You shall not destroy her trees by thrusting an axe against them, for you will eat from it and you shall not cut it down. – D’varim/Deuteronomy 20:19
In preparation for entering the Land, Moshe is handing out instructions concerning the conduct of warfare against fortified cities that try to hold out against the Israelite armies. Once the Israelites have laid siege to a city, offered it terms of peace and are then sitting out out, waiting for the city to surrender, they are not allowed to cut down all the trees surrounding the city. This would be wanton and punitive destruction that could end up penalising the Israelites themselves. Gunther Plaut explains that “Moshe forbids deforestation, which was a common practice in ancient warfare” and suggests that this was “similar to defoliation in modern days.” While the language of the Torah is indirect – the word lindoach is the Qal infinitive from the root nun-daled-het, “to impel, force, thrust” (Davidson), giving the idea of the axe being pressed or thrust against the tree – Targum Onkelos strengthens the word to la’arama, “to make high or raise up” (Jastrow), a more explicit swinging of axes to fell the tree.
The classic Jewish commentators are concerned about a number of issues: not cutting down a food-producing tree from which the Israelites may want to eat, either now or in the future; destroying a tree for no better reason than harming or discouraging the enemy; the morality of destroying a living item. The Rashbam tackles the food value of the trees head on: “You will need them for food after you take the city and it becomes yours. You must not cut down trees that yield food and do not provide fortification for the city, being distant from it.” The Ralbag goes a step further, adding, “you may not even divert the water channel that irrigates them.” Nachmanides holds that “this verse commands: you shall not commit wanton destruction, but trust in the L-rd to give the city into your hands.” This also becomes a matter of faith as Ovadiah Sforno explains: “do not destroy the tree just to wield an axe of destruction upon it, for the sole purpose of doing harm to the inhabitants of that city. Because the cutting down of trees in a destructive manner is done by armies to harm the enemy when they are not certain that they will be victorious and dwell in the land. However, you, who are assured that you will conquer the land and settle in it, must not destroy the fruit-bearing trees. Without a doubt, you will conquer the land and (ultimately) eat from its trees, provided you do not destroy them.”
Rabbi Hirsch pushes the discussion into the area of halachah: “you may not cut down the trees round about the city just to destroy them, or rather, you must not destroy them just to cut them down so that your whole purpose is destruction. You may eat their fruit, yea, it is incumbent on you to keep them for food; ‘eat their fruit’ is a positive command and by purposeless destroying a food-yielding tree both a positive command and a prohibition are transgressed.” Drawing upon the potential parallel in the verse, “A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be taking someone’s life in pawn” (D’varim 24:6, JPS), Ibn Ezra says, “since you eat from it, do not destroy it – such a tree is the moral equivalent of human life.” Food is such an essential part of human life that by destroying a means of life, you are potentially destroying not only other human lives, but the life-giving capability of the tree.
Jeffrey Tigay notes that “Rabbinic exegesis expanded this rule into a broad prohibition, not limited to wartime, of destroying anything useful, such as vessels, clothing, buildings, springs or food.” This is clearly expressed by Maimonides: “Whoever breaks utensils, tears garments, demolishes a building, stops up a well and willfully destroys food violates the prohibition of ‘you shall not destroy …'” (Mishneh Torah, Melakhim 6:8,10). Sefer HaChinuch says that this prohibition applies to either gender and at any time. Does this mean that we are essentially unable to use anything for fear of destroying it? No, answers Nechama Leibowitz, “We are not precluded from making use of G-d’s creations … but it is willful destruction of the gifts of nature that have been bestowed upon us that we are warned against. It does not matter whether the object of out destructive efforts belongs to us. No man has an exclusive right to even his own property. ‘The earth is the L-RD’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants’ (Psalm 24:1). Everything is granted to us in trust.” Trees are not combatants; while they can be used as weapons or provide shelter, they do not naturally participate in battles. Wood is a precious resource and is used in the service of G-d for building the tabernacle, its furniture and accoutrements; for human use, wood produces tools, vessels and containers, and beautiful decorations, ornaments and jewelry. Trees are a sign of life, both in themselves and as a sign of the presence of water.
The Sages of the Talmud deduced that someone who loses control of themselves when angry or in a temper, so that they lash out and destroy things, must be in some way demon possessed: “He who in anger tears garments, breaks his utensils, squanders his money shall be accounted by you as if he worshipped idols. For such are the workings of the evil inclination” (b. Shabbat 105b). The synoptic gospels seem to lend some credence to this idea. Mark records the case of the Gadarene man who “had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him” (Mark 5:3-4, NASB), and the case of the epileptic boy with a demon that “whenever it seizes him, it dashes him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth, and stiffens out … it has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him” (9:18,22, NASB). In both cases, life is being destroyed – or threatened with destruction – by demonic forces. Notice that Yeshua has no difficulty dealing with either situation. With no more than His normal voice, the legion of demons in the Gadarene man are sent into a herd of pigs that promptly commit suicide in the Sea of Galilee, while with the boy, Yeshua “rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again'” (v. 25, NASB). The local townspeople find the Gadarene “sitting down, clothed and in his right mind” (5:15, NASB); Yeshua lifts the boy up and gives him back to his father, exhausted but free.
Wisdom or understanding are compared to silver, gold and precious stones. The proverb writer says that “she” – personified as the Torah by the ancient rabbis – “is a tree of life to those who grasp her” (Proverbs 3:18, JPS). From this verse, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Johanan that studying the Torah is the remedy for unanswered prayer because “the tree of life is nought but the Torah” (b. Berachot 32b). When we are engaged upon spiritual warfare, besieging the works of the enemy and praying for breakthrough, we must be careful that we do not cut down the fruit tree that offers us sustenance and strength during our campaign. We must continue in our reading and study of the Scriptures for they strengthen us and provide us with life and energy. The gates of Hades may offer resistance, but “they shall not overpower” (Matthew 16:18) us, on the contrary, we shall overcome all the works of darkness “because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11, NASB).
In the first account of creation, G-d said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it” (B’resheet 1:11, JPS) and then told Adam and Eve, “I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food” (v. 29, JPS). G-d provides vegetables, cereals to make bread, and fruit from the trees – the complete diet. When mankind destroys and cuts down trees, we reverse G-d’s order of creation, break part of the G-d-given food chain and damage the ecological balance of the world in which we live. We may use the resources of this world, but it is not ours to destroy; we do so at our peril.
The Israelites are told not to destroy the fruit trees or orchards of the cities they attack because they are a source of food – either then or in the future – just as an act of destruction to demoralise the enemy or to deny them food. Arbitrary destruction of trees that do not participate in warfare is a kind of madness! Wanton or purposeless destruction can be seen as influenced by the enemy, reversing the order and gift of creation. The word of G-d is like a tree, providing fruit – life-giving fluids, sugar and minerals – in its season. The man who studies that word is himself compared to a tree: “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives” (Psalm 1:3, JPS). Let us not raise an axe against that tree, but instead let us learn from it and cherish its fruit, celebrating what G-d has done and provided for us.
Further Study: Jeremiah 17:7-8; Psalm 92:12-15
Application: Do you fell or plant trees? Are you working with G-d’s creation or against it? Are you enjoying the fruit of the tree of life, G-d’s word made alive in His Son Yeshua?