(Deut. 21:10-14) Does this sanction raping women from war?

CLAIM: Deuteronomy records several instructions for women who had been taken over in war. We read, “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, 11 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her” (Deut. 21:10-14). Critics assert that this passage sanction military rape and conquest. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: Captured women were usually the lowliest of all people in society. They had no husband, and thus, no one to provide for them or protect them in such a patriarchal society. By taking on a husband from the victorious nation, this would be a step up socially. Normally, a captured woman in the ancient Near East had no rights whatsoever. By contrast, this law sets up restraints for these captive women. Let’s consider several aspects that show great dignity to the captured women, which are often overlooked.

The conquering man couldn’t just rape the woman on command. Even if he had “desire for her” (v.11), he need to marry her—not rape her (v.11). He was supposed to bring her into his home (v.12), and let her have a month long time of adjustment and mourning (v.13). This would give the woman time for adjustment, and it would prevent rape-on-demand, which would’ve been common at the time. The man would need to wait for 30 days. Only then would a man be permitted to marry the woman. Afterward, if they needed to get divorced, the man wasn’t permitted to “sell her” or “mistreat her” (v.14). How different this is from the common practices of the ancient Near East.

We have already made the case that OT civil law is not binding for believers today (see “Tips for Interpreting OT Law”). Thus, we believe that these laws were only given for that time and place—not for today. Moreover, the Bible teaches that God was “taking what he could get” with these laws—not giving perfect civil commands.