Counting the Cost

Parashat Shof’tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

by Dr. Patrice Fischer, Congregation Ohr Chadash, Clearwater, FL


Shof’tim has dozens of passages of instruction: Don’t worship idols, how courts and kings should behave, the Prophet like Moses, etc. One particular section, Dt. 20:1–9, does not seem that memorable on the surface. It discusses some of the instructions for waging war against the various Canaanite city-states that the Israelites must oust from their Promised Land. Remember, these people are only one generation away from centuries of slavery in Egypt. Aside from one battle fought by the older, original generation (against the Amalekites—Ex. 17), they have no direct battle experience, much less military training. It is important to make sure that the army, which acts on the behalf of the whole people, does not go into battle before understanding what exactly the Lord expects them to do (and not to do).

It is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you to victory. (Dt. 20:3)

The officers are to speak with the army, beginning with instructions about those who are not whole-heartedly committed to fighting directly with the Canaanite city-states; these particular fighting men need to go home.

Wait—what? Those that don’t want to fight can return home? How can this attitude win any war? Don’t we need all-hands-on-deck (to use an anachronistic metaphor)?

Evidently not. The Lord doesn’t need every single person who volunteers, including those who are “afraid and disheartened” (20:8). Those who volunteer need to think long and hard over whether they should participate in battlefield duty. After consideration, a soldier who could not put his whole heart into the battle could opt out.

These soldiers are not shamed into participating. The officers are to point out that some of them who have shown up to fight might think better about their decision (20:5–9).

There is no blame assigned to those who do not go into battle. They are not to be seen as cowards by the other troops—they have specific responsibilities elsewhere, e.g. a house, a new wife, a harvest. (Notice that these instructions are also aimed at future Jewish people who plant crops and build homes, something not done by the audience here being directly addressed.).

This is a foreshadowing of the methods that God will continue to use in the future—especially during the time of the Judges—to winnow out those volunteers who are less capable of surviving in the battles they will fight (see Gideon, in Jud. 7). In even later times within the nation of Israel we can see a specific part of the rationale behind God’s instructions. In the book of Zechariah the Lord says to Zerubbabel, “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). In other words, the victory is not dependent upon the number of soldiers fighting the battle, but rather upon the soldiers’—and the nation’s—reliance on God. He is the one who has the strength, not the size of the army in the campaign.

We are also reminded of Rav Shaul’s words to the Corinthians: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong . . . so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor. 1:27–28).

But before we leave the officers’ instructions in this passage, perhaps these instructions also remind us of one of Yeshua’s memorable teachings: that of counting the cost (Lk. 14:25-34).

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will you not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? . . . Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?”

In Yeshua’s specific context, he is discussing those followers that wish to be his true disciples. They also, like the soldiers involved in the conquest of the Promised Land, must count the cost of their discipleship before they give up everything to follow Yeshua. (Whether or not service to Yeshua should necessarily be seen in the terms of warfare needs to be left to a different discussion.)  Instead, it’s better to think about what that commitment will cost them before they jettison everything and everyone in their lives.

The point here is not to assume everyone should or must be this kind of disciple, but instead, to make sure that the cost is clearly understood before a commitment is made. What could be worse than turning your back on your family, etc., and then, not being able to keep an emotional commitment to your new life, drop out of that new commitment? Then you have nothing—no family, etc., that you gave up, and no new commitment, either. What a tragic state of affairs. This teaching of urges us to weigh our lives and our commitments carefully, whether it is the soldiers’ commitments before the Conquest, or our commitment to follow Yeshua.

How about the “salt” that Yeshua ends this passage with? “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” (Luke 14:34). This saying also refers back to an idea in this week’s Deuteronomy passage. The army that God will use to conquer Canaan does not need extra people. It needs soldiers who understand and wholeheartedly make a commitment to fight the battles. It does not need those soldiers whose minds are somewhere else, whose hearts are concentrated on other goals. It does not need those who are too afraid to be really useful in battle. Instead, they should go back to where they are useful, and there is no shame in doing this in this context.

By including the people who do not have their hearts and minds into fighting the battle, the army is “watered down”.  It’s better to let them do what their hearts and minds want to do, rather than fight in battles they are not able to win. Salt is not salty when it is watered down. It gets washed away. It doesn’t help what it is added to. It no longer can be used for anything useful, not even for animal waste, says Yeshua.

The concepts within this passage are well worth pondering this week, as we approach the New Year.

Stephanie Escalnate