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M10. Biblical Principles of War.    [Make a Comment]

We are to consider the biblical principles of war and apply them where possible.

This precept is derived from His Word (blessed be He):

Key Scriptures

Numbers 1:2-3
Take a census of the entire assembly of the people of Isra'el, by clans and families. Record the names of all the men twenty years old and over who are subject to military service in Isra'el. You and Aharon are to enumerate them company by company.

Numbers 1:44-50
Moshe, Aharon and the twelve leaders of Isra'el, each from a clan, counted the people of Isra'el by their clans, those twenty years old and over, eligible for military service in Isra'el; and the grand total came to 603,550. But those who were L'vi'im, according to the clan of their fathers, were not counted in this census; because ADONAI had told Moshe, "Do not include the clan of Levi when you take the census of the people of Isra'el. Instead, give the L'vi'im charge over the tabernacle of the testimony, its equipment and everything else connected with it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its equipment, serve in it and set up their camp around it."

Numbers 31:5-7 (Chinuch C257)
So out of the thousands of people in Isra'el, a thousand armed men from each tribe, 12,000 altogether, were mustered for war. Moshe sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war; he sent them and Pinchas the son of El'azar the cohen to the war, with the holy utensils and the trumpets for sounding the alarm in his care. They fought against Midyan, as ADONAI had ordered Moshe, and killed every male.

Deuteronomy 3:18-22 (Maimonides RN58; Chinuch C525)
At that time I gave you this order: 'ADONAI your God has given you this land to possess. But all of you who are fit to fight must cross over, armed, ahead of your brothers the people of Isra'el. Your wives, your little ones and your livestock - I know you have much livestock - will stay in your cities which I have given you, until ADONAI allows your brothers to rest, as he has allowed you; and they too take possession of the land ADONAI your God is giving them on the west side of the Yarden. At that point you will return, each man to his own possession which I have given you.' Also at that time I gave this order to Y'hoshua: 'Your eyes have seen everything that ADONAI your God has done to these two kings. ADONAI will do the same to all the kingdoms you encounter when you cross over. Don't be afraid of them, because ADONAI your God will fight on your behalf.'

Deuteronomy 7:17-21 (Maimonides RN58; Chinuch C525)
If you think to yourselves, 'These nations outnumber us; how can we dispossess them?' nevertheless, you are not to be afraid of them; you are to remember well what ADONAI your God did to Pharaoh and all of Egypt - the great ordeals which you yourself saw, and the signs, wonders, strong hand and outstretched arm by which ADONAI your God brought you out. ADONAI will do the same to all the peoples of whom you are afraid. Moreover, ADONAI your God will send the hornet among them until those who are left and those who hide themselves perish ahead of you. You are not to be frightened of them, because ADONAI your God is there with you, a God great and fearsome.

Deuteronomy 20:1-12 (Maimonides RP190-RP191; Chinuch C525-C527)
When you go out to fight your enemies and see horses, chariots and a force larger than yours, you are not to be afraid of them; because ADONAI your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you. When you are about to go into battle, the cohen is to come forward and address the people. He should tell them, 'Listen, Isra'el! You are about to do battle against your enemies. Don't be fainthearted or afraid; don't be alarmed or frightened by them; because ADONAI your God is going with you to fight on your behalf against your enemies and give you victory.' Then the officials will speak to the soldiers. They are to say, 'Is there a man here who has built a new house, but hasn't dedicated it yet? He should go back home now; otherwise he may die fighting, and another man will dedicate it. 'Is there a man here who has planted a vineyard, but hasn't yet made use of its fruit? He should go back home; otherwise he may die fighting, and another man will use it. 'Is there a man here who is engaged to a woman, but hasn't married her yet? He should go back home; otherwise he may die fighting, and another man will marry her.' The officials will then add to what they have said to the soldiers: 'Is there a man here who is afraid and fainthearted? He should go back home; otherwise his fear may demoralize his comrades as well.' When the officials have finished speaking with the soldiers, commanders are to be appointed to lead the army. When you advance on a town to attack it, first offer it terms for peace. If it accepts the terms for peace and opens its gates to you, then all the people there are to be put to forced labor and work for you. However, if they refuse to make peace with you but prefer to make war against you, you are to put it under siege.

Deuteronomy 20:13-20 (Maimonides RN57; Meir MN191; Chinuch C529)
When ADONAI your God hands it over to you, you are to put every male to the sword. However, you are to take as booty for yourself the women, the little ones, the livestock, and everything in the city - all its spoil. Yes, you will feed on your enemies' spoil, which ADONAI your God has given you. This is what you are to do to all the towns which are at a great distance from you, which are not the towns of these nations. As for the towns of these peoples, which ADONAI your God is giving you as your inheritance, you are not to allow anything that breathes to live. Rather you must destroy them completely - the Hitti, the Emori, the Kena'ani, the P'rizi, the Hivi and the Y'vusi - as ADONAI your God has ordered you; so that they won't teach you to follow their abominable practices, which they do for their gods, thus causing you to sin against ADONAI your God. When, in making war against a town in order to capture it, you lay siege to it for a long time, you are not to destroy its trees, cutting them down with an axe. You can eat their fruit, so don't cut them down. After all, are the trees in the field human beings, so that you have to besiege them too? However, if you know that certain trees provide no food, you may destroy them and cut them down, in order to build siege-works against the town making war with you, until it falls.

Deuteronomy 21:10-13
When you go out to war against your enemies, and ADONAI your God hands them over to you, and you take prisoners, and you see among the prisoners a woman who looks good to you, and you feel attracted to her and want her as your wife; you are to bring her home to your house, where she will shave her head, cut her fingernails and remove her prison clothing. She will stay there in your house, mourning her father and mother for a full month; after which you may go in to have sexual relations with her and be her husband, and she will be your wife.

Deuteronomy 23:10(9)-15(14) (Maimonides RP192-RP193; Chinuch C566-C567)
When you are in camp, at war with your enemies, you are to guard yourself against anything bad. If there is a man among you who is unclean because of a nocturnal emission, he is to go outside the camp; he is not to enter the camp. When evening arrives he is to bathe himself in water, and after sunset he may enter the camp. Also you are to have an area outside the camp to use as a latrine. You must include a trowel with your equipment, and when you relieve yourself, you are to dig a hole first and afterwards cover your excrement. For ADONAI your God moves about in your camp to rescue you and to hand over your enemies to you. Therefore your camp must be a holy place. [ADONAI] should not see anything indecent among you, or he will turn away from you.

Deuteronomy 24:5 (Maimonides RN311; Chinuch C581)
If a man has recently married his wife, he is not to be subject to military service; he is to be free of external obligations and left at home for one year to make his new wife happy.

1 Samuel 25:26-28 (Chinuch C525)
Therefore, my lord, as ADONAI lives, and as you live, inasmuch as ADONAI has kept you from the guilt of shedding blood and from taking vengeance into your own hands - therefore, may your enemies and anyone seeking your harm be [as worthless] as Naval. Meanwhile, let this present which your servant has brought to my lord be given to the men in my lord's service. And please forgive the offense your servant has caused; because ADONAI will certainly establish my lord's dynasty, for my lord fights ADONAI's battles, and nothing bad has been found in you all your life long.

Jeremiah 48:10 (Chinuch C525)
A curse on him who does the work of ADONAI carelessly! A curse on him who withholds his sword from blood!

2 Corinthians 10:3-5
For although we do live in the world, we do not wage war in a worldly way; because the weapons we use to wage war are not worldly. On the contrary, they have God's power for demolishing strongholds. We demolish arguments and every arrogance that raises itself up against the knowledge of God; we take every thought captive and make it obey the Messiah.

Supportive Scriptures

Judges 7:2-3
ADONAI said to Gid'on, "There are too many people with you for me to hand Midyan over to them, because I don't want Isra'el to be able to boast against me, 'We saved ourselves by our own strength.' Therefore, proclaim to the people 'Anyone who is anxious or afraid should go back home, while we stay here on Mount Gil'ad.'" Twenty-two thousand returned, but ten thousand remained.

Isaiah 2:3-5
Many peoples will go and say, "Come, let's go up to the mountain of ADONAI, to the house of the God of Ya'akov! He will teach us about his ways, and we will walk in his paths." For out of Tziyon will go forth Torah, the word of ADONAI from Yerushalayim. He will judge between the nations and arbitrate for many peoples. Then they will hammer their swords into plow-blades and their spears into pruning-knives; nations will not raise swords at each other, and they will no longer learn war. Descendants of Ya'akov, come! Let's live in the light of ADONAI!


The Scriptures quoted herein include those that are referred to by Maimonides, Meir, and HaChinuch to support their respective mitzvot about the waging of war. Nevertheless, because conditions today (whether in Israel or elsewhere in the world) are different than during the time of Moses, we cannot and should not seek to apply the commandments literally. That notwithstanding, even those commandments that we deem obsolete contain principles that are helpful and even applicable today, hence the title of this Mitzvah "Biblical Principles of War", and my brief attempt to highlight some of them:

The census of men twenty years of age and over who were subject to military service referred to in Numbers 1:2-3, has its counterpart in the U.S. Selective Service System and in military conscription programs in other countries as well. Its purpose is to assess military readiness in case a call to arms is needed.

The Levites had priestly duties that had to continue during military campaigns and they were therefore excluded from the fighting. Today, there are no priests and a portable Tabernacle for them to care for, but the United States does recognize the special calling of ordained ministers by excusing them from compulsory military service. What is more, ordained ministers that volunteer to serve as military chaplains are excluded from fighting alongside the troops to whom they minister.

Israelite men were exempt from military service if they had recently planted a vineyard of fruit, if they were engaged to marry, if they were a new husband, and if they were afraid. At various times since World War II, American men were deferred from the Selective Service System's draft if they were a full-time student, if they were married, if they had a young a child, and if they had certain medical conditions or disabilities. At earlier times in U.S. history, men could buy their way out of military service, or be excused by providing a substitute replacement.

The Israelites had to cross over the Jordan and possess the lands that they conquered. Overpowering their adversaries was not enough; actual possession was required. We in the U.S. sometimes forget that principle in wars of today where we strike a blow and then pull back for fear that we will be accused of being called conquerors. Not only do we refrain from possessing the land we take in battle, we pay to restore it and give it back to our former enemies.

There was a reason that the Israelites were not to be afraid, and that is that God was fighting on their side. We have no such guarantee in a secular nation that goes to war without first inquiring of God.

In ancient Israel, commanders were appointed from the ranks just before battles, whereas in the modern world, commanders are usually appointed from a pool of professionally trained soldiers. Early in U.S. history men of means could purchase a military command, and there have also been occasions when appointment as an officer (including a commanding officer) was made based on political considerations.

According to Scripture, a man could take a woman prisoner as his wife as though she were his chattel. In some parts of the world that may still be the case but, in the western countries, women must consent to marriage.

There were occasions when ancient Israelite soldiers were allowed (even commanded) to take for themselves the possessions of those whom they conquered. There were also times recorded in Scripture when they were commanded not to take possessions, and to destroy them instead. Taking booty in modern wars is discouraged but still happens - especially in third world countries.

Isolating those who are sick and maintaining sanitary conditions within military camps are as necessary today as they were in ancient Israel.

At all times in history there were those who, when called to serve in the military, have refused. Those who were fearful were sometimes excused on the premise that they posed a danger to their fighting comrades, and sometimes they were punished. In the U.S. in modern times, religious conscientious objectors were allowed to perform alternative civilian service, and others who refused were prosecuted.

Establishing lasting peace has always been a goal of mankind even while seeking to achieve it through war. As Isaiah 2:3-5 states:

Then they will hammer their swords into plow-blades and their spears into pruning-knives; nations will not raise swords at each other, and they will no longer learn war.

Classical Commentators

Maimonides' and HaChinuch's mitzvot about war are literal extractions from the Bible, while Meir wrote relatively little on the subject.


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