In an online publication of the Denver University Law Review, Dave Kopel argues that Ancient Hebrew Militia Law, as described in the Book of Deuteronomy (a book considered canonical by Jews and Christians alike), is the forerunner of American militia concepts. He may be on to something. The Bible is the one book that Revolutionary-era citizens were likely to have in common, whether they were poor farmers who had no other book, better-off artisans who had a few volumes, or rich planters or merchants with densely-packed libraries.
Most interesting to us, was the book’s handling of exemptions and conscientious objectors.
The Book of Deuteronomy (the second law) is the last book of the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch). Deuteronomy provided generous exemptions from militia service: anyone who had built a new house but not yet dedicated it, or who had planted a vineyard but not eaten of it, or who was betrothed but who had not consummated his marriage, or who had been married for less than one year.
A modern Conservative Jewish version of the Pentateuch with commentary, the Etz Hayim, observes that the exemptions protected anyone whose death in battle would be especially unfortunate. But why do they not rely on God to prevent tragic death? Although God may work miracles, protecting the righteous from harm, we may never force God’s hand by demanding a miracle—putting good people in danger and expecting God to protecting them. We cannot ignore our obligations to make the world a safer and more just place by depending on God to set things right.
The “fearful and fainthearted” were also excused, lest they depress the morale of the willing. This last exemption was militarily sound: a few faint-hearted people who fled might set off a panic causing the whole army to flee. A broken army, fleeing away in fear, would likely be slaughtered by its pursuing foes.
Just goes to show you that some themes are of very great antiquity. And when you think one is of great antiquity indeed: consider Henry V’s 17th-Century plea:
[P]roclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host; that he which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart; his passport shall be made and crowns for convoy put into his purse: we would not die in that man’s company that fears his fellowship to die with us.
Of course that speech is fictional, it’s Shakespeare’s, not really Henry’s. But allow for a minute the conceit that it was the warrior King’s; would he have known that the ancient Hebrews, too, declined to go to war in the company of “the fainthearted”?