Scripture: “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.” Deuteronomy 20:19-20 ESV
Observation: Having explained to the people how to discern divine prophecy, Moses then reviews the procedural and trial laws concerning accused manslayers seeking asylum in the cities of refuge (19:1-13), as well as prohibitions against moving property boundaries (19:14) and parameters concerning the testimony of witnesses (19:15-21). Then, pausing from the people’s internal affairs of maintaining order and peace, Moses shifts the focus to the matters of external warfare (chapter 20). And the protocol is surprising. As theologian Earl Kalland contends, Israel’s rules for combat “run counter to much of ancient as well and modern procedures for war” (The Expositors Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy).
How so? Not surprisingly, their success begins with reliance on God (touched on throughout the law, historical, and prophetic books of the Old Testament). Specifically, God commands Israel to be strong and courageous, for he is with them in battle. And the priests are to remind the troops that the Lord will be present with them and grant them victory. So the message is loud and clear: Don’t be fainthearted, afraid, terrified, or succumb to panic (vv.3-4). Then comes the unexpected twist: the officers are to step forward and excuse those not fit for the battle for one of the following exemptions:
- recently acquired a home (permission to enjoy the reward of his work ethic before engaging in war),
- recently planted a vineyard (permission to enjoy the fruit of his labor before parting for war),
- recently married (permission to enjoy the company of his wife; one-year exemption), and
- the fearful and fainthearted (who would otherwise discourage the ranks).
Wow! None of these exemptions would fly in our world today. And their aggressive combat strategy would not be welcomed either. How so? Moses first outlines the tactics for the cities outside of the Promised Land. Israel must initially offer the people terms of peace (v.10). If accepted, Israel would conscript them to indentured labor (v.11). If not accepted, Israel must kill all the men and spare women, children, and livestock as booty (vv.12-14). But regarding enemies within the borders of Canaan, Israel is to dedicate all of them to destruction, leaving no survivors or infrastructure (vv.16-18). As shocking as this protocol may sound, we must remember that this historical period of civilization warranted such drastic measures if the nation were to survive.
Lastly, on a more tender note, as presented in the above verses, they must not use trees that bear fruit or provide food when laying siegeworks to breach the walls of their enemies. In a sense, Moses is telling them to retain any resources needed to ensure sustenance after the dust settles (more about that below).
Takeaway: Indeed, Israel’s approach stands apart from the warfare practices of their day. Whereas neighboring countries would conscript all able-body men and employ fear tactics to motivate, Israel’s leader must only select those mentally and physically fit for battle and those not distracted by recent changes in life (i.e., marriage and matters of livelihood). Furthermore, we see Yahweh extend grace to the unfit and his strength to the fit. Indeed, as we will see in the next book of the Bible (Joshua), these attributes of God will inspire and encourage Israel to fight the good fight and gain unfathomable victories.
So how does this apply to us, disciples of Christ, amid our spiritual battles? We also need to rely wholly on God’s grace and might. Satan would like nothing better than for us to lunge into the fray on our strength prematurely. When we do, we easily succumb to his temptations. But if we wait on the Lord, exercising patience during seasons of transition (whether newly married, relocating to a new community, or grieving losses in life), in his perfect timing, he will spark in us the courage and wisdom to know when and how to reengage in the battle. And just as Israel is to spare the fruit-bearing trees for later use, we must prudently use the resources provided by God’s good graces without waste. We must thoughtfully expend our time, talent, and treasure following the Holy Spirit’s lead to ensure longevity.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who exercised courage and wisdom to engage in warfare for our souls. So as his ambassadors, would you please help us to patiently and wisely carry on the battle for the least, the last, and the lost, following your Holy Spirit’s lead to ensure his perfect timing and no waste of the resources you provide? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling