The Silence Itself Turns Into Speech

Women as Booty in War3
Image credit

Women as Property

As part of a whole section of rape legislation, Deut. 21 outlines the laws for taking women as booty during war. Sometimes it is difficult to read the Bible, particularly the rape texts and it’s easy to relegate the Bible to “long ago and far away.” Vastly different from our time, so the argument goes; most ancient cultures stole wives and the Israelites were just fitting in with their neighbors. “[T]he abduction of women by men for marital purposes is a familiar feature in nation-building myths of the ancient world” (Zlotnick, p.47). Furthermore, most often the rape laws and stories are classified as seduction, marriage or love. A traditional commentator “emphasizes the need for marriage as the law’s noble intention. That the marriage is coerced does not become problematic for the commentators” (Scholz, p.109). Here is a typical example of this kind of thinking: 

“The Torah understands that simply telling soldiers not to rape would be useless, so instead, it set up a system that ‘postponed’ the rape by allowing the soldier, in the lust of victory, to think he would get to do it later. After a month back in his civilian life, it was very likely that ‘in a cool blood he would altogether recoil from his intentions,'” (Antonelli, p.457, quoting Soncino, Kiddushin, p.104, n.6).

Some try to humanize the law by noting that the man is not allowed to discard the woman after he tires of her, supposedly a vast improvement over the usual method of disposing of war captives in the ancient world. Or the case is made that the abduction of nubile women is a natural and necessary result of a shortage of women because of death in childbirth. Others praise the law for allowing the woman some transition time to mourn the loss of her family. The fact that the man must wait a month to let the abducted woman mourn before having sex with her does not suddenly make this a happy domestic scene. “By authorizing the violent seizure of women, this law takes the male-against-female predation of warfare out of the battlefield and brings it to the home” (Washington, p.205). The text even gives away its knowledge that things are not as they should be by describing the forced marriage as an innah, a humiliation or a dishonor (Deut. 21:14). “[W]hen the verb [innah] takes a woman as its object, it refers to illicit and often violent sex” (Keefe, p.81). Another clue that the Deuteronomy text objectifies women is the mention of their beauty. The acquisition of a comely woman enhanced the prestige and power of the victor. “Women, like children and livestock, are treated as chattel, as trophies of war” (Meyers, p. 240).

The focus on the woman’s appearance “reduces [her] to sexual function, constrains her role to that of the object of male control, and values the feminine figure contingent upon her accommodation to male control…By implying that only the beautiful are raped, these texts treat rape as though it were the ‘natural’ result of male desire. This serves to disguise aggression as an act of ‘love’ and begins the process of placing the blame on the woman” (Gordon/Washington, pp.319-20).

A careful reading will find that there is nothing in the law to prevent a man from engaging in sexual relations with the captured women without marrying her. “The instructions as to enjoying ‘the spoil’ do not explicitly permit rape; neither is rape forbidden” (Thistlethwaite, p.64). The law simply states that if the man chooses to marry the woman he should wait a month before penetrating her. “Rape in war…is completely outside the boundaries of Israelite definitions of sexual conduct and only requires regulation when sexual contact with a captive woman might begin to impinge on legitimacy” (Thistlethwaite, p.65). The rape legislation merely shows the perspective of the male soldiers and the original legislators. “The primary effect of the law is to assure a man’s prerogative to abduct a woman through violence, keep her indefinitely if he wishes, or discard her if she is deemed unsatisfactory…” (Washington, p. 186). In much of the Bible, women’s bodies are controlled by men; girls are the property of their fathers or brothers before becoming the property of their husbands. Since the Bible sees rape as the theft of sexual property, women without a male “protector” are outside the sexual property rights of men (Keefe, p.88) and therefore do not have any identity or definition. “It is the man who establishes her identity and status” (Niditch, War, p.89). In a situation of genocide, after the men are killed, the women are not considered anyone’s sexual property and therefore abduction and rape is not prohibited (Thistlethwaite, p.68). “[T]he young girls who have not known man by lying with him… are no one’s sexual property since their males have been killed. They therefore do not fall into the category of people who can be violated by rape. There is no party to offend” (Thistlethwaite, p.65). The ancient patriarchal assumption is that women who don’t belong to a man cannot be raped.

The Virgins of Jabesh-Gilead and the Daughters of Shiloh

An example of this socially sanctioned traffic in women is the story of the virgins of Shiloh and Jabesh-Gilead told in Judges 20-21. The narrative begins in chapter 19 with a Levite’s concubine running away from him and returning to her father’s house. When he finally retrieves her, she is then brutally raped by a gang of Benjimites. The Levite cuts her body into twelve pieces and sends them throughout Israel in protest. This results in a civil war where the tribe of Benjamin is almost exterminated. Only 600 men remain but they have no wives and therefore no way of “restocking” the tribe. “The traditional understanding is that the Israelites had to be united as twelve tribes, to keep their covenant with God” (Bach, 1999b:153). The narrative assumes that the Benjimites can only obtain legitimacy as a tribe if they wed virgin Israelite women, a hint at a matrilineal system of kinship. The girls must be virgins because of the patriarchal interest in the purity of their bloodline. “This is a culture in which the biological, visceral link to children must be certain, a hint that it is a culture… very nervous about its identity and self-definition” (Niditch, War, p.85). After having made a vow to not give any of their daughters to the remaining Benjimites, the Israelites wonder how they will save the decimated tribe. They came up with a cunning solution. In hopes of genuine resolution to the problem they created for themselves, the elders of Israel remembered that the men of Jabesh-Gilead had refused to join the attack against the Benjimites. Though Jabesh-Gilead is an Israelite town, the confederation used the rules of “holy war,” taking for granted that Yahweh sanctions their application of herem, the complete annihilation of a population as a sacrifice to God (see Deut. 20:16-18).

“The origins of this horrific practice are obscure; but couched in the language of sacred warfare and found in other ancient cultures, it may have functioned to help establish and preserve political communities by removing populations that could erode or threaten their physical or cultural boundaries. References to the ban in the Bible, however, present the objects of annihilation as sacrifices to God; and they often justify this extreme level of violence by claiming that the enemy were so sinful that they deserved destruction as divine punishment. For conquered towns located outside Israel’s territory, the requisite slaughter is not total: only the warriors–the men-need to be slain (Deut 20:13)” (Meyers, p.227).

However, “the ban (or herem, i.e., the complete destruction of a town according to the rules of Holy War) was not intended to be applied to Israelite towns, but to Canaanite towns” (Davidson, p.136). In other words, the elders of Israel bent the rules to suit their needs. The problem is that Jabesh-Gilead only had 400 of virgins for the 600 Benjimites. How were the elders of Israel going to come up with another 200 wives after they vowed to not give any of their daughters to the Benjimites? “To the oath they added an unfortunate curse. ‘Cursed be anyone giving a wife to Benjamin’ (21.18). A customary part of a swearing an oath, the curse brings severe punishment if the oath is not fulfilled” (Davidson, p.261). The stakes are high: if no Israelite wives for the Benjimites can be found then this will be the end of the tribe and therefore Israel’s covenant with Yahweh will end. The elders approach the men of Shiloh (an Israelite town that did participate in the genocide of the tribe of Benjamin) and request that they look the other way when their daughters are stolen to provide wives for the Benjimites. Davidson imagines the circumstances: “if the fathers or the brothers of these girls get angry at the way their daughters and sisters have been seized, the Israelites will say to them: ‘It could be worse. After all, we could have seized your women in battle. Or you might have had to give your daughters to these Benjaminites, breaking your vows in the process. Come on now, be polite'” (Davidson, p.137). The elders instructed the Benjaminites, saying, “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards’, and watch; when the young women of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and each of you carry off a wife for himself from the young women of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin” (Judges 21:21). In addition, they promise to not think badly of the men for abandoning their daughters to the ambush. “The verbs [arab], ‘ambush’ and [chataph] ‘carry off’ are violent physical actions that contrast sharply with the whirling of the women’s celebratory dance. The verb [arab] embodies both physical harm and action against an enemy; it is used to describe the Philistines lying in wait to ambush Samson until Delilah successfully binds him” (Bach, 1999b:152). The elders of Israel devised a means to avoid the curse by not literally violating their oath.

“This, they reason, is not a violation of any vow because the fathers of the daughters of Jabesh-Gilead, not having come to Mizpah, had thus not sworn the oath about daughters…The 200 daughters of Shiloh are a different matter. Their fathers had sworn the oath at Mizpah not to give their daughters to the Benjaminites. But the Israelites rationalize that if the Benjaminites seized the daughters, the fathers would not actually be giving the women to them. Through this sophistry, the fathers are persuaded not to feel guilty…of having violated their oath (21.22)…The ominous statement at the beginning and end of this story, ‘All the people did what was right in their own eyes,’ implies that the people were lawless and that their sophistry did not fool the author. And it should not fool us” (Davidson, p.262).

And so it happens that the elders blatantly disregarded the spirit of the vow in favor of its letter. Many interpreters explain this abduction as a “political problem” and neglect the sexual violence of the story. “The text does not even name the action as rape. It is figured as a political necessity, not a sexual crime. Indeed the elders have created a problem for themselves through an ill-conceived vow” (Bach, 1999b:149) reminiscent of Jephthah’s vow to sacrifice the first thing that greeted him upon his return from battle.

“This ambushing of women goes back to the model of the heroic rape, where the desire for women and violence to women go hand in hand. The only other biblical use of the verb [chataph] is found in Psalm 10… ‘they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert; they lurk that they may carry off the poor’, v.9… Both scenes evoke images of violence performed by a powerful party against a poor or helpless one. In the Psalm God is expected to intercede against the jackals terrorizing the poor. Presumably the women of Shiloh have no need of rescue; they have the Benjaminites as husbands” (Bach, 1999b:152).

Or so the elders of Israel reasoned. One reading of the story leads us to sympathize with the males’ goal of providing progeny for the survival of a tribe if Israel (Scholz, p.152). “The author makes us loathe the multiple rape of the one girl, but tricks us into countenancing the seizing of the 600 screaming and kicking innocent virgins” (Davidson, p.137). A feminist reading will see the irony of the story.

“In 19:1-20:48, Benjamin’s taking of the Levite’s wife for sexual purposes was deemed to be criminal, but in 21:15-25, these same Benjaminites are encouraged to go forth and take sexual partners-cum-wives from the gathering of Shiloh’s young women…the Levite of Judges 19-20 resides in Ephraimite tribal territory, just as Shiloh, the setting of Judg 21:15-25, lies within Ephraim’s borders. Yet, while the Levite of Ephraim denounces the sexual abuse of his wife in 20:4-5, the premise of 21:21 is that the Ephraimites of Shiloh will accept the sexual attack on their young maids…a story that begins by condemning Benjamin’s assault of an Ephraimite’s woman concludes by condoning the Benjaminites’ ravaging of the Ephraimites’ women.” (Ackerman, pp. 254-5).

What happened to the outrage of Judges 20 where a single Israelite woman was violated and this resulted in civil war? Certainly the irony is thick here. “While the Israelites in Judges 20 ambush the Benjaminites in order to subdue them, the Benjaminites themselves become the liers-in-wait in Judges 21, as they prey upon Shiloh’s daughters in hope of sexual conquest” (Ackerman, p.270). Israel maintained its unity by enacting the very crimes they had to avenge in the first place. “The Levite’s avengers, after punishing Benjamin, find themselves forced to identify with the criminals they have punished” (Kamuf, p.193). I cannot help but imagine the daughters of Shiloh dancing for joy in the vineyards as was customary during the wine harvest. Unbeknownst to them their fathers  encouraged them to display themselves before the Benjaminites, the same kind of men who gang raped the Levite’s woman. At the same time, the Benjaminites were fully aware that the elders made the arrangements so that they are absolved of any “theft” and could therefore do as they pleased with the daughters. Meanwhile, by the silence of the women, the implied author depicts them as compliant and uninvolved (Bach, 1999b:150-1).

“Much like violence portrayed in cartoons, the carrying off of the dancing maidens is accomplished without pain, without struggle, without resistance…the biblical storyteller is not interested in representing their experience. Thus, the reader must inhabit the gap, the silence, and through the power of imagination break the silence of the women of Shiloh” (Bach, 1999b:159).

Western culture is consciously and unconsciously steeped in biblical stories. Our men go into battle half-remembering that rape is somehow sanctioned by God in wartime. “The ongoing pervasiveness of rape makes such silence dangerous and complicit, because silence keeps the violent status quo alive and enables it” (Scholz, p.210). Looking hard at these texts, labeling rape for what it is and de-sanctifying this behavior is one way to change the violence of our culture. “The silence about the women of Shiloh, both in the biblical narrative and in the interpretations of this text, is as loud as the silence of the women themselves, given no voice or no subjectivity in the narrative” (Bach, 1999a:390). By not grappling with these texts, we remain complicit in their victimization like a mother ignoring the sexual abuse of her daughter. There is a school of thought that reads the Book of Judges as a justification for kingship. All of these bad things occurred because “every one did what was good in their own eyes” and life will be more orderly when a righteous king rules over the people. However, this view ignores that “[g]etting the wives for Benjamin is a victory for Israel: not against a foreign enemy, but a triumph that reunites the tribes, the men of Israel” (Bach, 1999b:148). Without a king, Israel finds a merry solution to their problem.

“To read Judges 19-20 as a narrative about chaos is correct, but chaos does not end the story, making necessary a new order under kings. Rather, the cycle ends with a victory, the cessation of hostilities, the reintegration of the internecine enemy, and the transfer of women. At the end, harmony prevails, at least in the view of the androcentric author…In a traditional culture, the transfer of women creates peace through political and economic interdependence” (Niditch, Judges, p.208).

The lesson the text wants to impart is that women “are the doorways through which chaos descends and order is reestablished” (Niditch, Judges, p.211). For those still clinging to the legitimacy of the marriage of the women in Judges 21, note that rape in war is still a familiar act. “The process of victimization becomes cyclical, moving from generation to generation, with the victimized victimizing others” (Jones-Warsaw, p.185). Recent and current gynocidal actions in Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda and Congo remind us that there is a strong association of the “female body with territory, so that raping one and conquering the other come metaphorically to the same thing” (Bach, 1999b:158). As long as the Bible is read as a literal proscription for contemporary behavior, men will vie for a hierarchical position over women. Since there is a documented causal connection between the subordination of women and actual violence against them, there is no room for violence being “justified in the Bible, in society, and even in churches and synagogues. In the current culture of violence against women, for anyone who advocates liberation for women, including liberation from violence, biblical interpretation becomes an urgent ethical issue. So what are those who are concerned for the spiritual and physical well-being of women today to do with the Bible? Numerous feminist interpreters suggest strategies for reading biblical texts that resist violence and promote women’s well-being” (Bowen, p.193).


Whether we are religious or secular, as readers we have the opportunity to engage in the Bible’s dark stories as part of a conversation about contemporary issues of rape. Women have been sexually violated for a long time and the Bible emphasizes that this is an entrenched human problem. “The Bible deals with it, and so should we” (Scholz, p.7). It is my goal to join a fresh discussion on these matters. If those opposed to women’s subordination do not confront the legitimization of rape, the terrain will be left to the increasingly dominant biblical literalist and fundamentalists who desire to implement the laws of “Moses” without question. “Without such discussion and debate, rape itself will remain in the shadows, in a hidden place where those who perpetuate sexual violence want it to remain” (Scholz, p.133). As opposed to the male-centered reading that finds a happy ending in the story of the abducted daughters, I find meaning in considering the text as a confession, as a demonstration of how wrong things can go when one entity oppresses another. “In naming it [sexual violence], we reclaim the truth which we know, that the way things are is not the way they have to be” (Fortune, p.237). I turn Deuteronomy’s prescription for violence against women into an understanding of the female body as the site of the power of life. I change the acceptance of the exploitave laws into a witness against rape. “When Christians and Jews affirm the major injustice in today’s world, then they are ready to resist, dismantle, and oppose rape-prone assumptions, conventions, and conduct on individual and collective levels” (Scholz, p.211). Like Jacob, we must wrestle with the life-threatening forces of the rape narratives and laws until we gain a blessing from the texts (Scholz, p.2). Out of meaningless comes a hunger for meaning, and out of oppression comes the need for liberty.

For Further Reading

Ackerman, Susan – Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen (New York: Doubleday, 1998) Bach, Alice – “Rereading the Body Politic: Women and Violence in Judges 21,” Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, Alice Bach, ed. (Routledge: London, 1999a) Bach, Alice – “Rereading the Body Politic: Women and Violence in Judges 21,” in A. Brenner, ed. Judges: Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999b) Bowen, Nancy R. – “Women, Violence, and the Bible,” in Engaging the Bible in a Gendered World, An Introduction to Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Katharine Doob Sakenfeld. Linda Day and Carolyn Pressler, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006) 189-99. Davidson, E.T.A. – Intricacy, Design, and Cunning in the Book of Judges (Xlibris, 2008) Fortune, Marie M. – Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (Pilgrim Press, 2005) Gordon, Pamela and Harold C. Washington – “Rape as a Military Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible” in A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets. Feminist Companion to the Bible 8. (Sheffield, Eng: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995) 308-25. Hudson, D.M. – “Living in a Land of Epithets: Anonymity in Judges 19-21,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 62 (1994), 49-66. Jones-Warsaw, K. – “Toward a Womanist Hermeneutic: A Reading of Judges 19-21,” in A Feminist Companion to Judges (First Series), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 4. (Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1993) Kamuf, Peggy – “Author of a Crime” in A Feminist Companion to Judges (First Series), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 4. (Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1993) Keefe, Alice A. – “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men” Semeia 61 (1993) 79-97. Meyers, Carol – “Women in Distant Towns as Booty” and “Girls as Booty” in Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000) Niditch, Susan – War in the Hebrew Bible, A Study in the Ethics of Violence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) Niditch, Susan – Judges: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) Pressler, Carolyn – The View of Woman Found in the Deuteronomistic Family Laws (Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 1993) Thistlethwaite, S.B. – “‘You May Enjoy the Spoil of Your Enemies': Rape as a Biblical Metaphor for War,” Semeia 61 (1993) 59-75. Washington, Harold C. – “`Lest He Die in the Battle and Another Man Take Her': Violence and the Construction of Gender in the Laws of Deuteronomy 20-22,” in Victor H. Matthews, Bernard M. Levinson, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, eds., Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 26. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) 185-213. Zlotnick, Helena – Dinah’s Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible to Late Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>