What Does God Require? Part 3: The Land & Warfare

Even in the midst of the crisis of warfare, we find that in Israel God’s people are commanded to treat creation with care. In Deut 20:19-20 we find an obscure, but very interesting law:

When you besiege a city for many days, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them. Indeed you may eat from them, but you shall not cut (them) down. For is the tree of the field a man that it should be besieged by you? Only a tree that you know does not produce food may you destroy and cut down, and you may build your siegeworks against the city with which you are at war until it falls.

Ancient Israel was blessed with an array of “food-bearing trees.” Oded Borowski lists the fig, olive, date, sycamore (that would be the fig-bearing Ficus sycamorus, not the enormous non-fruit bearing sycamore of North America), apricot, carob, almond, pistachio, and walnut as indigenous to Canaan, as well as several that cannot be identified with certainty by means of their biblical appellatives. All of these trees faced similar developmental realities—if maintained they would produce for generations, but full maturity preceded production (cf. Deut 20:6). Regarding the all-important olive tree, Larry Stager reports that it takes five or six years for the trees to begin to flower, and as many as twenty years to reach full maturity. Even then, they bear fruit only every other year. “It is commonly said that one plants an olive yard not for one’s self but for one’s grandchildren.”[1]  Similarly, Steven Cole reports that the female date palm—a treasured source of preservable, calorie-rich fruit—”may take as long as twenty years before they produce their first fruit.”[2]  The crops born of these trees were a mainstay of the Iron II Israelite economy and diet. And of course the great dream of the Israelite was a level of national security and prosperity in which every citizen might “live in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba”(1 Kgs 4:25).

In light of the long-term value of food-bearing trees, it is no surprise that a standard aspect of ancient Near Eastern warfare, well before Israel’s settlement in the land, was the decimation of a besieged enemy’s vineyards and orchards. The goal was to cripple the life support systems of the enemy for decades beyond the actual assault, regardless of whether that assault were successful or not. The Assyrians (who I affectionately refer to in my classes as “The Borg of the ancient Near East”) regularly communicated this strategy through text and image in an attempt to intimidate their opponents. Sargon II boasts regarding his assault on the store-city of Ursal:

I entered triumphantly … Into his pleasant gardens, the adornments of his city which were overflowing with fruit and wine … came tumbling down … His great trees, the adornment of his palace, I cut down like millet … The trunks of all those trees which I had cut down I gathered together, heaped them in a pile and burned them with fire.[3]

Shalmaneser III declares in his Suhu annals, “We will go and attack the houses of the land of Suhu; we will seize his cities … we will cut down their fruit trees.”[4]

So what might be the rationale for Deuteronomy’s law? Clearly the sort of environmental terrorism described in the Assyrian texts was the norm in Israel’s cultural context, and historically it had proven itself highly effective. Yet Israel is forbidden from the practices of their neighbors. To quote Michael Hasel, Israel is forbidden from such retaliatory tactics because “it would not be in Israel’s interest to destroy the very resources that would later sustain them.”[5]  In other words, the instant results of this sort of short-term success, were ultimately self-destructive.

In sum, in Israelite law, even in the midst of the crisis of warfare, human enterprise was not a worthy excuse for wiping out the future productivity of the land. Rather, the fact that it took a generation for an olive orchard to come to full fruition deserved deference. As I ponder the newest strip mall in my neighborhood, the irreversible spoilation of “mountain top removal” coal mining,[6]  and the decimation of my planet’s rainforests, [7] I wonder what corporate America might say about God’s law to Israel? I wonder what God might have to say to those of us who are growing rich from these endeavors?

[1] Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 96.

[2] Steven W. Cole, “The Destruction of Orchards in Assyrian Warfare,” Assyria 1995: Proceedings of the 10th Anniversary Symposium of the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project Helsinki, September 7-11, 1995 (S. Parpola and R. M. Whiting eds.; Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1997), 30.

[3] ARAB 2:87, text 161.

[4] RIMB 2:295.

[5] Hasel, Military Practice and Polemic: Israel’s Laws of Warfare in Near Eastern Perspective (Andrews Univ Press, 2005), 35.

[6] Mountaintop removal (MTR) is a relatively new form of coal mining that requires the targeted site to be clear cut and then leveled by the use of explosives in order to reach the minerals desired. Demolition may extend as far as 1,000 feet below the surface. The “overburden” (the vegetation, topsoil, rock, etc.) is typically dumped into surrounding valleys. Due to the need to dump the “overburden,” 6,700 “valley fills” were approved in central Appalachia between 1985 and 2001 and “[t]he U.S. EPA estimates that over 700 miles of healthy streams have been completely buried by mountaintop removal and thousands more have been damaged” (Erik Reece, “Moving Mountains,” Orion [Jan/Feb 2006]. Cited 30 August 2006. Online: http://www.grist.org/article/reece). The environmental results of this method are literally devastating—water tables under the mountain are eliminated, surrounding ground water is frequently poisoned by the coal slurry byproduct, and the potential for the re-growth of forests or any type of plant life larger than grasses is rendered improbable (ibid.). The rationale for MTR is profit—the utilization of explosives and large machinery significantly reduces the coal companies’ need for workers. See the web site “Appalachian Voices” for a grassroots perspective on the profound impact that this mining method is having upon the lives, income, property, and health of the poor in Appalachia (http://www.appvoices.org/index.php?/site/mtr_overview/.htm).

[7] For an introduction to this enormous problem see http://www.rain-tree.com/facts.htm and Laura Tangley, “Saving the Forest for the Trees,” National Wildlife Federation (Dec/Jan  2009): 24-30.

Sandra Richter is Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Affiliate Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University’s Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department. She is a popular speaker and has published on an array of topics. Her most recent book is The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

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