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Prisoner Abuse and the Bible

The abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers and the brutal murder of Nicholas Berg have not been surprising to me in any way. The torture of enemies taken captive in war is an ancient practice. Those who bemoan these events as the result of “postmodern relativism” or Muslim extremism are paying no attention to history, or even to the Bible.

An ancient Ugaritic poem commonly called “The Bloodbath of Anat” likely dates to the middle of the second millennium B. C. E. It tells the story of the goddess Anat leading her army in battle.

The poem tells of heaps of severed heads and hands of her enemies, some of which she attaches to herself. Later Anat sets up tables for her soldiers, and the fighting and killing go on in the midst of a banquet scene.

Other stories from the Ancient Near East tell of captives being led naked and in chains into a banquet hall, where they are forced to watch while the victorious hero is honored by the king with a feast.

Several biblical passages seem to have either these sorts of texts or similar traditions in their backgrounds.

Deuteronomy 32:42 speaks of drinking the blood and devouring the flesh of the opponents in battle. God’s arrows are “drunk with blood” and God’s sword “devours flesh.”

War is also described in language of eating and drinking in Isaiah 34:6-7. This idea of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of the enemy is altered significantly in Isaiah 49:26, when the defeated opponents of Israel are made by God to eat their own flesh and drink their own blood.

Lest anybody think this is just an Old Testament phenomenon, Revelation 19:17-18 portrays a scene in which an angel invites the birds to come and feast on the flesh of kings, captains and soldiers who have apparently been exposed to the elements by their captors. This hideous event is called “the great supper of God.”

Isaiah 20:4 describes captives taken in war being marched away from their homeland naked. Isaiah, the prophet, is commanded to walk around naked for three years to symbolize a threat from God against foreign nations concerning the way they will be treated after future defeats.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 is a legal text which presumes the parading of captives in front of Israelite men so that they can choose the best-looking women for wives. This passage provides regulations for carrying out such actions.

In Psalm 23:5 God prepares a banquet for God’s soldiers, while the captive opponents are forced to watch. The enemy captives are not specifically described as naked in this passage, but various sources indicate this was a common practice in the Ancient Near East.

The idea that prisoners of war have become the property of the victors, who may do with them as they wish, is as old as the practice of war itself. Stripping prisoners naked in order to humiliate and shame them appears to be presumed as normal behavior by the Bible.

In recent centuries, the world has begun to overcome this presumption, along with other ancient presumptions like slavery and the subjugation of women.

In 1949 representatives from around the world gathered in Geneva for the Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War. The convening of this conference was a visionary act which prevailed against millennia of habitual human behavior, even though many of these behaviors were supported by our religious traditions, as the biblical texts above illustrate.

I suppose one could argue that the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the U. S. military was biblical, but this is one more example of the problem of accepting biblical standards of behavior in the modern world without critical reflection. Careful consideration of these biblical passages may reveal the truth to us in many ways.

One revelation is that the brutality we see in the modern world is nothing new. Another revelation is that ethical behavior in the modern world may require moving against the grain of biblical assumptions. Deciding when to go against the current of the Bible’s presuppositions is not easy.

This means that modern faith communities have hard work to do with the Bible, work that moves far beyond reading the Bible as a simplistic book of instructions and denouncing any repugnant behavior as unbiblical.

Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.