Sunday, April 29, 2012

War Against Distant Cities (Deuteronomy 20:10-15)

The following quote is taken from

"More Murder Rape and Pillage -  As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you" (Deuteronomy 20:10-14, NLT).

What kind of God approves of murder, rape, and slavery?"

            In examining this passage, it helps to read the entire chapter of Deuteronomy 20:

            We must take several things into account when examining a passage such as this one.  First, the situation described in verses 10-15 are describing a specific response to a specific situation; in this instance, what the Israelites had to do in case of war against a distant city, when they came to settle in the land of Canaan that God promised them.  Verses 1-9 imply that this is a situation in which war had already broken out between the distant city and the Israelites, and an Israelite army had been formed in response. 
            There is something significant to consider here: upon approaching a distant city during a time of war, the Israelite army must first make an offer of peace (verse 10).  They could not simply attack and destroy cities and people wherever and whenever they wished.  There were clear boundaries set.
            We now come to the issue of forced labor of the city that accepted the peace offering made by the Israelites.  Why would such an arrangement be made?  One interesting example is found a bit later in Scripture, in Joshua chapter 9.  In this story, the Gibeonites, a nation who lived close to where the Israelites would be settling, approached the Israelites first and offered themselves in order to make a lasting peace treaty.  For the Gibeonites, this was advantageous to them because they would have an agreement that forever protected them from war with a powerful nation such as Israel, and they could also have the benefit of Israel's protection in case of attack by other nations (Joshua 10:1-15).  This alliance was taken so seriously that it was upheld by the two nations for hundreds of years (2 Samuel 21:1-14).  The Gibeonites felt that forced labor was a fair price to pay for their lives to be spared and protected.
            If the city did not agree to peace but demanded war, there were terrible consequences.  In this instance, every man in the conquered city would be killed, to prevent further uprisings and bloodshed between the two nations.  However, the women and children would be spared.  Again, as in Numbers 31, the text here makes no mention of rape or sexual intercourse.  In the Ancient Near East, slavery as a result of being taken as a prisoner of war was commonplace [1][2][3].  The most likely scenario is that the conquered women and children became slaves to the Israelites, and the Israelites would take over their land and property.  Had the conquered city made a peace treaty and accepted the terms of forced labor, they would have been able to keep their land and property.
            Even though slavery was permitted, there were clear laws prohibiting the gross mistreatment or murder of slaves.  Here are some laws regarding slavery in the Law (Torah), the first five books of the Bible:

Slaves could not be forced to work on the Sabbath; they had a day of rest just as free people did (Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14).
Slaves could celebrate at the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles with their masters (Deuteronomy 16:9-15).
Anyone who beat a slave to death would be punished (Exodus 21:20).
A slave must be immediately set free if their master hit and permanently injured them (Exodus 21:26-27).
The Israelites had to protect foreign slaves who had escaped from their masters; they could not turn them in.  The former slaves could then live as free people among them (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

            In short, this passage must be considered in a historical and cultural context.  God set down regulations for times of war to prevent unnecessary bloodshed, and provided sustenance and protection for those who were taken captive.           

[1] Code of Hammurabi (written circa 1772 BCE), translated into English by L.W. King (1915) #27-29, 32, 133-135
[2] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 43.
[3] Life In The Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell, 1997.  Pgs. 35-36.