Deuteronomy 21:10-14 – Limitations of War-Rape


Deuteronomy 21:10-14


This passage seeks to limit, as far as possible, the widespread custom of war-rape, and taking captive women as wives or sexual partners. 


In the ancient Near East, and in many other times and places, rape has been a horrific and abominable facet of armed conflict. This section of Deuteronomy seeks to minimize the practice among the Israelites ahead of the narrative of their conquest of the Holy Land. 

If the Israelites noticed a woman among those they captured in war that they found beautiful, were strongly attracted to, and wished to take for themselves as a wife, they were permitted to marry the woman, but only after a lengthy process. Immediately, this law prohibits rape in the days or weeks after conquest. The captured woman was to be given time to mourn her family. Additionally, the woman was to have her head shaved, her nails trimmed, and her foreign clothing taken away. She was to mourn and weep inside of the home of her Israelite captor for a month, where, presumably, the Israelite captor would hear her cry day after day. Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, says that this is all done to make the woman less appealing to the Israelite, so that he will let her go and not force the captive woman into marriage.

If, however, after the month elapses, and the Israelite still wants to marry the captive woman, he is allowed to with further admonishments. She does not just become his wife, but he becomes her husband – the Israelite is reminded that this is a mutual arrangement. If the Israelite ends up not wanting the captive woman after all, he is to set her free, not to enslave or sell her, or treat her as property. 

This treatment is far from desirable, and treats a woman as capturable property, even while admonishing the Israelites that they should not treat women as property. Yet it also represents strong pushback against the customs of surrounding peoples, and especially against those (Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans) who would wage battles of conquest or pogroms against the Israelites and Jews.