Why couldn't Israel take in the Amalekites like they did foreign survivors in Deut 20?

[draft: Sept 23/2006]

I got this question:

Hello Glenn, I just want to say that I love your apologetics.  Personally, I believe they are the best on the net.  Nonetheless, I have a question, as usual?  You said that ancient societies had no welfare systems, however, doesn't the Deut 20 statement that women and children can be spared refute that proposition?  Why couldn't that be done to Amalek?

[Personal, Tank-note: One of the many endearing things I find out about the Tank readership comes from the "Form" of the way questions come in. I would estimate that 75% of the questions follow the structure above: "1. appreciation for the Tank; (2. optional comparative comment--my fav so far is being called "the Chuck Norris of Christian Apologetics"--although CN would likely be insulted at the comparison, I am still ROTFWL on that one...!); 3. Adversative conjunction "but, however, nonetheless, nevertheless, anyway"; 4. the phrase "as usual" or "typical for me the inquisitive"; 5. the question proper; [6. optional clause of resignation: "you'll probably never [read|answer] this"]; and 7. close"... it is item 4 that I find the most delightful and encouraging... the fact that these sweeties are self-conscious of their truth-seeking and eagerness to understand is 70% encouraging, and only 30% discouraging... it is encouraging to find SO MANY FOLKS like this--with good hearts, open minds, eagerness for honesty!... discouraging that they have probably been 'censured' somewhere in the past for such questions-in church?--and are aware of their 'disorder' (LOL)... but the sweet spirits and learning souls of these folks lift my spirits and send me into prayers of thanks for such unseen (but not 'unheard'!!!) friends...]


My reply:

First, let's actually look closely at the war-policy text in Deut 20. Here's the relevant text:

When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. 11 “And it shall come about, if it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then it shall be that all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. 12 “However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13 “When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. 14 “Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you. 15 “Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby. [Deut 20:10-15; NASB]

Let's make some observations about the text and the situation described therein first (while noting any salient differences from the case of Amalek):

The first thing to note is the nature, economic condition, and location of the enemy in this passage.

The surrounding text makes clear that these nations live at some distance outside the alloted territory of Israel. Israel was alloted the land of Palestine and parts of Transjordan, but the boundaries were quite clear and quite restricted. Their dominion (via vassal treaties) could extend further, but their displacement/ownership could not. Israel could not colonize. There was almost zero-motive, therefore, for Israel to fund long-distance military campaigns to attack foreign nations for territory, or for the economic advantages of owning such territory. Dominion could be profitable (since it left people to work the land for taxes/tribute; but note that war always siphons off excess wealth, reducing the 'value' of a conquered country), but displacement/ownership/colonization was much more expensive. These cities (not nations, btw) are "enemies" of Israel, which can only mean that they have funded/mounted military campaigns against Israel in some form (or been key contributors to such). As such, Israel's long-distance military response is essentially defensive (i.e., to reduce economic and vital loss due to an enemy) rather than offensive (i.e., to increase economic gain due to conquest). These cities are also apparently wealthy, since they are walled cities (requiring a siege) and have mounted a long-distance military maneuver against Israel's border. [Note: Israel's response would be from a central army rather than from any border garrisons, and as such would be considerably more expensive than the campaign of the enemy]. Since war is always expensive, the city will have rerouted some of its economic resources away from general community welfare to offensive military operations, reducing the economic gain of victory.

By the time the policy in Deut 20 is applied locally, the enemy should already be clear about the outcome. They have made an offensive strike against Israel (perhaps successful, meaning there just might be things plundered from Israel inside the city), and they are now clearly on the defensive. The Israelite army has surrounded the city, and all but the blindly-arrogant would recognize that defeat is all but inevitable. This is time for sanity.

And, just for perspective, if the army outside the gates had been Assyria, and even if the city surrendered, they would still see their pregnant women ripped up, their infants dashed against the stones, and the men and children tortured. (" lenient as compared with the barbarities often practiced in ancient warfare upon a conquered people; the law implies no sanction or excuse for such atrocities as are alluded to in Am. 1:3, 13, Hos. 14:1 (13:16) 2 K. 8:12, or for the torture of prisoners, and other cruelties, perpetrated, as their own monuments declare, by the Assyrians..." [Driver, S. R. (1902). Vol. 3: A critical and exegetical commentary on Deuteronomy . The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (239). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.] and "Ninth-century Assyrian conquest accounts speak of burning the young boys and girls. The practice of ripping open pregnant women is mentioned very rarely. It is a practice attributed to Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (about 1100) in a hymn praising his conquests. It is also referred to in passing in a Neo-Babylonian lament.", [BBC, at 2 Kings 8:12])

And consider the terms of surrender to the Ammonites, in 1 Sam 11:

Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh Gilead. And all the men of Jabesh said to him, “Make a treaty with us, and we will be subject to you.”  But Nahash the Ammonite replied, “I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you and so bring disgrace on all Israel.”

And this was a frequent result, even in the case of surrender-under-pressure:

"Nahash stated that he would only make a treaty with the Jabeshites if he could put out their right eyes. According to Josephus his terms were either surrender that would involve the loss of everyone’s right eye, or utter destruction. Parallels to such blinding are provided by the Philistines who gouged out Samson’s eyes (Judg 16:21), and in the story of Zedekiah, who was blinded by the Babylonians in 587 (2 Kgs 25:7: "Other Assyrian sources mention the blinding of one eye of prisoners of war, in order that they could still be used as a work force but would have been rendered incapacitated in war" [BBC at 2 Kgs 25].) [WBC]

Of course, the Ammonites sometimes went further than that--to Assyrian levels (Amos 1.13):

For three sins of Ammon, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders..."

Notice these are totally absent from our Deut 20 passage...

[The one case of semi-mutilation I can find before the Divided Kingdom occurs in Judges 1, but it is seen as a very lop-sided case of talion and reap-what-you sow, and NOT a standard wartime practice: "When Judah attacked, the LORD gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek.  5 It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites.  6 Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 Then Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” So, (BBC): "The irony in this passage is that Adoni-Bezek was reduced to the same condition as the seventy kings he had previously mutilated"]

In fact, Israel/Judah might have earned a reputation of being 'soft on crime' for this leniency! When Ahab repulses the attack of Ben Hadad in 1 Kings 20.26ff, Ben Hadad's officials specifically mention this (30f):

"..And Ben-Hadad fled to the city and hid in an inner room. 31 His officials said to him, “Look, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful. Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life.” 32 Wearing sackcloth around their waists and ropes around their heads, they went to the king of Israel"

[But later, the northern kingdom became so anti-good that even one of their kings (Menahem, 2 Kings 15.13-16) committed these types of horrible atrocities--but this is not what Deut 20 commands Israel to do. And there are other atrocities and aberrations from acceptable policy which occur in the biblical text, even in relatively 'good' times--but these are at variance from Deut 20 and do NOT impact our study here.]
The second thing to note is the alternate outcomes, other than war.

We should first note an oddity of the policy: even if the city has done damage to Israel, they are still offered peace ("shalom"). The peace is one of submission, often considered as a vassal treaty:

"...the verse indicates that the Israelites were to offer to the inhabitants of such cities the terms of a vassal treaty. If the city accepted the terms, it would open its gates to the Israelites, both as a symbol of surrender and to grant the Israelites access to the city; the inhabitants would become vassals and would serve Israel." [NICOT]

"Offer it shalom, here meaning terms of surrender, a promise to spare the city and its inhabitants if they agree to serve you. The same idiom appears in an Akkadian letter from Mari: 'when he had besieged that city, he offered it terms of submission (salimam).' In an Egyptian inscription, the prostrate princes of Canaan say shalom when submitting to the Pharaoh. The same meaning is found in verse 11, which reads literally "If it responds 'shalom' and lets you in," and in verse 12, where a verb derived from shalom (hislim) is used for 'surrender'" [Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary]

So, they become vassals, with requirements for forced labor. [This is corvee, btw, and not 'New World slavery'.] Here is how this requirement is understood:

"Literally, as 'forced laborers.' Hebrew mas refers to a contingent of forced laborers working for the state. They were employed in agriculture and public works, such as construction. In monarchic times, David imposed labor on the Ammonites and Solomon subjected the remaining Canaanites to labor...see 2 Sam 12:31; 1 Kings 9:15, 20-22; cf. Judg. 1:28-35. When imposed on citizens, such service took the form of periodic corvee labor. Solomon, for example, drafted Israelites to fell timber in Lebanon; each group served one month out of three (1 Kings 5:27-28). It is not know whether foreign populations subjected to forced labor served part-time or permanently." [Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary]

"The likely meaning is that the city, through its people, was to perform certain tasks, not that individual citizens were to be impressed." [The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations]

"Israel must give its enemy an opportunity to make peace. Those who accepted this offer were required to pay taxes, perform national service, and, if they were going to live in the Land, to accept the Seven Noahide Laws." [Tanaach, Stone Edition]

Notice how this type of forced labor seems to have been levied on BOTH Israelites and non-Israelites--so how differentially bad could it have been then? The Israelite people had already been warned about 'the draft': "

So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who had asked of him a king. 11 And he said, “This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. 12 “And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 “He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 “And he will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. 15 “And he will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. 16 “He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys, and use them for his work. 17 “He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. (1 Sa 8:10).

This is generally understood as the same kind of corvee labor:

The "regulations of the kingship" described by Samuel (with God's prompting and approval, v.10) were totally bereft of redeeming features and consisted only of oppressive requirements. Among the latter was the corvee (forced labor), including compulsory induction ("make them serve," v.11) of both raw recruits (cf. Saul's policy, 14:52) and laborers in field and foundry (v.12). Although common in the ancient world generally, the corvee was unknown in Israel during the time of the judges and was introduced there under the monarchy (cf. Mendelsohn, "Samuel's Denunciation of Kingship," p. 21, n. 33; id., "On Corvee Labor in Ancient Canaan and Israel," BASOR 167 [1962]: 33)... The palace-to-be would acquire horses in great numbers (contrary to Deut 17:16), and the king's chariots would need front runners (v.11; cf. the practice of Absalom [2 Sam 15:1] and Adonijah [1 Kings 1:5]). Reference (v.12) to commanders "of thousands and … of fifties" (probably shorthand for "thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens"; cf. Exod 18:21, 25; Deut 1:15) implies a huge standing army. The term "weapons of war" (v.12) would become so immediately recognizable that David would be able to use it as a figure of speech in his elegy for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam 1:27). Women would not be exempt from conscription into royal service (v.13). Even in desperate times the king would always get his share (Amos 7:1)—a minimum of 10 percent of the income from field and flock (vv.15, 17)." [EBC, 1 Sam 8]

And the details are in synch with other ANE practices:

8:11. prerogatives of kingship. Kingship requires a supporting administration. The administration must be housed and fed. Buildings need to be erected to house the administration, and land must be owned by the crown. A standing army must be raised, and it likewise must be housed and fed. The king must then have access to laborers and goods of every sort. Taxation and forced labor were the major means of providing for the monarchy and stood as royal prerogatives. This would bring about dramatic political and economic changes. This portrayal of kingship is similar to that known in the ancient Near East of this period, particularly observable in Ugaritic texts as the model of Canaanite kingship.
8:11. chariots and horses. Israel had not previously had cavalry or chariotry. This development within a standing army required the centralized authority of kingship. Training was required that only a permanent army could provide. Construction and care of the chariots and stabling and caring for the horses all required significant administrative oversight.
8:12. infantry commanders. In the spontaneous calling out of an army in times of emergency (as previously practiced in Israel), trained commanders were not part of the picture. Part of a standing army, however, involves the permanent appointment of such officers. Such military divisions are also known from Assyrian and Babylonian military terms, where, for instance, one of the lower officers is the commander of fifty.
8:12. working the king’s fields. Once an administration is set up, certain lands become royal lands (2 Chron 26:10). Land can become forfeit to the throne as a result of criminal activity, or land can come to the throne through lack of heirs to inherit ancestral property. This land would be farmed to provide food for the administration as well as to supply stockpiles against emergency. Those who work the land may be forced laborers (in a form of taxation), slaves from foreign peoples or debt slaves who have no other way to recover from losses.
8:13. cooks, bakers, perfumers. Cooks and bakers staffed the royal scullery. The extended family of the king and his administration (often from the extended family) would have to be regularly fed in royal style. Additionally there may have been prisoners of the king and household servants who would need at least meager provisions. Perfumers performed a number of different duties at the court. The king’s garments were regularly perfumed, and spices were burnt in order to maintain a pleasing aroma around the palace. Additionally some spices were recognized as having medicinal value, in which case the perfumer might be performing the task of pharmacist. Assyrian texts and Egyptian tomb paintings both portray elaborate procedures for preparing these spices and ointments.
8:14–15. land confiscation. Attractive properties were frequent targets of royal confiscation. The king’s administrators and favorites were rewarded and kept loyal in this way (see comment on 22:7). This practice is well-known from Hittite and Ugaritic materials as well as from Kassite period Babylon, where land grants to courtiers were very common.
8:16. commandeering of donkeys and slaves. It was not unusual for a king to commandeer a slave who caught his attention or stock animals that were noteworthy. The commoner would have little choice but to offer as a gift that which had attracted the king.
8:17. tithe of grain and flocks as taxes. In Ugaritic literature the tithe is a fixed payment to the king made by each town and village. In earlier biblical passages the tithe was treated as something due the priesthood and the sanctuary. Here the tithe describes royal taxation. [BBC, 1 Sam 8]

So, in the case of surrender, they were simply treated almost at the same level as 'regular Israelites'???! And they were not subjected to the post-surrender atrocities of mutilation, torture, and horrors of 'normal' invading armies???! [Cf. also the offer of 'shalom' within Israel: "Then the whole assembly sent an offer of peace to the Benjamites at the rock of Rimmon." (Jdg 21.23)]

We should also note that Israel/Judah didn't actually take over any land ownership in this deal, and that wealthy individuals could apparently maintain all/some their wealth! We know this from the case of the conquest of Jerusalem. David conquers Jerusalem from the Jebusites, but at least one Jebusite maintained considerable ownership (enough to sell it to David for the Temple), and apparently remained wealthy. So land ownership didn't seem to change hands in some of Israel's encounters:

"Arauna the Jebusite. When David conquered Jerusalem he did not drive out the Jebusite inhabitants. Arauna, having retained a significant tract of land north of the city, is sometimes identified as the Jebusite governor. In fact the Hurrian word (the Jebusites are usually considered of Hurrian extraction) for a feudal overlord is ewrine, leading some to believe that Arauna (variant: Awarna) is a title rather than a name." [BBC]

But it's actually even 'more odd' than that--a vassal treaty involved the vassal (i.e, the 'conquered') being protected in war by the victor (i.e., the 'conquerer'). Since surrendering-to-service generally implied a change of loyalties, then a new set of responsibilities accrued to Israel:

"When all the kings who were vassals [ebed, 'servants'] of Hadadezer saw that they had been defeated by Israel, they made peace [shalom] with the Israelites and became subject [ebed, 'servants'] to them."  (2 Sa 10:19).
"It was not uncommon in the ancient Near East for the fortunes of war to lead to political shifts of allegiance. With the defeat of the Aramean army, many of the villages and towns that had formerly sworn allegiance to Hadadezer now offered their support and tribute to David. Parallels to this practice can be found in the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon as well as in the campaign lists of most of the Assyrian monarchs." [BBC]

An example of this occurs in the story of Gibeon, which deceived Joshua and company into making a vassal treaty with them (Josh 9). When Gibeon (now called 'forced laborers') were under attack from the Five Kings, they called to Joshua for help, appealing to the covenant relationship (Josh 10.5ff):

" Then the five kings of the Amorites—the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon—joined forces. They moved up with all their troops and took up positions against Gibeon and attacked it. 6 The Gibeonites then sent word to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: “Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us! Help us, because all the Amorite kings from the hill country have joined forces against us.” 7 So Joshua marched up from Gilgal with his entire army, including all the best fighting men."

"The Gibeonites turned to Joshua for help because the treaty of peace (9:15) obligated Joshua to defend his vassals." [EBC]

Okay, one more point here. The expense of military campaigns generally came from "proceeds from plunder"--which would be absent in the case of surrender!!!!

"In the ancient world, the standard procedure was not to pay soldiers a wage. Instead they were given a portion of the loot taken in the capture of villages and towns. [BBC, in loc]

"The plunder represented the wages of the soldiers (Ezek 29:19). In some cases the spoil was to be divided between the soldiers and civilians (Num 31:26-54; 1 Sam 30:24). Plunder might consist of women, children, cattle, clothing, material, and valuables like gold or silver (see Gen 34:27-29; Judg 5:30; Ezek 26:12). [NIDOTTE]

Even mercenary soldiers expected an 'upside' from plunder and were upset when dismissed with only the standard fee (2 Chron 25.10ff):

"So Amaziah dismissed the [mercenary] troops, who, despite their payment, were furious over the loss of what they had anticipated as further plunder." (EBC, 2 Chron 25.10)

mercenaries (v6). "The use of mercenaries in ancient Near Eastern warfare was widespread. The Assyrians began to rely heavily on mercenaries by the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (reigned 745–727 b.c.). Although mercenaries were experienced and well trained, their loyalty was often called into question when they did not get their pay in a timely fashion, or if they were fighting against a kindred foe. Ionian mercenaries left the Persian camp and fought for the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea during the Persian wars (480 b.c.).
hundred talents of silver (v6)
. The talent was the largest weight measure used in the Near East. It was comparable to three thousand shekels at Alalakh and Ugarit in Syria and in the Old Testament (Ex 38:25–6). One hundred talents of silver weighed about three and one quarter tons. Obviously this was the total amount spent hiring the mercenaries and comes to one talent of silver for each division. This is not exorbitant pay and was just “earnest money”—the real payoff would come in the plunder." [BBC]

Okay, a quick summary of how odd this is, in the case of surrender:
This is not "your standard-issue ANE warfare", in case you don't recognize it by now...(smile)! This is unparalleled leniency.

So, this is one--the hoped for one--outcome.

There is one other alternative outcome before we get to full war/capture/execution scenario: defection during siege.

Once the men/leaders had decided (irrationally) to not surrender to Israel, war ensued. But it was generally a siege war (cf. the subsequent discussion of trees used for siege works), in which the surrounding army just cut off all supply sources to the city--to 'starve them out'. There is a distinct possibility that individuals could abandon the city (under stealth, probably) and defect to the Israelite camp--without harm. This was the case with the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, in which God begged (through Jeremiah) the people of Jerusalem to do just this--promising them safety:

"Furthermore, tell the people, ‘This is what the LORD says: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.  9 Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; he will escape with his life." (Je 21:8)... "Jeremiah was speaking to all the people, saying, 2 “Thus says the Lord, ‘He who stays in this city will die by the sword and by famine and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans will live and have his own life as booty and stay alive.’" (Je 38:1).

There is no reason to doubt that this would be a plausible scenario--here and elsewhere in the ANE. Rarely do leaders have 100% agreement with their policies, and there are always those who are "wiser" than the death-before-dishonor-of-defeat crowd... Not only do such 'traitors' (from the centrist perspective--smile) occur in scripture (e.g., Rahab of Jericho, the young man of Succoth in Judg 8.14, the sick Egyptian slave of  1 Sam 30), but they generally perform some useful service for the 'other side'--ingratiating themselves to their captors. This clearly elevates their status beyond 'captive', and provides a means of further integration into the victor's community (cf. Rahab as the ancestor of David and Jesus!).

Although there are clearly defections which are simply decisions-of-chance (cf. the lepers in 2 Kings 7.3f: "Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, “Why stay here until we die? If we say, ‘We’ll go into the city’—the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.”),  there is also the possibility that the number of defections would be directly proportional to the belligerence of the city's leadership. Successful (at the economic level necessary to support war efforts) communities require sane merchants, practically-minded farmers, sober-minded craftsmen. The 'stranger' the policies of the leadership--especially when it threatens these very economic ventures!--the more cultural dissonance and disagreement will be present. In some other cases, these 'more sane folk' were quick to appease a surrounding army by turning over the 'trouble maker'--dead or alive (e.g. the story of Joab and the wise woman of Abel Beth-maacah, 2 Sam 20).

In our case, this dissonance could manifest itself as a quick removal of the belligerent leadership (and subsequent surrender), or large scale defections/abandonment of the city. This is a very common occurrence, and one that can be assumed as possible here.


The final outcome is basically elimination of the continuing threat. When the enemy leadership reveals its stubborn intent to continue its inimical, active, aggression policy toward Israel, then the only defensive option is to remove it totally. It does no good to eliminate most of it, since it only takes one escapee to come back later with an army (numerous cases in history of this! In biblical history, we might note Hadad the Edomite and Rezon, in 1 Kings 11). And it is this outcome under discussion here.

The third thing to note about the Deut 20 passage is some variability in the translation.

The NASB above makes the verb in verse 14 into something like an imperative: "you MUST take as booty...". This "must" (worded as "shall" in the translation) sense is given in the NASB, NKJV, and JPS modern translations. But the verb is translated "may" or "can" (i.e., permissive instead of mandatory) in other modern translations: NIV, NRSV, and Sapirstein (in the Rashi commentaries). The verbal forms themselves are ambiguous: they are not imperative forms (as in 20.3, "Hear, O Israel") but many verbs in the passage HAVE imperatival force without having imperatival forms per se (e.g., "you shall offer peace"). And the "you shall eat of the fruit trees" in 20.19 is also the same verbal form, but this is clearly not imperatival ('you must eat the fruit of the trees').

What this means is that we have two possible classes of surviving women/children (in the case of actual battle):
(1) those who are taken into Israel as 'booty' and
(2) those who are left behind in the city.

Let's take these in reverse order...

(2) Those left behind in the conquered city. Their situation is fairly stable (but not as good as it was before the wealthy enemy attacked Israel). The population mix would include the widows of all ages, females of all ages, and adolescent males too young to fight in the army (or perhaps otherwise exempt from military service--other nations had exemption clauses like Israel had in the first part of Deut 20). They become the owners of  all the property, and there are many differences between their case and the case of Amalekite survivors:

So, those left behind had an adequate infrastructure base from which to start, and without any men there, reprisal from their previous-emperor would be avoided. [They would, however, face the danger of slave traders and raiders themselves, since their defenses would have been radically weakened.]

(1) Those taken as 'plunder' by Israel. ("Been avoiding the question as long as you could, eh, Glenn?...")

Here we want to surface any relevant differences between this case and the case of any Amalekite survivors, and assess the significance.

The main difference/problem  is noted by commentators on this passage, about the "cultural influence" issue, between Aramean culture and the Canaanite (which included Amalek) culture:

"The women in the nations mentioned in 20:10-15 (i.e., from the Aramean culture) were not as degenerate as those from the Canaanite culture. Also Aramean women adopted the religions of their husbands. Abraham, for example, insisted that his servant get a wife from the Aramean culture for Isaac and not a Canaanite woman (Gen. 24). Thus the women and children of those nations could be spared. But one only needs to remember the influence of Jezebel who brought her husband Ahab under the worship of Baal to see the destructive effects of marriage to a Canaanite wife." [BKC]

[Remember, it was the destructive degeneracy of the Midianite wives which was the catalyst in their own execution and the execution of tens of thousands of Israelite males, see midian.html. One can easily suspect that Amalek's strongly anti-Israelite hatred/perspective--resulting in hundreds of years already of constant aggression against the Israelites--was not confined to the males of the population... ]

In other words, these Aramean women/children (the only group of people beyond Transjordan, btw) were not threats to Israel (or at least 'less a threat'), and would be more likely to be assimilated into Israel successfully. [One of Israel's creeds even began "my father was a wandering Aramean...", referring to Jacob, in Deut 26.5]

But this only means that they might be safe to bring home--it does NOT mean that Israel could 'afford' this, per se.

And this brings us to the 'welfare' point: this was still NOT welfare at all--it was strictly an economic, trade-off matter. If you could "pull-more-than-your-own-weight" (thereby contributing to the survivability/vitality of an Israelite household), then you were an "option" to bring home. As I mentioned before, there were no real welfare systems in place in the ANE--if you took an unfortunate into your home, you had better (a) have had significant excess resource/financial capacity (i.e., be rich); or (b) bring someone in who could add more economic value than they cost. [This is similar, btw, to hiring decisions by companies today. They are going to pay an employee X, and they will not do this unless they think they can get some X+Y value out of them.]

So, the main three criteria which would apply in any 'bring a PERSON home as plunder' decision for a soldier would be:

One. Will the presence of this person be destructive of my family's cohesiveness or unity? This eliminates the hostile, depraved religions of Canaan*.* as well as any nation with deeply inbred hostility to Israel (e.g. who would stab you in your sleep--as feared by Roman slaveowners); but would also perhaps eliminate some 'extra wives' (covered later in Deut 20/21)--due to practical matters of wife-jealousy, descendant inheritance conflicts, household living conditions, etc. And this might also eliminate some livestock goods (e.g., not being able to care for them long enough to sell them, etc). Also, social disapproval/mistrust of a foreign captive might impact community interactions and business dealings.

Two. Do we have extra resources at home to be used in supporting this individual for however long it takes to make them a net contributor to the household economic health and stability? In other words, if those brought into the home are young, they will require more-investment-than-return for some period (e.g., sustenance, medical care, education, etc). If a family does not have the surplus of resources to 'fund this', then this is not an option to the soldier. [But again, this is not actually welfare per se--this is like education/training or taking in a boarder, and is more 'investment-like'.]

Three. Does this person have some useful skill that can be used (or developed quickly, and then used) in helping the family in the battle for survival/stability? War captives who could help with agriculture or husbandry or infrastructure crafts are obvious candidates, but those without any such skills simply could not be afforded.

[Four. There is a special version of #3 which runs something like "Assuming they don't meet conditions #1-3 above for my household, can I nevertheless sell this person quickly enough, and for enough money (to be contributed to household vitality) into some other household, to justify caring for them long enough to market them?" This presumes an adequate, accessible, and fluid  market for such people. One can immediately see that if a person did not meet these criteria for a (statistically) normal Israelite family, then the market for such individuals could be exceptionally small. Or, if they did meet these three criteria, and yet there was a 'better candidate' (e.g., a destitute Hebrew offering himself/herself/their family for the position--probably the largest source of servant labor in ancient Israel), then the market shrinks even further. Historically, of course, such servitude was confined to wealthy families, and this would limit the market 'upside' for the soldiers (e.g., demand would be far lower than 'supply', and hence less economically appealing).

Now, let's  look at each of these for the two cases: Amalek (early in the reign of Saul) and Beyond-Transjordan (late in the reign of David).

Criterion One: This is obvious. As the citation above pointed out, the attitude difference between Aramean women and Amalekite women is probably the decisive one in our case. Also, apart entirely from the religious/cultural influences, the Aramean would be less likely to attack you (successfully, that is--due to skill set differences!)  in your sleep than would the Amalekite. The Amalekite would have 'fleeing' skills, which would raise the risk, whereas the Aramean would not, etc. [By way of comic illustration, and very relevant, note: In the list of things a "Chief Evil OverLord" should do (many lists available on the net), one of the sayings is: "No matter how attractive certain members of the rebellion are, there is probably someone just as attractive who is not desperate to kill me. Therefore, I will think twice before ordering a prisoner sent to my bedchamber."]

Criterion Two:  This requires a little digging. Here we have to assess the relaitve 'wealth' of the average Israelite household in these two time periods. The Amalek incident occurs around 1028 BC,  and any beyond-Transjordan war activity (of which, btw, there is none described in the bible--our Dt 20 passage is hypothetical and legislative only) would have occurred late in David's reign around 925ish (around the revolt of Absalom?). That's only a 50 year time span, but the difference it made in economic impact was staggering.

Let's note first that Saul's reign began in the devastated environment of the period of the Judges. Saul is the first king, selected when Samuel was still judging Israel. As such he inherited the financial and territorial situation at the end of the book of Judges--a rather bleak situation:

"Saul lived in troubled times. For some time Israel had been simply a loose confederation of twelve tribes with no single leader. Judges had arisen under the call of God to serve in various regions of the land in times of crisis. There had been a common sanctuary at Shiloh, but it was now destroyed (4:12-22; Jer 7:14; 26:6, 9). New invaders from the islands of the sea, the Philistines, had settled along the Mediterranean coast and had pushed up into the highlands. Israel had no military organization which was capable of stopping the invaders. Nor did they have weapons, for the Philistines had established a monopoly in the making and the maintenance of iron tools (1 Sam 13:19-22). The Philistines had made Saul’s home town, Gibeah, into an outpost (10:5; 13:3). [ZPEB]

"Saul lived during a very critical period in the history of the Israelite tribes. Though the dates cannot be determined with any certainty, he lived during the latter half of the 11th century b.c. and probably ruled as king from about 1020–1000 b.c. Before he became king, the Israelite tribes were on the verge of military collapse. The Philistines, a powerful military people, had settled along the Mediterranean coast; they were well established on the coast and planned to move eastward and take control of Palestine as a whole. In order to do this, they first had to eliminate the Israelites, who were settled in the hill country on the west of the Jordan, and also in Transjordan. The absence of any strong and permanent military authority among the Israelites meant that the Philistines were a grave military threat to the continued existence of Israel.... The immediate crisis, which was to contribute to Saul’s rise to power, was a crushing defeat of the Israelite army by the Philistines at Ebenezer, in the vicinity of Aphek. The victory gave the Philistines more or less complete control of Israelite territories lying to the west of the Jordan; they attempted to maintain that control by establishing military garrisons throughout the country which they had captured. Israel, weakened by the Philistine defeat, became vulnerable to enemies on other borders. The nation of Ammon, situated to the east of the Israelites’ land in Transjordan, attacked and laid siege to the town of Jabesh (1 Sm 11:1). Saul, summoning an army of volunteers, delivered the inhabitants of Jabesh and defeated the Ammonites. It was after this event that Saul became king. He had already been anointed a prince or leader among the people by Samuel; after his military success at Jabesh, he assumed the office formally at the sanctuary in Gilgal (v 15).... The defeat of the Ammonites provided a significant boost to Israelite morale, but it did not significantly change the military crisis and threat posed by the Philistines. Indeed, the location of Saul’s appointment to kingship is significant. Gilgal, in the Jordan Valley near Jericho, was chosen partly because the earlier shrine of Shiloh was held by the Philistines. Gilgal was in one of the few areas remaining outside Philistine control.   Saul was faced with an extraordinarily difficult task as military commander. His home ground had the advantage of being reasonably easy to protect, for most of it was mountainous countryside. But he was surrounded on all four sides by enemies who wanted his land, he had inadequate weapons (for Philistines controlled the supply of iron), he had no large standing army, he had inadequate communication systems, and he did not have the wholehearted support of all the Israelites. For several years, he was relatively successful against almost impossible odds, but eventually his military genius failed.... The Philistines assembled a large army in the vicinity of Aphek, but instead of attacking Saul’s mountain territory directly, the army moved northward and then began to penetrate Israelite territory at a weak point in the vicinity of Jezreel. Saul attempted to gather an adequate military force to meet the Philistine threat, but was unable to do so. With inadequate preparation and insufficient forces, he prepared for battle at Mt Gilboa; he should never have entered that battle, for it could not have been won. His sons were killed on the battlefield, and Saul, rather than fall into the hands of the Philistines, committed suicide...From a military perspective, Saul had become king at a time of crisis; he had averted disaster and gained some respite for his country. But the battle in which he died was a disaster for Israel; the country he left behind after his death was in worse straits than it had been on his assumption of power." [BEB]

We can contrast this with summary assessments of David's reign:

"No doubt the capture of Jerusalem was part of a pattern. David could not allow the Canaanite cities to retain their independence, remaining potential centers of disaffection. We have no details of their capture; probably there was little or no real opposition to David. Thus consolidating his own realm, David next meant to subdue Israel’s ancient foes. Philistia was presumably the first to capitulate; Moab and Edom soon followed (2 S. 8:2, 13f). If 10:1f is to be believed, David had no aggressive intentions toward Ammon; but the king of Ammon, Hanun, feared Israel’s growing power, and insulted David’s envoys in a very ill-advised fashion. David could not overlook this, and warfare resulted, Hanun hastily forming alliances with some Aramean states to the north of Ammon. David was victorious, and finally captured Hanun’s capital, Rabbah (Rabbath Ammon, the modern Amman) (12:26ff). It must have been subsequent to this that David made most of Syria tributary (8:3–12); the allies of Ammon had to be pursued and punished. David was now at the pinnacle of success, master of a considerable empire. His victories were due largely to his own abilities, although Joab must also have been a very able soldier. The weakness of Egypt and the Mesopotamian states during this period also contributed to David’s success.... David began his reign as vassal ruler of a small, disunited people, and ended it as the master of a considerable empire, with not a few vassals of his own." [ISBE]

 "(2 Sam 8:1–18). Following this theological highlight, we have a rather mundane catalog of David’s further military victories, over Philistines and Moabites (8:1–2), Arameans (8:3–8), Edomites (8:13–14), and others (8:12), and of his acclaim by the king of Hamath (8:9–12). Its function is to show further that YHWH was with David and that he was an effective warrior and ruler (8:6b, 14b–15). The extent of David’s kingdom was impressive: it reached the Mediterranean in the W, the N Sinai desert in the S, much of Transjordan in the E, and it approached the Euphrates in the N (cf. 24:5–7)." [ABD]

Economic wealth in the ANE was largely a function of fertile land ownership and/or dominion over fertile lands.The most fertile lands in Palestine are along the coastal plain, the northern valleys (in Galilee), and the Jordan valley. To the extent ancient Israel had access to these areas (and smaller such tracts), to that same extent economic prosperity was possible. Of course, foreign countries also had desirable land, and they also desired Israel's land (expansionist). To the extent ancient Israel was dominated by foreign power, to that extent any wealth would be drained off in tribute. And, conversely, to the extent Israel dominated a foreign power, to that extent wealth flowed into Israel (in the form of tribute/taxes).

By comparing the land-area of the respective kingdoms (both occupied by Israel and dominated by Israel), one can form an vague/imprecise notion of the relative scale of economic wealth.

First, let's look at the actual land-area occupied by Israel, for the Saul and David/Solomon realms:

The first chart is of Saul; the second one of David/Solomon. The pink/purple area is that actually occupied by Israelites. [Colored Charts from Logos Deluxe Maps set]

Notice that Saul's area has very, very little fertile plains/valley areas, whereas that of David does.

Next, here is a combined dominion map, showing the areas of each [the RED outline is of Saul's area; original maps from New Bible Atlas].

This is a massive increase in revenue-producing areas, and was accomplished by the incessant war efforts of David (most of it provoked by hostile attacks by outsiders, though).

Now, given a vastly larger economic base, what about the population base (to get to 'per capita' type comparisons)?

What is odd is that the various troop counts and census figures (given for both David and Saul, at different times) reflect about the same population levels. This means that overall average wealth grew, even if it might have been concentrated at the higher end of the socio-economic spectrum (an elite class does become more prominent in the biblical record). The amounts of gold/silver left by David to Solomon for the temple were gained from the half-century of dominion expansions (and not from internal taxation on increased access to fertile land--that 'new wealth' would have remained in the hands of the populace). Saul had no such large-scale financial hoard at his death. He did have some plunder that he dedicated to the tabernacle/central site, but most of his surviving estate  was wealth drained from people in Israel (i.e., a tax system)--not a net-gain for the nation.

So, as for Criterion Two, there is a significant difference between the ability of Israel to absorb financial liabilities (i.e., young or needy war captives), between the two reigns.

Criterion Three (Useful skills): There seems to be a major gap here as well. The slave-trading, raiding-bandit, plunder-merchant society requires a different skill set of its wives and young sons. Sons would learn tactics of raiding, stealth, prisoner subjugation, bargaining, ambush, deceit/camouflage, and race-riding. Wives would have somewhat more generic skills such as cooking and child-rearing, but many of the 'standard toolkit' skills would not be necessary: agriculture, long term pastoral care, clothing manufacture, education(?), house/furniture construction, pottery making, and real estate transactions. [Cf the tasks of the 'excellent wife' in Proverbs 31, which includes working in wool, flax, and linen (with distaff/spindle); buying land; planting a vineyard, selling home-made garments].

So, as for Criterion Three, this is also a significant difference, and one that would have been a show-stopper in this case.

But we should also point out that even if the requisite skill set existed in a captive, the need for these services might still be better rendered by someone of local/Hebrew background, rather than a recently-at-war-with-you captive! (point #1), as we will point out below...

Criterion Four (Slave markets). This will take a little digging too, since we have so little data about actual slave trade within ancient Israel.

General assessments of slave usage within Israel during this time (one possible market for a soldier returning with a captive) is very, very low, especially in this time:

"Slaves were relatively rare in the small-scale family-centered Palestinian agricultural economy..." [HI:LCCAI, 170]

"We have very little information about the number of domestic slaves in Israel. Gideon took ten of his servants to demolish the sanctuary of Baal (Jg 6:27). Abigal, wife of the wealthy Naba, has an unstated number of slaves, and when she went to marry David, she took five maidservants with her (1 Sam 25.19,42). After Saul's death, the property of the royal family was valued by Siba, a steward, who had fifteen sons and twenty slaves of his own (2 Sam 9.10). Some large landowners in the days of the monarchy may have had a comparatively large household, but they were the exceptions." [De Vaux, I:84]

The smaller the market, the less the incentive--unless prices were very, very high. And prices don't seem to be such: the 30 shekels figure in Ex 21 for slave replacement  would be equivalent to 2.5 years pay for a common worker (and, as a penalty, could be much higher than actual market prices).

But where exactly was the market? Where did you go to buy or sell such slaves?

We really don't know. There are no designated/obvious areas in any of the markets in the cities of Roman Palestine (or even in the eastern Mediterranean, for that matter). We assume they are bought or sold (1) as traveling merchants pass through a major city, or (2) in harbor markets along the coast.

"We learn from 2 Kings 13:20 and Amos 1:13 that there were Moabite and Ammonite raids. This meant the capture of peoples as slaves, and the Philistines and Phoenicians in the coastal cities gladly profited from the resulting slave trade." [BANE:240]

Since slave trade typically required long-distance transport, sea travel was the least expensive means of this--and we are back to port cities again:

"selling captives. One of the most lucrative aspects of warfare and border raiding was the slave trade. Captives were easily sold to dealers, who would transport them far from their homeland (see Ezek 27:13; Joel 3:6–7)... The actual number of such persons does not compare to the huge numbers of slaves found in Greek and Roman cities. The slave trade existed from earliest times in the ancient Near East. Slaves were generally war captives or persons taken in raids. Traders often accepted slaves, which they transported to new areas and sold. These persons seldom obtained their freedom. The vast majority of persons who ended up on the slave block were either sold to the slavers by their own families or were prisoners of war.". [BBC]

Now, when you think about how this works, you see that we are not talking about a 'local market' in which a war captive is sold to another Hebrew in another village across the valley. There seems to be no mention of this type of market in the United Monarchy, and all indications are that slaves are not sold between 'end-users', but through a middle-man (slavetrader). The 'far distances' aspect can be understood as a natural deterrent (but not always effective--there are many documents about runaway slaves from antiquity) against a slave running away from their new situation, hoping to get back home. [One might compare the two slaves of Shimei in Jerusalem who escaped and returned back to the coast. He was able to chase them down and recover them, but they must have had family/friends on the coast. I Kings 2] [Note: Much later,  in the Divided Monarchy, the northern kingdom did appear to develop local markets, as reflected in Amos 8.6, but their attempted subjugation/sale of 200,000 war-captive Judahites in 2 Chron 28 might have been to the northern markets of Damascus or the Tyre connection.]

Coastal cities/cultures are condemned in the OT/Tanaach for such large-scale slave trade, so we can assume it was done there. But we can also assume by the very prophetic denunciation of such practice (one of which is targeted at Israel specifically!!!), that there would have been a major social stigma associated with such--for the average Joel Hebrew. Compare the strong words of Amos 1-2 (a couple of centuries later, as the elite classes became more prevalent under the Divided Monarchy):

“For three sins of Gaza,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
Because she took captive whole communities
and sold them to Edom,
“For three sins of Tyre,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
Because she sold whole communities of captives to Edom,
disregarding a treaty of brotherhood,
“For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.

Edom was not a major user of slaves (except in mining enterprises), but was an exporter of slaves--she had the most important port into the Red Sea, Ezion-geber on the Gulf of Aqaba. This port was prominent in the biblical record and important enough for the city of Tyre to have shipbuilders there (cf. 1 Kgs 9:26; 22:49; 2 Chr 8:17, 20:36).

So, the average Israelite soldier would likely have to 'do the deal' with (1) a traveling merchant in a major city or trade-route, or (2) traveling to the coastal areas of the Philistines or Phoenicians (Coastal Canaanites/Sidonians, of which Tyre was the major port around Israel).

Since very few Israelites lived in a 'major city' at the time of Saul (they did not even have control of Jerusalem), this market outlet would not have been available in the case of selling an Amalekite captive. But, toward the end of David's reign, Israel had developed (or finally been able to use or control) a few such cities (e.g., Jerusalem, Jericho, perhaps the thoroughfare along the Sea of Galilee) and had access to markets in Damascus. But the average Israelite would not be able to travel very far to do his/her slave trading, and with access to any slave-merchants being minimal. We can probably assume that some foreign merchants would buy captives in Jerusalem, but that most merchants would try to avoid transporting such difficult 'cargo' over land.

So, if there was a market for slaves (which a soldier would have access to) apart from the coastal cities, then it would likely have been inaccessible in the main, for most Israelite soldiers.

That leaves the coastal markets: the Philistines and Tyre/Sidon.

There is obviously a problem with commerce with Philistia during the reign of Saul, since he was constantly trying to defeat them in war. Before Saul took rulership, commerce between vassal Israel and Philistia was everyday--even if it was onerous. The picture in the book of Judges is one of frequent interaction (and intermarriage), and at the coronation of Saul, Israelites were required to have their tools sharpened in Philistine shops. But once hostilities reached fever pitch, relationships would not be 'commercial' again, until after David had subjected them. So, the soldiers who fought against Amalek would not have had the Philistine market to sell a captive to; whereas a soldier fighting 50 years later in TransTransJordan would  conceivably have had access to that market.

Tyre/Sidon are more plausible market candidates, since they had just become independent states and were on friendly terms with Israel during the Monarchy (cf. the trade relations with David, and the parentage of Hiram in 1 Kgs 7.14). The main problem, of course, was that these were the original Baal-worshipers (e.g. Jezebel was from Tyre; and Ugarit is considered Phoenician in origin too) and Israel was not supposed to be on friendly terms with them--especially at the end of the period of the Judges. But probably of more relevance is the distance involved for the average Israelite. The southernmost port was at Acco (Dor was a Philistine city, most likely) which was accessible from northern Galilee, but only accessible from there. Just below them were the Philistines, whom we have already discussed. This means that only Israelites from that territory (Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun, Issachar) would be reasonable candidates--and they are not prominent players in the wars of Saul (they are actually NOT EVEN MENTIONED in any of the Saulide narratives!)..

So, all things considered, the opportunity for gainful slave-trading for a soldier in the case of Amalek would have been almost nil; and the opportunity for a soldier under David fifty years later would have only been slightly better (accessible, but expensive due to travel/maintenance costs).

So, as for Criterion Four, this is also a significant difference.

But there is one other factor to consider here, especially for local-use or local-sale probabilities (as opposed to traveling to the coast and selling to a long-distance trader): the availability of  better, 'competitive' products.

As is often noted, the vast majority of the servitude in the ancient world (before Rome) was voluntary--one sold oneself or one's family members into slavery, for their welfare or for the welfare of the remainder of the family. The poor sold themselves and  parents sold children. Although some of these would be considered long-term (i.e, for life), Israel had two forms of temporary servitude: the 6-year contract with freedom at the end, and the same contract but with an early-termination date created by being bought-back by one's family (i.e. 'redemption'). This looked just like regular ANE 'slavery'--the person lived with the family, was provided for, and worked to support the household--but just had a fixed-length duration.

There are several reasons why any Hebrew NEEDING such a servant would choose this 'source of supply' rather than a war-captive (or raiding-captive, as well):
  1. Obviously, there would be no 'hostile element' in the home. As a voluntary situation, the arrangement would be a cause of thanks for the destitute Hebrew, and none of the 'kill me in my sleep' elements would be present.
  2. It was a temporary financial commitment, so the investment risk was low. A life-long slave is just that--a long term responsibility, regardless of family fortunes. As the servant got older, their re-sale value would decline and so changes in family fortunes might force a serious loss. With a six-year commitment/contract, on the other hand, a householder could continue to re-contract with other Hebrews every six years until either the workload had disappeared or until finances no longer allowed the wage payment.
  3. There was an instant payback. Their would be no language or cultural barriers to overcome, these were almost always young adults with basic education, and they would have had skillsets appropriate to daily life requirements for Israel at that time.
  4. There was no actual payment required (until the going-away party at the end)! When you bought a slave, you paid the slave-trader for the person and THEN had full financial support requirements for them. In the case of a six-year servant, you only had the support requirements--there WAS no 'sale price' out of pocket!
  5. With a Hebrew servant, social acceptance would have already been there--your community would be able to 'associate' with him/her. With a non-Israelite, certain ethnic and religious prejudices would likely be a retardant to business relationships.
  6. With relatives around (who could perhaps later do the redemption process), the servant would have incentive to act with honor, faithfulness, and diligence, and not bring shame upon his/her family. This cultural value would work in favor of the temporary 'master'.

Given these considerable advantages of a Hebrew servant over a foreign war captive, the sheer competitive pressures would make the taking of a war-captive (for local-use or for local-resale) unappealing. In distinction to "state slaves" (i.e., those bought/captured by the government to serve in public service)--which is NOT in view in Deut 20-- the private, soldier, captive-into-slave process would probably be very infrequent.


So, where does this lead/leave us?

Let's summarize our points so far:

So, I think your answer is in there somewhere. The dominant reason might be the deep-seated hatred "danger factor", but the economic, skillset, market difficulty, and better local options factors also add considerable weight to this difference of policy.

I hope this helps friend,
Sept 23/2006

The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.Christian-thinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)