Are trees of the field human, to withdraw before you into the city?

There are many reasons in this quote why our quarrel is not with the trees, and therefore we should not kill them.

  1.  Are trees of the field human, to withdraw before you into the city?  They are helpless, and so we should show them mercy.
  2. Are trees of the field human? If you are destroying the people of the land, you do not need to destroy the trees.
  3. In verse 20:10, it says that we con have much of a besieged town to do with as we wish. If we destroy all the trees, we have no spoils, it hurts us more than them.


  1. Here’s the thing about the text: kee ha-adam aytz hasadeh lavoh mipanecha bamatzor is difficult to translate. There are a bunch of issues, but it starts with kee, which can mean if as an interrogative or because as a conjunction (or some other things, such as perhaps or unless or when. Your translation (the Jewish Publication Society, I believe) takes kee as interrogative, making it a rhetorical question. They are following Rashi, who is himself informed in his choices by the Septuagint, the Greek version from more or less the second century BCE. Your first point speaks to this interpretation, an anthropomorphic view of trees as worthy of mercy.

    Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, interprets kee as a subordinating conjunction, that we should not cut down the trees because the man/tree/the field. The Authorized Version, usually called the King James Version or KJV, takes its translation from this strand of thinking: thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life) to employ them in the siege. This interpretation is more along the lines of your third point, the practical reason not to cut down the trees, rather than an ethical one.

    The Revised Standard Version (and the New Revised Standard), which are my usual go-to translations for clarity and accuracy, both go with Rashi (and the JPS) rather than the KJV (or the NKJV or Noah Webster’s translation of 1833). It’s a pretty clear division within the tradition, and that division in translation means (unsurprisingly) a difference in interpretation.

    So, my question for you: which side are you on? Would you translate with the KJV or the JPS?

  2. I think it’s also reasonable to see the readings as not-mutually-exclusive, as simultaneously valid. Showing mercy in your own self-interest is easier (and easier to persuade others of the rightness of that course); when you make that choice often enough it becomes easier to show mercy when it’s not just in your self-interest. Make a habit of mercy.

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