In all the battles waged by men, one of the most effective ways to destroy the enemy is to destroy its women. Rape and sexual abuse are wartime “strategies” as old as war itself.

Yesterday The New York Times ran a devastating report that hundreds of girls as young as 11 have been raped and impregnated by members of Boko Haram. Based in Nigeria, the radical Islamist sect has long proven its cowardice by targeting girls, including the 300 mostly Christian schoolgirls they kidnapped last year, inciting the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. For the young victims now carrying their abusers’ unborn children, returning to anything like normal life is impossible to imagine.

The same goes for those targeted by another radical Islamic group, this one spreading terror throughout the Middle East. Popular Christian writer Ann Voskamp recently visited refugees in Northern Iraq who had fled ISIS, the self-declared Islamic State. Voskamp noticed 5- and 7-year old girls among the families, but no 9-year-olds. The reason, writes Voskamp: “ISIS sells 9-year-old girls in slave bazaars… They are categorized. Stripped. And shipped naked. Examined and distributed. Sold and passed around like meat. Livestock.”

ISIS “has institutionalized sexual violence and the brutalization of women as a central aspect of their ideology and operations,” a UN representative confirmed last week. On the ground, females are sold as sexual slaves for $43—with the price going up to $172 for the youngest (ages 1–9). The UN reports that one girl was “married” more than 20 times, each time forced to undergo surgery to “restore” her virginity.

Why does war and terror target women in particular? The reasons are as numerous as they are horrid. Sometimes a group intends to infect the enemy’s women with disease in order to destabilize a community. One of the countless women raped during the Rwandan genocide recounts her abusers, Hutu men with HIV/AIDS, saying, “We are not killing you. We are giving you something worse. You will die a slow death.” Some women get sold as brides by their families to placate an insurgent group; others as sex slaves to fund a group’s own military campaign. And throughout history, systematic rape has been used to wipe out an enemy’s numbers and increase one’s own.

Such is the case with Boko Haram. As one Nigerian governor told The New York Times,

The sect leaders make a very conscious effort to impregnate the women. Some of them, I was told, even pray before mating, offering supplications for God to make the products of what they are doing become children that will inherit their ideology.

Article continues below

“The products of what they are doing” include for many victims infection, dangerous childbirth, trauma, and stigma. Many of the women express deep shame upon returning to their communities, where they are derided as “Boko Haram wives.” Often the mothers have trouble showing love to their children after giving birth; this makes it more likely for them to turn to their fathers’ ideology. According to the Nigerian governor, Boko Haram believes their offspring will carry on the faith. Apparently when your God demands that infidels be wiped from the earth, sexual violation becomes a justifiable, even righteous method to secure true religion. After all, the oldest way to spread a religion is not to evangelize people; it’s to create new ones.

After the Fall

This might have been the motive for the Israelites to take “every girl who has never slept with a man” after their war against the Midianites. In disturbingly neutral terms, Numbers 31 describes Moses telling 12,000 Israelite men to kill every male and every female “who has slept with a man” (v. 18). Then, he instructs the men to take the female virgins as captives.

The text doesn’t say that the Israelites raped the women; according to Deuteronomy 20–21, they would have made the captives their wives. Still, Numbers 31, Judges 21, Zechariah 14, and other Old Testament passages describe God’s people disobeying God's good design for sex and family, treating women as property, and forcing them into sexual arrangements to add to the Israelite family.

The wartime atrocities recounted in the Old Testament resemble many we read about today. The Old Testament is an account of God's saving acts toward his people, but it is also an account of sinful human proclivity for depravity and domination. “The foundational premise of the Bible after Genesis 3… is that this fallen world, particularly fallen humanity, is violent,” notes Reformed theologian Justin Holcomb. In light of the Fall, sex and childbirth—acts intended to create and sustain life and love—are put to violent ends. And the “ruling with” relationship between men and women described in Genesis 1–2 is warped into “ruling over.” Boko Haram and ISIS are particularly pernicious expressions of the violence we are all capable of.

Article continues below

Thankfully, the Old Testament is only half the story. When Christ came to “put the world to rights,” in the words of N. T. Wright, he does so by establishing a new family based in repentance and belief, not genealogical bloodlines or conquered people groups. As such, Christianity introduces an entirely new strategy for spreading a religion. As New York pastor Tim Keller notes,

Nearly all religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children. There was no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or “legacy” without leaving heirs.

In this way, groups like Boko Haram and ISIS are repeating an age-old pattern, trying to secure their future by producing offspring using whatever means necessary. The growth of Christianity, like all religions, is often due to families passing on the faith to their children. But by contrast, Christianity is the first major religious tradition also to emphasize growth through verbal proclamation and acts of mercy and healing. That’s why evangelism is a distinctly Christian word—and will likely be the growth edge of Christianity in the next 35 years.

That Boko Haram has to kidnap and rape little girls to gain members suggests the group knows its days are numbered. We can pray that that is the case. We can also pray that women now facing trauma or pregnancy are given support and healing. In the meantime, we long for the day when the arrogance of men will be brought low, when spears will become plowshares, and women and men together will walk in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2).