When You Go Out to War

The Torah portion this Shabbat is called Ki Teitzei (“when you go out to war”), Deuteronomy 2:10-25:19. The reading from the prophets (The Haftarah) comes from Isaiah 54:1-10, and from the New Testament we will be reading from 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.

The first thing that hit me when I read this portion of the Torah is the opening phrase:

“When you go out to war against other nations, and the Lord your God gives them up into your hands and you take them as prisoners…” — Deuteronomy 21:10

Immediately I remembered that there is a similar phrase in the previous chapter:

“When you go out to war against other nations, and come face to face with horses and war-carriages and armies greater in number than yourselves, have no fear of them: for the Lord your God is with you, who took you up out of the land of Egypt.” — Deuteronomy 20:1

In both cases the question is not if you go out to war against your enemies, but “When you go out to war…” At first, I was hit hard by these two consecutive phrases that have such a similarity. After a few minutes I calmed down and remembered our history as a people, that, as the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the chosen people of God, as God’s eternal inheritance, have from day one, from the day that Abraham and Sarah and their followers, stepped in this land of Canaan, they suffered problems with their neighbors.

All the seven Canaanite nations that inhabited this land from before 1800 BC were foreigners, and the people who ruled this land during that period were also not locals. They were the Egyptians, who conquered this land.

Why did God choose this land is another question, but the reason that the Egyptians wanted this land was not because of the inhabitants of this land, but because of the two most important highways, roads, that passed through this narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian wilderness.

The list of the nations that inhabited this land when Abraham came down from the great city of Haran in Northern Assyria is listed in the Bible:

“When the Lord your God takes you into the land where you are going, which is to be your heritage, and has sent out the nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you…” — Deuteronomy 7:1 [NKJV]

These are the seven nations that inhabited the land of Canaan when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and his 12 sons lived here. These are colonizers from some very big and powerful nations from the eastern Mediterranean and from Asia, and from Middle Europe above the Danube River.

The place was a mess throughout history, and in fact it has remained a mess ever since, even until this day. So, the question that the Holy Spirit answers is not, “if you go to war”. The question that the Holy Spirit answers is, “when you go to war!” Sorry to confess to you, my dear brothers, the same question and the same answer is still the only one that is relevant for this our small and narrow corner of the Lord’s big and wonderful Earth.

Now the Torah, God’s word of instruction for life, tells us that in war we are not free to do whatever we want to do, or feel like doing. There are rules of how to behave in war, God given rules!

You can’t take a beautiful woman from your enemies and just rape her and make a sex slave out of her. You have to take her to your house, and give her time to grieve for her family, and give her time to recover from her grief and get used to her new place and new life. And after a month that she lives in your home, then you can take her as your wife, and you can be her husband.

This is something very special that the Torah commands us. We have several more ancient codes of law from the Middle East: the code of Hammurabi, and the Ur-Nammu code of law that is from the third millennium BC. They are supposed civilized codes of law, belonging to big and powerful nations north of the land of Israel.

There is nothing even close to what God commands the children of Israel in the Torah. In all the ancient codes of law there is a vast difference of what you are allowed to do with your enemy, and with your slaves…

The second thing that impressed me in this week’s Torah portion is that if you don’t delight in this wife that you have taken from among your enemies, you can’t sell her or abuse her or give her to someone else against her will. All you can do is give her freedom. Release her to go and live where she wants to, without any conditions or restrictions from your part.

The third thing that I learn from this Torah portion of Ki Teitzei is from Deuteronomy 22:1-4:

“If you see your brother’s ox or his sheep wandering, do not go by without helping, but take them back to your brother. If their owner is not near, or if you are not certain who he is, then take the beast to your house and keep it till its owner comes in search of it, and then you are to give it back to him. Do the same with his ass or his robe or anything which has gone from your brother’s keeping and which you have come across: do not keep it to yourself. If you see your brother’s ox or his ass falling down on the road, do not go by without giving him help in lifting it up again.” — Deuteronomy 22:1-4

Wow, dear brothers, and sisters, this is such an important, right, and just rule that God in His Holy Spirit commands His chosen children. By “chosen children” I don’t mean only Israel and the Jews, but every gentile from any nation or continent that has been grafted into the natural olive tree, and has received the Messiah, and has been redeemed by His blood, and has been added to the commonwealth of Israel (see Ephesians 2:10-13). We all ought to learn from this rule, accept it, and do our best to live by it.

A law on the books of the State of Israel, based on this text, is called “The Good Samaritan Law”! If I summarize this section of the Torah portion in simple words, it would be something like this:

You can’t treat your enemy with cruelty, to satisfy your perverse appetites.

You must remember that your enemy is also a child of God and treat him like a child of God, just as valuable as you are!

Treat the captives of your enemy in war as you would like to be treated, and as you would like your family and brothers to be treated.

If you find something that is not yours, be it an inanimate object, a ring, a watch, a jacket, or a living pet, or a bicycle, or a car, or a donkey, ox, dog, or cow… you must do everything possible to find the owner of the lost “thing” or “animal” and return the lost to its proper owner.

If it is a living animal or beast of burden, and you don’t know and can’t find the right owner, you are to take it to your house and care for it until the own comes to ask for it. There is no such rule in the Torah like in the West: “finders keepers!”

Dear brothers and sisters, I could go on and on with these great rules and commands that God gave us thousands of years ago in the hands of Moses, so that we can live by them. However, this teaching would become too long.

Just to remind you of the story of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel:

“If you see your brother’s ox or his ass falling down on the road, do not go by without giving him help in lifting it up again.”

In Judaism we say:

“How much the more if you see a fellow human being falling down on the road, or the sidewalk or your yard, or your neighborhood.”

Stop and lift him up, and maybe call an ambulance or the police, or just take him to your home and give him at least a glass of cold water! Don’t ignore your brother’s needs, he is also a son of the same God, and a member of the same human family of God’s children!

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.