How Orthodox Jews Read Tough Biblical Passages: Part I—“Marrying a Female Captive”

How Orthodox Jews Read Tough Biblical Passages: Part I—“Marrying a Female Captive” August 24, 2018

As the title suggests, I am beginning a new series of articles for this blog on the topic of how Orthodox Jews interpret some of the (seemingly) morally problematic, controversial sections of the Bible. The stuff about sex and violence and everything else. You all know those verses. But you might never have heard about how ancient and medieval Jews interpreted some of these stories and laws. This post will highlight one example of those interpretations.

Deuteronomy Chapter 21:10-14 contains the Biblical law regarding how a Jewish soldier is allowed to marry a female prisoner of war. The verses themselves seem to clearly say that if the Israelites go to battle, win the war, and take captives, a soldier is then allowed to take a captured female prisoner as his wife, if he desires her. Seemingly, this marriage could be enacted by force, and does not require the woman’s consent.

And that’s when the alarm bells begin ringing for religious people today: how could the Bible permit a soldier to forcibly take a prisoner of war as his wife?

Ancient rabbis seemed to struggle with similar questions. Hence, the Talmud
(an authoritative work of Jewish law completed around 600 C.E.)
has this bold statement to make about our case:

“The Torah permits this only as a concession to the evil inclination (Kiddushin 21b).”

The next line explains this quote by essentially saying that the Torah permitted marrying a female captive so that other, even more horrific acts would not be committed.

In other words, the Bible is not endorsing or encouraging soldiers to marry captives. It permits them to do this, but only because it would be impossible to forbid it. Soldiers, traumatized by battle and suffering away from home are prone to commit sexual atrocities. So insisting that the soldier marry his captive is a way to ensure that the woman is treated better than the alternatives: rape in the POW camp, forced prostitution, or sexual slavery.

In Biblical times, captive women were acquired by the winning army in the same way as the property of the losers was now theirs. In the context of brutal total warfare, the men of the losing army (as well as civilians) were killed and the women and children sold into slavery. See I Samuel Chapter 30 for an example of this practice.

The Bible does away with this historical practice of treating female prisoners as chattel. When the verse says, “And you take her as your wife,” this is a severe limitation. You cannot treat her like a prostitute or sell her into slavery. The only way to fulfill your desire is through marriage, taking her home, and letting her mourn her family. She is not to be treated as loot to be pillaged in the camp.

So ultimately, the Bible’s law in this regard is an innovation and an enormous improvement, morally speaking, on other ancient and pre-modern codes of ethics in war. At the very least, the Israelite soldier has some compassion and consideration for the woman and her suffering, and cannot abuse her or sell her.

However, the ancient rabbis added another layer of complexity to the story. They noted that the law of the female captive is placed right before a law of inheritance which states that if you have two wives—one hated and one loved—you must give the son of the hated woman her due. From this juxtaposition of laws, the rabbis felt the Torah was teaching that marrying a captive woman, while permitted, is a really bad idea because it’ll lead to conflict between wives and their children. It’s interesting to consider why the Bible would permit something, but then immediately imply that it shouldn’t be done because of what it’ll lead to…

In any case, the question still stands: what about the marriage? Isn’t it morally problematic to allow person x to marry person y without y’s consent? Here’s where ancient Jewish interpreters come in once again to add their take on the text. Here are their assumptions, step by step:

1. According to Jewish law, Jews are forbidden to marry non-Jews (see the book of Ezra chapter 9 for more on that)
2. Thus, we have to assume that the female POW converted to Judaism before being allowed to marry the Israelite soldier.
3. However, there’s another Jewish law that a forced conversion to Judaism isn’t valid; intent and sincerity are required.

Based on these assumptions, Maimonides—an incredibly influential medieval rabbi and codifier of Jewish law—concludes that if a female captive refuses to convert to Judaism for 12 months, she is set free.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and their Wars Chapter 8).

So there you have it. Traditional Jewish interpreters and rabbis used a combination of careful analysis, context clues, and outside knowledge of other Biblical laws to heavily limit the applicability and scope of the law of the female captive. Instead of an Israelite soldier being allowed to march into a prisoners’ camp and take a woman there as his wife forever, he can take a woman home with him and ask her to convert to Judaism. If she agrees, they can marry. If she doesn’t agree, they wait a year, in which he cannot have sex with her, and then she goes free. This still isn’t something we’d imagine a righteous person doing, and the rabbis of the Talmud did see it as something bad. But it was permitted in order to make the best of a horrible situation, and enable soldiers to gratify their sexual desires through marriage rather than prostitution or rape.

I can’t speak to how well this system worked in practice, but I hope this explanation of the theory was enlightening to those who have wondered how Jews interpret this difficult passage. Stay tuned for more posts on topics like these to come.

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