Deuteronomy 21:10-14 – Making Something Beautiful Out of Something Morally Ugly

Posted: March 9, 2017 in Book of Deuteronomy
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Deuteronomy 21:10-14

Marrying a Captive Woman

When you read the Bible book by book and passage by passage in consecutive order, you are going to come across passages that are hard to deal with and understand, particularly when you are coming at them from 21st century sensibilities. Today is one of those days. This is a tough passage.

 

There is really no illustration that I can come up with from my own life as I have never been to war. The last half of v. 14 is a telling one to me. I don’t think that you can see this passage as to do with anything other than a man having raped a woman during battle. In context of the word “dishonor” as it is used here, it can reasonably be assumed that it refers to forced sexual relations or rape. Therefore, this passage is about how to bring good out of a bad situation.

 

I know that in war and the heat of fierce battle, men see things that they will never see in normal civilized society. Stabbing, gutting, decapitating, blood, guts, and its going on all around you. It is probably the most intense visual, emotional and mental experience that men will endure. It is the ugly side of humanity. Killing and destroying. It is desensitizing. Men do things in war that they would never be allowed to do in civilized society. Often rape, including gang rape, during wartime, even in today’s world, is used as a way to demoralize the vanquished population. It is often seen as part of the spoils of victory. This was particularly true in the civilizations that coexisted at the same time as the ancient Israelites. It was a means of psychological warfare and a way to humiliate the enemy. Having sex with the vanquished civilization’s women and forcing the women to live with that dirtiness and their husbands knowing it would rip at the very fabric of the society. And, as we have seen, throughout the Bible, the Israelites more often than not took on the habits of the nations around them rather than following God’s commands.

 

That’s the only way that I can make sense of this passage is that it is God seeing that it is likely that Israel will repeatedly be like its neighbors and so He must put forth a regulation to help redeem a bad situation. Let’s read through this tough passage:

 

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.

 

The footnotes in my Bible discuss this passage in this way. The footnote says this law relates to the previous commands dealing with human life and war. It also relates to the next passage’s command about polygamous marriage. These laws show the importance of respecting human life in compromising situations. Here, this law deals with the perennial problem of rape during war. Rape was forbidden in Israel. If a soldier was attracted to a woman, he had to marry her, as noted here. However, he could only do so after she had lived with him in a state of humiliation and mourning for a month. The shaving of her head and trimming of the nails and the changing of clothes represented not only humiliation and mourning but also of a complete break with her past and starting a new life in the new community. If he changed 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 like 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 it regulates and transforms an existing evil. Here, in this passage, the Hebrew word translated into English here as “dishonor” occurs 12 other times in the Bible and is when referring to men forcing when to have sexual relations with them (rape). In this sense, the Bible is being realistic about the evils that we commit and figures out a way to take a bad thing and make it good.

 

What biblical truth can we take away from this passage? It think there are two things. Responsibility and redemption.

 

In this passage, I see a requirement about taking responsibility for our actions. We commit acts that are just pure evil sometimes. We must own up to them and not just walk away from them because there were extenuating circumstances. We cannot excuse our way out of evil deeds. We cannot just forget they happened. We cannot just cover them up and hope no one finds out about them. When we commit acts of evil we must address them. We must try to make them right. We must restore honor to those who have been dishonored by us. Also, just because everyone in the world is legitimizing an evil and says it is OK to participate in it, does not mean God’s people have the right to violate God’s commands. Just to fit, we sometimes commit acts that we know directly from the Bible are morally wrong and against God’s commands. We must own up to having fallen short of God’s glory and try to make things right.

 

In this passage, I also see redemption. I see God taking something born in evil and making it new and clean through redemption. There is a certain symbolism of repentance and restoration in the dignity that is allowed to the woman in this situation. The man is required to make the woman he raped his wife. She is given stature of wife instead of being a humiliated victim. She is also given power here. She could exact humiliation upon the man by making him not want to stay married to her. She is given power that she becomes a full and rightful member of Jewish society regardless of whether she is married to this man or not. Usually in context of these societies, she would have been a humiliated sexual slave for the rest of her life with no status and no right to marry the man who raped her. She would be routinely raped for the rest of her life as a slave. Here, though, God redeems the evil act perpetrated upon her and gives her new status. She is redeemed and set free.

 

In that sense, it is similar to what God does for us through Jesus Christ. He redeems us from our own rape of purity through our lifetimes of sin. He redeems us from the evil that we have committed throughout our lives. He gives us clothes of righteousness through His sacrifice. He redeems us from the humiliation that we have before God and sets us free into a new life. We have full citizenship in heaven because He has redeemed us from the rape of our evil. He sets on our feet and gives us rights in His kingdom through the purity and sinlessness of Jesus Christ. He takes what is bad (us) and make something beautiful out of the bad (through the beauty of Jesus Christ).

 

Amen and Amen.

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