War in Judaism: Wars of Necessity and The Rules (Part 2)

Part One Covers Pacifism and Herem in the Jewish tradition.

Part Two Covers Wars of Necessity and the Rules outlining said wars.

Part Three Covers Modern Rabbinical Interpretations.

Wars of Necessity

This is not the only kind of war that can occur under Judaism– if God was not around, no self-defense would be possible. Thus, a milhemet hovah, in contrast to the milhemet herem, is simply a war that must be fought – one can think of any defensive war as a milhemet hovah. This does not exclude wars fought pre-emptively (such as attacking a neighbor whose military shows signs of threatening power) or preventatively (to eliminate a possible opponent before they can even begin to become a threat), but the key here is “defense”. These are not wars commanded by God – for these battles, God is not considered a strategist, leader, or general in the army of Israel. God, however, establishes these rules. The rules for milhemet hovah were developed prior to this occurrence (at least taking the chronology of the Hebrew Bible into account), but their implementation occurs after the Israelites had obtained the promised territory of the covenant.

The primary listing of rules for defensive wars is listed in Deuteronomy 20. Firstly, there are three types of men who are not allowed to go into battle, as depicted by verses 5-7:

The officers also shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Who is the man that has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would dedicate it. Who is the man that has planted a vineyard and has not begun to use its fruit? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would begin to use its fruit. And who is the man that is engaged to a woman and has not married her? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would marry her.’ Then the officers shall speak further to the people and say, ‘Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers’ hearts melt like his heart.’

Any man who has just built a house and has not lived in it yet cannot participate in military action; likewise, any man who has not reaped a harvest, gotten married while engaged, or anyone who is a coward cannot go. These might seem like odd prohibitions, but each one emphasizes a central concept – obligation. How could a person be a farmer and be a soldier at the same time? That person, in some sense, has a job to finish that is necessary for the community as well as tradition – if he has not harvested yet, he should stay until the job is done. This is applicable to the building of a house or the start of a marriage as well. As for the coward’s remark, this would be a pragmatic concern at the very least – no one wants a cowardly soldier on a battlefield.


What follows these prohibitions are a kind of jus ad bellum, or “right to wage war,” criteria in the Judaic tradition. Deuteronomy 20:10-13 puts certain conditions on the enactment of war:

When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. When the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword.

The first action of a war is peace – this is interesting in contrast to the milhemet herem. These territories are not those that God promised; thus, a peace treaty must be offered first in order that the land holdings would be given over without any conflict. As shown earlier, the first imperative of all Jewish wars is peace – this is a perfect reflection of that desire.

However, peace in antiquity is not a mutual agreement, but a surrender, as all the persons within a city become slaves to the Israelites. Further, “slavery” in Israel meant “indentured servitude,” a contract whereby a slave serves his/her master for a time and is then released after a certain period of time. Regardless, since the armies of Israel would be standing outside the gates of whatever city they wanted, it basically amounts to unconditional surrender. Rejecting the Israelites’ offer means they can attack by any means necessary – specifically, kill all the males in the city. However, there is a further prohibition to who and what the Israelites can take and kill.

According to Deuteronomy 20:14-15:

Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby.

Thus, the law is clear in that the spoils of a war, taking place outside the promised land, are for Israel to use. God, as one can see, is still mentioned as the “person who wins the war for Israel”, but his involvement is not direct.

There is one final law that the Israelites must follow in a war situation – they cannot cut down or destroy fruit bearing trees. Deuteronomy 20:19-20 explicates this more fully:

When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.

Respecting the fact that natural resources are a treasure not to be wasted, this seems an obvious prohibition. If Israel takes over a city, it is best not to destroy the natural resources that come along with such a territory, even if to do so would be militarily advantageous – one could be in the same situation as the enemy at some point in time, and thus keeping such trees are a necessity. In addition, the nation of Israel would not be able to benefit from the same resource either. In any case, to destroy food in this way as a war tactic is tantamount to poisoning a water supply; God must consider this a “unjust means.”

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.