Collateral Damage is Unacceptable
Moses finishes his speech with one more restriction in the laws of war. He says in Deut. 20:19 and 20,
19 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? 20 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.
This law is practical in that it forbids cutting down fruit trees that may provide food in later years. Only the fuel trees may be used to “construct siegeworks.” In today’s world, agent orange would be forbidden under God’s law. Not only was this chemical a cancer-causing pollutant that would kill innocent people indiscriminately during the Vietnam war, but it was a defoliant that killed all trees in its destructive path. The main ingredient in agent orange is still used today to defoliate cotton before harvest. What we save in agricultural costs we spend to combat ill health.
Trees are People
Trees in Scripture represent men, even as warriors are called fellers (of trees). David wrote in 1 Chron. 16:33,
33 Then the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord; for He is coming to judge the earth.
The “trees of the forest” are used as a metaphor for people. When Isaiah prophesied of the fall of Babylon in 14:7 and 8, he spoke of a time of peace, comparing trees to people or nations, and compares tree cutters to Babylon’s warriors.
7 The whole earth is at rest and is quiet; they break forth into shouts of joy. 8 Even the cypress trees rejoice over you, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, “Since you were laid low, no tree cutter [“feller”] comes up against us.”
In Judges 9 we see a prophetic parable spoken by Jotham, when the people wanted to make Abimelech king over Israel.
6 And all the men of Shechem and all Beth-millo assembled together, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar which was in Shechem. 7 Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerazim, and lifted his voice and called out. Thus he said to them, “Listen to me, O men of Shechem, that God may listen to you. 8 Once the trees went forth to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ 9 But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my fatness with which God and men are honored, and go to wave over the trees?’ 10 Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 11 But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to wave over the trees?’ 12 Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 13 But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my new wine, which cheers God and men, and go to wave over the trees?’ 14 Finally all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 15 And the bramble said to the trees….”
In each case, trees were the people, who were asking for a king. It is interesting that Abimelech was the first king of Israel, long before Saul was anointed king. Verse 22 says,
22 Now Abimelech ruled over Israel three years.
His was a short-lived reign, but we see from the story how trees represent people in Hebrew thinking. This comes out also in the laws of war. In the quotation earlier from Deut. 20:19, the NASB translates the words of Moses in the form of a question, “For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?” This closely follows the Septuagint understanding of the text, and Rotherham agrees in his translation called The Emphasized Bible.
The KJV reads, “For the tree of the field is man’s life,” inserting the word “life” that is not in the original Hebrew text.
Young’s Literal Translation reads, “For man’s is the tree of the field,” giving the idea that trees belong to man and therefore should not be cut down in time of war.
Ferrar Fenton renders it, “for the trees of the field sprang from the ground before you came to the siege.” He understood that man was taken from the ground. The Hebrew word for man is adam, which is derived from adama, “ground.” Adam was named after the ground from whence he came.
It is apparent that translators disagree on the precise meaning of this phrase, but it is clear from all of these alternative translations that trees are identified with men. Therefore, it does not stretch our imagination to see the spiritual meaning of this law and how it applies to spiritual warfare.
Collateral Damage in Spiritual Warfare
In both physical and spiritual warfare, the mind of Christ is clear: what is euphemistically called “collateral damage” is unacceptable to God and is a violation of the laws of war. If men believe that it is acceptable to sacrifice a few of the innocent in order to save the lives of one’s own soldiers, it is because they do not have faith in Christ, nor do they believe that it is God’s battle.
All warfare must be conducted by the laws of war, and when men violate those laws, the sin in the camp will bring about more casualties.
In other words, collateral damage on the innocent is man’s way of trying to avoid casualties among their own personnel. But if they would follow God’s law, they would not suffer casualties in the first place, for God would protect them. The problem is their lack of faith, not their lack of fighting skills.
Likewise, when we engage in spiritual warfare, we must be careful not to cut down fruit-bearing people. For example, when Stephen was being stoned in Acts 7:60, we read of his final act of spiritual warfare,
60 And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And having said this, he fell asleep. 1 And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death…
Stephen’s forgiveness extended to Saul, who would later be converted and become the greatest evangelist of the first century. For this reason, when Saul (Paul) was stoned later, he survived the ordeal, for we read in Acts 14:19 and 20,
19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. 20 But while the disciples stood around him, he arose and entered the city. And the next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe.
Being stoned would have broken his bones and perhaps even crushed his skull. The people had good reason to suppose that he was dead, and yet we find Paul arising and walking the next day to Derbe! This could only have involved resurrection and a supernatural healing while the disciples stood over him and prayed.
Certainly, God answered their prayer that day, but yet we also see how God’s law played a role in his recovery. By his own testimony, Paul was implicated in the stoning of Stephen, and thus, he was liable for murder. Stephen was the victim, and according to the law of Victim’s Rights, he had the right to forgive any sin against him.
We are not told if Stephen had a special spiritual insight that a future fruit-bearing “tree” was among those stoning him. But we do see the application of the laws of war operating in this incident. Stephen’s forgiveness prevented “collateral damage” upon Saul, who at the time did not look like a fruit-bearing tree, but yet was destined to bear much fruit unto God.
The Cursed Fig Tree
In another story, Jesus cursed the unfruitful fig tree in Matt. 21:19, saying, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” It is correctly understood that this fig tree represented the nation of Judah, and that Jesus’ prophecy in Matt. 24:32-34 refers to the time when the cursed fig tree would come back to life. Indeed, this happened in 1948 with the establishment of the Israeli state.
We know that Jesus was sinless—that is, He did not violate the law of God. His curse upon the fig tree (and by extension, the nation of Judah) was an act of spiritual warfare that fell under the rules of Deut. 20:19 and 20. He did not sin by cursing the fig tree, because that fig tree was not a fruit-bearing tree. The law allowed Him to cut down a fuel tree—or even a fruitless fig tree. John the Baptist said in Luke 3:9,
9 And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
When John was beheaded by King Herod, Jesus continued his work of inspecting the “tree” of Judah to see if fruit might be found on it. Toward the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus told a parable that shows the results of His fruit inspection. Luke 13:6-9 says,
6 And He began telling this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, and did not find any. 7 And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9 and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down’.”
In other words, Jesus had looked for fruit from the nation of Judah, but had found none. And so, in the week prior to His crucifixion, He cursed the fruitless fig tree, saying it will never again bear fruit. Even in the later prophecy of Matt. 24:32, Jesus did not say that it would bear fruit, but only more leaves.
Leaves were unacceptable, for even the cursed fig tree had many leaves (Matt. 21:19). Jesus was looking for the fruit of the Spirit. Fig leaves have been a problem since Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7), for this act represented a false covering for sin—that is, self-justification.
It seems that ever since Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves, trees have represented people. In a sense, they were identifying themselves as fig trees, and so the metaphor was used throughout Scripture. The nation of Judah was a fruitless fig tree, and Jesus cursed it, knowing that it would never again bear fruit.
Thus, if the Israeli state should ever repent and bear acceptable fruit unto God, then one might say that Jesus was a false prophet and a sinner, because in such a case, He should not have cursed the fig tree at all, nor should He have prophesied, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.”
Many Bible teachers today do not seem to understand Jesus’ prophecy, for they believe that in the end the Israeli state will be converted to Jesus Christ and bear fruit unto God. They say it will become the capital of the Kingdom in the coming age.
But Paul tells us in Gal. 4:25 that the old Jerusalem is Hagar, not Sarah. She and her children will not be inheritors, but must be “cast out” (Gal. 4:30) in favor of the heavenly Jerusalem.
This does not condemn individual Israelis, of course. As individuals, they may bear fruit as well as any other people. But the nation itself will not bear fruit, and so any individual Israeli who bears fruit must change mothers and come to love Sarah, rather than Hagar. This path is open to all ethnicities equally.
This concludes Deuteronomy 20, which deals with the laws of war. However, as I wrote earlier, the passage dealing with the laws of war do not end here. One of the stone tablets was placed out of order, and so we find the final portion of the laws of war written in Deut. 21:10-14. We will cover this in our final chapter of Moses’ fifth speech on Kingdom Government.