When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls. Deuteronomy 20:19-20.
Economists are famous for their focus on efficiency, often to the exclusion of other values. They may not see a problem with third-world sweatshops. Sure, some employees will receive subsistence wages but the sweatshop brings industrialization to a country formerly reliant on subsistence farming. As long as the business creates net utility for the economy, it’s a good thing.
The Lord, our God, is famously focused on other goals. He encourages generosity, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Those traits are supremely evident in the God of scripture and all His followers are called to evidence those same virtues in their own lives.
That makes our passage for today a little odd. In the midst of calling upon the Israelites to execute His judgment on the ancient Canaanites, the Lord warns them to spare something valuable – trees. The Hebrew armies are free to cut down non-fruit-bearing trees to build siegeworks, but not fruit trees. They might be just as good for building material as non-bearing trees but they are not to be wasted on such an inefficient use.
The Lord sounds a lot like Adam Smith, no? Mr. Smith was famous for his focus on long-term utility, preferring the sacrifice of short term opportunities to secure long term benefits. Grabbing short term gains (like cutting down fruit trees to build a ladder) was not only inefficient, it was unethical.
Perhaps the similarity runs deeper than we know. The Lord has a longer time horizon than those of us on this side of the veil. His calls to generosity, forgiveness, and love may cost us some physical assets in the short-term, but are designed to secure for us eternal gains in the long term – the long, long term. Only He knows the overwhelming size of the benefits we are to receive and our mission is to trust in Him.
Love generously my friends. Our Lord is not only a God of goodness; He is a God of eternal efficiency.