Shoftim—Partial War: The Arboreal Exception

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees.  (Deut 20:19)

It was common practice in ancient warfare to destroy the enemy’s fruit trees and fields. This weakened its economic potential and hampered its ability to fight again in the near future. It may also have been intended to pressure besieged cities into surrendering before they suffered such long-term damage. Deuteronomy forbids destroying trees for such purposes.

Deuteronomy reinforces this prohibition with a rhetorical question. In the JPS translation, the question is rendered, “Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” This translation suggests since trees don’t have the option of relocating within the city walls, it would be unfair to take advantage of their defenselessness.  I prefer an alternative translation: “Are trees in the field human beings that they should be included in your siege?”  Nature is no party to human conflict, and therefore should not suffer because of it.  War occurs in the human sphere; the damage it does there is regrettable enough.

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