10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament 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. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.” – Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV
The specificity with which God regulated the lives of the Israelites can be astounding and, in some cases, quite confusing and confounding. The degree to which God provided them with detailed rules and regulations governing virtually every area of daily life serves as evidence of His intimate concern for them as His people. God cared about every aspect of their existence, even providing them with guidelines to govern what He considered their more aberrant behavior.
Not everything the Israelites did was approved of by God. They were His chosen people, but they found themselves living in a less-than-ideal environment, surrounded by hostile pagan nations and the constant temptation to assimilate the ways of their enemies. Moral compromise was an ever-present threat to their status as God’s people. And their obligation to keep God’s command to conquer and repopulate the land of Canaan was going to present them with a host of new and potentially dangerous situations that would test their allegiance to God.
Israel’s efforts to subdue the land of Canaan was going to require many battles and result in the deaths of many enemy soldiers. These men would leave behind countless widows and unmarried daughters who would be hardpressed to find eligible husbands among their own people. So, God provided a provision by which the Israelites could choose wives from among these women.
Now, it is important to remember that God had previously forbidden the Israelites from taking wives from among the nations of Canaan, and He had been very specific.
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These seven nations are greater and more numerous than you. When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you.” – Deuteronomy 7:1-4 NLT
So, it seems unlikely that God was now changing His mind and giving the Israelites permission to take wives from among the Canaanites. The more likely explanation is that God is referring to those non-Canaanite nations that occupied the outer edges of the land of promise. In those cases, God made a concession, allowing the men of Israel to choose a bride from among the widows and unmarried virgins. But God also provided rules for governing such behavior.
One thing to keep in mind is that God always had to consider the natural proclivity of His people to follow their basest instincts. He knew full well that the men of Israel, fueled by the lust of war, could easily find themselves driven by lust and tempted to rape the women of the nations they conquered. This behavior would have been unacceptable and deadly to the nation. So, God made accommodations to protect His people from themselves. An Israelite man could choose a bride from among one of these captured women, but only if he was not already married. And he had to follow God’s prescribed plan for assimilating the woman into his life and the community of Israel. There was to be a period of mourning for the woman, as well as a time of purification. Only then could the man properly and legally marry her.
God even provided rules for annulling one of these marriages. He knew that many of these men would marry for all the wrong reasons. Driven by the lust of the moment, some of the Israelites would soon discover that they had little in common with their new wives and their marriages would end in acrimony and strife. So, God provided rules for the dissolution of these failed marriages. God was not advocating for divorce, but simply preventing the Israelites from bringing shame to His name through the inappropriate treatment of these women. They could not be sold as slaves or treated as property. God required that these women be given their freedom.
These verses raise all kinds of issues for us. We tend to view them through what we consider to be our more-enlightened mindset and judge them harshly. It appears that God is promulgating behaviors among His people that contradict His previously communicated laws and stand in stark contrast to His revealed character. But God was dealing with an extremely volatile, constantly changing environment involving sin-prone people who were facing real-life scenarios that presented never-before-seen dangers.
This was a nation in flux. Everything was new and evolving. Each sunrise would bring with it another opportunity to see God work or a temptation to cause Israel to fall. The people of God had no idea what was coming, but God did, and He was constantly making provision for the inevitable and unavoidable details of life that would come their way.
God could have left all these matters unresolved and allowed the Israelites to figure it out as they went along. But that would have produced unacceptable consequences. Left to their own devices, the people of Israel would have listened to their own sin-prone hearts and done what was right in their own eyes. As the prophet, Jeremiah, so aptly put it, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT).
Even David, the great king of Israel, would later lament the sorry nature of mankind.
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!
God looks down from heaven
on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
if anyone seeks God.
3 But no, all have turned away;
all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
not a single one! – Psalm 53:1-3 NLT
God cares enough about His people to protect them from themselves. Equipped with His omniscience, God was able to look ahead and prepare for the inevitable scenarios that were looming on the horizon. While the Israelites were going to find themselves constantly facing the unknown and dealing with the unexpected, nothing was going to take God by surprise. He already had plans in place, rules of engagement prepared, and codes of conduct outlined for each and every scenario His people would face.
God was leaving nothing to chance. And He was not going to allow the people of Israel to make things up as they went along. He was always one step ahead of them, preparing the path in front of them and providing an acceptable response for them. His goal was always their holiness. And while their circumstances were constantly changing and evolving, their God remained their constant and consistent ally in all the battles they faced.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.