"You may, however, take as your booty the women” Deuteronomy 20:14

By Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris, August 23, 2012

Deuteronomy 20 relates the rules of warfare: who may fight, how to deal with a city that surrenders or how with one that does not. These regulations often jar with our modern sensibilities, perhaps none more so than those in verses 13-14, which relate how to deal with a conquered town. The Israelites are instructed to kill all the surviving enemy males and take just about everything else as booty. Much is made of the far-sighted law in verses 19-20 about fruit trees, but the objectification of women and children alongside livestock and everything else in the captured town as booty goes largely unremarked.

These human beings become mere property to be transferred; where once these women, children, livestock etc belonged to the men of the town, now they belong to the conquering Israelite men. Livestock is raised to be tended and slaughtered for human consumption, but women and children surely never should be. Yet they would most likely have been sold into slavery, though some women may have been taken by the Israelites as wives.

In next week’s parashah, we will read regulations about taking a captive woman to wife. It makes for no more comfortable reading than this week. Hair and nails were forcibly trimmed, clothes changed and then a month to grieve before being taken as a wife, which reads like little more than an excruciating wait before being forcibly raped. If afterwards her captor decides he does not like her, he must set her free rather than selling her into slavery. What fate might await her next, the Bible never tells us.

Last updated: 11:23am, August 23 2012