Throughout history, one of the most tragic fates of any woman was to be captured in warfare because the treatment of female prisoners by victorious armies has been nearly uniformly barbaric. Nonetheless, the Bible contains within it a remarkable law concerning the treatment of female captives that, if obeyed, would make an army’s behavior be seen as remarkably civilized (much like that of the North during the Civil War, one of the most notable examples of an army whose advance was largely without the rape of women of their defeated enemy, it should be noted).
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 gives the following command concerning the treatment of female prisoners of war: “When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.”
Let us examine what this passage is saying. First, the treatment of female prisoners of war (presumably unmarried young women of good virtue) was very strictly regulated. There was to be self-control (waiting a full month of mourning after returning home before consummation of the marriage was accepted) on the part of the soldiers, as well as respect for the young woman who had been captured. Her humanity and dignity was to be fully protected from the beginning, as there was to be no dehumanizing traumatic treatment. Furthermore, there were strict limitations on the behavior of the man who wished for a captive concubine (wife) after he had married her. A man could not have such a wife and then sell her later on, or mistreat her. She was to remain protected by the laws of Israel once she had been married.
There are a few details that are of particular interest. For one, she is to remain clothed even when she is taken into captivity. There is to be no sexual exploitation of captive women by an army of God’s people–even the defense women of one’s defeated enemies are to retain their dignity and honor in captivity. Furthermore, such a young woman is to trim her nails and shave her head and mourn her father and mother for a month. It is unusual, but biblical mourning customs often included the failure to trim one’s nails or take care of one’s hair (2 Samuel 19:24), and so doing so before the period of mourning was to make this part of the mourning process easier.
There is another curious aspect to the shaving of head of captive women, mentioned in a slightly different context in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.” While is this admittedly a challenging passage of the Bible, it suggests that shaving of a woman’s head is connected to dishonor. A captive woman’s head was to be shaved as a sign of being humbled as the concubine of her captor in battle–the shaved head was a recognition of the dishonor suffered by being a prisoner of war, without additional suffering and trauma being added to that, and it was a reminder to the man as well that such action humbled the beautiful young woman, whose hair would have to grow back in time during their marriage.
It should be noted additionally that this passage notes the consummation of the relationship as forming a marriage between the soldier and his captive prisoner of war, which provided protection to the young woman (presumably of foreign birth) under biblical law. A man could not sleep with a young woman, even a captive, and then sell her for profit. Let us consider that this was a common practice in the antebellum American South–for men to sleep with their slaves, not realizing that under biblical law those slaves were now married to him and protected from mistreatment and cruelty as well as sale by virtue of being humbled so, and then to profit from their sale downriver. Such actions demonstrate that most slave owning societies, even those composed of nominal Christians, have failed to obey the Bible’s very strict limitations on the conduct of people with others. Captive women were clearly considered as human beings, and their treatment was strictly regulated by God’s law. Human beings were not to be treated and exploited as chattel property without concern for their dignity.
Let us note in conclusion that the biblical way of war encompassed many aspects of warfare that are often misunderstood. The Bible clearly envisioned that a soldier in battle might find a captive young lady beautiful and wish to have a relationship with her, and this law protected the young women in such a situation from the usual dishonor and mistreatment that falls upon the vulnerable and helpless in times of warfare where brutality is common. The fact that the Bible accounts for this meant that even in warfare a soldier in a godly army was to remain fully in control of his lusts and passions and not to let his baser nature get the better of him–he was to remember at all times that even his enemies were human beings and should be treated with dignity, even when those enemies were defenseless and unable to protect themselves. Clearly, such a command reflects a very high standard of conduct that soldiers were called to uphold, and a clear sign that God’s standard was to be applicable to all people, even where there was great hostility present. It is a lesson that we should not forget today.