From an early age we are taught to respect the belongings of others even if our size and strength make it possible to take them by force. In order to understand the actions of the people of the ancient Near East, we need to make a major adjustment in this thinking. Within the cultural construct of this world, the expectation was that those who were victorious in battle had the right to seize the personal property of those defeated and even enslave the owners of that property. This practice of plundering is mentioned repeatedly in the literature of the ancient world peatedly in the literature of the ancient world and illustrated in the art of the empires that rose to power during the Old Testament era.
Plunder is also mentioned frequently in the Bible; it became one of the first things people contemplated when their leaders advanced the possibility of going to war (Num 14:3). In Bible times, plundering was the legitimate and expected confiscation of personal property and enslaving of defeated people following a military victory. When the fighting ended, the victors gathered and inventoried the goods (2 Chron 20:25). Items on the list included people, animals, household goods, food, clothing, and various forms of jewelry made from precious metals (Gen 34:29; Num 31:9-12, 50; Josh 7:21; Judg 5:30; 1 Sam 14:30).
Once those items were gathered and inventoried, the process of distribution began (Num 31:25-52; 1 Sam 30:21-25). From these and other ancient texts we learn that there were three groups of recipients, each given or shown plunder for a reason:
- Soldiers: Plunder was the only compensation most soldiers received for going into battle. They were not paid a regular wage but were remunerated by plundering the personal possessions of those they defeated. Ezekiel alluded to this practice when noting the imminent hostilities between the kings of Egypt and Babylon: “He [the king of Babylon] will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army” (Ezek 29:19).
- Deity: Plunder was delivered to the sanctuary of the deity who sponsored the victory to pay homage to that divine being.
- Home community: The extraction of plunder and parading of the spoils of war before those back home who had not witnessed the victory persuaded them that the magnitude of the victory was commensurate with the claims made by their leaders.
When the biblical authors formally mention the act of plundering and the plunder itself, they are exploiting expected connotations. For the victors, plunder was a source of pride, cause for celebration, and a symbol of the total victory that had been earned with their efforts (Prov 16:19; Isa 9:3). By contrast, for the losers the surrender of plunder symbolized their disgrace, humiliation, and total defeat (Psa 44:10; 89:41). These connotations can be used to influence our reading of passages in Scripture that emphasize dominance and that threaten or report divine judgment.
For example, the tribe of Benjamin is characterized with this language: “In the evening he divides the plunder” (Gen 49:27)-language that anticipates the military successes of its members such as Ehud, Saul, and Jonathan.
Note how this image came to life in the language of the Benjaminite Saul: “Saul said, Let us go down and pursue the Philistines by night and plunder them till dawn, and let us not leave one of them till dawn, and let us not leave one of them alive” (1 Sam 14:36). In a similar fashion, the success of David was marked by his ability to collect plunder from those whom he defeated (1 Sam 17:52-53; 2 Sam 12:30-31). Conversely, when the Lord threatened the coming of divine retribution for social injustices and covenant violation or when that divine judgment was carried out on his chosen people who were guilty of such sins, it was often linked to being plundered (Judg 2:14; 2 Kings 17:20; Isa 42:22, 24; Jer 17:3; Hosea 13:15). “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as plunder, without charge, because of all your sins throughout your country” (Jer 15:13).
When we consider the highly personal way in which this plundering touched the lives of every single Israelite with the loss of personal possessions so dear to them, we will see it as the powerful call to repentance it was intended to be.
Plundering was also applied metaphorically to those who had never formally taken up arms in the fight. We see this in the case of the Israelites who had been merely observers as the Lord slowly deconstructed the resistance of their Egyptian overlords with plagues. When it was time for God’s people to leave the land, he charged each Israelite woman to ask her Egyptian neighbor for silver and gold articles as well as clothing. “And so you will plunder the Egyptians” (Exo 3:22; read also 12:36).
Plundering was also used as a metaphor for taking advantage of those who are socially disadvantage. In this case, there was no formal declaration of war and no use of conventional weapons. Rather, it was the leaders of God’s people who made laws and the wealthy Israelites who leveraged their money in ways that brought harm to the poor and social outcast. The prophets of the Lord criticized them for putting the plunder of the poor in their houses (Isa 3:14) and for turning widows into plunder and plundering the orphans (Isa 10:2; NIV “making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless”).