Reflections of Rushdoony’s take on War

Rushdoony on Warthe spirit of 76

by Dr. Joel McDurmon

 In a previous article, I related the teachings of Greg Bahnsen on War. His non-interventionist conclusions are virtually identical to mine—both being gleaning from the continuing validity of Deuteronomy 20. Today we will see similar views, though in a much shorter venue, from the godfather of the Christian Reconstruction movement, R. J. Rushdoony.

gloryThese also are taken from comments on Deuteronomy 20. The following notes were compiled a few years ago by a strong proponent and fan of Rushdoony, John Lofton. John was the editor of Michael Peroutka’s The American View. John acceded from the church militant to the church triumphant recently, on September 17, 2014, at the age of 73. I owed him an interview from a long-outstanding promise on which I never made good. I appreciate much of the work he left behind, and his unwavering loyalty to the Christian Reconstruction movement.

I have taken Lofton’s notes on Rushdoony on Deuteronomy anti liberty 220 and given them some editorial rearrangement for topical purposes, and made minor corrections for typos, etc. Here goes:


Throughout the Christian era, much has occurred in the way of efforts, both successful and unsuccessful, to limit injustices in wartime. Although the history of Western warfare is not good, it still is different from the ferocity of most pagan conflicts, until recently.

In v. 1, God stresses through Moses that He is with them: therefore, “be not afraid of them.” This is a command: to believe in God means = to trust in His Word.

The army must then trust in God, not in the size of the army. Wars are not outside of God’s providential government, and the most necessary equipment for battle is a trust in God. It is clear from all this that military service was voluntary, not compulsory. The covenant people were to place their hope in God, to use godly soldiers, and to eliminate from the rinks of the volunteers all men who might be for any cause double-minded. . . .

Deuteronomy deals with warfare in chapters 20:1-20; 21:10-14; 23:9-14; 24:5; and 25:17-19. Even a modernist like Anthony Phillips has called the laws “humanitarian.”

In v. 9, the officers speak “unto the people.” Instead of a drafted army, the soldiers are the people, come together to defend their cause or their homes. This is basic in Deuteronomy. Instead of a state decreeing war as a matter of policy, we have a people ready to fight for their cause. Instead of men drafted, made soldiers by compulsion, we have a gathering of the clansmen to defend their cause. The first step before battle is to send home some of these men. . . .

As a result, two kinds of exemption from military service are granted. First, all those whose minds are distracted and preoccupied by their affairs at home, i.e., a new house as yet not dedicated nor used, a bride betrothed but not taken, or a new vineyard finally producing but as yet unharvested. All such men, however willing to fight, are to be sent home, both as a merciful act and also to eliminate distracted minds (vv. 5-7). Second, all who are fearful and fainthearted are also to be sent home. Their presence in the army is a threat to their fellow soldiers.

These exemptions are to be declared by a priest. They are religious exemptions and are therefore to be set forth by a priest. . . . The exemptions applied to all ranks of soldiers. If, therefore, clan leaders dropped out because of some kind of exemption, then captains of armies were to be made out of the remaining men. The officers were thus named by the men of courage. . . .

The captains or commanders were, according to A. D. H. Mayes, apparently chosen on the same basis as were elders in cities and in the temple life of the people, captains over tens, twenties, hundreds, and thousands. The original commandment for this is cited in Deuteronomy 1:9-15.

  1. C. Craigie’s comments on this text are very telling. He states,

Israelite strength lay not in numbers, not in the superiority of their weapons, but in their God. The strength of their God was not simply a matter of faith, but a matter of experience.

The legitimate wars were godly wars because their purpose was to remain secure in their possession of the land and their exercise of godly dominion therein. Again quoting the admirable Craigie:

The basis of these exemptions becomes clearer against the background of the function of war in ancient Israel. The purpose of war in the early stages of Israel’s history was to take possession of the land promised to the people of God; in the later period of history, war was fought for defensive purposes, to defend the land from external aggressors. The possession of the promised land, in other words, was at the heart of Israel’s wars, and the importance of the land, in the plan of God, was that Israel was to live and work and prosper in it. The building of homes and orchards, the marrying of a wife, and other such things were of the essence of life in the promised land, and if these things ceased, then the wars would become pointless. Thus, in these exemptions from military service, it is clear that the important aspects of normal life in the land take precedence over the requirements of the army, but this somewhat idealistic approach (in modern terms) was possible only because of the profound conviction that military strength and victory lay, in the last resort, not in the army, but in God. . . .

Verse 4 states that “God is he that goeth with you.” This has also been rendered as “God who marches with you.”

We see here as elsewhere that there is nothing outside of God’s government. Work, worship, war, eating, sanitation, and all things else are subject to His laws. He is totally the Governor of all things. The marginal note to this text in the Geneva Bible tells us, “God permitteth not this people to fight when it seemeth good to them.” We are in all things totally under His government.

God’s laws of warfare view legitimate warfare as the defense of the family and the land. Modern warfare is waged for political, not covenantal, reasons. Moreover, nonbiblical wars are waged more and more against civilians, as were pagan wars. Thus, there is a great gap between political wars and those permitted by God’s law.

The rules of warfare are further cited in these verses. In vv. 10-15, distant cities, outside of Canaan, are the subject, and, in vv. 16-20, the Canaanite cities. In the first instance, even though the armies are on foreign soil, it is defensive warfare against a city-state which had attacked the covenant people. In the second instance, it is a war of seizure and occupation against the Canaanite peoples. This warfare was legitimate because God the Lord was dispossessing them as tenants of His earth. Outside of Canaan, only Amalek was to be treated similarly (Deut. 25:17-19). Amalek was God’s enemy also and had to be treated as such.

Apart from these peoples, the practice of total war is strictly forbidden (vv. 19-20). God’s purpose for the earth is that it become His Kingdom in faith and obedience, and He requires that His law protecting all fruit trees be faithfully observed. Only non-fruit trees can be used to build siege works against a city. This law applies to warfare against any people. . . .

The productivity of the earth, in the form of fruit trees, vines, and the like, was not to be a target of warfare. The dominion mandate (Gen. 1:26-28) called for such an exercise of man’s efforts to turn this earth into God’s Kingdom. In waging war against other men, for men to destroy the fruits of dominion by anyone was to wage war against God’s law, and therefore against God. . . .

This law is especially important because an ancient and modern practice of war is to destroy fruit trees. This left an area somewhat unproductive for some years. The Assyrian kings at times boasted of this practice. Roman generals such as Pompey and Titus applied this strategy rigorously. Mohammed destroyed the palm trees of the Banu Nadir, and he claimed to have done so by revelation. Modern warfare concentrates on civilian populations and their food-producing abilities. This law was observed in the conquest of Canaan. An exemption was made, by God’s command through Elisha, in the case of Moab, centuries later (2 Kings 3:1925). We are not told the reason for this exception, but it is clear that it was not simply a prediction by Elisha but an order. Apart from this, when war was waged, it was to be against enemy soldiers, not the trees of the field. The future was to be protected by respect for the fruit trees.

In vv. 16-18, the radical destruction of the Canaanite cities and their inhabitants is ordered. These peoples were radically at war with God. They had been a source of disease and death to Israel before their entrance into the land. They were to be put under the ban, to be devoted totally to God. The people could not touch their wealth nor protect the persons of the Canaanites. They were under a ban or taboo. The Hebrew word is herem, which is related to our word harem, a secluded women’s quarter. There are two kinds of bans. First, some persons and things are banned as an abomination to God. Second, others are consecrated to Him and are therefore banned from man’s possession or control.

The following are declared in God’s law to be banned. First, the false worship of God is banned because it is offensive and an insult to God. There is a religious contamination to such false worship. Those under a ban contaminate all things (Josh. 7:24-25). Second, the seven Canaanite nations were banned: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deut. 7:1-220:17). Third, whatever a man devotes or promises to God is irrevocably God’s property, and no man can legitimately promise something to God and then go back on his word.

In the Christian era, a form of the ban has been proscription and excommunication, not always wisely used. The biblical ban has reference to God and His law, not to an institution. Proscription in Western history has been an act either exiling or reducing a man to an outlaw status. Beginning with the Temple in late pose-exilic times, proscription could mean the expropriation by the Temple treasury of one’s assets. But men have no right to assume the power of God in any sphere, not to add to or to diminish God’s law to any degree.

When men are indifferent to God’s ban, and they see no importance in obedience to God and His law, they replace God with a human agency, most commonly now the state. The modern state increasingly places a ban on many of its citizens for very arbitrary reasons. Their properties, money, and assets are confiscated at will. This is less and less by due process of law and more by the state’s fiat will. God’s ban is spelled out in His law. Man’s ban is an act of arbitrary will and hate.

In vv. 10-15, the rules of war laid down by God require that, whatever the aggressive acts of the enemy, on reaching their city-state to besiege it, it was mandatory to offer terms of peace to it. These rules stipulate that, first, these people became thereafter a subordinate state. This meant that they would become part of the Hebrew realm. Second, “they shall serve thee” (v. 11), i.e., there would be labor levies of their men. Such labor levies could be hard, as with Israel in Egypt, or, they could be comparable to the French monarchy’s local levies (not the levies to build Versailles). The people would repair their local roads and bridges as a community venture, usually agreed upon in the local church. Of course, a king like Louis XIV, like Pharaoh, worked to death countless thousands to build Versailles. Thus, the labor levy of a city-state which surrendered could be light or severe. In Solomon’s latter years, they were severe toward his own people.

If they rejected the offer of peace, then, on losing, all the males would be killed. Their women and children, their cattle, and all their wealth, went to the people of Israel.

Similar rules of warfare, coming from Deuteronomy, governed Europe at least through the seventeenth century. Their use was generous or brutal, depending on the generals and their armies.

The city-state that surrendered became a vassal realm. To further its compliance, it could be and often was treated well. According to Hirsch, the word “males” in v. 13 refers to all capable of waging war. Of v. 20, Hirsch noted, “[O]ur text becomes the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which God has given them as masters of the world and its matter to capricious, passionate or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth. Only for wise use has God laid the world at our feet when He said to Man ‘subdue the world and have dominion over it’ (Gen. 1:28 et seq.).”

Warfare is always a brutal matter, and never more so than in our time, when it is waged against civilians, against churches, and against monuments of the past. In World War II, as in Iraq, the U.S. went out of its way to destroy churches.

Verse 18 gives us a practical reason for the destruction of the Canaanites, “That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.” There was virtually no sexual practice which was not a part of the Canaanite worship. Evil was made into virtue. For Israel to tolerate the Canaanite way of life was to reject God. There was no legitimate way to reconcile God’s law-word with the Canaanite lifestyle. Then as now, all too many want to reconcile good and evil, God and Satan. To all such, God’s clear commandments seem harsh because they are uncompromising.


From just this brief overview of Rushdoony’s exegesis on War, it is clear to me that I can repeat the conclusions I gleaned from Bahnsen’s and my own:

These laws calls us to war only in just causes, for defensive wars only, with voluntary militias, only after every possible avenue of peace is exhausted, only in measured responses, only when feasible physically and financially, and only where we have legitimate jurisdiction to do so. These laws, according to Bahnsen, forbid standing armies, wars of aggression, and interventionism. Bahnsen’s non-interventionist principle would have us as a nation, most of the time, minding our own business, pursuing peace, and sending missionaries instead of soldiers.


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