I was surprised to discover the concept of rules of engagement which govern how wars are fought. In my mind these rules give the enemy the ways and means of beating the army that abides by them. How these rules evolve and how international law evolves alongside/behind/ahead of them seems convoluted but I believe that the people involved are committed to creating a fairer world from these ideals.
In contrast God’s rules of war detailed by Moses in this chapter are very clear and not quite as expected:
- the priest was to speak to the army before they set off and encourage the men
- then the officers were to allow anyone who fitted into a series of categories to go home – these were anyone who had built a new home and not dedicated, anyone who was engaged but not yet married, anyone whose new vineyard had not produced fruit yet, anyone who was afraid.
- whenever they marched to attack a city far away from their country the Israelites were to offer the option of surrender and for their enemy to become forced labourers working for them
- if a city decided to fight them then they were to kill all the men in the city, but take women, children and livestock as plunder alongside anything else of value
- but if the city was in a neighbouring territory to their own then everything was to be destroyed with no option of surrender or saving anything
- finally they were not to cut down any fruit trees when besieging a city as they would provide food for the army.
What an interesting mixture of rules for fighting. The concept of allowing anyone to go home who had unfinished business or who was scared seems crazy. But in a world where everyman was expected to fight for his country then perhaps it is helpful to know that everyone was equally allowed the possibility of going home to finish their business. Also the exclusion of those who were scared was explained by Moses, that these people would have a bad effect on morale if they stayed.
The rules about the cities far away and close by, are a repeat of how Moses, under God, lead the Israelites in their previous encounters with enemies and how Joshua would continue to do so.
The rule about the fruit trees is both lovely and practical, I wish it was enforced by armies today.
The BBC programme Desert Island Discs interviews famous people around the premise that they are about to be marooned on a desert island and they may take a selection of their favourite music plus the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and a luxury. As far as reading material goes, I think the Bible and Shakespeare will definitely keep a person busy for simply ages. In this blog I have been reading and blogging for about eleven months now and only covered just over 5 books of the Bible, and Shakespeare not only has volume but also human interest in infinite variety.
Shakespeare also understood the principle focused upon in this chapter of Deuteronomy – we don’t need to rely on other people to tell us our futures, we need to live it ourselves. The Mosaic Law makes it clear we live under God. I am not sure where Shakespeare sat with God but he definitely knew his Bible. The question of fate returns again and again in Shakespeare’s plays, two examples that always stick with me are from Macbeth and Julius Caesar. The full quote used in the title is:
“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
(Julius Caesar, 1.2.146), Cassius to Brutus
And in Macbeth there is a question running throughout the play whether Macbeth would have acted as he did without the witches’ prophecy to prompt him? Would he have murdered Duncan, Banquo and Lady McDuff with her children if he had not been driven by the possibility of power? The balance swings between assuming he had ambition and the required ruthlessness (with some borrowed from his wife) against he was ambitious but loyal and only prompted to break tradition and fealty because the idea was planted in his mind.
When the Bible tells us not to consult those who practice divination or sorcery, or read omens or channel spirits; it does so because these practices entail us giving our life direction from someone other than God. We are accountable and responsible for our own lives under God, and He dictates that the way to live it is one day at a time, step by step without being distracted by other spiritual influences. We can so easily lose His voice in the hubbub of daily life, we do not need to add further voices to that noise.
The first part of this chapter gives clear guidance on dealing with people who break God’s law by worshiping other gods and also those who commit murder. The guidance on witnesses is useful – a person cannot be convicted with evidence from only one witness at least two are needed. Also it is the judges who come from the tribe of Levites and the priests who are to make decisions on how to resolve more difficult cases, and they are to do this with guidance from God.
However the second part of the chapter is about how a king should behave. The fact that Moses foretold the Israelite’s desire to have a king is interesting. But what is far more interesting is the clear rules he left for the people to follow in choosing a king and for the king to follow once in power:
- the king had to be chosen by God
- only an Israelite could become a king
- the king was not to build up an army
- the king was not to buy horses from Egypt for his army
- the king was not to build up a harem “collecting wives who will divert him from the straight and narrow” (The Message, verse 17)
- the king was not to collect gold and silver
- everyday the king was to read the Mosaic Law and he was to study it continuously
The final promise was “if the king reads and learns, he will have a long reign as king in Israel, he and his sons.” (The Message, verse 20).
This set of instructions is particularly developed for kings but could easily be applied to other leaders of people, including business leaders. Whilst the instructions on choosing a leader might not be easily transferable the instructions for behaving as a leader are.
The kind of army that needs horses is not a defensive army, it is an army designed for aggression. A leader who starts from this position is unlikely to resort to more peaceful and collaborative approaches to working with others.
The recommendation around collecting women – well, how many great men have fallen foul of women who distract them from the straight and narrow? History is littered with the destruction caused by such distraction.
To lead with the aim of accumulating more personally, is unlikely to engender loyalty or ultimately create success for the group which is being lead (whatever their collective purpose is).
Finally, everyone can listen to the advice of reading and learning from God’s word continuously.
Moses instructed the people that three times a year they were to gather together at the single place dedicated to worship God. This was for the Passover when they were to celebrate and stay one night before leaving to head home in the morning and continue marking the Passover for six more days. For the Feast of Weeks, they were to come together to celebrate for a night too. However for the Feast of Booths they were to live in the booths at the designated place of worship for seven days. Whilst the summary instructions were that all adult men were to attend these celebrations, the detail meant that everyone was expected to participate. Moses reminded the Israelites to generously bring offerings and sacrifices, and to give thanks to God with their best. The tribes that were further from the place of worship could have been travelling for a few days to reach it, which meant more time away from home. Since the place of worship was not designated until they had successfully entered Canaan, no one could second guess God and try and live closer to it. The logistics of travel adds to the sacrifice demanded by God. Everyone had to celebrate together in one place, regardless of the varying journey times. But in addition to the sacrifice of the journey itself, there was the added risk that if a nation left their towns and cities undefended at three set points in the year, then they were exposed to attack. God was testing their faith in Him through this demand of worship. If they believed and were thankful that He had saved them from Egypt and given them the land, then they should trust that He would keep them safe within that land whether or not they were physically home to defend it. The cost of worshiping God was high, yet at the same time there is a logic to it. If God demanded both the time and the animal sacrifices that He laid out in the law, then He would surely provide both the security and the wealth within the nation to follow His requirements? It is not simply a logic, it is the reciprocity of the commitment God made – recognise me as your Lord and Saviour and obey me with all your heart and soul and mind and I will protect and provide for you. Moses also was clear that there was a reciprocity for lack of faith in God …
In today’s economic climate where debt has become an instrument under management by investment banks, it is hard to imagine a world where every 7 years debts were cancelled. Yet this was the Mosaic Law – debts were cancelled every 7 years and no interest was to be charged by Israelites to Israelites.
From the borrowers’ point of view, there probably was a dual sense of obligation and relief knowing that this was only for 7 years. From the lenders’ perspective they probably had people who they knew could never pay a loan back in under 7 years and then they had to decide whether to make the loan on that basis or not to. However, there was a further obligation to be generous to the poor which would counter the option to say no to a loan. With a system like this the community probably worked together to both support the poor but also to share the load of supporting them. When one reviews the idea what would loans be used for:
- in a time of famine or disaster to survive and rebuild
- unwise or unlucky business dealings
- either of the above leading to someone being proud and perhaps taking a loan from a non-Israelite and they would have charged interest.
Except for the latter example, any money loaned to a person would probably have been spent within the community to as a community even if the loan was not repaid in full, there would have been benefit. In the case of famine or disaster relating to a region, then there would have been the need for loans to be given at a national or regional level – still from individuals to individuals but just neighbours who were further away. Of course there could have been disaster linked to just one or two families, just as a business failure would have been, and these loans would have been from nearby neighbours who could also see how the money was used and whether the borrower was starting to reach a point of being able to repay.
Overall I think most people would have respected the system paying debts back quickly and being generous in return. The Law creates an environment which encouraged this but also dealt with the exceptions by repeating that there would always be poor and they must be treated generously. At least this system prevented the poor from becoming poorer and being exploited by money lenders.