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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Deuteronomy 20

B. An exposition of selected covenant laws Chs. 12-25

Moses’ continuing homiletical exposition of the Law of Israel that follows explains reasons for the covenant laws that arose from the Ten Commandments. This address concludes with directions for celebrating and confirming the covenant (Deuteronomy 26:1-15). The section contains a mixture of laws previously revealed to the Israelites and other laws not previously revealed in the code given at Sinai (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:19). This is instruction preached rather than codified as comprehensive legislation.

"The specific laws in this section were given to help the people subordinate every area of their lives to the LORD, and to help them eradicate whatever might threaten that pure devotion." [Note: Deere, p. 283.]

"Placement of the instruction about worship at the sanctuary in first position indicates clearly its priority for Deuteronomy, which assumes that the starting point for the proper, full, and exclusive love of the Lord (the primary demand of the first and second commandments and the Shema) is found in the way Israel carries out the activities of worship." [Note: Miller, p. 129.]

There is an obvious general movement from laws dealing with Israel’s religious life (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:17) to those affecting her civil life (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 22:8) and finally to those touching personal life (Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 26:15).

Two insightful writers suggested the following outlines for these chapters. [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 218-331; and Stephen A. Kaufman, "The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law," MAARAV 1 (1978-79):105-58.]

CommandmentMerrillKaufmanDescription
1Deuteronomy 12:1-31ch. 12Fidelity
2Deuteronomy 12:32 to Deuteronomy 13:18ch. 12Worship
3Deuteronomy 14:1-21Deuteronomy 13:1 to Deuteronomy 14:27Name of God
4Deuteronomy 14:22 to Deuteronomy 16:17Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 16:17Sabbath
5Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Authority
6Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Murder
7Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:18Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:19Adultery
8Deuteronomy 23:19 to Deuteronomy 24:7Deuteronomy 23:20 to Deuteronomy 24:7Theft
9Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4False witness
10Deuteronomy 25:5-19Deuteronomy 25:5-16Coveting

". . . the entire second discourse of Moses (Deuteronomy 5-26) is a single literary unit that convincingly demonstrates that the moral law informs the statutes, judgments . . . and commands of God." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 129.]

In contrast with the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23), the Deuteronomic Code, as some scholars prefer to call this section (chs. 12-26), is a popular exposition rather than a formal legal code. Its purpose was to explain to the generation entering the land all the laws that needed clarification, emphasis, and application, in view of Israel’s imminent entrance into Canaan. These laws reflect a centralized, monarchical society.

The value of this section of Scripture to the Christian today lies primarily in its revelation of the heart, mind, and will of God. The modern student of these chapters should look for this kind of insight here. This is the revelatory value of the Law.

Verses 1-20

War ch. 20

These instructions deal with how Israel was to come into possession of the Promised Land (cf. Numbers 33:50-56). They are in the context of civil legislation because Israel did not have a standing army. Soldiers volunteered to go into battle as needed. Warfare and its prosecution are relevant to the subject of killing and thus to the sixth commandment. This section provided a "manual of warfare" for the Israelites outlining their attitude and approach to national enemies. [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 282.]

"Because Yahweh was God not only of Israel but also of all the earth, these interests [of warfare] extended far beyond Israel’s narrow concerns. He was, however, Israel’s God in a special way, and as such He would lead His people in battle as the divine warrior (Deuteronomy 20:4)." [Note: Idem, "A Theology . . .," p. 82.]

In all wars Israel was to remember that God was with her and to rely on His help with confidence regardless of the enemy’s strength (Deuteronomy 20:1-4). Christians too should recall God’s past faithfulness when we encounter adversity and gain courage from His promises that He will be with us (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5-6; et al.). The priest (Deuteronomy 20:2) was not necessarily the high priest but the priest who accompanied the army in battle (as Phinehas did in Numbers 31:6).

"In the ancient world, priests and interpreters of omens were regular members of military staffs (cf. Numbers 10:8-9; Numbers 31:6; 1 Samuel 7:9 ff.). The function of the Israelite priest was not analogous to that of a modern army chaplain. He rather represented the sanctuary in the name of which the Israelite host advanced; he consecrated the battle to the glory of the Lord of hosts and of his covenant kingdom." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 183.]

All soldiers with new responsibilities that would have distracted them from concentrating on their work as warriors (Deuteronomy 20:5-7), as well as fearful soldiers (Deuteronomy 20:8), did not have to participate in a given battle.

"Beginnings were important in the Semitic mind and hence also in Israel. Since death in battle would deprive certain groups of men from commencing particular enterprises, exemptions were made." [Note: Thompson, p. 220.]

"It is a well-attested fact that fear or preoccupation in the midst of conflict can endanger the life not only of the person afflicted by it but also the person’s compatriots. . . .

"In each of these instances death in war resulted in the dispossession of blessing and its appropriation by someone else who otherwise had no just claim to it. Mixed with the demand for compulsory military service, then, was a leaven of compassion that made possible to all men the enjoyment of that which constitutes life in its fullest-home, sustenance, and family love." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 283, 284.]

God’s purpose was to use only the best soldiers, those who were confident of God’s promise of victory. Israel did not need a large army since God would fight for her.

The cities far from the Promised Land, contrasted with Canaanite cities (Deuteronomy 20:10-15), were evidently not as degenerate as the Canaanite towns. Aramean women adopted the religions of their husbands, which is why Abraham insisted that his servant get a wife for Isaac from the Aramean culture rather than from among the Canaanites (Genesis 24). Thus the women and children of these more remote lands did not have to die. King Ahab later married a Canaanite woman, Jezebel, who did not adopt her husband’s faith but imported Baalism into Israel.

The Israelite commanders were to offer terms of peace to each city they attacked outside the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 20:15-16). Israel was not to shed blood unnecessarily. If the city accepted the terms, the population would serve the Israelites (cf. Joshua 9:3-27). If it refused, the Israelites would kill all the males but spare the females, animals, and spoil. The Israelites were to destroy completely the people within the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). [Note: See also Peter C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, pp. 46-47; and Kaiser, pp. 172-80.]

"The central purpose of these instructions is to emphasize that Israel’s warfare was not intended for foreign aggression or personal wealth (cf Genesis 14:21-24)." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 458.]

The law guarding fruit trees seems intended for application in all sieges whether against the Canaanites or others (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). Fruit trees were part of God’s provision of food for His people. Other ancient nations wreaked total havoc in the territories they conquered. [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., p. 276.] However, Israel was not to destroy the important natural resource of fruit trees, but they could use other trees to make implements of warfare (Deuteronomy 20:20).

God’s people should conduct their spiritual warfare confident in God’s presence, power, and ultimate victory (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3-4; Ephesians 6:10-17; Colossians 2:15).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-20.html. 2012.