Deuteronomy 21:14 (CSB)
14 Then if you are not satisfied with her, you are to let her go where she wants, but you must not sell her or treat her as merchandise, because you have humiliated her.
This passage, taken on its own, certainly presents a challenge for the Christian in light of modern “sensibilities”. But I think if we look at things with a whole Biblical view, we can reconcile things and remain true to the spirit of the text and God’s intentions.
- The passage is obviously referring to women who are prisoners of war from “distant” nations, not from Canaan, since the complete destruction of those peoples had been commanded. But it should be noted that right from the beginning God is commanding his people to treat these prisoners in a unique way than would be expected, especially considering the time period and the region. There is no condoning inhumane treatment, but just the opposite: the woman is to be taken as a wife, which from biblical standpoint is absolutely a sacred institution in the eyes of God, as well as brought into the soldier’s home.
- Next we see these rules about the woman having to abandon her old clothes, trim her nails, shave her head, and mourn for her parents for a time. Today we might have some pushback against such things, see it as some sort of cultural brainwashing, but in light of God’s agenda for his people, and their righteousness, this process is clearly intended to cleanse the woman and allow her to prepare to fully and wholly join God’s family and his people.
- Notice that Deut. 21:13 phrases the next phase as, “After that, you may have sexual relations with her and be her husband, and she will be your wife.” It would seem that there is some sort of expectation of the woman actually willingly completing the previous steps prior to the marriage proceeding. As one commentary observes, “one can hardly conceive of all this taking place coercively.” 1
- Finally, if the marriage is just untenable, God has provided for the woman to be allowed to go freely, unrestricted. She is not property, or a slave, or anything like that, she is free. In fact, the final part of Deut. 21:14 is very telling of God’s attitude in this scenario in that he sees the woman as being humiliated, without mention of any sort of detrimental impact on the man.
- And this is another scenario where we should be careful about building too much on this single passage. It would be easy to come away from this thinking that God is just fine with divorce if the husband is “unsatisfied” with his wife. But again, as mentioned initially, in the grand Biblical view, it is apparent this is not the case, and that the institution of marriage is very special and serious to God. This seems to be a case where God is providing guidance towards the ideal (i.e. no divorce), but allowing for a shortcoming of man.
1 Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 291.
Lord, thank you for providing us a big picture to temper individual passages against in order to better understand where you are leading us. I am sorry for the times when I have been short-sighted and selfish in my relationships. I pray that we can have your heart when entering relationships, all kinds, and always keep you in the middle. Amen.