Women in Warfare: A Brief Look at a Few Biblical Scenarios

[Disclaimer: if you’re not interested in challenging your assumptions and cultural norms, this is probably not for you]

Several peculiar scenarios can be seen in the Bible as we look at the intersection of women and warfare. Since cultural norms and sensibilities vary wildly across space and time, 21st century readers can arrive at wildly divergent interpretations of what we see in the Bible. Probably not a good thing. In today’s episode of Tim’sTerrificTheologicalTidbitsandTriviaforThursday, I’d like to look at a few of these Biblical scenarios.


It’s no surprise that warfare was exclusively the domain of the males. In fact, it was considered a shame to be killed by a female. Here’s a fun little story on that note: An Israelite named Abimelech led his men to capture the city of Thebez in Judges 9. When Abimelech came to the door of the fortress to burn it down, a woman dropped a millstone on him and fractured his skull.

[+] He quickly called his armor-bearer and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, or they’ll say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’ ” So his armor-bearer thrust him through, and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they all went home. (Judges 9:54-55)

Yes, Dear Reader, it’s better to be killed by your right-hand man than to let word get out that a woman killed you. Can’t have that, now can we? Because if that happens, people will talk.

For centuries, even!

Check out King David; he reached ~200 years back in history to use this very story to warn his warriors about getting too close to walls and gates in the heat of battle:

[+] …‘Why did you get so close to the city to fight? Didn’t you realize they would shoot from the top of the wall? At Thebez, who struck Abimelech son of Jerubbesheth? Didn’t a woman drop an upper millstone on him from the top of the wall so that he died? Why did you get so close to the wall? ’… (2Sam 11:20-21)

Pro tip: Don’t be ThatGuy.

– – –

The unnamed woman above was lucky in her aim. Other women were more deliberate in battle.

In 2 Samuel 20, we see King David’s army – led by a fellow named Joab – chasing down a traitor who had holed up in the city of Abel. The city is on lockdown, so Joab and the men lay siege works against the city walls in order to tear it down. An unnamed “wise woman” calls out to Joab from within the city (paraphrased):

WOMAN: Are you Joab?

JOAB: I am!

WOMAN: Listen to the words of your servant (me). We’ve got a peaceful and faithful reputation here. Why are you hatin’ on us, trying to destroy us? Why would you devour the Lord’s people?

JOAB: Never in a million years! We’re after Sheba, son of Bichri. He’s a traitor to king David. Hand him over, and we’ll walk away.

WOMAN: Give me a minute and we’ll throw his head over the wall to you.

[+] The woman went to all the people with her wise counsel, and they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri and threw it to Joab. So he blew the ram’s horn, and they dispersed from the city, each to his own tent. Joab returned to the king in Jerusalem. (2 Sam 20:22)

Gotta like that gal. With guts like this, no wonder she keeps ahead of the men.

– – –

Last but not least, there’s Jael. Rhymes with “nail”.

This episode requires a bit of backstory. The Children of Israel were doing their darndest to put God on the backburner so they could chase false gods. So He turned them over to their own devices, and that usually meant oppression from their enemies. It was in this time of spiritual mayhem that a prophetess named Deborah rose to the fore (a female prophet? A sign of just how bad off the Israelites were??). Deborah tagged a fellow named Barak and told him God appointed him to oust their Gentile oppressor, King Jabin, and his commander, Sisera.

But Barak balked: [+] Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go. But if you will not go with me, I will not go.” (Judg 4:8)

Wow!! Talk about bad. What kind of man hides behind a woman’s apron strings!?!

So she rebuked him: [+] “I will go with you,” she said, “but you will receive no honor on the road you are about to take, because the LORD will sell Sisera into a woman’s hand.” (Judg 4:9)

Later in the chapter, as prophesied, God sees to it that Sisera gets his clocked cleaned by God’s army. In his weary escape, Sisera finds shelter in the tent of Heber the Kenite. The Kenites were a tribe on peaceful terms with King Jabin. The hostess was a gracious woman named Jael who offered Commander Sisera shelter, drink and rest. Guess what happened next:

If I were an artist, I’d make more art like Tom LaMothe’s

[+] But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. (Judg 4:21)

And all God’s people sang “Nailed it!!”

And yes, they actually did make it into a song. The entire next chapter is a victory song about this story, including a sideways comment about Sisera’s mother looking out the window, wondering why her son was taking so long to come home.


This business of a woman looking out the window in the aftermath of warfare is not unique to the book of Judges or the Bible. Several authors and artists in antiquity have depicted waiting women, looking out of windows, waiting for the return of their warring men. (I’ve misplaced links to several ancient art pieces from various ancient cultures, depicting women looking out windows as they waited for their men). Sisera’s mother is one such depiction. Another is the wretched Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, queen of northern Israel. Her demise begins in 2 Kings 9, where God anoints a fellow named Jehu as the next king of Israel and tasks him with destroying this godless dynasty (and their supporters) because they persecuted His prophets (9:7). Jehu does so, and saves the witch of Jezreel for last.

[+] When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard about it, so she painted her eyes, adorned her head, and looked down from the window. As Jehu entered the gate, she said, “Do you come in peace, Zimri, killer of your master? ” (2Kgs 9:30-31)

“Zimri” was a sarcastic reference to a man who had usurped the throne in 1 Kings 16.

Instead of engaging with her and telling her how God had anointed him as king, Jehu merely called for support from her attendants. Several eunuchs next to Jezebel replied that they were on his side.

[+] “Then throw her down! ” So they threw her down, and some of her blood splattered on the wall and on the horses, and Jehu rode over her. (2Kgs 9:33)

By the time they got around to burying her, dogs had already eaten her up, so there was nothing to bury – just as prophesied by Elisha.

– – –

It’s interesting that the Bible records that Jezebel dressed herself up and put on eye makeup before presenting herself to Jehu. What’s up with that? Glad you asked, because this is where things get fun.

In “The Agreement of The Customs of The East-Indians..” (1706), author De La Créquinière notes that women from several ancient cultures in the middle east and Asia dressed themselves in this fashion when waiting for men returning from war. Their intent, it seems, was to emphasize their rank and stature in order to curry favor from captors. In similar fashion, Assyrian archeological records c. 700 BC note that wartime plunder from foreign nations included noble women which were kept in the king’s court. What’s even more peculiar is that despite the Assyrians’ blood lust for grotesque torture of captured men, almost nothing is mentioned of ill treatment of captured women or children. (See “Warlike men and invisible women: how scribes in the Ancient Near East represented warfare” – Philippe Clancier). We wouldn’t want to think these bloodthirsty men are averse to rape while they’re busy pillaging and plundering, but their boasting about cruelty to captured men makes peculiar their silence on any kind of cruel treatment of women and children.

If ancient historians like Maimonides, Josephus and Philo have anything to say about these wartime women (and they do), it would appear that women dressing to entice oncoming enemy was actually a ‘thing’ in the ancient Bronze Age. This might shed some light on the last two Biblical episodes on women in warfare.

The first takes place in the wake of Balaam, [the false] prophet of Beor, who was hired by [the wicked] king Balak to curse the Israelites so Balak could beat them in war. When Balaam couldn’t get God to curse the Israelites, Balaam gave Balak a heck of a tip: “Send in some Moabite/Midianite hussies to entice the Israelite warriors. When they fornicate with them, God will get angry with them and strike the Israelites dead ..giving you the victory you want!”

Sure enough, when the fornicating starts, [+] The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD so that His burning anger may turn away from Israel.” (Num 25:4. But read the whole chapter for details. Be aware that the story of Balaam and Balak skips a few chapters and picks up in ch 31, where we see the enemy bad guys destroyed by God’s command)

We’re not told what these women wore, but the fact that they enticed so many Israelite men so quickly might be a hint.

All of this sets the stage for the last bit on Women & Warfare in the Bible.

I’ve lost track of the number of atheistic people who have screamed “SEE! The Bible condones raping, pillaging and plundering right there in Deut 21!!”

Here’s the passage in question:

[+]​ When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, ​if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. ​Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails ​and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. ​If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. (Deut 21:10-14)

Rape, pillage and plunder? Welllllll – not so fast.

There may be a different way to understand this, and for that, we need to be prepared to have an open mind.

I’ve lived in radically different cultures and have traveled in/through ~40 different countries across 4 different continents. Believe me when I repeat that radically different cultures behave in radically different ways, sometimes beyond the comprehension of foreigners. I’m willing to bet that people who only have a 21st century Western experience are surely ill-equipped to understand what’s going on in this passage.

* For starters, the Israelites were prohibited from engaging in unjust war. The many details supporting this point will be left for another day, but it needs to be mentioned nonetheless. Note that this passage in Deut 21 only pertains to victories that the Lord has given them – which implies a just war. See Deut 20 for more on this.

* Then there’s the whole thing about women dressing up to entice the oncoming enemy. Modern women in the West wouldn’t do this, but that’s just the point: we’re talking about a radically different culture, and we’ve already seen some evidence that this was a ‘thing’ in parts of ancient history. So it’s not surprising that a warrior might find a beautiful woman there, dressed up like Jezebel.

* Note that she is to be taken in as “wife”. Not concubine, and certainly not slave. A wife has rights superior to both a concubine and a slave, and consent is implied (not so with a slave). Also, Israelites were not permitted to marry foreign pagans. We need to assume that the hypothetical female in Deut 21, like Rahab the Prostitute, has consented to be a proselyte. (speaking of women dressed up to entice oncoming warriors…)

* Furthermore, she is to be taken into the “house”. Again, a sign of respect for the woman.

* Removing the hair, nails and clothes does several thing: it emphasizes that the time now is for mourning for loved ones (again, a sign of human decency and respect); it is not the time for impressing, seducing or enticing; it is also a time for removing old ways/cultural norms and embracing new ways/cultural norms.

* After 30 days of somber mourning, where she is not dressed to impress and entice, should the Israelite still want her, he is to marry her as *wife* (not concubine or slave), and be a *husband* to her (not master).

* And should they separate for whatever reason, he can’t turn her into a commodity or possession and try to profit off her. Again, another sign of respect.

That this sounds strange to our 21st century western ears is not in dispute. Cultures can and will sound strange to each other.

I’m more interested in whether or not it is objectively immoral, and whether the knee-jerk 21st century Western view misses the boat on what’s going on here. I find it interesting that ancient commentators (eg, the Talmud, Josephus, Philo, Maimonides, etc) affirm various parts of my assessment here.

Now’s a good time to also add a couple of comments that I have heard from women: In the case where the warriors of a wicked city have been destroyed and its occupants are now without manpower, the women and children can’t fend for themselves. And if there’s anything that evil people love, it’s a power vacuum. Done properly, Deut 21 is actually a good thing for the surviving remnant of a wicked city slated by God for destruction, because removing vulnerable survivors from the eye of marauding neighboring nations is a protection. (EG: remove the vulnerable Moabite remnants so that the Edomites don’t move in and rape/pillage/plunder).

The alternative to removing them would be to leave them to fend for themselves. Not a good thing.

[Please note that ^this^ only applies to a JUST War. If you’re not familiar with what a Just War is, you have a lot of homework ahead of you. Start by googling “Augustine Just War Theory”, and remember that there is indeed a time for war. And a time for peace.

Mature thinkers live in the real world and don’t confuse the two. Thanks.]

At any rate… I thought this might make for some interesting thinking about women and warfare in the Bible.


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