Marriage by Capture in the Book of Judges

An Anthropological Approach

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Katherine Southwood
Society for Old Testament Study Monographs
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Judges 19-21 tells a story in which the Benjaminite men of Gibeah sexually assault an Israelite woman to the point of death. The woman’s husband dismembers her; a civil war leaves the tribe of Benjamin nearly extinct; and the remaining Benjaminites twice take virgins from the Israelites to be their brides. Katherine E. Southwood seeks to explain the final episodes of the story in Marriage by Capture in the Book of Judges: An Anthropological Approach. By introducing the anthropological category of “marriage by capture” to the discussion of the episodes in Judges 21, along with how those episodes fit within the narrative of Judges 19-21, Southwood makes a unique and important contribution to the conversation over the ending of Judges 19-21.

Due to the virgins’ lack of agency in the narrative, it might seem easy to describe the Benjaminites’ actions with a term like rape or sexual violence. Southwood, however, cautions against imposing modern, Western concepts on the text. Her argument provides nuance for understanding the two episodes in Judges 21 in the context of the Persian period, where the audience might better understand the episodes as marriage by capture rather than rape. The possibility that these are instances of marriage by capture seems to raise significant questions about ethnic unity for the Persian-period audience of Judges 21.

Marriage by capture is a practice that “encompasses a spectrum of behaviors ranging from planned elopement and ceremonial or ritual capture to sudden, violent capture, and it even includes raiding for wives” (vii). In chapter 2, Southwood draws on anthropological sources to develop a model for marriage by capture, common characteristics of cultures in which marriage by capture occurs, and occasions when marriage by capture occurs. Important for later chapters, her discussion also points out that marriage by capture is related to male ethnic identities, and a return to ethnic traditions of the past.

In chapter 3, Southwood explores the Hebrew Bible to see how it conceives of virginity, marriage, and rape. She shows that the materials reflect similar attitudes towards marriage and rape to the cultural assumptions that anthropologists suggest underpin marriage by capture. Southwood also highlights the lexical terms that might seem, at first, to be similar to the Western concept of rape, and cautions readers against imposing the concept onto the episodes in Judges 21.

In chapter 4, Southwood demonstrates that the two episodes in Judges 21 are examples of marriage by capture. While the first episode, in which the Benjaminites take wives from Jabesh Gilead, looks similar to the ban in Numbers 31, Southwood argues it is marriage by capture since Judges 21 was attempting to address how the men of Benjamin would get Israelite wives when the Israelites vowed to prohibit the practice. The second episode in Judges 21 involves the coordinated taking of wives from among Israelite virgins celebrating a festival at Shiloh. This episode follows the form of “raiding for wives,” a group form of marriage by capture. While both episodes are not the preferred form of marriage within the marriage system laid out in the Hebrew Bible, they are nonetheless viewed as legitimate marriages in the narrative. 

The payoff for treating the episodes in Judges 21 as marriage by capture, and not merely as sexual violence, comes in chapter 5. Southwood reckons with why the writers of Judges 21 included marriage by capture within an ethnic narrative. She argues that Judges 21 is a critique of unity in Persian-period Yehud. Judges 19-21 turns the Benjaminites into an ethnic Other, who is outside of the endogamous marriage system even while they are also conceived of as a tribe of Israel. For the writers of Judges 21, there is a tension between the desire for unity and the need to maintain appropriate behavioral standards. Judges 21 takes the position that abandoning moral standards for the sake of unity will only result in the multiplication of deviant behaviors (such as marriage by capture) that weaken the unity of and bring dishonor on the entire group. Thus, Judges 21 challenges its readers to consider their assumptions about ethnic unity and what happens to their ethnic identity if culturally significant standards are given up by the group.

I wonder how well the theoretical audience and context Southwood develops reflects the historical audience and context of Judges 21. Deploying an anthropological model, and reading literary texts to construct historical and cultural contexts, is a challenge given the limited evidence available for the period. Nonetheless, her model and reading do provide a plausible and compelling explanation of Judges 21 in Persian-period Yehud.

I would like to suggest two lines of inquiry sparked by reading Southwood’s monograph. First, in Judges 21, the vow of the Israelites to their deity not to marry their daughters to the Benjaminites results in the Benjaminites needing to resort to marriage by capture to graft themselves back onto Israel. How does “religion” function with respect to marriage by capture in different cultural settings, especially in the appeals to ethnic traditions? Second, throughout the monograph, Southwood cautions against imposing the Western concept of rape to the ancient text. While this is important for attempting to reconstruct the ancient cultural context, Judges is also an authoritative text for many religious groups in the past and today. How do different audiences understand and use the text? Do they read the episodes as rape or marriage by capture? Why might they be read as such, and what are the effects of these readings in the groups’ contexts?

Southwood’s monograph is a welcome and important contribution to recent discussions of the final chapters of Judges. By deploying marriage by capture as a heuristic model, she offers a fascinating way to think about Judges 21 and how it may have asked questions of its readers concerning ethnic unity in the Persian period. Scholars and advanced graduate students working on Judges will need to engage with Southwood’s work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John W. Fadden is Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katherine E. Southwood is university lecturer in Old Testament and fellow and tutor in theology and religion at St John's College, Oxford. Her research focuses on and promotes interdisciplinary approaches to the Hebrew Bible through engagement with social anthropology to understand Israelite marriage practices and the impact of forced and return migrations on Israelite identity. She is the author of Ethnicity and the Mixed Marriage Crisis in Ezra 9-10: An Anthropological Approach (2012).


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