Troublesome Topic: What Was up with Marrying a Captive Woman?

Lesson 7 of 9

Deuteronomy 21:11


When you see among the captives a woman who is beautiful in appearance and you desire for her to become a wife,


When you notice among the captives a woman that has a beautiful form and you desire for her to become an additional wife, (assuming you have the means to support another wife and her children),

Deuteronomy 21:12


Then you must bring her home to your house, and she must shave her head and do something with her nails,

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you must bring her home to your house, then you will give her time to mourn her losses and also to become a convert to Judaism, demonstrated by the typical signs of mourning and converting.

Deuteronomy 21:13


and she must remove the clothes in which she was captured,

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and then remain in your house and mourn for her father and mother for a full month, and after that you may go into to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife.


She cannot continue to walk around in the nice clothes and fashion accessories she wore on the day of battle. The time given for her to mourn the loss of her parents and to become a convert to Judaism is 30 days. After that you may marry her. You must treat her in all the ways that are proper for a man to treat a wife, and she must treat you in all the ways that are proper for a wife to treat a husband.

Deuteronomy 21:14


Then later, if you are not pleased with her, you must set her free to go where she wants, but you must definitely not sell her for money, nor keep her bound as a slave, for you have humiliated her.


Later on, if you are not pleased with her as a wife, you must grant her freedom to go wherever she wants to go. You are in no way allowed to sell her for money, nor keep her as a slave, because you have started to treat her as a wife and then humiliated her.

Was This Consistent, or Inconsistent on God’s Part?

In the cultures around them at that time, a soldier could choose a woman from among the captives that he wanted to take home as a wife. There were usually no rules governing what he could or couldn’t do to her. You can imagine how ugly this became for the women.

In ancient Israel it was different, more different than most people realize. The regulations translated and paraphrased above were written for all God’s people but would only have been followed by the God-fearing members of the community. Therefore, it is my assumption that the soldier being addressed here wanted to be a faithful follower of YHVH (read Adonai) and was willing to do everything according to the law. If not, he would not follow any of these stipulations anyway; he would do whatever he wanted just like the pagans did. With that in mind, I conclude that he would not rape the woman after the battle, rather he kept her safe from others who would do that. I also conclude that she must become a convert to Judaism because that is the only way this scenario could play out without violating other aspects of the Law.   

The signs involved in converting to Judaism and mourning the loss of loved ones were very similar. This is because conversion involved leaving behind what one had known in the past and mourning involves leaving family behind. While the text does not tell us specifically that the woman had to convert to Judaism, that is the only way that this could work and remain in agreement with the rest of the Law. Based on that assumption, and since the signs were almost the same, I have rendered the signs in the paraphrase column as being for both mourning personal losses and converting to Judaism. If she became a proselyte (a convert), the rest of this could be done in a way that did not violate any of the regulations of the Law.

Why wait 30 days? First of all, that was a customary length of time for mourning. In this way God was showing kindness to the captive by giving her time to mourn. It would also allow her time to calm down and carefully consider her new situation. If the man had not raped her up by then and was trying to do everything in the right way, she should realize that he would probably be a good husband and staying with him would be her best option. A third thing it would accomplish is that it would give both the man and the captive woman a chance to get to know each other.

After the 30-day waiting period, and after she presumably became a follower of the God of the Hebrews, they could be married and do what married couples do.

If he became displeased with her as a wife, he was allowed to divorce her. Notice that no indication of time is given here. Whether this turn came quickly or after considerable time does not seem to be the issue. The point is, if the man wanted a divorce at some point, he had the option of going there. Jesus explained that God instructed Moses to include divorce in the law as a safeguard because God knows that men’s hearts are bent toward evil.

However, if he did divorce her, she had certain rights that should not be violated. After having her as a wife, he could not demote to the position of a simple slave; that would be a form of using her and then casting her aside. It was seen as a source of shame for a woman to have sex with a man and then not be, or not remain, his wife. Sex was either filled with honor or filled with shame; there was no middle ground. Neither could he sell her to make money from her. That would bring the same result because he had already had sex with her, so selling her would bring shame on the sexual acts of the past. He had to let her go free with a certificate of divorce, as one would a woman who was an Israelite from birth.

Where would she go? That is a good question. Most women would work very hard to please their husband because being on their own usually meant subsisting by begging or prostitution. Since she had no family in Israel she could not go to her family unless she returned to her home country to see what was left of it. And that was an option she had.

The point of all this is that God seems to have been very gracious toward a foreign captive woman, giving her more rights than most would have expected under the circumstances.

What Did This Teach?

This taught God’s people about compassion and about holiness. The man had to constantly be aware of God’s laws and keep his passions in check until the proper time and until all the prerequisites were met. He also had to keep her rights in mind. This was an extremely gracious considered in those days.

The next lesson in the full series on Covenants is: Crossdressing Is Deception.

The next lesson in Why Is That in the Bible? is: Old Testament Motivation to Abstain from Sexual Misconduct



The word I have rendered “do something with” can mean a number of things, including, “do, make, prepare, produce, fashion, accomplish, deal with, attend to” and a few other things. The main idea is “make.” It appears that some cultures let their nails grow long as a sign of mourning, while other cultures trimmed the nails close or did something different with the nails. That might be the reason for the use of such a vague word, but actually Hebrew uses vague words like this quite often, allowing context to determine what is meant.


It was a custom in ancient times for women to dress in their fanciest clothes if they thought an invading army had a good chance of being successful in conquering the city and taking them captive. They wanted to be attractive and chosen as a wife rather than made a lowly slave, or simply killed. That fancy outfit would include jewelry and other things which were liable to be connected to the worship of idols. Besides that, once chosen, it was time to go back to real life.