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.
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 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 126.96.36.199)
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.