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Deuteronomy Chapter 20 contains many of the laws related to how war should be waged by the ancient Israelites. Taken on their surface, these rules give us moderns pause — could our ancestors have been so cruel and callous about the taking of human life?
Our history of interpretation — and the reality of being a historical people without sovereignty for much of Jewish history — removes the fangs from our ancient text.
As but one example, in Deuteronomy we read: In the towns of the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites you shall not let a soul remain alive.
Maimonides clarifies that you have to extend an offer of peace before every war, even to these peoples…and that the command was time limited: we are now so intermarried with these nations as to nullify this decree.
Even better, though, is his notion of a three-sided siege.
“When siege is laid to a city for the purpose of capture, it may not be surrounded on all four sides but only on three in order to give an opportunity for escape to whose who would flee to save their lives.”
By suggesting a law so absurd by military standards as to be almost humorous, Maimonides telegraphs his intention to protect life during war wherever possible. Neither cruel nor callous is his, and our, interpretation of Torah.