Chumash Themes #21: Wars of the Jews.
The Torah innovation of “battlefield ethics.”
Everyone knows that the most popular Hebrew word is shalom, peace. Shalom is the final thought of the Amidah prayer, and the final thought of the Grace After Meals. Shalom is emphasized throughout Torah literature, and it is said that one of the names of God is Shalom.1
The Torah, however, does not ignore the fact that war is a fundamental part of human events. In the Torah, we see four types of war-related discussions:
- The laws of warfare, as described primarily in Deuteronomy chapters 20, 21 and 23.
- Wars that the Jews are commanded to wage – e.g. the war against Amalek (Deut. 25:17-19) and the war against the Canaanite nations (Deut. 7:1-2).
- Historical descriptions of wars – both internecine and external – that actually took place. These can be found starting with Abraham, throughout the Torah and into the prophets, ending with the description of the war with Babylon when the first Temple was destroyed.
- Prophecies about war in the Messianic era, and the place of battle at that time.
To get a better understanding of the Jewish perspective on war, let’s examine each of these four categories.
The Laws of War
When the Torah presents laws for behavior on the battlefield, it is primarily coming to address the urges that are released when the “dogs of war” are let loose. When people are expected to negate the most basic of human instincts – self-preservation – and immerse in the inherent repugnance of killing, many of the fine points of what makes us human and Godlike can be swept away. So the Torah introduces into human consciousness the concept of “battlefield ethics,” to prevent the army and its soldiers from sinking into a state of depravity.
One of the first such laws is actually the prohibition against using iron to build the Temple altar. The verse says, “Do not build the altar of cut stones, since you have defiled it but utilizing your sword.”2 In many ancient and even medieval societies there was an intermingling between warriors and religion. With this law, the Torah very clearly delineates the difference between service of God – which is holy and merciful – and the bloodshed of war, which must be kept outside the Temple.
The reality is that war makes one callous and cruel. Therefore, since God Himself commanded the Jews to rid the land of evil, God likewise promised the soldiers that they would retain their compassionate nature. In the words of our parsha: “God will have compassion on you, and reverse any display of anger that might have existed.”3
The Book of Deuteronomy offers more intricate laws of how and when to go to battle, and how to treat an enemy and captured territory. For example:
- Deuteronomy 20:10 states the requirement to try to find a peaceful solution to any conflict. The verse says: "When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace." Only if their response is negative are you permitted to attack. Even then, the army is to allow the enemy an escape route should they desire to leave the battlefield.4
- Deuteronomy chapter 23 emphasizes how the laws of purity and cleanliness are to be kept even in the camp. Since it is quite common that soldiers experience a general lowering of civility, detailed laws are taught even about the construction of latrines
In halachic terms, there is another issue: It is forbidden to study Torah in the presence of human wastes.5 So by mandating proper latrines, the Torah is ensuring that even in the army, the obligation of Torah study continues – to help maintain the spiritual level of the soldiers. For after all, Jewish wars are ultimately won based not on tanks and planes, but on spiritual merits.
- Deuteronomy 20:19-20 teaches the prohibition against wanton waste in the context war. Battle is always the supreme waste of resources – money, materials, and even human beings. To not allow ourselves to become desensitized, the Torah teaches that when using the trees around the battlefield to construct fortifications, do not use fruit trees that could be utilized for food purposes.
The Eglah Arufa
Deuteronomy chapter 21 presents an unusual law: The Torah says that if a corpse is found on an intercity road, and the murderer cannot be found, then the community leaders are to perform a ceremony where they take responsibility for the misdeed and ask forgiveness from God for the lawlessness in their area. This law is a fascinating lesson in the degree of accountability the Torah requires from Jewish leaders.
This law is even more unusual considering its placement in the context of the (seeming unconnected) laws of war. One would think that when a country is at war, and pillage and destruction fill the land, one more corpse would hardly be noticed. So here the Torah is trying to heighten our sensitivities: One may be obligated to go to war and kill, but we must not become inured to the value of human life. As Golda Meir famously said, “We can forgive our enemies for killing our children, but not for turning our children into killers.”
This is the Jewish approach. War may be required, but only as a last resort, and without losing sight of the damage that can be brought to the soul of the soldier.
The second discussion concerns the two times the Jewish people are actually commanded to go out and wage war. The first is against Amalek, and the second is regarding the conquest of the Land of Israel. These two have fundamentally different rationales, and therefore separate sets of laws.
The war against Amalek is a reaction to an unprovoked attack on the Jewish people. As the Jewish people travel through the desert, immediately after the Exodus from Egypt, they are ambushed by Amalek. Amalek is not worried about the Jews attacking them, nor are they interested in conquering the Jewish Land – we were nomads in the desert. They attacked in order to show the world that the Jews are just like all other nations and there is no need to take seriously the miraculous events of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea. This wanton and brazen attack earned Amalek the eternal enmity of God.
But beyond threatening the physical existence of the Jewish people, Amalek was primarily attacking the lofty spiritual ideals they had introduced to the world. The Jewish people demonstrated the concept of freedom from human slavery and subservience to God. The despots of the world cannot allow that. So Amalek attacks this idea and those who represent it. Therefore, the Jews are commanded to eradicate this opposition completely and totally from the world. A human could not make such a decision, but this is the Godly wisdom: By espousing such contempt for freedom and human worth, Amalek abdicates its place in the world.
The second commandment is the war to conquer the Land of Canaan. In this case, the Jews must first try to accomplish the acquisition in a peaceful manner, with war as only a final resort. Under the leadership of Moses, and then Joshua, the Jews send missives and letters, enjoining the Canaanites to either leave the land peacefully, or to stay in the land under Jewish auspices.6
This commandment needs to be put into perspective of the ownership of Israel. God had promised the land to Abraham and his descendents as an eternal possession.7 Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Twelve Tribes all lived in the land, but left temporarily during the Egyptian exile. When the Jewish people returned, they did not attack at first, but suggest that the usurping Canaanites return to their traditional homes. We only fight those who choose to fight us.
The third aspect of war discussed in the Torah is historical accounts of battles that took place. There are many, but it is interesting to note one specific battle that did not take place. In the beginning of the Book of Kings, there is a rebellion against the house of David. King Rechabam prepares to go to war against the rebels (see 1-Kings 12:23 on), when the prophet comes to him and stops the war. “You have no right to go to war against other Jews. This is not an enemy, but a brother.” Rechabam listens to the prophet, folds his army and returns home. The Torah is emphasizing that civil war is for only the most extraordinary circumstances.
The last aspect of war discussed in the Torah is regarding the Messianic era, exemplified by that immortal verse that is repeated twice in the prophets: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”8 There is no greater testimony to peace as the ultimate goal of Judaism.
On one hand, the Torah is realistic that in a world with enemies, one may need to go to battle. But war is not noble. It can be tolerated when needed. It must be directed to not get out of hand, and contained within Divine guidelines. We must keep the goals and dreams of the Jewish people firmly targeted toward bringing about a peaceful, civilized, God-conscious world.
- Talmud – Shabbat 10b
- Exodus 20:21
- Deut. 13:18
- Maimonides (Kings 6:4,5,7) with Kesef Mishnah
- Orach Chaim 83:1 with Mishnah Berurah 5
- Maimonides (Kings 6:5)
- Genesis 15:18
- Isaiah 2:4; Micha 4:3