Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

A Closer Examination of Deuteronomy 20:19-20

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

A Closer Examination of Deuteronomy 20:19-20

Article excerpt

The prohibition of bal tashhit (do not destroy), arguably the most important religious precept directly relating to man's relationship with the environment, is derived from the following verses in Deuteronomy 20:19-20:

   When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against
   it to take it, thou shalt not destroy its trees by forcing an axe
   against them: for thou mayst eat of them, and thou shalt not cut
   them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be
   besieged by thee? Only the trees which thou knowst that they be not
   trees for food, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou
   shalt build bulwarks against the city that makes war with thee,
   until it be subdued. (1)

These verses introduce the prohibition of bal tashhit in the seemingly narrow context of preserving fruit-producing trees during a wartime siege. There is no direct indication in these verses that bal tashhit applies to any other objects or in any other situations. Therefore, a literal reading of these verses would leave us with a very limited understanding of the prohibition of bal tashhit and little clue that it would apply to the conservation of all resources. Indeed, this has resulted in the virtual omission of bal tashhit from many examinations of religion and environment, particularly those by non-Jews. The following sections illustrate the interpretation of Deuteronomy 20:19-20 with the accompaniment of the Jewish oral tradition and commentaries, and demonstrate the importance of these commentaries. (2)

TRANSLATION OF DEUTERONOMY 20:19 INTO ENGLISH

The translation provided above follows the Koren Tanakh, and is consistent with most English translations of these verses. The Koren translation interprets the end of the verse ki ha-adam etz ha-sadeh as a rhetorical question: for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by thee? As I will discuss below, I prefer to interpret these words in the manner of the majority of the major biblical commentators in the Jewish tradition, as a statement rather than a rhetorical question. Therefore, before proceeding to a more detailed analysis, I will modify the Koren translation of verse 19 to the following: When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy its trees by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down--for man is a tree of the field--to bring [the city] before thee in a siege. Deuteronomy 20:19-20 contains a number of interesting elements--particularly relating to the context of the verse and the choice of words--that require further elucidation.

WHEN THOU SHALT BESIEGE A CITY A LONG TIME, IN MAKING WAR AGAINST IT TO TAKE IT

The prohibition against needless destruction (bal tashhit) is taught in the context of a military campaign. The significance of this contextual setting, some commentaries suggest, is to demonstrate that even in the most extreme and destructive situations, the Torah commands its adherents to limit destruction. (3) The fact that this is taught in the context of an offensive siege only strengthens the point. In defending its own territory, a people can be expected to minimize environmental destruction--the consequences of which they would have to suffer in the future. For an attacking army, whose goal is to demoralize and starve the besieged enemy, it can be advantageous to destroy the enemy's natural resources. Nevertheless, the Torah commands the exercise of restraint. Using an exegetical principle known as kal va-homer (learning from a lenient case to a stricter case), (4) the Torah describes the most lenient case where needless destruction would possibly be permitted (warfare) and prohibits it even there--proving that needless destruction would certainly be prohibited in all other cases.

THOU SHALT NOT DESTROY (LO TASHHIT) ITS TREES

In the Hebrew language, there are a number of other synonyms for destruction, including: abed, haros, kalot, and harev. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.