fbpx Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content Skip to Footer

Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, part 14

Derek Caldwell

The relationship between women and the Law is neither oppressive or ideal.

If we talk about the perceived harshness of the Law, we typically refer to the treatment of women and slaves. It is that situation to which we now turn. This will be far from exhaustive, but please do read the first article from this series if you have lingering questions.


In the beginning, God made man and woman equal, both in His image (Genesis 1:27). In one depiction of this creation, Eve is made from the rib of Adam. There is never an indication in Genesis that this implies some sort of ontological hierarchy, though. Adam himself is made from dirt, which surely isn’t better than a human rib! For any who would look to this instance of creation as some sign of ontological order, Paul reminds them that “as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Corinthians 11:12). Indeed, the battles for supremacy between the sexes are not natural, but a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:12, 16).

The desire of God—bypassing any debates on complementarianism or egalitarianism—is for an ordered society of love, built on mutual love and submission in which each person has a valuable role to fulfill and be fulfilled in (Ephesians 5:21).[1] The Law, however, is not legislating an ideal world. No, the Law is needed because the world has become anything but ideal. As Gane rightly points out, the Old Testament Law was created to guide a “postfall society that already included female inequality, divorce, and polygamy along with servitude.” The Law, then, “sought to move people back in the direction of creation ideals by strategically correcting and preventing the most important problems without generating worse results.”[2] We will have to keep this always in the back of our minds as we investigate the seemingly peculiar protection of women in Old Testament laws.

What we see in the Old Testament’s laws concerning women is God directing a people—whose hearts and minds had been shaped not by love and goodwill but by cruel and traumatizing slavery—toward an ethic of love and protection (especially) for those who had nothing to offer in return. That is why there is so much about protecting orphans, widows, and the foreigner/stranger among them (Deuteronomy 10:18; 26:12). These laws show two things: first, as already mentioned, God’s heart for the vulnerable; second, the less-than-ideal moral landscape and formation of the Israelite. The laws exist because Israelites were in danger of displaying anything but God’s love to the nations. The Scriptural image is clear: those who traveled as God’s people had a lot to learn. They were very much people firmly embedded in their time, though God was dragging them out just as He had dragged them out (sometimes kicking and screaming) from their enslavement in Egypt.

Women and the Law: Seizing

With that in mind, how do we make sense of Deuteronomy 21:10-14, which allows for an Israelite man to seize a woman captured in war as his own? First, we need to understand something particularly devilish about the ancient world. It had very different opinions on the “sanctity” of the female body. This played out in unfathomably tragic ways in warfare of the time. The rape of women and young girls in the context of ancient warfare was common then. It was a part of “ritualized triumph,” a depraved act of humiliation on a defeated enemy. This practice was, in Webb and Oeste’s words, “accepted, expected, and celebrated—worn as a badge of honor.”[3] Historian Paul Bentley Kern tells us that, lamentably, war rape was “the most common atrocity against noncombatants” in the ancient world.[4]

For Israel, however, their rules of engagement were quite different. Israel’s sexual ethics were such that sexual intimacy was only appropriate within the context of a monogamous covenant. Any type of sexual activity with someone not your wife or husband was automatically off-limits. Moreover, this restriction would have been heightened for soldiers during war because of their view of warfare and God’s holy presence. Recall that Uriah the Hittite would not sleep with his wife, Bathsheba, because that would mean foregoing his duties as a soldier (2 Samuel 11:11). This is not just on account of Uriah’s desire to fight alongside his brothers in arms. No, there is the implied belief that he cannot do both. Part of the reason is that the Ark of the Covenant is with them in battle. Since the ark was with the soldiers, they were closer to the presence of God. The closer one was to God’s presence, the further that person must be from sexual activities.[5] Effectively, this means that in two ways—in direct warning in the Law and indirect implications of being in God’s holy presence—Israelite soldiers were forbidden from raping women war captives. This is exemplified by the absence of any depiction of triumphalist rape passages or artwork from extant Israelite sources. Webb cites that between the years 2005 and 2019 there were thirty ancient Near Eastern depictions of ancient war uncovered, all of which contain depictions of rape and have similarly boisterous passages about rape in the source culture’s war texts.[6] There is a notable absence of this in ancient Israel.

The solution of marriage, though, may still seem an unseemly one for us. And indeed, it is important to remember that these solutions aren’t always God’s ideal, but compromises to control the damage of a fallen people who typically dealt with women captives by killing, sexually assaulting, or enslaving them. This solution, though, may have simply been one that was to dissuade soldiers from seizing captive women with any intent at all.[7] The surrounding cultures told them to take what they wanted and do with it what they wished. But in this biblical prohibition in question, they are told that they may only seize a woman if they are willing to lovingly provide for her, presumably for life.

When the captive becomes the soldier’s wife, she becomes a part of Israel with certain rights and privileges which the soldier cannot deny her. “It seems that the law,” Wright clarifies, “in the midst of the nastiness of war, is trying to privilege the needs of the vulnerable (a woman, a foreigner, a captive) over the customary rights of the powerful (a man, a soldier, a victor, a husband).”[8] Should the man decide to take a woman as his wife, he was to give her time to mourn her old life and assimilate to her new life. That she would need time to mourn for her mother and father may point to the fact that she was a marriageable-aged war orphan whose remaining prospects were grim. The soldier could not, as was customary in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, sell this wife into prostitution. And if there were any trouble or second-guessing during her transitional period (perhaps if she rejected the man as a potential husband), he was to let her go free because he has “dishonored her” (Deuteronomy 21:14). In this note of “dishonoring,” one can sense a hint at divine uneasiness over the whole situation, for it is to the man’s shame that he has dishonored the female captive. One can imagine Jesus referring to this passage as well, stating that Moses only allowed the selecting and marrying of war captives because of the hardness of Israel’s heart. The situation is summed up well by Wright:

We want to say that there should not be wars, and there should not be prisoners, and women should not be captured. Doubtless. But Deuteronomy’s legal and pastoral strategy is to deal with the world where such things were realities, and then to mitigate the worst effects for those caught up in them.


Women and the Law: Marrying Abusers

Another passage that is particularly troubling is Deuteronomy 22:25-29. In verses 25-27 it is stated that if a man rapes a woman pledged to be married, then he shall be put to death. But, when we get to verse 28, we see something odd. Pretty much the same situation is described, except in this case the woman is a virgin who is not pledged to be married. Instead of death, the Law says that “He shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives” (v. 29). In other words, this text appears to be saying that a raped woman must marry her rapist if she is not pledged to be married.

A little background information is needed here. A rape victim at this time would, just like now, be traumatized by the assault. In our own times, it was not too long ago (and indeed it still persists today) that a woman who had been sexually assaulted had not only the trauma of the act itself, but also the stigma of the act, which may manifest in people saying that she deserved it, asked for it, had it coming to her, is “damaged goods,” etc. Many might also deny her reality altogether. In the ancient world, it may not have been so much that she “had it coming” or a denial of the act itself. Rather, since she was no longer a virgin, she would have been “damaged property” to any potential suitors. An unmarried woman with no children might very well find herself in a life of extreme destitution in that society. And so, the Law stipulates that instead of the perpetrator being put to death and the woman living a destitute life, the man would instead be kept alive, if only to offer lifelong support to the woman he had so deeply wronged. (The reason why an engaged woman’s rapist was to be put to death is that, presumably, the man engaged to marry her would still go through with the marriage and thus be able to provide for the wronged woman. This culture did not have quite the same distinction we have between engagement and marriage. Engagement was less a “we are planning on getting married in the future” than it was a “we are pre-married” sort of situation, especially given the fact that ancient marriages were formal arrangements between two families. Both violations of sacred space, which is one aspect of what rape is, are worthy of receiving death. That one is treated differently is a matter of cultural limitations.)

While this may still seem a shock to our senses, testimony from within the Old Testament shows that they thought of this arrangement differently. David T. Lamb brings to our attention the story of Tamar who, after begging her half-brother to not force himself upon her (“Such a thing should not be done in Israel!”), is raped by him (1 Samuel 13:12). Afterward, he angrily yells at her to “get up and get out!” (v. 15). Oddly to us, she replies, “No! Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me” (v. 16). It was bad enough to violate her, but to reject her afterward seemed worse to her. While the solution of marriage as a law—and other laws about women—appear sexist to us today, Lamb points out that “within their own context they were progressive.”[10] Indeed, a comparison with other cultures’ treatment of women in their legal writings makes this painfully obvious.[11]

As noted in previous articles, there is flexibility in the Law due to the type of law it is. “No one statement of law needs to be read as the comprehensive and exclusive answer to the issue addressed,” explains Michael Lefebvre.[12] Since Israel’s law was to protect the vulnerable, this flexibility would be to further protect the woman in question. Like other laws, there is no evidence that this law was ever practiced as it is written here. Instead, this law may mean to prove a particular point. For instance, it may be that the man did have to provide for the wronged woman either in a lump sum or with something like alimony, as if they were married, when in actual fact they were not in a marriage covenant, and she did not have to go through the trauma of living with the man. In other words, though never married, they live as if they are divorced, and he must support her. This is speculation, of course, but we are beginning to think like a judge in this tradition who would be seeking to care for the innocent victim. And indeed, we do see a movement in this direction when in Exodus 22:17 the law is updated to state that the father may refuse to give his daughter to the man, but the man “must still pay the bride-price for virgins.”

Briefly, not all commentators believe this text is even about the rape of a virgin. Rather, some like Richard M. Davidson, who authored the magisterial Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, believes that this is more about premarital sex, which is made clearer, he believes, in the aforementioned updated version of Exodus 22:16-17. Both are, in his mind, about forms of sexual seduction but not forced sexual relations.[13] In other words, it is a matter of psychological or emotional manipulation rather than violent and physical coercion. Of course, the line between these two is not always so clear or distinct.

The types of observations made here, Davidson writes, have led to a reversal of previous stereotypes of Israelite law. The more we learn about the context of the time and the more we can compare Israelite law with, say, Babylonian or Assyrian law, we learn “that the status of women in the Old Testament is high” and that these laws are “intended as a protective measure for the more vulnerable members of society, particularly for women and those who were physically disadvantaged.”[14] We witness the same phenomenon, it turns out, when we look at the laws concerning slavery in the Old Testament.

All articles in this series:

Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction

God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2

God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3

God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4

God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5

The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6

Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7

Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8

Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9

Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10

The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11

Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12

Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13

Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14

Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15

To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16

Instead of a having comments section, we invite you to contact us here.

Image: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), “Crouching woman,” 1902.

[1] Note that Ephesians 5:22, in which Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, does not actually include the word “submit” in the Greek. Rather, translators pull “submit” from its occurrence in verse 21, quoted here. Translators are right to do so, but by separating the two sentences into two different paragraphs, as most versions of the Bible do, we fail to see the overall law to submit to one another that guides the submission of the wife to the husband. In other words, verse 21 should temper any misogynistic interpretations. In fact, it is fair to say that there were probably specific issues Paul was referring to in this context (it is unfortunate that we don’t know what the original questions sent to him were!) that guided how he wrote this passage. Verse 21 mentions that Christians should submit to one another, and then verses 22-33 describe, with both contextual and universal concern, how that is to be lived out in marriage (presumably of mutual submission, without Paul contradicting what he had just said one sentence prior). Some have suggested, for example, that the newfound freedom that Christianity offered women may have led them to buck certain cultural trends in order to express their freedom and their ultimate allegiance to the true Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. But, as this might give the false impression of Christ-endorsed marital infidelity, Paul exhorts them to submit in servant-love to their husbands to maintain peace and be a witness of Christ’s peace. Christ, after all, came to serve rather than be served (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, John 13:1-17), and we should do no less. This never means slavish obedience or accepting abuse as a form of service to one’s husband. Likewise, when Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, it is a call to servant-love of wives as Christ, Who served the Church by giving His life for its flourishing. In a world where people often didn’t marry for love or did not see the importance of loving the one you married, Paul reminds husbands that marriage is not about domination, pride, power, or any of that, but instead about love lived out in servanthood. Moreover, if we believe that only women should submit to husbands because of Paul’s words in verse 22, then by the same logic we must conclude that only husbands should love their wives because of the specific charge given to husbands (and not wives) in verse 25. Interestingly, the husband is told to love the wives (in both a nurturing and servant-like way) in this verse in order to sanctify their wives, which is essentially the same charge given to wives for husbands in 1 Peter 3:1. So it may be that Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 concern Christian husbands with non-Christian or not-yet-mature Christian wives, while Peter’s similar words in 1 Peter 3 are concerned with the opposite situation of Christian wives with non-Christians are not-yet-mature Christian husbands.

[2] Roy E. Gane, Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 296.

[3] William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 100-01.

[4] Paul Bentley Kern, Ancient Siege Warfare (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 83. Cited in Webb and Oeste, 104.

[5] Webb and Oeste, 106.

[6] Ibid., 109-12.

[7] Christopher JH Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 313.

[8] Ibid., 313.

[9] Ibid.

[10] David T. Lamb, God Behaving Badly, expanded ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 67.

[11] For a brief comparison of these laws, see James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 21-57.

[12] Michael Lefebvre, “Jesus, the Law, and the Hermeneutic of Love,” Bulletin for Ecclesial Theology 9.2 (forthcoming, 2022), 14.

[13] Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 359-60.

[14] Ibid., 225, 242.