“When you approach a city to fight against it, you must make an offer of peace. If it accepts your offer of peace and opens its gates to you, all the people found in it will become forced laborers for you and serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you but wages war against you, lay siege to it.” (Deut 20:10-11).
It seems so strange to me that war has rules. But it does and always has. This particular one has been rather timeless. Approach a city you want to fight against, ask for their surrender, and if they don’t, initiate war. This was and has been seen as the “respectful” approach to war.
For the Israelites who waged war, they were to fight only against the men, except in very rare cases where the Lord said otherwise (which we have written about previously here). But they were to fight the men, and let the women, children and animals live. These were then to be absorbed into Israel and cared for.
A man could indeed marry one of the women that came from wartime. He was to treat as his wife. But she was not to be treated as a slave, bought and sold like property.
“you must not sell her for money or treat her as merchandise, because you have humiliated her” (21:14).
All of this seems so foreign for us, and yet this was a normal way of war in the ancient world. It basically came down to how the women and children were treated after the destruction of a town.
Unfortunately war was rather vicious in the day and time. We see that from Sennacharib, the Assyrian King. He depicts the torture of men, women and children in war–Impaling men alive on spears by inserted tall poles between their legs and letting them hang, throwing babies in the air and catching them on swords, and even flaying people alive. The women became concubines and victims of communal rape. Some men were allowed to live but then forced as slaves to build siege ramps against their own people in the next city. The children also became laborers.
It’s really quite awful. And that was their tactic. Torture and cruelty were very effective in causing fear.
We see for the Israelites that rape was not allowed. If they married any of the women they were to allow them a time of mourning and when they did marry, they were to treat them as wives and not as property (21:10-14). We really don’t many rules on the treatment of the children.
The reality is that this is little comfort to modern day readers. But is it any less than dropping a bomb on soldiers and citizens alike? Or strapping a bomb to a child and what is one supposed to do with that? War is still just as messy as ever in every situation. And getting more detached and complex all the time. The Geneva Convention was set up to help with some of that, but still, atrocities persist. Horror persist. And that is true in every single situation.
War among men is unfortunately inevitable. It’s been happening since the dawn of mankind. There is a way to do war and a way not to do war, if you even want to talk about it like that. There’s a time for war and there’s a time not for war. But if war is a necessary (like I believe WW2 was to stop genocide), then one still has to conduct himself honorable within it.