Friday, April 25, 2008

Just War, Deuteronomy Edition: Trees are Innocent!: Deuteronomy 20 - 21:14

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

It's not, I should say off the top, what today we would consider a just war - even those of us who don't begin from the premise that all wars are unjust.

According to Moses, the Israelite army must be fearless, even when going up against chariots or cavalry (neither of which they seem to have at the moment). Before the battle, the army must be blessed by a priest. Touchingly, the officers permit soldiers to depart the field if they have just built a house, planted their crops, or been engaged to a woman. They also are to permit anyone to leave who is "afraid or fainthearted," an interesting concession that most modern armed forces dispensed with in favour of rigid discipline in the line.

As a general rule, Moses proposes, the Israelites are to offer peace terms when besieging a city. These aren't particularly generous terms - the only bargaining position they may adopt is that the entire population of the city be reduced to slavery and forced to serve the Israelites forever - but it's better than what happens after a successful armed siege: all of the men are to be massacred, then the women, children, and livestock may be taken as "plunder."

When it comes to invading Canaan, though, Moses says that even these rules are much too generous to the losers. Here, the Israelites must murder everything - literally "anything that breathes." If anyone is left alive, Moses explains, they will seduce the Israelites into worshipping foreign gods. Once again we see the contempt of the people re-emerging in these rules of war. Foreigners must be slaughtered because the Israelites are too weak to allow them to live. I was always taught in church that God was judging these various nations for their wickedness, but that's not the primary reasoning that Moses is using here.

Bizarrely, God explicitly provides for the protection of trees in his rules of war. When besieging a city, God says, you may not destroy its trees. If they don't bear fruit, you're allowed to use them if you need to build siege machines, if it's absolutely necessary; but if they're fruit trees, they must not be harmed under any circumstances. The first rationale offered by Moses makes sense: if you don't cut down the tree today, you'll be able to eat its fruit tomorrow. Even during wartime this is so. I wonder what the anti-environmentalist segments of the church think of this notion.

The other reason given by Moses is a little weirder: trees are not people, therefore they cannot flee, therefore it is wrong to "besiege them," therefore they should not be harmed. Some of the Christian translations soften the blow to escape the fact that the Bible is actually seemingly making a moral argument against chopping down defenceless trees, but Jewish translations of the Tanakh make it pretty clear what's going on here: "Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?" No, they're not, so you shouldn't attack defenceless trees!

Either way, it wouldn't be too tough to stretch this verse well beyond the context - the Israelite laws of war - to argue that here the Bible is making an argument for environmental conservation, if not preservation.

Unfortunately, women get less protection than trees, although they do - unlike men - get the opportunity to live in all but the most genocidal wars of cleansing. Moses basically says that if you've captured a city and see an attractive girl, you should take her with you. You are required to shave her head and give her a change of clothes, and then she can be your wife - unless she's not good in bed or gives you some other reason to be displeased, in which case you can let her go. The sole protection for the women involved is that if you sleep with them you can't trade them away as slaves: you have to either marry them or free them.