Posted by: mattcolvin | December 31, 2017

Woodcutting and Wrath

Photo credit: R. Hernandez

Deuteronomy 20 includes instructions for Israel to follow when besieging the cities of the Canaanites; among these are detailed rules for distinguishing between different kinds of trees:

“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? 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.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20 NASB)

This passage is the subject of another illuminating connection from David Daube that I had not seen before:

“Care for continuity determines the prohibition of cutting down the enemy’s food-bearing trees to serve as siege material. The law emphatically uses two verbs for “to destroy”: both appear in the negative part against the cutting down of a food-giving tree and in the positive part permitting the cutting down of a tree giving no food. The verbs are hisḥith and karath, both suggestive of extermination, prevention of living on in any way whatever…

“In a somewhat obscure clause of the law a comparison is drawn, or rejected, between a tree and a man: such comparisons are typical of wisdom [literature], though they may of course be incorporated in ordinary speech. (The usual rendering assumes that the comparison is rejected: “Is the tree a man that it should be besieged?” There are several difficulties – above all, that this consideration ought to save the barren tree as well as the useful one. Maybe we should rely on the assumption that the comparison is affirmed: “The tree is [represents] the man and thus comes to be besieged.” This might allude to the preceding law, dividing the nations into such as are in some measure worthy of perpetuation and such as are to be extirpated.)…”

“Surprisingly, it does not seem to have been noticed that the Baptist’s preaching as recorded in Matthew [3:8 ff.] and Luke [3:9] is indebted to the Deuteronomic law: “And now also the axe is laid unto the roots of the trees. Therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is cut off and cast into the fire.” Useful and barren or poisonous trees are separated; while the former will be saved, the latter will be completely eradicated. “To cut off,” ekkopto, corresponds to karath and figures in the Septuagint’s translation of the law; “the axe,”” too, occurs in the first part of the law. How far John is thinking of the law itself, how far these ideas by his time have gone into a general pool, it is hard to say. It is not a priori impossible that the image of a siege was in his mind. The reference to fire would certainly not be out of place: the wood condemned to serve as siege material would often enough find its end in a conflagration.” – D. Daube, Law and Wisdom in the Bible: David Daube’s Gifford Lectures volume 2. (Templeton Press: 2010) p. 21-22.

I’m not sure if I buy it. If Daube is correct, then John the Baptist’s warning of the “axe laid to the root of the trees” is no longer merely a metaphor for divine judgment of whatever sort, be it abstract or eternal, but instead stands forth as a frightening allusion to the details of siege procedures from Deuteronomy — a prophecy of imminent destruction in a this-worldly, historical war such as actually overtook Jerusalem in 65-70 AD. This use of Deuteronomy, if it is intentional, is made even more frightening by the fact that Jerusalem fills the role occupied by the Canaanite cities in Deuteronomy 20.

My friends who enjoy the work of Andrew Perriman or the late David Chilton may find this an interesting connection.

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