… you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them.  (Deut. 20:19)

Environmental concern in the bible is hard to come by, could this little snippet give us a sniff at an environmental conscience.  Well lets look at the full verse in context …

“When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.”

Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (ESV)

At a closer inspection it turns out that this was an ancient weapon of mass destruction, a type of scorched earth tactic.  The viability of the besieged community would have been heavily reliant on the fruit trees, such a slash and burn policy would have left a devastating economic legacy for the towns inhabitants.

So this is ultimately legislation against a spiteful destructive act and a preventative measure to limit undue human suffering during warfare.  However, lets not cut ourselves short! – there might well be some environmental overtones to consider here.  Robert Alter has noted an interesting echo of “the tree was good for food” (Gen. 3:6), making an association with the Garden of Eden story in which God provided all good things for human enjoyment, and prohibited the fruit of two of the trees.  Destroying fruit trees is a despoliation of God’s natural gifts, and surely it is worth considering whether we are guilty of plundering natural habitats on a mass scale.

A scientific response to such a question has been provided by the recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  This is a comprehensive appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide as well as options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems.  The synthesis report can be found here, but a two sentence summary of the findings is as follows:

“The bottom line of the Millennium Assessment findings is that human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. At the same time, the assessment shows that with appropriate actions it is possible to reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the next 50 years, but the changes in policy and practice required are substantial and not currently underway.”