbinic term which corresponds to the Christian patristic term “the passions.” In other words, the captive woman is to make herself looks as unattractive as possible in order to mitigate the sexual passion of the Israelite man who might desire to immediately take advantage of her sexually. Instead, before he is allowed to take her as a wife and have sexual relations with her, he must first allow her to become as unattractive as possible and become as much of a nuisance as possible through mourning. If, after all of this, he still desires to take her as a wife, only then is he allowed to do so. If he does not take her as a wife, he then must set her free.

So, we see that this law was designed specifically with the interests of the captive woman in mind. It was designed to stay the uninhibited sexual passion of the male soldier and provide a way for the woman to gain her freedom or be received as a wife. All of these points are found as well in the midrash of Deuteronomy known as Sifre Devarim, which was written during the Talmudic era, and almost every other Jewish commentator follows these basic points.

The Babylonian Talmud adds a few brief notes about this by way of debate about whether or not a priest was allowed to marry such a captive woman (b.Qiddushin 21:2-22:1) mentioning that the command to take the woman to his house implies that a soldier is not allowed to rape her in battle. Also, b.Sota 35:2 mentions that the purpose of taking captives was eventually so they might be converted to the Israelite faith.


Christian Exegesis

Christian patristic exegesis of this passage appears to be rather sparse. Working only with what I could pull immediately from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, we find remarks from Origen and Clement of Alexandria. First, Origen:

But nevertheless I also intellectually have “gone out to war against my enemies, and I saw there” in the plunder “a woman with a beautiful figure.” Whatever we find said well and reasonably among our philosophical enemies, or we read anything said among them wisely and knowingly, we must cleanse it. We must remove and cut off all that is dead and worthless. It is as if one were trimming the hairs of the head and the nails of the woman taken from the spoils of the enemy. Only then would you taker her as a wife. (Homilies on Leviticus 7.6.7)

Origen relates this passage to Christian epistemology and the interaction with pagan (secular) learning. We may take such learning “as a wife,” i.e. adopt their ideas for ourselves, but we must first strip them of their deceptive regalia, “trim the hair and cut the nails” and in doing so strip from it every falsehood that is set up against divine truth.

Clement follows the Jewish exegetes in commenting on the nature of restraint commanded in the passage:

The law wishes males to have responsible sexual relations with their marriage partners, solely for the generation of children. This is clear when a bachelor is prevented from enjoying immediate sexual relations with a woman prisoner of war. If he once falls in love with her, he must let her cut her hair short and mourn for thirty days. If even so his desire has not faded away, then he may father children by her. The fixed period of time enables the overpowering impulse to be scrutinized and to turn into a more rational appetency. (Stromateis

Alexandrian exegesis of the 3rd century turned this passage inward both to the intellectual faculty of reason and the appetitive faculty of sexual desire. Both are to be restrained and the objects of desire are to be stripped of their fineries in order that they might appear for what they are.


What to Take Away

  • What at first glance looks to be an unethical practice of taking prisoners of war and forcibly marrying them, we find is actually very humane within its historical context, restraining soldiers from rape on the battlefield and providing every opportunity for the woman to gain her freedom.
  • Yet all of this must be understood in the context of ancient Near Eastern customs of warfare. The Old Testament is a product of its time, and even though we attribute to it divine inspiration, we must recognize that it is still limited by its time and cultural setting. For whatever reason, God chose to reveal himself and his Logos gradually through the natural development of human culture and civilization. In more primitive times, when polygamy and slavery were acceptable practices, there was no objection to these things from the religious establishment. Nevertheless, we see a remarkable ethic still shining through that places restraint on these more hideous aspects of ancient civilization.
  • The “letter of the law” is always trumped by the spirit of the ethics it reflects. When a greater ethic is revealed, i.e. that polygamy and slavery are themselves destructive practices, then we are obliged to follow. Both Jewish and Christian exegesis has allowed us to see the ethical principles found within the law abstracted from the situation of the law in order that we might apply it more broadly.
  • Jewish exegesis of the Bible, especially of the Torah, can be very helpful for giving us a greater understanding of what is going on, and all Orthodox scholars should be able to avail themselves of these resources, following Origen’s principles enumerated above.

Not every difficult passage found in the Old Testament can be so easily understood and resolved. There remain many things that make us uncomfortable, and God willing, we will deal with many of them soon. Yet, I hope this has illustrated some of the principles involved in the process.




  1. Many thanks, Eric! This is an excellent breakdown of addressing the issue(s) found in a cursory reading of the OT. I realize that, for space reasons, you can only deal with so much but I want to ask something about the guidelines you have listed, specifically the following:

    “•The “letter of the law” is always trumped by the spirit of the ethics it reflects. When a greater ethic is revealed, i.e. that polygamy and slavery are themselves destructive practices, then we are obliged to follow.”

    From my reading this is exactly what some defenders of homosexuality have used to defend that practice. Some clergy who have fallen into defending this practice use the idea of “human experience” as a defense for ignoring the verses that denounce that practice. How would you recommend that one to apply this (to any subject, not only homosexuality) without every conversation becoming “well, we now know better than to view [enter subject matter here] that way”?

    I tend the think the full answer could be rather long (and I know Fr. Freeman has written quite a bit on the notion of “progress”), but I would like to hear any general guidelines which you would recommend (or if I am simply off-base in bringing this up).

    1. The first thing we have to realize when dealing with ethics and the Bible is that, as Orthodox Christians, our ethics are not based upon the Bible, per se. We believe what we believe because such things are true in and of themselves, not because a book says so. In other words, we believe homosexual practices to be sinful because such principles are woven into the very fabric of the cosmos, and the divine Logos who created the cosmos according to divine wisdom has revealed it to us. The scriptures bear witness to this Logos, but the real root of our beliefs are ontological truths, not merely the content of a book. So, our exegesis must reflect it. It is not about literal vs. non-literal, it is about always interpreting the scriptures according to the Logos.

      1. Thank you, Eric. I know there’s a lot more to consider in your answer but this is not the topic for that discussion. Have you written previously, in greater detail, on the ontological foundation of Orthodox belief or do you have a short list of references where I could find more detailed information?

        1. No, I haven’t written much about it, only talked about it in classes I’ve taught. Perhaps I’ll put it on my list. I don’t know if there is anything written about it per se. I developed the idea from a general understanding of the way the OT does theology, by stating certain theological ideas as a feature of divine action or wisdom, e.g. Sabbath observance in Gen 1.

          1. Definitely a great subject to consider for future articles. It is difficult to avoid the “chicken and egg” argument structure when discussing this (“The scriptures bear witness to this Logos, but the real root of our beliefs are ontological truths, not merely the content of a book.”) and it would be instructive to read more about it. Many thanks!

  2. Okay, all sorts of laughably bad grammatical issues in that third paragraph but hopefully you can understand it. I need a far better editor than myself, obviously….

  3. Thank you so much for addressing this. I’d never heard a satisfactory, contextual response to this passage. I, embarrassingly, assumed we were all trying to mentally “look the other way”, because there weren’t words to respond to it in a helpful way.

  4. This post raises both good and not so good points. The Rabbinic interpretations are always helpful and I am grateful that you point them out.
    What I am ‘taking away’ is 1. concerning the Scripture “we attribute to it divine inspiration” and 2. concerning some things, “principles are woven into the very fabric of the cosmos.”

    I am troubled by both of these statements since they seem both subjective and circular.

    re Scripture – I agree that we do treat it differently – but why? Why do we not read other books the same way and to the same degree? e.g. for the Christian, why not read the Koran in such a way?

    re principles – It would seem to me that violence has other aspects to it and it is not a stranger in our time. We are not an improvement over our ancestors. Sexual desire is equally no stranger to us. Both violence and our desire raise very serious sets of problems. There is no solution within either set of problems without a word from God for us and in us. The ‘cosmos’ may give each of us a different word – where are we then?

    This brings me back to learning Scripture – but do we learn it just because it is there or do we learn it because tradition and, after maturing, our own experience of the divine, lead us into a different view of our sets of problems? Are we restrained in our evil desire just by delay of gratification? Or does the command (in the text of Deuteronomy above) create a response in us that both tempers and even transforms desire and thereby absorbs violence?

    I don’t know if other traditions can teach in this way. We are the captive in this case. In the death of our Bridegroom, we can learn such things. No other tradition that I know has such an incarnation or such a means to effect change in us. We may not want such change.

    1. I’m not sure what your getting at with your first question about reading Scripture. I will say, however, that, in regard to apologetics, supporting our beliefs by referencing Scripture is circular, i.e. referencing our belief system by referencing an authoritative source which we believe to have authority. In other words, if you say to an unbeliever, “we believe X because the Bible says so,” they will respond, “Well, I do not share your belief in the Bible.” By saying, “We believe X because it is a universal principle of the cosmos, i.e. logos,” then we have broken out of our circular belief system and pointed to a universal principle.

      In regard to violence, while violence does exist in our day, we have developed ethics of war that did not exist in the ancient world. We do not go about raiding villages and killing indiscriminately. It is precisely our advanced ethics of war that allow us to see the evil in jihhad, or “holy war,” and we would condemn also the crusaders for this as well. Our ethics of slavery and human trafficking have advanced, especially in the last 150 years, which is surprising, when you think about it. It took as THAT long to realize that human trafficking is inherently evil. We have a long way to go, for sure.

      Again, I’m not sure what you’re getting at in your paragraph, “This brings me back to learning Scripture.”

  5. Re – source of belief. This is clearly a difficult and simple problem at one and the same time. I wrote a note to myself about the accents in the Hebrew text which I am studying today with intensity (never lacking in me I hope). I said: ‘The Word of God is meant to be sung so that in the singer it lives.’ It has not been my habit to use that phrase ‘the Word of God’. Of course I have often heard it, but my witness cannot be dependent on words that are not understood. God will give that phrase to someone when that someone is ready, and there will be no mistaking that Word made flesh. But it is beyond my description or definition. I guess that is what you mean by a witness that is outside of the text, even though the text is used in confirmation. Nonetheless, I am concerned that in receiving that witness I might only confirm my own prejudice about ‘universal principles of the cosmos’, that being a phrase I have never used. It is not in my tradition, apart from fundamental scientific constants that allow the existence of ‘life’ as we know it. We may not be far apart here.

    With respect to Holy war, I am not sure that we can agree on ‘progress’ as if we are better than our ancestors. I do not think we are. Our corporate violence is both less and more visible but equally indiscriminate. More visible because of technology from drones to the internet, less visible because it is not in some of our immediate villages here in North America – at least not so much in mine as it is in some, but in all our villages, there is suppression by economic violence and homelessness and racial prejudice and all this among Christians. In fact, Christians are protected from it by the social and tax structures, some of which are as evil as any evil we can name in Scripture. We are not better. Doug Saunders occasionally convinces me we are better, perhaps that is true on a per capita basis, but my spirit does not rest with such a limited convincing.

    There are other ways in which we oppress others by the prejudices we do not yet know in ourselves. You mention human trafficking, but you put down a ‘universal principle’ with respect to sexual orientation. I question if you really understand this problem. I know it is not the subject of this thread, but I will remain uncomfortable with this subject, I expect in this life, for many reasons. I have known from ‘the One who teaches humanity knowledge’ (Kimhi, Commentary on the Psalms) that there is more to this manifest ‘problem set’ than meets the abstract reasoning of universal principles.

    Perhaps the principle I will appeal to is holiness, without which no one will see God. But God knows how to call each of us into holiness whatever our disposition might be or might have been. When we respond, as Naomi responded to the hope for bread in the land of Israel, there is no end to the joy that is revealed. “And she came out from the place where she was and her two daughters-in-law with her.” Who are we, and who are our daughters-in-law today? Is it perhaps Naomi a metaphor for the Church, and Ruth for Islam, and Orpah for some other time… I tend to metaphor when reading the TNK. This one just popped out of my thoughts as I was writing.

    With respect to everlasting joy and pleasure, one could also read Psalm 16, Hebrew, 15 Greek, text and music here. vs 11 You will make known to me a path of life, satisfaction of gladness in your presence, pleasures at your right hand always.

    This is the same God with whom we have this ‘problem’ of violence in the Old Testament! I think as Ezekiel wrote somewhere, it is not His problem, it is ours.

    1. I’m using the notion of the Logos from the prologue of the Gospel of John and from ideas taken from Maximos the Confessor as well as the Hebrew Wisdom tradition. The “Word of God” is first and foremost Christ the Logos, and all things are created by Him according to the Logos/Wisdom, therefore, wisdom, and as such our ethics are bound up within the logos/wisdom by which the cosmos was created.

      1. Thank you, I have been thinking about the circularity issue since I see it in many traditions besides my own. It is possible that the examples of ‘witnesses’ may help me a little, in this case the witness being the person of Maximus the Confessor, and then also confirming, the witness that is the Logos both inside and outside us. Somehow it will address the tensions we find ourselves in historically and epistemologically (if there is such a word).

  6. Thanks so much for giving this explanation; GOD bless.
    I have a question though: How were the wives in ancient israelite society treated? Where they held to high esteem? just to be specific.
    Thanks very much.

    1. That is a very complex issue to address in a mere comment. To some extent, women were treated like property of either their husbands or fathers. There was very they could do as independent agents. Religiously, they were represented before God by their husbands or fathers and thus had little to do with the public religion. However, inside the home, women may have generally “ruled the roost” so-to-speak, and they had considerable influence within that sphere both regarding life and religion. They made significant contributions to their family from an economic point of view through the production of household goods, which could be sold in the market or used by the family. Otherwise, women were generally were either pregnant or trying to get pregnant in order to produce more male offspring, which contributed to the economic output of the family unit. This was less pronounced in the urban centers, though in these places, middle to upper class families were not engaged in agriculture, so smaller families were probably the norm (as it is today). This is all described as a “medium” and there were natural fluctuations in demographics and living conditions along with the natural fluctuations in the agricultural (sedentary) and pastoral (nomadic) economies.

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