“However, he [the king] is not to acquire many horses for himself or send people back to Egypt to acquire horses for him…He must not acquire large amounts of gold and silver for himself..then his heart will not be exalted above his countrymen, he will not turn his ruling to the right or the left, and he and his sons will continue ruling many years over Israel.” Deuteronomy 17:16-17, 20.
Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Torah, God’s law that He gave to the Israelites. In this book, Moses gives the Israelites the final pieces of the Law, and he also gives the Israelites his final thoughts and advice for them going forward. Moses knows that his time is drawing to a close and that he will not be accompanying them into the Promised Land.
God knows that the Israelites would need a ruler to guide them and to act as his emissary among the people. This ruler–part prophet, part monarch– would be the example by which the Israelites model their own behavior after. He was to lead a Godly and spirit-led life, and the people were to mimic this. So, God gives the Israelites very specific instructions to remember when the time to appoint a ruler came.
One of the more unique rules that God gave was the prohibition against horses, or acquiring large numbers of horses. This seems like a bizarre command; horses are gentle animals, and also very useful as beasts of burden. Why, then, would God not want the Israelite king to acquire any?
The answer is quite simple: horses were weapons of mass destruction. In the ancient world, horses were critical to warfare. They made armies mobile, allowed for chariots and other technological breakthroughs. Armies could now travel further, travel faster, and out maneuver their opponents. An army with more horses and chariots had a distinct advantage in war.
God did not want His people, or his king, to be concerned with territorial expansion. He did not want the leader of His people to become wrapped up in an ancient form of the military-industrial complex, in which the nation’s purpose and economy becomes wrapped up in growing the military and maintaining a state of war. This is why there is the added prohibition against acquiring large amounts of gold and silver for the king. God knows that when kings get greedy they go war, and when kings go to war, the poor are the ones who suffer. God wants His king to remember that he is no better than the rest of the nation; the king’s focus is to protect his people, serve God, and follow after His commandments.
Today, we live in an era in which war is a constant fixture in politics and on the nightly news. Every day, people around the world deal with the violence and horrors that come from war. Families are destroyed, towns are lost, cultures decimated, and innumerable deaths occur because of man’s proclivity for warfare. That is not to say that the military itself is bad; there have been times in which men and women served their country and warfare was justified. The fact that brave men and women died to protect personal freedoms is what allows me to write this post today. But war for war’s sake is not what God desires. We should remember what one of America’s greatest generals and leaders, Dwight Eisenhower, cautioned– to avoid the military-industrial complex. When we compare what President Eisenhower said with what God commanded the Israelites, we see that he wasn’t too far from the truth.