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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Captives

The treatment of persons taken in war among ancient nations throws great light upon many passages of Scripture. The eastern conqueror often stripped his unhappy captives naked, shaved their heads, and made them travel in that condition, exposed to the burning heat of a vertical sun by day, and the chilling cold of the night. Such barbarous treatment was to modest women the height of cruelty and indignity; especially to those who had been educated in softness and elegance, who had figured in all the superfluities of ornamental dress, and whose faces had hardly ever been exposed to the sight of man. The Prophet Isaiah mentions this as the hardest part of the sufferings in which female captives are involved: "The Lord will expose their nakedness." The daughter of Zion had indulged in all the softness of oriental luxury; but the offended Jehovah should cause her unrelenting enemies to drag her forth from her secret chambers into the view of an insolent soldiery; strip her of her ornaments, in which she so greatly delighted; take away her splendid and costly garments, discover her nakedness, and compel her to travel in that miserable plight to a far distant country, a helpless captive, the property of a cruel lord. Arrived in the land of their captivity, captives were often purchased at a very low price. The Prophet Joel complains of the contemptuous cheapness in which the people of Israel were held by those who made them captives: "And they have cast lots for my people; and have given a boy for a harlot, and sold a girl for wine, that they might drink." The custom of casting lots for the captives taken in war appears to have prevailed both among the Jews and the Greeks. The same allusion occurs in the prophecy of Obadiah: "Strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem," Obadiah 1:11 . With respect to the Greeks, we have an instance in Tryphiodorus:—

"Shared out by lot the female captives stand, The spoils divided with an equal hand;

Each to his ship conveys his rightful share, Price of their toils and trophies of the war."

2. By an inhuman custom which is still retained in the east, the eyes of captives taken in war were not seldom put out, sometimes literally scooped or dug out of their sockets. This dreadful calamity Samson had to endure from the unrelenting vengeance of his enemies. In a posterior age, Zedekiah, the last king of Judah and Benjamin, after being compelled to behold the violent death of his sons and nobility, had his eyes put out, and was carried in chains to Babylon. The barbarous custom long survived the decline and fall of the Babylonian empire; for by the testimony of Mr. Maurice, in his history of Hindostan, the captive princes of that country were often treated in this manner by their more fortunate rivals; a red hot iron was passed over their eyes, which effectually deprived them of sight, and at the same time of their title and ability to reign. To the wretched state of such prisoners, the Prophet Isaiah alludes in a noble prediction where he describes in very glowing colours the character and work of the promised Messiah: "He hath sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised," as captives too frequently were by the weight of their fetters.

3. It seems to have been the practice of eastern kings, to command their captives taken in war, especially those that had, by the atrociousness of their crimes, or the stoutness of their resistance, greatly provoked their indignation, to lie down on the ground, and then put to death a certain part of them, which they measured with a line, or determined by lot. This custom was not, perhaps, commonly practised by the people of God, in their wars with the nations around them; but one instance is recorded in the life of David, who inflicted this punishment on the Moabites: "And he smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive: and so the Moabites became David's servants, and brought gifts," 2 Samuel 8:2 . But the most shocking punishment which the ingenious cruelty of a haughty and unfeeling conqueror ever inflicted on the miserable captive, is described by Virgil in the eighth book of the AEneid; and which even a Roman, inured to blood, could not mention without horror:—

"Quid memorem infandas caedes? quid facta tyranni," &c.

Line 483.

"What words can paint those execrable times, The subjects' sufferings, and the tyrant's crimes! That blood, those murders, O ye gods! replace

On his own head, and on his impious race: The living and the dead at his command

Were coupled face to face, and hand to hand, Till, choked with stench, in loathed embraces tied,

The lingering wretches pined away, and died." DRYDEN.

It is to this deplorable condition of a captive that the Apostle refers, in that pathetic exclamation, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Who shall rescue me, miserable captive as I am, from this continual burden of sin which I carry about with me; and which is cumbersome and odious, as a dead carcass bound to a living body, to be dragged along with it wherever it goes?

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Captives'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/c/captives.html. 1831-2.

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