Using the Bible to Simplify War

Recently Netanyahu used reference to Amalak in the Bible as the basis for the war against Hamas.  Often, I have heard “this is just Isaac and Ismael over and over again.”  These are two deeply unhelpful ways of talking about a tragic situation. One demonizes an entire people.  The other makes it seem as though present problems are unresolvable.  One might forget the seasons in Persia or medieval Spain when some of the greatest dialogue, ideas, and poetry were the flowering of the intermingling of Jewish and Moslem people. 

The Bible does not give me easy answers about the situation in Israel and Palestine, but it does give me difficult guidance, and great hope.  I would like to talk about the matters of hope, but first I would like to share a little about the Bible’s instructions to Israel about war.  In doing so, I am afraid I am contributing little to the solution to this heart-rending situation.  I hope, at least, that I will help to keep us from contributing to the problem and it will give us a little something to do while we feel as though nothing can be done.  Since October 7, my heart has been at a stalemate, almost as though I am locked in one place, unable to move, left bereft both because of my kinship with the Jewish people and their sufferings and my committed love for humanity as a whole.  So let us talk bit about war in the Torah, and then let us talk a little about hope.

It is likely that Netanyahu’s comments about Amalek was a reference to 1 Samuel 15 where Samuel tells Saul: “”I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD.

2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: `I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy [1] everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'”

In the LORD’s message to Saul is reference to the events recorded in Numbers 14:39 and is referred to again in Deuteronomy 25:17-19.  It describes a very particular type of warfare for a unique context.  In this kind of war, a human army became a vehicle for the judgment of God, by a specific command of God, for a unique situation.  When this occurred, all the people and possessions of the land where declared “cherem.”

When the Lord describes this warfare in Deuteronomy 20:11, He says,

16 “But when you take cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must kill everyone. 17 You must completely destroy all the people—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. The Lord your God has commanded you to do this. 18 So then they will not be able to teach you to sin against the Lord your God or to do any of the terrible things they do when they worship their gods.

However, in the surrounding verses, Deuteronomy 20:10-15 and 19-20 The LORD makes clear this stands in contrast with other means of warfare:

10 “When you go to attack a city, you must first offer peace to the people there. 11 If they accept your offer and open their gates, all the people in that city will become your slaves and be forced to work for you. 12 But if the city refuses to make peace with you and fights against you, you should surround the city. 13 And when the Lord your God lets you take the city, you must kill all the men in it. 14 But you may take for yourselves the women, the children, the cattle, and everything else in the city. You may use all these things. The Lord your God has given these things to you. 15 That is what you must do to all the cities that are very far from you—the cities that are not in the land where you will live.

19 “When you are making war against a city, you might surround that city for a long time. You must not cut down the fruit trees around that city. You may eat the fruit from these trees, but you must not cut them down. These trees are not the enemy, so don’t make war against them. 20 But you may cut down the trees that you know are not fruit trees. You may use these trees to build weapons for making war against that city. You may use them until the city falls. 

While neither of these scenarios seem like good alternatives, they reveal a difference.  One shows a unique, local, one-time vision of war commanded for a particular purpose.  The other shows warfare that begins with attempts at peace negotiations and does not commit all-out destruction.  It preserves non-combatants. It allows trees to flourish in expectation of a future.  Though we rightly hate the idea of slavery, mentioned later in the chapter, it is worth considering this law in light of the other laws and in light of the law codes of surrounding nations.  In Israel there was not a generational slavery, there were legal protections for servants, and the goal was a gradually integration of these peoples into the society.  The only way this system could work, is if the captives could say, “where I am is better than the place from which I came.”

Part of this system becomes clearer in other iterations of this and similar laws.  People living in an unwalled city bereft of all soldiers would be vulnerable to marauders, thieves, and slave traders.  Those whose shelters were destroyed would be subject to the elements, hunger, and starvation.  Taking the survivors of your enemies of war into your society can be seen as a means of cruelty.  It could also be an act of mercy.  We tend to look at all Biblical forms of servitude through the lens of colonial American slavery, imagining that the more recent would be the more human.  Sadly, the opposite is true.

One reading of this difference sees it as depending on geography, “15 That is what you must do to all the cities that are very far from you—the cities that are not in the land where you will live.”  However, if one knows the rest of the story, it becomes clear that the difference is not that these were enemies in the land but they were people who had a long history of the worst kinds of evils and injustices.  The LORD, we learn, had given them 400 years to repent, but they would not, so He brought Israel out of Egypt and commanded them to judge these nations. 

The fruit of these laws is that these laws seem aberrant and barbaric to us.  Were our perspectives solely shaped by the cultures of ancient Assyria or that of Rome, we would see the way they mitigate the practices of the day.  The mitigations found in the Torah itself toward indentured country men and country women may not be required here, but they could be applied here.  This system functioned not to create an underclass but to create upward mobility for the impoverished.  This trajectory is what I refer to as the “liberating impulse of the Torah.”  When understood rightly, it preserves the dignity of all persons, undermines self-serving systems and sets captives free.  The fact of siblinghood undermines slavery is ultimately seen in the light that the Torah teaches us that we are all descendants of the same God-formed family.  Our very sense of the injustice of the practices prescribed is made possible in part due to the fact that we have lived in cultures saturated in these teachings and have carried their implications forward. 

So we find two very different kinds of warfare in the Torah.  The first, at a particular place and time, was of total destruction, as a one-time judgment of God, against particular persons, and is never a case to be repeated.  The second is normal warfare that requires attempts to make peace, that forbids indiscriminate destruction, and that preserves the life of the survivors.  The second should be so just that survivors of the opposition should want to be part of the nation to which they have lost.  The first was an unrepeatable moment.  The second would prove to be difficult and raises the view of “just war” very high.  And yet, that is the standard which the LORD gave His people.

One other practice, though not of warfare, speaks to this moment.  The establishment of “cities of refuge” speaks on the individual level to a Torah principle on the corporate level.  The six cities of refuge were established in Israel so a “manslayer” would have a place to flee from the “blood avenger.”  Distinctions of intent and culpability are a serious consideration in the Torah.  Accidental killing and provoked killing are not the same as cold blooded murder.  The falsely accused are not guilty.  Guilt by association may not be guilt at all.  The cities of refuge provided a buffer between an uninvestigated and a hot-blooded vengeance.  It allowed for nuance and clarity that could not be gained in the battlefield.  Moments of pause allow for identification of the guilty and calibration of response.   Allowing the community to decide whether the moment requires handing over the guilty or protecting the falsely accused can be a way of limiting the damage in cycles of vengeance and defusing indignation in pursuit of justice.  Though “an eye for an eye” is often characterized as violent retribution, it is also a way of expressing a limit to the violence.  A life may cost a life, but a life should not cost a city.  While the Torah often tells us how much justice may cost, it rarely limits how much mercy can be shown.

I say this at a horrible moment, looking at the deaths from the October 6 massacre.  I say this also looking at the terrible toll taken upon Gaza and its citizens in the pursuit of the perpetrators.  Perhaps it is too soon to reflect or criticize.  Likely, it is too late.  By appealing to the Torah’s description of the unrepeatable war in Canaan, rather than following the prescriptions for war in the Torah, the Netanyahu government has failed both Israel and the Palestinians.  There was a moment, before a single missile was fired, that Israel had the sympathies of the world and could have chosen a different path.  While the eyes of world were watching, the mutilated and charred dead may have been enough to negotiate for the hostages who were living.  Perhaps they would have been enough to negotiate for the surrender of those who planned and carried out this attack.  Following the pattern of Torah, things might have gone very differently.  Finding the texts that justify our actions rather than following the texts that should guide our actions does more harm than good, and the world pays the price.