War Bride, War Rape, and Genocide Texts in the Bible
Webb and Oeste offer a powerful counter argument to traditional positions.
Some of our readers are simply unbothered by some Old Testament texts while some of our readers are undone by them, and two particularly notable themes are the war-bride or war-rape texts and the genocide, or total-kill, texts.
In William Webb and Gordon Oeste’s new book, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric, we encounter a forceful argument that presses against traditional ways of minimizing war bride/rape texts while holding more firmly onto genocide texts.
The argument works like this: since war bride/rape texts are given in a permission framework and genocide texts as imperatives, the latter are permanent and revelatory of God’s normative will while the former are more accommodated and therefore not so revelatory.
It is the presence of command vs. permission that separates the two. Therefore, war-bridge and war-rape texts are minimized.
The authors defeat this contention. They defeat it, in my view, decisively.
They consider that the war-rape instructions in the Bible exemplify God’s accommodated ethic (affected by a fallen world, involving real ethical problems) whereas the total-kill instructions exemplify his unaccommodated ethic (pure and pristine, involving only perceived ethical problems).
Our realigned-traditional position will argue that the war-rape and total-kill texts, while obviously describing different human acts, both reflect God’s accommodated ethic as he communicates within a fallen world.
So here are two fundamental texts for these two themes, war bride/rape here and then after this text the one on genocide or total-kill. Now, Deut 21:10-11
When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry…
It is the italics (suppose you see, or “if”) that diminishes the connection to God. It is accommodation to the way things were back in those days, so it is claimed.
But the genocide texts are not “suppose” or “if” but “Do this!”
But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the LORD your God has commanded…
So, a distinction is drawn between permission and command.
Image: Cover Photo
Will it stand up to scrutiny?
The problem with this view is that God also “sanctions” war-bride and war-rape texts in another Old Testament text with commands. Numbers 31:17-18.
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.
The authors are known for their attention to method for making ethical claims, and they make the claim here that commands are no indicator of permanent ethics. Some commands are accommodations by God and not permanent. Even commands must be worked into an incremental, or redemptive-movement, ethic.
Speaking of commands not being permanent:
Accommodated ethics affect many punishment texts. Should we flog adults today in public at the gates of the city? Or should we still require a rapist to marry his victim? Most crime and punishment texts, whether adultery, rape, or property infractions, have the punishment factor stated in the imperative. Yet many of these passages reflect an enculturated ethic with redemptive elements, but hardly an ultimate or best-possible ethical development.