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Source:Echoes:Ch11:10:Exemption from military service
A Legal Exemption from Military Duty
A Legal Exemption from Military Duty
The only Book of Mormon group given an exemption from military service were the famous converts of Ammon. In repenting of their previous shedding of blood, they swore an oath that they would never again take up arms (see Alma 24:11–13). After arriving in Zarahemla, they were granted an extraordinary exemption from active military duty if they would help to sustain the Nephite armies with provisions (see Alma 27:23–24). Surprisingly, this grant of exceptional privilege was consistent with ancient Israelite law.34
Normally, ancient peoples were absolutely obligated to take up arms in defense of their tribe or nation: "Among nomads there is no distinction between the army and the people: every able-bodied man can join in a raid and must be prepared to defend the tribe's property and rights against an enemy. . . . This was probably true of Israel also."35 Saul called upon "all Israel" to take up arms against the Ammonites and the Amalekites (see 1 Samuel 11:1–11; 15:4). Threats and curses were pronounced upon anyone who would not join in the battle. Saul once sent messengers to marshal the troops after he symbolically cut a yoke of oxen into pieces in view of the people and proclaimed, "Whosoever cometh not forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done unto his oxen" (1 Samuel 11:7). Yaqim-Addu, governor of Sagaratum, executed a criminal in prison and paraded his head among the villages in a similar type of warning of what would happen if the men did not assemble quickly for battle.36
The same basic duty to serve in the army existed in Nephite law and society. Indeed, Moroni had power to punish any person in the land of Zarahemla who would not "defend [his] country" (Alma 51:15; see 46:35). Like Saul and Yaqim-Addu, he symbolically portrayed the brutal fate of those who would not fight (see Alma 46:21–22). Under extreme and desperate circumstances, this duty fell even upon old men, women, and children (see Mosiah 10:9; Alma 54:12).
How, then, could the able-bodied Ammonites be granted exemption? There may be several reasons. Their reasons for not fighting were obviously righteous and bona fide. But beyond that, the justification of their military exemption may have been based on four specific provisions in the law of Moses, especially as they were interpreted in an obscure section of Jewish law.
The rare exemption granted to the Ammonites was logical, religiously motivated, and consistent with ancient Israelite law, as embedded in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, which placed a high civic obligation on all citizens to contribute, as appropriate, to the defense of their country, their God, their religion, and their people.
- The absolute duty to go to war applied only in fighting against an enemy. Deuteronomy 20:1–2, which instructs the Israelite leader to speak to his troops in a holy tongue when they go up to battle against an enemy, was interpreted in the Talmud as not applying in a conflict against other Israelites, for as the scripture says, "'Against your enemies' but not against your brethren, not Judah against Simeon nor Simeon against Benjamin."37 A similar understanding may be reflected in the Ammonites' reluctance to "take up arms against their brethren" (see Alma 24:6, 18; 27:23). Of course, the Talmud was written long after Lehi's departure from Jerusalem, yet it often reflected older oral material, especially from Deuteronomy. Although the wars reported in Judges 12 and 19–20 clearly show Israelite tribes fighting against each other, the book of Deuteronomy was not followed assiduously until the reign of Josiah, precisely during the time of Lehi. Thus it seems that the Nephites interpreted Deuteronomy 20:1–2 (which was known to them on the plates of brass) the same way the rabbis did, even though this interpretation would not have been obvious from a casual reading of the Old Testament. And it almost goes without saying that the Talmud was not translated into English until long after the Book of Mormon was in print.
- The laws of Deuteronomy also afforded humanitarian exemptions for those who had recently married, built a new house, planted a new vineyard, or were "fearful and fainthearted" (see Deuteronomy 20:5–9; 24:5; compare Judges 7:3). Since everyone going into battle was likely "fearful and fainthearted," the exemption undoubtedly had a narrower meaning in actual practice; otherwise nearly everyone would have been exempt. Indeed, as the Talmud explains, this expression in Deuteronomy "alludes to one who is afraid because of the transgressions he had committed."38 If a soldier would cower in the face of enemy battle because of his previous sins (fearing that his sins prevented God from defending him or that he might die a sinner), he was deemed unfit for battle. Certainly the Nephites would have recognized that the profound fears of the Ammonites who were afraid to break their oath rendered them unsuitable for military duty under such a rule.
- The rabbis further limited the exemption for the fearful and fainthearted to voluntary exploits of the king. In a compulsory war of national defense, however, even the fainthearted were obligated to go into battle. A similar distinction may have contributed to the Ammonites' feeling, several years later, that they could no longer claim their exemption in the face of the extreme compulsory war then threatening the Nephites' entire existence. Moved by compassion and no longer afraid, they were willing to take up arms (see Alma 53:13). Only Helaman's fear that they might lose their souls if they were to violate their oath stopped them. So they sent their sons into battle instead (see vv. 15–17).
- The men who remained at home, however, continued to support the war behind the lines. Their exemption was granted only "on condition that they will give us [the Nephites] a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies" (Alma 27:24). This arrangement is especially noteworthy because the Talmud likewise holds that those who are exempted from military service under the law of Moses are "only released from actual fighting, but not from serving in the rear: 'They must furnish water and food and repair the roads.'"39