Friday, June 27, 2014

4 Classes of Men who Can't Serve in the Military (John W. Robbins)

"The officers shall say to the people: ‘Has anyone built a house and not dedicated it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may dedicate it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.’ Then the officers shall add, ‘Is any man afraid or faint-hearted? Let him go home so that his brothers will not become disheartened too.’" [Deuteronomy 20:5-8]

These verses give us specific information about military service in the Hebrew republic. There are four classes of men (note that all the references are to men, none to women) who may not serve in the Hebrew army:

1. Those who have a new house;
2. Those who have a new vineyard;
3. Those who have a fiancée; and
4. Those who are afraid.

Some commentators have interpreted this passage to mean that those four classes of men were not compelled to serve as were all the other men, but that they might serve if they so wished, in a manner much like the exemption system that has characterized the draft in this country in this century. That is an impossible interpretation for at least two reasons. First, it contradicts the meaning of the verses we have already studied which demonstrate that there was no draft in the Hebrew republic. Second, the pertinent verbs are in the imperative mood. The officers are not commanded to say, You may leave if you wish. They are commanded to say, Go home! The four classes of men were prohibited from volunteering for military service, not exempted from a draft. They could not serve if they wished to.

It is interesting to note why. In the case of the first three classes, we are explicitly told that the private interest of these men to enjoy their new homes, vineyards, and wives is superior to the public interest of the nation. That statement should give pause to those who believe that everybody owes a legally enforceable “debt” to his country. The Bible explicitly says that the enjoyment of these domestic pleasures is more important than the public interest. This is all the more striking when one recalls that Israel was God’s chosen nation, and the wars on which they were about to engage were holy wars conquering the Promised Land and executing God’s judgment. If private interests were superior to the public interest in that situation, then they are all the more so today when no nation is God’s chosen nation, no holy wars are being fought, and no Promised Land is being conquered.

A study of the fourth and last class of men is even more instructive. First, unlike the first three classes mentioned, these men were sent home not for their own pleasure, but because their presence in the army would undermine the morale of the troops. Second, the criteria that distinguish the first three classes are somewhat objective criteria, but the criterion for membership in the last class is completely subjective. It could easily be determined who had a new home, a new vineyard, or a fiancée. But the membership of the last class, the timid, could be determined by no one except the individual himself. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that we have totally misunderstood all the verses we have studied so far and that there was or at least could have been a draft in the Hebrew republic. In that case, this last class of men alone would destroy that possibility, for it is impossible to draft anyone when the potential draftee is made the sole judge of whether or not he is ineligible for service. Military service that precludes the service of the timid must, of necessity, be voluntary. Note also that the timid may not be forced to perform alternative service, i.e., there was no national service or conscientious objector status. He, like the members of the other three classes, was commanded to go home, not to carry bedpans or plant trees in the young adult conservation corps.

In his commentary on this passage Calvin writes: “God will not have more required from anyone than he is disposed to bear..... [T]he lazy and timid were sent home, that the Israelites might learn that none were to be pressed beyond their ability; and this also depends upon that rule of equity which dictates that we should abstain from all unjust oppression.”

John W. Robbins, "The Bible and the Draft," The Trinity Review, ed. John W. Robbins, May, June 1980 (2003): 3, 4. Retrieved July 9, 2014 from


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