A subject clearly related to murder is the question of war. Whenever war is not conducted in accordance with the Word of God, then it amounts to nothing more than mass murder sanctioned by the civil authority. Consequently, it is important for us to know something of what biblical war looks like. When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies . . . (Deuteronomy 20: 1-20)
This chapter on war can be divided into four categories. The first concerns the need to fight courageously (vv. 1-4). The second section has to do with exemptions from military service (vv. 5-9). The third subject addressed are the rules for seige warfare (vv. 10-18). The fourth is related to the question of treatment of fruit trees during war (vv. 19-20).
The first exhortation is to be strong and courageous. Horses and chariots were the pride of ancient military might. Israel did not have them, and they were instructed not to worry about it. God was with them, and He had done some significant damage to the Egyptian armored tank divisions. The horse and rider were thrown into the sea (Ex. 15:4). On the verge of battle, the priest of God declared words of encouragement to the army. The Hebrews used to annoint a “priest for the war,” and he is the one who would declare these words to them. The men of Israel heard from God first—they knew the cause was just, and that God was going to fight for them in it. Cowardice was excluded (vv. 3-4).
Then there is question of exemptions from service. Once the soldiers had heard from God, they then heard from the military officers. The officers were required by the law of God to be generous with the men of Israel—ferocity was reserved for the enemy. There were three humanitarian exemptions from service. All of them were related to “foundations,” and showed that Israel was not permitted to forget what they were fighting for—a way of life under the blessing of God. A man who had not yet lived in a house he had built was free to go (v. 5). A man who had not yet eaten from the fruit of his vineyard was also free to go home(v. 6). This process of coming to eat the fruit of the land was a lengthy one, taking five years (Lev. 19:23-25; Jer. 31:5). And a man who was betrothed was free to stay in order to get married (v. 7). This is reinforced later in Deuteronomy when a newlywed is also exempted (24: 5). Cowards were also exempted from having to go. The reason given here is that cowardice is contagious (v. 8). After the army has assumed its final form, the captains shall be appointed (v. 9). This shows us that Israel was not to have a drafted or conscripted army. They could compel muster, but they could not force someone to the battlefront.
Then there is the question of siege warfare. The cities against which they will fight are divided into two categories. The first is outside the boundaries of the promised land (v. 15). An offer of peace is to be made (v. 10). If accepted, the people there become vassals (v. 11). If they fight, then every male will be put to the sword (v. 13). The remainder belongs to Israel as spoil (v. 14). But cities within the territory of Canaan are to be utterly destroyed as an act of holy war (v. 16-18). The reason for this is two-fold. The first is that this is divine judgment upon these nations in particular (Gen. 15:16). The second is given in this text: even in defeat the pagans could become victors (v. 18).
The last regulation for war concerned the fruit trees — or, as we might put it, the infrastructure of agribusiness. When the siege was long, the Israelites were still not to lay waste to the country round about. They were first of all to remember why they were fighting. Why take possession of a smoking wasteland? And second, they were to be sensitive to the typology of trees. The Hebrew here literally reads “for man is a tree of the field to come before thee into a state of siege.” This is a strange remark but it seems to indicate Israel was not to destroy the one fruitful thing about the place. What the men were not (but ought to be), the trees still were.
Because of the nature of the applications, we have to be careful in how we think through these things. For those who think biblically about warfare, conscription is out. Men were obligated to go to war, but it is important to note the nature of the obligation. It was a moral obligation, not a legal one. Secondly, in the armies of Israel, experience was preferred—the fighting was done by those who had already had the opportunity to establish themselves. This is the reverse of what we do. We send out eighteen and nineteen- year-old young men who are not established. And last, we see that warfare was a judgment on fruitlessness—it was not to be new form of fruitlessness.