The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
How to make war

by Avraham ben Yaakov

The Hebrew root SHALOM, which means PEACE, appears 887 times in the Torah, Prophets and Holy Writings. By contrast, the Hebrew root LACHAM in the sense of warfare appears no more than 576 times. This shows that PEACE is the highest value in the Torah, the ultimate good.

God promised Abraham he would come to his fathers in PEACE (Genesis 15:15). Joseph blessed Pharaoh with PEACE (Gen. 45:27). Jethro sent Moses in PEACE (Exodus 4:18) and greeted him in PEACE (Ex. 18:7). The standard Hebrew greeting is PEACE (Genesis 29:6; 45:27; Esther 9:30). One of God's greatest blessings is PEACE in the land (Leviticus 26:6). God gave Pinchas His covenant of PEACE (Numbers 25:12). The priests bless the people with PEACE (Num. 6:26).

Bloodshed began when Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4:8). It was in the sixth generation of Cain's descendants that Tubal Cain - named after his ignominious ancestor - became "the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron" (Gen. 4:22) - i.e. the weapons of war.

The Torah abhorrence of the folly of war is apparent in the prophetic vision of the Age of Messiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks, and nation will not raise the sword against nation, and they shall no longer learn war " (Isaiah 2:4).

A fact of life

Yet until the time of Messiah we live in a world where war is one of the facts of life. We therefore need to know how the Torah teaches us to make war when this is necessary.

The Torah gives man the inviolable right to self-defense: "If someone comes to kill you, get up and kill him first" (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 5a based on Exodus 22:1).

The Torah gives explicit lessons on warfare in our present portion of SHOFTIM, whose laws are mainly concerned with the judiciary, kingship, priesthood and government, who are charged with responsibility in matters of state:

"When you go forth to war against your enemies. do not fear them, for HaShem your God is with you. Hear O Israel: HaShem is your God. When you draw close to a city to fight against it, then call them to PEACE.,,

Deuteronomy 20 vv. 1, 3-4, 10

Israel were commanded to make war against certain nations, and much of the history told in the Bible concerns Israel's various wars. This has led some to slander Israel as if the Torah glorifies warfare and conquest, but that is a fallacy and a distortion. The actual number of wars recorded in the Bible during the 1390 years from the birth of Abraham (1812 B.C.E.) until the destruction of King Solomon's Temple (422 B.C.E.) is small compared to the numbers of wars that have gripped the world incessantly in later times.

Israel were explicitly commanded not to wage war against certain neighboring peoples such as Edom (Deut. 2:4-5), Moab (Deut 2:9) and Ammon (Deut 2:19). Israel could only fight these peoples if they attacked.

The only nations against whom Israel were commanded to wage war were the Amalekites - inveterate, unrepentant terrorist killers (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) - and the Seven Canaanite Nations, who were irredeemably corrupt idol-worshipers (Leviticus 20:18). Even so, before attacking them, Israel were first to invite them to make PEACE.

"When you draw close to a city to fight against it, then call them to PEACE.But if they will not make peace with you but they make war against you, then you shall besiege them."

Deuteronomy 20 vv 10, 12

God's witnesses

The wars commanded by the Torah do not have the same goal as most of the wars that have been waged historically by the various nations, whose primary purpose has been to conquer others in order to gain more and better territories, wealth and resources.

Israel's purpose is not mere territorial control but to serve as God's witnesses (Isaiah 43:10) and to radiate the light of His Torah to the nations in order to bring them to the knowledge of God. When Israel pursue this purpose through warfare, where this is necessary, the priest can truly tell them that they have no need to fear, "for it is HaShem your God who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies in order to deliver you" (Deuteronomy 20:4).

The call to PEACE that Israel are commanded to make to their adversaries before commencing battle is a call for them to accept upon themselves the Seven Noahide Commandments that apply to all humanity. If they do so, all of them are spared without exception (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:1).

"And it shall be, if they give you the answer of peace and open up to you, then it shall be that all the people that are found therein shall become tributary to you and serve you."

Deuteronomy 20:11

Historically, in almost all cases where one nation conquered and subjugated another, the victors willfully and mercilessly humiliated and exploited the subject people.

But the tributary status of nations that make peace with Israel on Israel's terms - acceptance of the Seven Noahide Commandments - is actually the greatest honor, as these nations thereby become attached to the service of the One God - for Israel are nothing but His servants (Leviticus 25:42) and their national mission is only to glorify Him (Isaiah 49:3).

Do not wantonly destroy

If the enemy refuse to make peace, Israel are permitted to make war against them even if it means laying siege against them until they die of starvation, thirst or disease, because if they refrain, the enemy will sooner or later fight against them (Rashi on Deut. 20:12).

Yet the Torah places a most important limit on "all-out war":

"When you besiege a city for a long time in making war against it to take it, you may not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you may not cut them down. For is the tree of the field man, that it should be under siege from you?

"Only the trees which you know not to be trees giving food, may you destroy and cut down in order to build bulwarks against the city that makes war against you until it falls. "

Deuteronomy 20:19-20

One of the classic military strategies that has characterized many wars until today is the "scorched earth" policy, which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing or withdrawing from an area. A notorious example of this was the deliberate burning of the oil fields of Kuwait by the retreating Iraqi army under orders from Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War (1991).

This is forbidden under the 1977 Geneva Conventions (Protocol I Article 54):

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

This prohibition is clearly rooted in the Torah prohibition against willfully destroying useful resources. But despite being prohibited, it is still a common practice.

Besides being prohibited in the heat of war, the destruction of useful resources - even unwanted household utensils and the like, or even edible food that could be used for animal feed, compost etc. - is also included in the Torah prohibition against wanton destruction, which applies not only to "fruit trees" but to all items that could potentially be of use.

We need to take this prohibition with the utmost seriousness in an age when growing populations across the world combined with global economic recession and widespread poverty are making the value of scant resources ever more apparent.




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