Divorce in Deuteronomy 21 gives dignity and rights to the woman

Men must NOT treat their wives as persons they can disrespect or demean. The law in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 is designed to restrain misogyny.

Deuteronomy 21 stipulates that if an Israelite man took a female prisoner of war (POW) as his wife, he must first allow her time to grieve her losses. He could not just have intercourse with her before she had time to recover from losing her former home and family.

Having given her that time to grieve her losses, and then taken her to be his wife, if he later decided he didn’t want her as a wife, he MUST set her free with the same rights and dignity as if she were an Israelite woman he had married.

Deut 21:10-14 (NKJ )
10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn 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 And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.

Please don’t think that God endorses men raping women, or that God approves of men who compel female POWs to be their wives.

When a government legislates to regulate gambling, it that doesn’t mean that the government approves of gambling per se.

You might have the impression that the Old Testament is legalistic, full of harsh and unbending laws, particularly the law of Moses. You might think Mosaic Law is harsh to women and particularly harsh to wives. If that is what you think, I invite you to reconsider and re-evaluate.

A great deal of Mosaic Law deals with how people ought to relate to each other.

Mosaic Law has many principles which we, as Christians, can and ought to use in our interpersonal relationships today. We need to use spiritualised common sense when we apply the principles of Mosaic Law to our interpersonal relationships today. We want to discern and apply the principles of Mosaic Law to our own cultural context and situation, which is in many ways different from the cultural context where Moses was imparting God’s law to the people of Israel after they had escaped from slavery in Egypt and were making their way through the desert towards the promised land.

God, through Moses, gave several laws to restrain misogyny. Those laws were given to regulate the conduct of unrighteous men who were mistreating and disrespecting women.

The law in Deut 21:10-14 is one of the Mosaic Laws designed to restrain misogyny. This law was not endorsing male entitlement to oppress women. It was trying to restrain that kind of male entitlement.

In ancient Israel, prisoners of war typically came from heathen tribes distant from the land of Canaan (see Deut 20:10-18).

If an Israelite man decided to make a female POW his wife, Deuteronomy 21:14 said he must accord her the same rights as an Israelite. The reason he must accord her those rights was because he had treated her as his wife. He had been intimate with her as man to wife.

In the ancient world, prisoners of war were often treated as slaves by their captors. But this law says that if a man chose to make a POW woman his wife, he was not allowed at any time in the future to demote and degrade her by mistreating her or selling her off as a slave.

This idea is brought out well in the following translations of v 14:

Later, if you no longer want her, you are to let her go free. Since you forced her to have intercourse with you, you cannot treat her as a slave and sell her.  (Good News Bible)

But if it happens that you are no longer pleased with her, let her go wherever she wants. You must never sell her or mistreat her as if she were a slave, since you’ve already had sex with her. (GOD’S WORD® Translation)

And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her at all for money, you shall not make merchandise of her, because you have humiliated her. (KJV)

Update (added Sept 2019, with many thanks to Clockwork Angel for making her helpful comment on this thread).

I underlined some words in the scripture quotations. I did that for a particular reason: “make merchandise” / “mistreat” / “treat her brutally”  are translators’ attempts to render into English the Hebrew word עָמַר `amar (Strong’s #H6014).

Like many Hebrew words, this word has a range of meanings.  Figuratively it means “to chastise (as if piling blows)”.

“God would rather have even the POW wife to go free than be abused. And we know that if a POW wife has this right, then EVERY wife has this right to go free.”
– Clockwork Angel, a commenter at this blog

[end of update]

The custom of the divorce certificate in ancient Israel

In ancient Israel, the custom was that the husband gave a divorce certificate to a wife he was divorcing. We know this because ancient Jewish documents still exist that refer to this custom. (Dr Instone-Brewer cites [Affiliate link] many such examples.)

The essential words in this divorce certificate were: “You are free to marry any man”.

In possession of this certificate, the woman could then marry any man she chose.

If she took a new husband, no one could accuse her of breaking wedlock with her former husband.

Let us review these facts

  • The Israelite custom for divorce was that the husband wrote a divorce certificate and gave it to the wife he was divorcing.
  • The certificate meant she was free to marry any man and she could not be charged with breaking wedlock for so doing.
  • Deuteronomy 21:14 sets the rule for an Israelite man who took a POW woman as his wife, but set her free from being his wife at a later stage.
  • In doing so, he must not demote her to the “foreigner slave” status that she had as a POW before he decided to be intimate with her as man to wife.

What can we logically infer from all this?

Deuteronomy 21:14 implies that an Israelite man who took a POW woman as his wife, could, later on, set her free from being his wife. But in doing so, he must accord her the same rights and dignity of any Israelite woman he had taken to wife.

What principles from this law still apply to us today?

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 gives a law about divorce.

A husband must NOT treat his wife brutally.

A man must NOT treat his wife as a slave, even if she is a captured prisoner of war. Even if she was raised in a heathen/ pagan/ non-Christian ideology and belief system.

A man must NOT treat his wife as a person he can disrespect or demean.

A man must NOT treat his wife as someone who has less importance and value than him.

If a man chooses to divorce his wife because he no longer wants to relate to her as husband to wife, he must treat her with same dignity and respect that he would like to be treated with himself in the divorce process.

This means he must set her free to marry any man she wishes.

It also means he must not spread false reports about her.  If he decides to divorce her because he holds an elevated notion of his personal entitlement (and he therefore gives less value to her person-hood and dignity) he must NOT falsely accuse her of breaking the tie of wedlock.


Posts in this series

Part 1: The tangled mess of mistaken notions about what the Bible teaches on divorce.

Part 2: The Bible uses different words for divorce but they all mean legal divorce. Those who tell you otherwise are mistaken.

Part 3: Jesus did NOT say “Hardness of heart is grounds for divorce”. Deuteronomy 24 has been greatly misunderstood.

Part 4: The Jewish divorce certificate gave women the right to remarry, but some men used it rule over women

Part 5: Does Scripture differentiate between ‘putting away’ and ‘divorce’?

Part 6:  Is this post.


Further Reading

What about Divorce? — an FAQ page on this website. It lists our most significant posts about divorce.

Instone-Brewer’s views on divorce compared to mine: Part 1, appreciations & agreements

Instone-Brewer’s Views on Divorce Compared to Mine: Part 2, Differences.

3 thoughts on “Divorce in Deuteronomy 21 gives dignity and rights to the woman”

  1. From the original post:

    In the ancient world, prisoners of war were often treated as slaves by their captors….


    From the original post:

    ….an FAQ page on this website. It lists our most significant posts about divorce.


    (Missing the words for the picture in my mind.)

  2. I just learned the awesomest thing about this passage the other day. It gave me great freedom. The word for “merchandise / brutally” denotes violence, subduing someone, forcing someone to submit to one’s will (hence slavery), etc., based on several Lexicons I was looking at. Strong’s (#H6014 [Internet Archive link]1) says it also means, “figuratively, to chastise (as if piling blows)”. You can’t know the freedom that brought me. I kept wondering, where’s the law against beating one’s wife in the Mosaic Law? Right here. The whole time. Only, most commentators get stuck on the POW aspect that they don’t really look too deeply into the meaning of this one word. God would rather have even the POW wife to go free than be abused. And we know that if a POW wife has this right, then EVERY wife has this right to go free.

    This means that Exodus 21 isn’t the only passage that gives women divorce rights for abuse.

    Here’s a video of the lady who showed me this. God totally led me to this video. It spoke to me so directly.

    Domestic Violence Awareness Month: The Bible on Wife Abuse

    Worth its own post, perhaps? I just found this so freeing. I thought I’d share.

    1[June 22, 2022: We added the link to Strong’s Concordance for #H6014 (Hebrew 6014). The Internet Archive link is a copy of that link. Editors.]

    1. Thank you, Clockwork Angel! I watched the 4 min video in the link you gave, and checked what the video said with Blue Letter Bible which (I’m sure you already know) is an online Bible website where you can dig into the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words and study what commentators have said about a passage. I think the video is conveying sound information. Bless you for sharing the info here.

      I may not have time to write a blog post about this. But I have added an update to this post to give the info about the meaning of that word. In my update I quoted you and put the linked video into the post.

      Bless you and thank you so much for helping improve this website. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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