A person in bondage, exile, confinement, or under restraint, especially one seized and carried off as a result of war. (Nu 21:1) In ancient times the spoils of war often included, besides captured livestock, the populace of conquered cities and territories. (1Ch 5:21; 2Ch 14:14, 15; Am 4:10) On one occasion the ark of the covenant was carried off as booty, with dire consequences to its Philistine captors. (1Sa 4:11–5:12) References to captives date back to patriarchal times; the first mentioned in the Bible is Lot, who was rescued from the forces of Chedorlaomer by Abraham. (Ge 14:14; 31:26; 34:25-29) In a sense Job, although no war casualty, was in a “captive condition” until Jehovah rescued him from his misery.—Job 42:10.
When the Israelites moved in to possess the Promised Land, certain cities, including their populations, were entirely devoted to destruction, as, for example, Jericho, the firstfruits of the conquest. (Jos 6:17, 21) When capturing other cities not devoted to destruction, the Israelites, unlike the pagan nations, were not allowed to rape the women. If they desired a captive woman for a wife, certain requirements had to be met first.—La 5:11; Nu 31:9-19, 26, 27; De 21:10-14.
However, when enemy nations came up against the Israelites, Jehovah sometimes allowed his people to be carried off captive when they had been unfaithful to him. (2Ch 21:16, 17; 28:5, 17; 29:9) The most notable examples of this were in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., when thousands of Israelites were exiled as captives by the Assyrian and Babylonian World Powers. (See CAPTIVITY.) Ahijah and Jeremiah foretold this coming national disaster. (1Ki 14:15; Jer 15:2) Moses too had warned that their sons and daughters would “go off into captivity” as a penalty for disobedience to Jehovah, adding that if they repented, such captives would in time return. (De 28:41; 30:3) Solomon foresaw captivity resulting from unfaithfulness, and he prayed for Jehovah to release the captives if they repented.—1Ki 8:46-52; 2Ch 6:36-39; see also 2Ch 30:9; Ezr 9:7.
The treatment of captives varied a great deal, depending on many circumstances. Sometimes they were permitted to remain in their own land on condition that they pay tribute and not rebel against their new master. (Ge 14:1-4; 2Sa 8:5, 6; 2Ki 17:1-4) A conquered monarch was sometimes permitted to continue reigning as a vassal king, or he might be replaced. (2Ki 23:34; 24:1, 17) In some instances great numbers of captives were put to death, like the 10,000 who were thrown down from a crag so “they, one and all, burst apart.” (2Ch 25:12) Some conquerors were very cruel and fiendish in their treatment of captives, hanging them “by just their hand” (La 5:12), cutting off their noses and ears (Eze 23:25), blinding them with red-hot irons or boring out their eyes with spears or daggers (Jg 16:21; 1Sa 11:2; Jer 52:11), or “slitting open the pregnant women” of a captured town. (Am 1:13) The sadistic Assyrians, particularly noted for their extreme cruelty, are depicted in monuments as tying captives down and then skinning them alive.
Captives were often led away to forced labor (2Sa 12:29-31; 1Ch 20:3), taken into slavery, or sold as chattel (1Sa 30:1, 2; 2Ki 5:2; Isa 14:3, 4). Often conquerors delighted in roping captives together around the neck or head (compare Isa 52:2), or binding them in fetters (2Ki 25:7), and leading them off “naked and barefoot, and with buttocks stripped,” to their humiliation and shame.—Isa 20:4.
Release and return of the Jewish captives was the happy theme of many prophecies. (Isa 49:24, 25; Jer 29:14; 46:27; Eze 39:28; Ho 6:11; Joe 3:1; Am 9:14; Zep 3:20) The psalmist also looked toward the time when “Jehovah gathers back the captive ones of his people.” (Ps 14:7; 53:6; 85:1; 126:1, 4) Many of these prophecies were fulfilled in a miniature way from and after 537 B.C.E., when a remnant of the captives that had come under control of the Persian Empire began streaming back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and its great temple. (Ezr 2:1; 3:8; 8:35; Ne 1:2, 3; 7:6; 8:17) Certain enemies of Jehovah’s people were especially mentioned as destined for captivity themselves, nations such as Babylon (Isa 46:1, 2; Jer 50:1, 2), Egypt (Jer 43:11, 12; Eze 30:17, 18), and Moab (Jer 48:46).
Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61:1, 2, applying it to himself as sent by Jehovah “to preach a release to the captives and a recovery of sight to the blind.” (Lu 4:16-21) The apostle Paul draws illustrations from the ancient practice of conquerors’ taking captives. (Eph 4:8; 2Co 10:5) In the last book of the Bible the principle is set forth: “If anyone is meant for captivity, he goes away into captivity.”—Re 13:10.