The Children of the Beautiful Captive

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Miriam Gedwiser

(CW: sexual assault)

The first aliyah of this week’s parashah (Ki Tetzei) presents three passages, each difficult in its own way, in rapid succession: 1. “When you take the field against your enemies” you (the Israelite warrior) may have sexual relations with a beautiful captive (eshet yefat to’ar) from the ranks of the vanquished enemy, provided you marry her thereafter[1] (Deuteronomy 21:10-14); 2. “When a man has two wives, one beloved and one hated” he may not favor the children of the beloved wife over an eldest son from the hated one (21:15-17); 3. “When a man has a stubborn and rebellious son” the child’s parents may bring him to the city elders to have him stoned to death (21:18-21).

Encountering passages like this, which challenge our ethical intuitions (about forced marriage or the execution of juveniles, for example), is not unexpected for students of Torah, but it remains disconcerting. Sometimes we dwell on these challenges, trying to find a way out, but just as often (if my experience is any guide) we shunt the trouble, and the passage, aside, and move on. In this piece I will choose to dwell with the difficult beginning of Parashat Ki Tetzei, particularly with how the Rabbis of the Talmud put it in conversation with later Biblical narratives. This exploration may add complexity to the problems more than solve them, but I believe seeing what the rabbis did with this passage can be helpful not only substantively, but methodologically.

Rashi, following the midrash, comments that the three passages that begin the parashah are causally related:

The Torah [permits the beautiful captive to the Israelite warrior] only in response to the evil inclination. If the Holy One, blessed be He, does not permit her, he will marry her unlawfully. But if he marries her, in the end he will hate her, as it says afterwards (verse 15) ‘when a man has [two wives, one loved and one hated]’ and in the end he will father from her a wayward and rebellious son. Therefore these sections were placed next to each other.

According to Rashi, The man who gives into his evil impulse and takes a battlefield wife, even in a quasi-sanctioned way, will find himself hating her, and their children together will come to no good.

As Rashi presents it, this parade of horribles is hypothetical: a cautionary tale against embracing the suspension of ordinary norms in battle, or, perhaps, a comment on marriages founded primarily in male lust and female powerlessness.

At the level of the original midrashim on which Rashi is based, however, the progression is not merely hypothetical. Midrash Tanhuma (Ki Tetzei 1) follows up its explanation of the juxtaposition of laws with an example: “For so we find with David. Because he lusted after Ma’akhah daughter of Talmi the king of Geshur when he went out to war, he sired Absalom, who sought to kill him.” The warrior who failed to control his battlefield urges is none other than David, and Absalom is the resulting rebellious son.

According to the Rabbis, furthermore, Absalom is not the only child David bore with a beautiful-captive wife. On Sanhedrin 21a, Rav Judah states in the name of Rav: “David had four hundred children, and all born of beautiful captives; they all grew a blorit (gentile hairstyle) and all drove in golden carriages. They used to march at the head of the troops and were the strongmen (ba’alei egrofot) of the house of David.”

The text carries a hint of braggadocio: See how many women the great warrior David accumulated! See how many sons he fathered! See how wealthy his sons were! At the same time, the description of the sons is a critique. They sport a “blorit,” a hairstyle that for the rabbis signals association with a corrupt heathen culture (e.g. Sotah 47a). The sons are described, further, as “ba’alei egrofot,” literally men of fists, an appellation that connotes reliance on brute force, and not without a hint of bullying (see, e.g., Tosefta Menahot 13:4).

Even if the sons are using their fist-powers for the good of the king, the image of marauding bands of princelings living richly recalls their origin. These sons of beautiful captives were conceived on a battlefield where their father should have exercised self control rather than listening to his evil inclination. The warrior who must have the beautiful woman he sees fathers (from her!) sons who meet the world in an acquisitive mode, fists drawn.

What of the women in all of this? So far, the captive wife seems little more than a foil for the virtues or follies of her husband-by-force. But that changes in the next line of the same passage in Sanhedrin: “Rav Judah further said in Rav’s name: Tamar was a daughter of a beautiful captive.”

Tamar, Absalom’s full sister, was no rebel. In II Samuel 13, she dutifully served her half-brother Amnon, at their father’s command, only to have him rape her, despite her pleading, “Don’t, brother. Don’t force me. . . . Please, speak to the king; he will not refuse me to you.” Tamar seeks to avoid the shame of rape by offering to marry her attacker – an exchange that recalls the rabbinic reading of Deuteronomy 21 as a deal with the evil inclination. She seeks to regularize an undesired union through marriage where the likely alternative is not abstinence, but an even worse abuse.[2] Amnon refuses, and rapes her without even the courtesy of a coerced marriage.

Amnon overpowers Tamar, his own sister, without any of the safeguards the Torah puts in place for an enemy captive. And, as Rashi and the Tanhuma predict, his lust gives way to hatred–not after years of marriage but immediately. “Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred; for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her: ‘Get up, go’” (II Samuel 13:15).

For the captive woman, being sent out if she is no longer desired is supposed to be some sort of kindness – after all she has been through, at least she will not be sold into slavery (Deuteronomy 21:14). But for Tamar, being sent out is the height of cruelty. She “went her way, crying aloud as she went,” and eventually settled “desolate in her brother Absalom’s house” (II Samuel 13:19-20).

Combining the two statements of Rav Judah in the name of Rav, we have David’s daughter from a captive wife experiencing similar trauma to her mother – indeed, in some ways worse, because Amnon denies her the protections afforded to alien captives. Meanwhile, David’s 400 sons from captive wives run amok engaging in minor versions of the same sort of problematic behavior that brought them into the world: swaggering through life taking what they want by force. But it is Amnon himself, the king’s firstborn and not the son of a captive wife, whose behavior replicates, and exaggerates, the worst elements of the yefat to’ar scenario for his half sister.

By identifying the rapacious soldier of Deuteronomy 21 with King David, and then playing out consequences of David’s actions over the next generation, these texts raise hard questions about cycles of violence: David’s sons reenact their father’s violence and lack of self control. Here, perhaps, the Gemara, like Rashi, is telling a morality tale: a father who behaves badly cannot expect better from his sons, so be careful fathers. Indeed Amnon, despite his own parent’s union being apparently untainted by the stain of yefat to’ar, acts out a horrifying caricature of the captive-wife scenario against his own sister. David’s sons, in ways large and small, hold up a mirror to David, reflecting the king’s own (mis)behavior.

Even more troubling is the fate of David’s daughter, or, more precisely, Ma’akhah’s daughter. The choicelessness that marked Ma’akhah’s marriage, which we might naively think stems from its inception in war, would seem inapposite to Tamar’s life. She is the daughter of the victorious warrior, a princess in a stable polity, with the fancy clothes to prove it. And yet, choicelessness of sexual assault finds the well-kept princess in the city as it found her mother on the battlefield.

The yefat to’ar morality tale, and its corollary in the 400 sons, contains some logic, some story as to how the sons’ negative traits are formed by their family origins. But the story of Tamar is the opposite: no matter what she did, or who she was, she could become a victim of sexual violence. Unlike her half-brothers, Tamar’s reenactment of the yefat to’ar cycle has nothing to do with her own choices.

The passage in Sanhedrin picks up on the seeming mismatch between Tamar’s status and her fate:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korhah: Tamar established a great fence at that time [by way of her public outcry]. People said: [If] such an occurrence could happen to the daughters of kings, all the more so to the daughters of ordinary people. [If] such an occurrence could happen to modest women, all the more so could it happen to licentious women.

Tamar exposed the bitter truth that sexual assault can happen to anyone, even the modest daughter of a king.

There is one character in the sordid tale of David and the children of his captive wives who tries to confront the rot head on. The one who takes Tamar in after her rape, and eventually takes revenge on her rapist, is her full brother, Absalom. And it is Absalom’s revenge-killing of Amnon (II Samuel 13:20-29) that sows the seeds of his rift with, and eventual rebellion against, David (see II Samuel 13-15).

Absalom’s rebellion begins, then, not with a reflection or magnification of David’s battlefield faults, but with a reaction against them. And yet Absalom too is no hero: he reacts brashly and violently (having Amnon murdered (II Samuel 13:23-29); having Joab’s field burnt to try to force a rapprochement with David (II Samuel 14:28-30)). In his attempt to take the throne prematurely he even sleeps with his father’s concubines in public (II Samuel 16:20-23). Absalom’s own overreach may have begun with a reaction against David, but it ends with Absalom exhibiting the same faults as the battlefield husband/father: taking what he wants, now, by force, and relegating women to the position of objects in his quest.

Absalom fulfills the dire prediction of Rashi: “if he marries her . . . in the end he will father from her a wayward and rebellious son.” It is almost as if, once the sin of battlefield rape or quasi-rape is baked into the house of David, it cannot be removed. David’s initial choice carries irreversible consequences for his children.[3]

Actions have consequences; what’s done cannot be undone. So where does that leave us?

In Deuteronomy, the captive woman is given space to weep for her family in her captor/husband’s house (Deuteronomy 21:13), but is otherwise silent. Tamar, however, leaves Amnon’s house wailing aloud in public, and verbally confirms to Absalom what has happened. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (21a-b) casts Tamar and her public grief as a catalyst for greater awareness. Furthermore, according to the rabbis, Amnon’s assault on Tamar led the rabbis of the time to enact legal changes (a prohibition on seclusion) intended to prevent similar incidents in the future. Unlike her mother, Tamar is the king’s daughter – a status that was not enough to protect her from violence, but at least brought her some after-the-fact concern. And that concern, according to the Rabbis, led to prophylactic action to protect not only other princesses, but ordinary women as well.


Reading texts like these is unpleasant, even if we can scrape a barely hopeful message of change out of them in the end. On a practical level, the cautionary tales of the yefat to’ar was not enough to save Tamar, and Tamar’s tale has not saved many who came after her. With that in mind, what have we as readers gained from laying bare these traumas within the biblical and rabbinic texts?

The Talmud takes the formalized legal passages of the captive wife, the hated wife, and the rebellious son, and excavates them in the context of a family narrative. Rather than turn away, it digs in. The abstract warrior becomes David, and his battlefield decisions create real characters whose suffering is not abstract. Pedagogically, perhaps one lesson for us is to similarly dwell on difficult texts, to explore what they really mean emotionally, rather than turn away. And when the text ends with an unsolved problem, perhaps it is our job, like the rabbis who (as the Talmud tells it) reacted to Tamar, to step in and add something new to the story – if not to Tamar’s then to our world – with the hope that the ending can be different.

  [1] This summary follows the halakhic reading of these verses whereby the soldier is permitted one act of battlefield intercourse before the captive woman begins a thirty-day mourning period in his home.  See,   e.g., Rambam, hilkhot melakhim u-milhamah, chapter 8; Tosafot Kiddushin 22a s.v. “she-lo yilhatsenah be-milhamah.”  It is worth noting that a plain reading of the Biblical text could also suggest, alternatively, that the warrior and woman must go through the extended process described before having any sexual contact.  See Tosafot, id., for arguments and authorities on both sides. 

[2] For the rabbinic reading, Tamar’s proposal of marriage actually serves as the proof that her mother was a beautiful captive. Since she was conceived while her mother was not Jewish, she would be legally permitted to her biological half-brother (see Sanhedrin 21a).

[3] In addition to the captive wives attributed to David by the midrash, my teacher R. David Silber has noted that the Bible itself portrays David’s taking of Bathsheba as a perverse yefat to’ar situation: rather than a soldier in battle taking an enemy woman, David stays home from the battle and takes the beautiful wife of one of his own soldiers. David’s ability to recognize his own sin (with prompting from Nathan the prophet – see II Samuel 12) may open another avenue out of the seemingly hopeless cycle that the midrash paints for the children of captive wives, as it is David’s post-penitence child from Batsheba who ultimately inherits his throne. The full implications of this reading are outside the scope of this essay.

Miriam Gedwiser teaches Talmud and Tanakh at the Ramaz Upper School, and is on the Faculty of Drisha. A recovering attorney, Miriam writes and guest-lectures widely, and is a Consulting Editor for the Lehrhaus.