Judges 21 and Marriage by Capture

Perhaps it will be surprising to some readers that where marriage by capture occurs, it is sometimes interpreted as a peripheral, semi-legitimate form of marriage. Part of the reason for this is that it usually emerges in marriage systems which involve arranged marriages, bride-prices, patriarchal organization, and, most importantly, high levels of stigma concerning illegitimate birth or extra-marital sexual activity.

See Also: Marriage by Capture in the Book of Judges: An Anthropological Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

By Katherine Southwood
Associate Professor in Old Testament
Fellow and Tutor in Theology and Religion
St John's College, Oxford
January 2017

What does the Hebrew Bible have to say about marriage? Even a cursory glance by any reader will expose a range of voices and perspectives within the material. One oddity is Judges 21 where, it seems, we have an example of marriage by capture. Of course, an immediate problem with this statement is the question “What is marriage by capture”? Is it bride theft, similar to what has happened recently with the Chibok schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram? Or is it merely some form a ceremonial re-enactment of “tradition”?

Marriage by capture, far from being another means of expressing rape, is a wide-ranging yet multifaceted phenomenon. The phrase Marriage by Capture was coined in the pioneering, albeit later criticised, work of McLenan (McLenan 1865). Nowadays, it seems, there is a spectrum of practices which might fall under this umbrella category, ranging from ceremonial mock capture to raiding for wives. Some captures are pre-arranged with the agreement of parents, others are not; some target individuals, others whole groups of young women. Moreover, the practice of bride-theft, or marriage by capture, attracts divergent and varied interpreted at local levels. Perhaps it will be surprising to some readers that where marriage by capture occurs, it is sometimes interpreted as a peripheral, semi-legitimate form of marriage. Part of the reason for this is that it usually emerges in marriage systems which involve arranged marriages, bride-prices, patriarchal organization, and, most importantly, high levels of stigma concerning illegitimate birth or extra-marital sexual activity.

Possibly the most suggestive aspect of marriage by capture are the social aspects of the practice. Particularly important is virginity. For marriage by capture to operate, marriage systems which insist upon virginity prior to marriage must exist. Virginity’s status within the honour / shame system, which also links it to bride-price, makes it incredibly important. Furthermore, the significance of virginity becomes concretised through the complex ideological associations it can sometimes have with purity. Another social element of the practice of marriage by capture links it to the re-establishment of past ethnic traditions and situates it within a nexus of ideas wherein women’s bodies are used to consolidate male ethnic identities. Helpful authors and articles which have been published on the subject include the work of (Russel Kleinbach and his colleagues, Barnes 1999, Handrahan).

So how, if at all, can such a multifaceted and wide-ranging practice be discerned within Judges 21? Why is there a case for interpreting the text in this way and not simply condemning it as just another horrific text of terror, or rape narrative, as we find in other parts of the Hebrew Bible such as Genesis 34, Judges 19, or 2 Samuel 13? By interpreting this way are we somehow defending what takes place in the text? Perhaps the most pertinent question here is the latter. My intention in the research for the book Marriage by Capture in Judges 21: An Anthropological Approach was never intended to be so very culturally relativistic that in trying to understand the reasons why the practice occurs I somehow condoned it. Instead, the idea has always been to gain an insight into how the system operates and why some people seem to see it as a semi-legitimate form of marriage. In doing so, the aim was to gain a more nuanced view of what appears to be happening in Judges 21. So, to the first question: what is it about Judges 21 that lends the text to examination through this lens?

What is particularly interesting in the Hebrew Bible is that many of the attitudes and cultural assumptions which accompany rigid marriage systems, wherein marriage by capture occurs, are also present. Expectations relating to marriage include the emphasis on virginity prior to marriage, the connection between virginity and male honour, the existence of a bride-price, male dominated regulation of marriages, and the significance of ethnicity and endogamy. Look, for example, at the laws in Deuteronomy 22:13-22 and verses 23-29. Also telling is the way that rape is talked about in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 34:2; Deut. 21:10-13, 14; 22:24, 29; Judg. 19:24; 20:5; 2 Sam. 13:12, 14, 22; Lam. 5:11; Ezek. 22:10-11). In many of the examples, a young woman is tarnished by the lack of her virginity after rape and is no longer marriageable in the same way or able to attract a good bride-price.

However, this issue is made more complex by the fact that despite an abundance of terms for sexual violation, the term rape is not clearly lexicalised in Hebrew. In other words, there is not a clear word for it which means the same as what we think of nowadays as rape. The closest term is sometimes translated ‘humble’. This is problematic since the verb encompasses a range of meanings in addition to rape such as dishonour, tarnish, or to engage in intercourse which is off-limits (the latter being what we might think of as statutory rape). In addition, given the expectations concerning marriage arrangements, the issue of consent in the Hebrew Bible is not particularly straightforward. A good example of this is the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34 (which I don’t think is an example of marriage by capture). Dinah’s rape turns a narrative about migration into a narrative dealing with ethnic honour and shame. The Hivites invite Jacob’s group to be ‘one people’ with them, but the sons of Jacob insist on a vendetta, typecasting all the Hivites as the same as Shechem (who after the rape, actually appeared perhaps genuinely, perhaps not, to regret what had happened).

Another potentially interesting set of examples concerning marriage, if we are looking at the possibility of there being marriage by capture in the Hebrew Bible, are texts about marriage with captives (Deuteronomy 21 and Numbers 31). However, neither of the examples are instances that can quite square the circle, so to speak; they are not examples of bride theft or marriage by capture. This is because the women in question in both texts are already war captives rather than having been captured specifically for marriage.

Judges 21 does, therefore, seem to be the odd one out. Within it, I have argued, there are two episodes of marriage by capture. The initial instance (Judg. 21:8-14) bears some resemblance to Numbers 31 where the focus, in both texts, is on virginity. In this episode, the women are specifically targeted to be captured for marriage. As with modern instances of marriage by capture, this example suggests that virgin women are captured and taken back to captor’s homes, where rape takes place after which the women are no longer marriageable (this is one of the common tactics used by captors to manipulate marriage systems which insist upon the virginity of a woman). The second episode of marriage by capture in Judges 21 (verses 16-24) describes women coming out to dance at an annual festival. This depiction of marriage by capture seems to be an example of raiding for wives since multiple women are captured at once. Some scholars argue that the festival with dancing women looks as if it is designed to attract male suitors and therefore provoke rape: it is the fault of the women who go forth to dance. This is unlikely. Several arguments against characterising the Shiloh vintage festival as a special time for sexual licence exist. One fairly strong argument among them is that the capture was a surprise attack with men lying in wait as if to pounce in a war; the women were not aware that this was about to happen.

In modern examples of research on marriage by capture, scholars analyse closely the social consequences of the practice for kin-groups, and ethnic groups. It is possible to probe deeper into the background of the text in Judges 21 to ask what consequences may have been attached to the episodes, if they are historical. In many ways, however, the matter of historicity isn’t particularly important here. Given the way the marriage system is described it is quite likely that bride-theft took place more generally so audiences would have been aware of the practice. However, what is more significant in terms of our text in Judges 21 is its impact, as a very powerful and shocking story, on its audiences. The issue of establishing who can participate in Israel in Judges 21 reaches a climax when the issue of marriage, or the refusal of women in marriage, occurs. If read carefully in light of other texts in the Hebrew Bible which describe withholding women from marriages, it becomes clear that the way the tribe of Benjamin are being treated within the Judges 21 is as a foreigner. In other words, paradoxically, in the text Benjamin are rejected in terms of being able to participate in marriages within Israel, yet are bemoaned as Israel’s “brother”.

Numerous similarities might be pointed out at this stage between Deuteronomy 7:1-4; Ezra 9:12 and Judges 21:1. In these cases, a Janus-faced irony exists since the group who are depicted in the narrative as ethnically “Other” are also a group who have a claim on the title Israel. In Deuteronomy and Ezra, like in Judges 21, establishing where internal group boundaries lie is a matter which comes to a head when the issue of marriage arises.

When probing beneath the surface, it might be argued that the issue of ethnic unity is, in fact, a central tension within Judges 21. A big part of this tension is the disconnection between Israelite unity and social justice. Either ethnic boundaries are to be extended to include Benjamin whose behaviour in Judges 19 stands against group core values (thus they are excluded from marriages), or boundaries are to be contracted and certain parts of “Israel” (i.e. Benjamin) who do not fit the behavioural criteria of the writers of these texts, must be excluded. Such questions are likely to have been particularly divisive when attached to the already difficult issue of marriage relations during the post-exilic period. At the heart of the problem is the issue of establishing who should be permitted into the ethnic group who self-ascribe the title Israel.

The link between marriage by capture and ethnic tradition is complicated by further questions about the role that women’s bodies can sometimes play in establishing ethnic unity. In modern examples, marriage by capture can be used as a device which is manipulated in order to assert ethnicity. When this occurs women are transformed into symbols of the boundary itself who regulate relationships between men within and without the group. In Judges 21, unity in Israel is asserted, through providing wives for the Benjaminites albeit without the consent of their families. The modern evidence suggests that such women would have been placed in an impossible situation as a consequence; failure to stay with their new husbands would be interpreted as dishonouring Israelite tradition. A case can be made, therefore, that those who put together the narrative in Judges 21 creating a picture of a re-invented, now unified, Israel deliberately left the tensions surrounding unity unresolved in order to prompt readers to question whether unity is more important that the elements of common culture that make up Israel as an ethnic group.

Given the sardonic representation of such unity in Judges 21 and the negative representation of the Benjaminites in Judges 19 a case can be made that it is unlikely that early readers were persuaded, or were even meant to be persuaded, about the merits of ethnic unity. Instead Judges 19-21, and especially 21, acts as a narrative designed to express and to recreate in the minds of the early audience constructions of self and other. In this way, the narrative acts as a weapon of ethnic power where those who make the claims concerning the Benjaminites are those writing and circulating the story. Once such derogatory characterizations are created they form a lasting ethnic stereotype which takes on a life of its own beyond the text. As such, the narrative is not only powerful in terms of being a gripping story; it is an influential weapon designed to create, consolidate, and perpetuate division between socially constructed ethnic groups in the post-exilic period. After all, what better way is there to demonize a perceived “Other” than to depict them in terms of sexual predators who threaten the in-group’s women, especially in a society where the marriage system is arranged, involves bride-price, and seeks to protect virginity prior to marriage? Effectively, therefore, in Judges 21 it is possible to conclude that the strange story of two episodes of marriage by capture is in fact a social critique of unity, probably during the post-exilic period, in Yehud where ethnic tensions were high.

Judges 21, therefore, depicts two episodes of marriage by capture. These are the only extended examples of marriage by capture in the Hebrew Bible. However, the text is far more complex than a mere narration of marriage by capture. Those who put this narrative together, given that it emerges from several sources, draw together a number of themes through focussing on semi-legitimate marriage practices. Nevertheless, the most urgent issue which emerges is the question of ethnicity, a question which is brought to a head through withholding women in marriage. The story is, as Moore argued at the end of the 19th Century, not merely history, narrative, or legend, but the industrious work ‘of a scribe who had never handled a more dangerous weapon than an imaginative pen’ (Moore 1895:404).


Barnes, R. H., 1999. Marriage by Capture. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5(1), 57-73.

Handrahan, L., 2004. Hunting for Women: Bride-Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. International Feminist Journal of Politics6, 207-233.

Handrahan, L., 2002. Gendering Ethnicity: Implications for US Democracy Assistance in Kyrgyzstan. New York: Routledge.

Kleinbach, R., 2003. Frequency of Non-consensual Bride Kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic. International Journal of Central Asian Studies 8(1), 108-128.

Kleinbach, R., Ablezova, M., and Aitieva, M., 2005. Kidnapping for Marriage (ala kachuu) in a Kyrgyz village. Central Asian Survey 24(2), 191-202.

Kleinbach, R., and Salimjanova, L., 2007. Kyz ala kachuu and adat: Non-consensual Bride Kidnapping and Tradition in Kyrgyzstan. Central Asian Survey 26(2), 217- 233.

McLenan, J. F., 1865. Primitive Marriage: An Inquiry Into the Original of the Form of Capture in Marriage Ceremonies. Edinburgh: Black.

Moore, G. E., 1895. Judges. (International Critical Commentary). Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Southwood, K. E., Marriage by Capture in Judges 21: An Anthropological Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Comments (3)

A slightly sceptical comment about the anthropological method, if I may. There is such a thing as institutionalised marriage by capture and it does go with a high valuation of virginity but it also goes with the institution of bride price. Its point is the reduction of the price by the loss of virginity and perhaps the increase in the husband/rapist's reputation by showing that he is a daring kind of a fellow. And there's a slightly different version where the family and the bride somehow, resignedly or even keenly, wait for someone to show that he really fancies the young woman and is prepared to pay a decent sum in settlement after showing that he has the audacity and virility to rape and impregnate. O mi God.
No doubt both these remarkable 'institutions' - prevalent rather than formalised practices - were around in ancient times but it doesn't seem to me that the events of J21 are about an institution, even in the informal sense, but about an emergency. The only way we could find an institution, it seems to me, would indeed be to take the dancing session as, in reality, a rape market per the 'second version' of marriage by capture. But as you rightly say the text does not really support this.
The narrative movement is surely one of successive horrors, with the Israelite 'democracy'/tribal federation lurching from one horrible thing to another, distressed at the loss of brothers but killing more brothers and having sisters raped to put things right, the mass rape being the ultimate result of an individual rape and murder. The institution really commended is at this rate surely not a mechanism for marriage but Monarchy. Everything happens because there is no King whose overwhelming power and legitimacy would have punished the first rape or even stopped things from beginning by settling the dispute between the Levite and his unhappy wife. I can see that the narrative, if post-exilic, does indeed suggest that ethnic unity and a multi-tribe structure may not be so wonderful. It might also function as an aetiology, explaining why a system of semi-independent tribes had been found too divisive and fallen out of use: Judah had always been the lead tribe anyway. It might also function to make an Achaemenid monarch, the Lord's anointed on some views, acceptable despite his foreignness. Any King in a storm.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 01/14/2017 - 14:22

Thanks so much Martin for your detailed response! Apologies for the delay in getting back to you – it’s term time at the moment and I’m tied up with teaching, admin and meetings. But it’s great to get some feedback. This is a difficult text, indeed, a text of successive horrors as you describe, and a difficult subject generally and it’s nice to get feedback which really engages with the research.

Institutionalised marriage by capture, as you describe it, is quite similar to what I found in many of the examples cited in the book (which I hope that CUP will release soon!). I did not use the term “institutionalised” but I acknowledge that in the evidence I consulted, some examples of the practice did seem partially to fit this description. I won’t list all the examples, but some are here. The practice is idealised in Lockwood’s description of art and folklore in Yugoslavia, published in 1974. I also came across a practice called ‘ukthuwala’ in South Africa which seemed to be condemned, albeit a normal path to marriage thus similar, perhaps, to or bordering on institutionalised. Also close to what you describe might be a bit like Tzeltal marriage by capture where, as Stross describes it is recognised in the community and glossed as arranged marriage.
However, part of the problem that I encountered with attempting to describe the practice was first what term to use. A quotation from Werner is helpful here:

The terms ‘non-consensual kidnapping’ and ‘consensual
kidnapping’ are used in English to indicate the sub-categories
in the local languages ... the act of naming this practice
requires careful consideration ... For example, the term
‘bride kidnapping’ is based on a verb that originated in
reference to the illegal abduction of children for labour or
ransom, and therefore contains subtle implications that the
bride is a child (or child-like) and that she might be held for
ransom. Central Asian brides are usually 17 or older so they
are not quite children anymore, and ransom never comes into
play. One alternative term, ‘bride theft,’ suggests that the
bride is a type of property that can be stolen, while another
alternative, ‘bride capture,’ conveys the image of a bride
being captured as a prize in a contest. (Werner 2009:316)

(I went with ‘marriage by capture’ as a nod to McLenan who as far was able to ascertain seems to have introduced the practice, but even this isn’t great for obvious reasons, and there are variations in local languages).

Also problematic was the sheer variety of practices which might potentially fall under this heading. E.g. Ayres describes ‘raiding for wives’ where, perhaps similarly to the second episode in Judges 21 multiple women are taken. Whereas the Red Dao example seemed to be much closer to a ceremonial event or game (where the bride in question is aware of what will happen but a struggle is put up for “theate”).

I’d be very interested, if you have them, in the examples of institutionalised marriage by capture. Where does it happen, are the reports or studies which I might consult on it please?

I didn’t include the Boko Haram example in the book. It does seem to me to be similar to marriage by capture, but there are a lot of factors which seem to be at play in other examples which are not present in this one. Perhaps I am wrong – I have not done any serious research on Boko Haram. One area of uniqueness though, and this is mere speculation I haven’t any hard evidence, is the concern about education in this example which did not seem to be a factor at all in other examples of marriage by practice.

Your point about bride price and loss of virginity fits exactly with the evidence I consulted.

It seemed unlikely to me that the Shiloh festival was a rape market, although I can sort of see why readers might think that on first reading of the text. My reasons for not being convinced by this argument are as follows:
While vintage festivals such as Shiloh are, as Ackerman has illustrated effectively, sometimes considered a time of sexual licence in the ANE for matrimonial endeavours, there is no suggestion that festivals are excuses for marriage by capture or rape markets. As Guillaume points out, ‘Assyrian laws allow no mitigating circumstances during feasts’ . Even if we accept the connection between festivals, fertility, and seeking out marital partners, it does not follow that the method of seeking out women through marriage by capture or by rape is intended in Judges 21. Rather than a romantic encounter between dancing women and the partners whom they are trying to attract, we have a sudden surprise ambush.

Max 5000 characters so I’ll write a further response…

#2 - katherine southwood - 01/20/2017 - 12:22

Response continued….
I have not found any biblical evidence for rape markets, but I’m open to discussion on that. Part of the problem is that the usual Hebrew term for rape (although this is an area of debate in itself!) ‘anah’ is not found in Judges 21. The reason I’ve not interpreted the text as rape is because of the emphasis on marriage and not having to lose a tribe (Benjamin). The problem seemed to be the withholding of wives which might result in the extinction of a tribe, and a way to circumvent an oath made but later regretted. Rather than anarchy, chaos, and rape it seems that what we have is an interesting, quite calculated (rather than spontaneous) plot to obtain wives in the long term. However, I should admit here that a lot of biblical scholars see the text as anarchy and rape, so you are certainly not alone in your reading of it this way! Hudsons’s article ‘Living in a land of Epithets : Anonymity in Judges 19-21’ in Journal for the Study of Old Testament is one, for example, which reads the text in a very similar way to you.

Similarly, many biblical scholars conclude that the lack of monarchy is the problem illustrated in the text. If read in its final form, with its close canonical proximity to 1 Sam 8 then that’s one way of looking at the text. Another way of looking at it is to follow Boling’s argument that the refrain ‘there was no king in Israel…’ which occurs four times is strategically placed in the appendix to Judges at a late stage in order to make
its ending Judges is self-consciously a middle point leading forward to kingship’ (Butler 2009:477). If this is the case, then we can read an earlier version of the narrative without the theme of kingship and entirely about procuring wives for Benjamin. Reasons for doing so include the fact that this is the only mention of kingship in the narrative (and indeed, then only value-judgement in the chapter). Perhaps a king would have helped? Perhaps not, if the example of the way David deals with Amnon and Tamar in 2 Sam 13 is anything to go by. We don’t have evidence of another story, so have to work with the text itself. I’m not sure that the concubine can be described as a wife. But that’s a moot point really. If you want some literature which argues in the same way you do about the narrative being on kingship and anarchy, do consult Amit (2000) Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative.

I hope this is helpful, as it is intended to be.

#3 - katherine southwood - 01/20/2017 - 12:23

Article Comments

Submitted by Andre Korkie on Thu, 10/26/2023 - 09:44


Information regarding marriage by capture in Judges 19-21 can be found in my unpublished 1989 PhD thesis (Marriage By Capture As A Form Of Marriage In Ancient Israel / Die Roofhuwelik As Huweliksvorm In Oud-Israel). The thesis is unfortunately not available in English, but I believe the text can be "roughly" translated using Google's translation service.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.