Scot McKnight on When the Bible Ain’t Pretty

Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, and author who has written widely on the historical Jesus, early Christianity and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Some texts in the Bible disturb and those who aren’t disturbed bother me more than the texts. Take Deuteronomy 21:10-14, which now appears in the NRSV:

Deut. 21:10 When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, 11 suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, 12 and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, 13 discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

In their book, William Webb and Gordon Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric: Wrestling with Troubling War Texts, take this text on and form a paragraph stating the moral problems many of us face when we read the passage:

Clearly, the war ethic of ancient Israel had an ugly and problematic side in how warriors treated female captives. Beyond the generic issues underlying Deuteronomy 21:10-14-heavy-handed patriarchy, war, sexual property, and ancient-world notions about progeny. We need to acknowledge at least five ethical problems as attendant to this text: (1) excessive value is placed on external beauty,
(2) one month hardly seems long enough for the grief and adjustment,
(3) the marriage is either forced or at least manipulative in view of alternative prospects for the woman,
(4) the sexual relationship is coercive due to the extreme vulnerability of war captives, and
(5) in any number of cases the level of sexual violation would have been comparable (but not identical) to what we today label as marital rape.

They add two more problems, both of which they think are misguided: “Two remaining ethical issues associated with the pretty woman passsage require attention: (6) progeny purity is the real/true motive for the waiting period, and (7) battlefield rape is permitted for Israelite warriors” (91).

Image: Cover Photo

This series on the blog takes up Bible war texts because they are texts that have haunted me most of my Bible-reading days. I’m reading 2 Samuel right now and, frankly, too many passages are barbaric and revolting. Why, we ask ourselves as we read such texts, are these in our Bible? And, we ask, Were they not bothered? The answer is probably No, and Webb-Oeste bring that to our attention for the text above:

Ancients would not have read the pretty-woman text quite like we do today. The ancient-world horizon produced an almost endless number embedded blinders that make our assessments both necessary and, admittedly anachronistic, judgments. We will simply mention four blinders directly related to the rape of women:

(1) antiquated rape laws in general.with sexual property concepts depreciating women;
(2) the dominance of arranged marriages, which still function as a type of rape and/or sexual coercion in many cases;
(3) there was no legal concept of rape within marriage (only in premarital cases);
and (4) there was certainly no ancient legal assessment of rape by soldiers as a war crime against humanity. These developments in law—all good ones—have come into being within the last one hundred Years.

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Source: Christianity Today