Two weeks ago, we talked about a hapax legomenon, a word that occurs only once in the Bible. You might have thought it would be pretty unlikely we would be talking about another one so soon — and we’re not. Instead, I’m going to be talking about a word that occurs only twice in the Bible, both times in this week’s reading.
It is in the passage right at the beginning of Ki Tetze, in Deut 21:10–14, the passage that’s called in Jewish law that of “the beautiful captive.” It’s part of the law of war; כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א means “when you go out,” and where you are going is out to war. Here it is in the NJPS translation:
Deut 21:10 When you take the field against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, 12 you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, 13 and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife. 14 Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her.
Among the civilian captives of the war — we are not talking about uniformed combatants here — is a beautiful woman, and “you” (the soldier who captures her) desire her. Well, there are certain rules and regulations that you must follow in order to be allowed to do that: You bring her into your house, she cuts her hair and trims her nails, and she takes off her captive’s garb.
That seems to mean that she’s now transitioning from being a prisoner of war to having some different status. Only when she has had a month to mourn for her father and mother can “you” have sex with her and make her your wife. We’ve spoken before about the addressees of the Torah, who are (for example) the people who buy slaves, not the slaves who are bought. War is hell, and hell is hotter for some than for others.
There’s an interesting twist in v. 14, which says that if it turns out that you then don’t want this “beautiful captive,” then you have to let her go. This is a society with humans owned by other humans as slaves, remember, and in the ancient world one of the ways to acquire a slave was to seize someone in the aftermath of a battle. In this case, though in some sense “you” possess this beautiful captive, you must not sell her for money.
And you may not (here is our mysterious, twice-repeated word) you may not תִתְעַמֵּ֣ר בָּ֔הּ titammer bah. Why not? Because you have “had your will of” her. (There is a vast amount of scholarly discussion about precisely what this latter Hebrew verb, innitah, really means, mostly centered on Dinah in Genesis 34:2; Alison Joseph’s article on that verse is one place to start looking at it.)
What is it that you are not permitted to do? Also in this week’s reading is the second occurrence of the word, where a man has kidnapped another Israelite and hitammer bo. (Don’t try this at home; you will be put to death for it.) What does this word mean? NJPS translates the word both times as “enslave,” but I have a different suggestion.
The other thing that this root עמר means in Hebrew, which everyone would certainly know about, is an omer, a sheaf of grain or a unit that was used for measuring grain. (When you are “counting the Omer,” you are counting the days from when the first sheaf is offered, for seven weeks/50 days until Shavuot.) I suspect a sort of folk etymology based on ómer is what’s happening in the Aramaic translation:
- But you must not sell her for silver; you shall not trade her because you have humbled her. [21:14]
- If a man is found kidnapping a person from his brethren, from the children of Israel, and should trade him or sell him … [24:7]
I think in Deuteronomy they are thinking of this as a word that means “to treat someone as if they were a commodity.” Combat is disruptive to the point of being deadly, so it is no surprise if the norms that keep society functioning aren’t maintained in wartime. How do you return to them afterward? By re-asserting them, even in this case where the soldier can have sex with this captive against her will. At that point, he must return to civilized behavior and either make her his wife or free her. What he can’t do is commodify her.
The one thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the binyan of this verb. (More on binyanim in Lesson 15 of my Hebrew course; you can always watch Lesson 1 for free here.) The Hitpael binyan of this verb is a way of taking a root and doing it reciprocally (to each other) or reflexively (to oneself). If you hitammer bah, you would not be doing something merely to her but also to yourself. Commodification works in two directions, not just one.
And, yes, the dictionaries wonder whether this עמר is where the biblical city of Gomorrah (עֲמֹרָה) — Sodom’s sister city — got its name: a whole town where commodification is the norm. Truth be told, we scholars like folk etymologies too.