Attention!
10 million Ukrainians without power because of Russia. Help us purchase electrical generators for churches.
Consider helping today!

Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Deuteronomy 20

The Covenant Stipulations, Covenant Making at Shechem, Blessings and Cursings (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1 ).

In this section of Deuteronomy we first have a description of specific requirements that Yahweh laid down for His people. These make up the second part of the covenant stipulations for the covenant expressed in Deuteronomy 4:45 to Deuteronomy 29:1 and also for the covenant which makes up the whole book. They are found in chapters 12-26. As we have seen Deuteronomy 1:1 to Deuteronomy 4:44 provide the preamble and historical prologue for the overall covenant, followed by the general stipulations in chapters 5-11. There now, therefore, in 12-26 follow the detailed stipulations which complete the main body of the covenant. These also continue the second speech of Moses which began in Deuteronomy 5:1.

Overall in this speech Moses is concerned to connect with the people. It is to the people that his words are spoken rather than the priests so that much of the priestly legislation is simply assumed. Indeed it is remarkably absent in Deuteronomy except where it directly touches on the people. Anyone who read Deuteronomy on its own would wonder at the lack of cultic material it contained, and at how much the people were involved. It concentrates on their interests, and not those of the priests and Levites, while acknowledging the responsibility that they had towards both priests and Levites.

And even where the cultic legislation more specifically connects with the people, necessary detail is not given, simply because he was aware that they already had it in writing elsewhere. Their knowledge of it is assumed. Deuteronomy is building on a foundation already laid. In it Moses was more concerned to get over special aspects of the legislation as it was specifically affected by entry into the land, with the interests of the people especially in mind. The suggestion that it was later written in order to bring home a new law connected with the Temple does not fit in with the facts. Without the remainder of the covenant legislation in Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers to back it up, its presentation often does not make sense from a cultic point of view.

This is especially brought home by the fact that when he refers to their approach to God he speaks of it in terms of where they themselves stood or will stand when they do approach Him. They stand not on Sinai but in Horeb. They stand not in the Sanctuary but in ‘the place’, the site of the Sanctuary. That is why he emphasises Horeb, which included the area before the Mount, and not just Sinai itself (which he does not mention). And why he speaks of ‘the place’ which Yahweh chose, which includes where the Tabernacle is sited and where they gather together around the Tabernacle, and not of the Sanctuary itself. He wants them to feel that they have their full part in the whole.

These detailed stipulations in chapters 12-26 will then be followed by the details of the covenant ceremony to take place at the place which Yahweh has chosen at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27:0), followed by blessings and cursings to do with the observance or breach of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:0).

III. REGULATIONS CONCERNING THE SHEDDING OF BLOOD (Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 21:9 ).

In this section the question of different ways of shedding blood is considered. Lying behind this section is the commandment, ‘you shall do no murder’. It should be noted that in some sense it continues the theme of the regulation of justice.

The shedding of the blood of men was always a prominent issue with God (compare Genesis 9:5-6). It is dealt with in a number of aspects.

a). In Deuteronomy 19:0 the question is raised as to how to deal with deliberate murder and accidental killing through cities of refuge. And this is linked with the removal of ancient landmarks which could cause, or be brought about by, violence and death, and was doing violence to the covenant of Yahweh. The mention of it here demonstrates the seriousness of this crime. It is also linked with the need to avoid false witness which could lead to an unjust death or could bring death on the false witness.

b). In Deuteronomy 20:0 the question of death in warfare is dealt with, both as something to be faced by the people themselves, and then with regard to how to deal with a captured enemy, differentiating between neighbouring lands and native Canaanites. But the trees are not to be killed.

c). In Deuteronomy 21:1-9 the question is dealt with as to what to do if a slain man is found and no one knows who did it.

Chapter 20. Regulations Concerning Warfare: Promises And Instructions In Respect of War, Both Their Holy War Against The Canaanites and Inevitable Wars Against Neighbours Outside Canaan.

Having dealt with worship by the people (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:17) and the governing of the people in justice (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 19:21) once they enter the land, Moses now deals with the principles and practise of war. For people in those days war was a continual fact of life which could occur at any time. They had to be constantly on the watch and needed to know how to cope with it, and how to behave when they were involved. He did not want them to think just of the invasion. As their mentor he sought to cover their attitude towards all war, both the holy war and the wars that would follow. For he knew that such wars would follow. That will then be followed by a miscellany of Instruction which covers many different aspects of life (21-26).

This follows on naturally from Deuteronomy 19:21. Justice allowed for ‘a death for a death, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. And apart from disease no other fact was more likely to cause such things than war. How then were they to approach war? (It should be noted that the verb used in the commandment ‘you shall not murder’ was never used of death in warfare).

So in this chapter Moses is laying down a pattern for future warfare. Firstly he gives a vivid portrayal of what the preparation for battle will be like, and what their attitude should be in facing such a battle. Then he speaks on how they are to approach the taking of cities. And finally he explains what their attitude should be with regard to the environment, thought of especially in terms of trees. This covers the three important aspects of war in those days, approach towards the battle, approach towards the siege, approach towards the environment (for the land has to be lived in after the war). In process of this he naturally deals with the Holy War ahead against the Canaanites, but his prime aim is to prepare for all war.

He does not just lay down a pattern for the invasion. He does that within the framework of a revelation of how all their wars are to be fought in the future. He deliberately talks in such a way that they will feel that the invasion is just an interlude to be followed by a future living in and defending of the land. One of the important things in all war is to see what lies beyond. Men boost their hearts by singing of what will be once the war is over.

Furthermore he wanted them to know that if they were to be worthy of Yahweh and gain victories through His power, His people must behave rightly when at war, and during that warfare. In such war Yahweh sought their trust and their obedience. Here he was laying down an attitude towards war. He had the long distance in mind as well as the near view.

He begins by warning against fear of the enemy. That is always a great problem in war. But he points out that for them that is foolishness, for Yahweh, the God of battle, the Man of war (Exodus 15:3), has promised to be with them. He assures them that before they have to fight each battle Yahweh’s own representative, ‘the Priest’, will encourage them prior to the battle, assuring them that Yahweh is fighting alongside them. He then goes on to deal with the fighting speech that would come before all battles, in which an offer would always be made to anyone who so wished that they withdraw before battle commenced. If they did not wish to fight, Yahweh would not require it of them (compare Judges 7:2-8). So when they fought it would be because they had chosen to do so. No response would probably be expected to the offer, for none would want to be branded a coward, but it made all feel that they were acting together as one as willing volunteers.

He then lays down clear instructions about sieges. Apart from the Canaanites, who were doomed to judgment, cities must always be given the chance to surrender, and if they did so were to be treated with mercy. But no such offer was to be made to the Canaanites. They were to be totally destroyed because of the pernicious influence they would otherwise have in the future.

Finally no fruit bearing tree should be cut down when preparing for siege warfare. That would be shortsighted. These would provide food for the troops, and would be needed to provide food for the future. And all other trees should only be used as necessary for the siege. It was a specific example which declared, ‘have regard to the environment’. Moses often uses specific examples to give a wider meaning as we shall see later.

Again ‘thee, thou’ predominates, but ‘ye, your’ occurs in Deuteronomy 20:2-4 where the battlegroup is in mind (contrast Deuteronomy 21:10, where, however, the individual soldier is very much in mind).

Verses 1-9

Preparation For Battle (Deuteronomy 20:1-9 ).

Israel was on the verge of a holy war, and instructions as to how to face up to such a fact were very necessary. They were not a warlike people, or a trained army, and what faced them would be daunting. Nor were their warleaders particularly experienced. All would have to learn as they went along (Judges 3:2). They had, however, made a good start against the Amorite kings, Sihon and Og.

Moses, who had probably been trained in warfare in Egypt, and may well have been calling on that training, therefore felt it necessary to provide some guidance. This was given here in the form of a rallying cry to the troops rather than as instruction to the generals, which would no doubt privately be given later in more detail. He recognised that prior to any war and any battle it was always important for the troops to be gathered in order to encourage them, and strengthen their nerve. The hope was that they would then fight the better. They needed to see quite clearly what it was that they were fighting for, and to have their courage bolstered.

So here Moses began by reminding them that they must always remember that because they were fighting at Yahweh’s command He would be with them so that they did not need to fear defeat. Let them never forget that through His help they had defeated the mighty Egyptians who had sought to prevent them from leaving Egypt. They should remind themselves of this before all battles, and especially when the enemy appeared exceptionally strong. The Egyptians had appeared invincible, but let them remember what had happened to them.

Analysis partly using the words of Moses:

a When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and see horses, and chariots, and a people more than you, you shall not be afraid of them, for Yahweh your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and it shall be that when you draw near to the battle the priest shall approach and speak to the people (Deuteronomy 20:1-2).

b And shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, you draw near this day to battle against your enemies. Do not let your heart faint. Do not be afraid, nor tremble, nor be you frightened at them, for Yahweh your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:3-4).

c A challenge by officials to persons in who have a new house Deuteronomy 20:0:(5).

c A challenge to persons who have a new vineyard (Deuteronomy 20:6).

c A challenge to those who have a new betrothed (Deuteronomy 20:7).

b A challenge to cowards who are fearful and fainthearted (Deuteronomy 20:8).

a And it shall be, when the officials have made an end of speaking to the people, that they shall appoint captains of hosts at the head of the people (Deuteronomy 20:9).

Note that in ‘a’ the priest approaches to speak to the people, and in the parallel the officials make an end of speaking to the people. In ‘b’ they are exhorted not to be afraid and in the parallel the fearful are to be released. And central in ‘c’ and parallels are the threefold challenges to others which they are to keep in mind ‘lest they die’.

Deuteronomy 20:1

When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and see horses, and chariots, and a people more than you, you shall not be afraid of them, for Yahweh your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’

In the near future they would have to go out to do battle with many enemies. But whenever the war was being fought at Yahweh’s command they need never be afraid of the size or strength of the armies that they found themselves facing, nor of their horses and chariots. They should rather remember that Yahweh their God, Who had brought them out of the land of Egypt and Who had without their help smashed the Egyptian charioteers, would be with them. They could therefore face them without fear.

But even with God on their side, he realised that the sight of the opposing army would often bring a chill to the heart, especially to the more inexperienced. For the opposing army would yell and shout out its war cries, and clash its shields, seeking to intimidate them, and it would parade its chariots. (And as far as possible they would retaliate in the same way). The thought of facing charging horses and chariots could hardly be other than totally unnerving to a people who had rarely, if ever, faced them, and had no chariots of their own. Facing an armed man was one thing, but facing a charging chariot was another, and he knew that such an experience would demand the highest courage, and the best use of the ground. At such a time they must remember his words, ‘Do not be afraid of them. Yahweh your God is fighting for you and is with you.’ Did they not have the promise that Yahweh would make the panic far worse for their enemies? Whatever they were feeling He would sow in their enemies’ hearts worse fears and dismay so that they could not stand before them (Deuteronomy 2:25; Deuteronomy 11:25; Exodus 15:14-16; Joshua 10:10; Judges 4:15)

We too have to face spiritual battles on behalf of Christ, sometimes seemingly insurmountable. At such a time we also can be sure that in our spiritual lives the Enemy will make the problems we face seem as daunting as possible. Indeed if we continually look at the problems we might well be overwhelmed. But as with Israel the secret is to look to God. He will be our strength, and He will fight for us. What will the Enemy be able to do then? Let us therefore trust and not be afraid (Isaiah 12:2). If he yells at us with the equivalent of fiery darts, we must retaliate with words of Scripture.

Deuteronomy 20:2-4

And it shall be, when you draw near to the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak to the people, and shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, you draw near this day to battle against your enemies. Do not let your heart faint. Do not be afraid, nor tremble, nor be you frightened at them, for Yahweh your God is he who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.” ’

Thus he assured them that prior to battle the Priest himself, the very living representative of Yahweh, would come before the Israelite army and encourage them with a last minute address, guaranteeing for them that God was with them. They would know that all necessary ritual had been performed and the Urim and Thummim consulted. The presence of this great and revered man speaking with such confidence in Yahweh’s name would be a huge encouragement.

He would point out that they need not be faint-hearted in spite of the approaching battle because Yahweh was with them. Note the threefold commands, ‘Do not be afraid, nor tremble, nor be you frightened at them.’ We are possibly to see here a graduating of fears. First the feeling of apprehension, then the growing fear, and then the terror. And they would be expected to remember that that was exactly what Yahweh had promised would be how their enemies were feeling (Exodus 15:14-16). But this should not happen in their case. They were rather to recognise that Yahweh was going with them, and that He would fight on their behalf. He would deliver them. When His people were in trouble they should remember that ‘Yahweh is a man of war!’ (Exodus 15:3) and would be there with them. On their side was the captain of Yahweh’s host (Joshua 5:14).

In the same way, once we remember that God is with us, and the words of Jesus, ‘Lo, I am with you always’ (Matthew 28:20), how can we be afraid as we face the battles that lie ahead in our Christian lives?

Deuteronomy 20:5-7

And the officials shall speak to the people, saying,

“What man is there who has built a new house,

And has not dedicated it?

Let him go and return to his house,

Lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.

And what man is there who has planted a vineyard,

And has not used its fruit?

Let him go and return to his house,

Lest he die in the battle, and another man use its fruit.

And what man is there who has betrothed a wife,

And has not taken her?

Let him go and return to his house,

Lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.”

Once the priest had completed his encouragement, the officials (these were the ordnance officials not the battlefield commanders) were to question their motivation and their courage, almost certainly with stereotyped words. It was an official offer that if they really wished to do so they could withdraw. It even gave grounds for doing so. And the grounds were based on the very things that they were fighting for. Nothing could be worse for an army than to be weakened by doubters. But the verse reads like a stereotyped speech. The men would know every word that was coming. We can imagine Abraham standing before his men and saying something along similar lines to his troops.

The basic principle was that if they were stood there quivering because they were rather thinking of their new house which they had not lived in, or their new vineyard of which they had not eaten, or their new betrothed whom they had not yet made love to, let them return home, lest they die in battle and lose the opportunity, if that was what they wanted Note the threefold emphasis on ‘let him go and return to his house lest he die in the battle’. It faces all up to the possibility that lay before them, with the implication that they might be afraid. And it brands all who respond as cowards.

If this was to be taken at face value we can think of nothing more deflating for the remainder of the army than such a speech with its stress on the fact that they might die in battle. That is not the main idea that you plant in men’s minds just before a battle. Rather it was bringing home concerning each individual who departed why he was leaving, it was ‘lest he die in battle’. They would be, and would be branded as, cowards. Rather the expectancy was surely that the spirit would be such that all would respond in the same way. They would see such a death as glorious. Not a man would move. The last thing they would want their comrades to think was that they were afraid to die in battle. If the choice lay between house, vineyard and betrothed, or dying gloriously in battle, they would choose rather to die in battle, at least in front of their comrades.

So it is open to question whether this should be seen as offering serious exemptions or should simply be seen as ‘war talk’. Was it just challenging them as to whether they wanted to excuse themselves and slip away? Was it putting them on the spot as to what choice they would make? Was it saying, do you really want to put such things, which Yahweh has given you, in the way of fighting for Yahweh? Or was it rather a way of reminding them of what they were fighting for, and an attempt to rouse their courage, with the aim of making them feel at one for the battle ahead, and ready to die in battle? Was it rather saying, “Remember what you are fighting for, your homes, your fields, your families, and take courage, and do not fear death in battle.”

For they must have been very much aware that they were far more likely to lose their new house, their new vineyard or their new betrothed, or not have them at all, if they did not fight. And none would want to be the first to be seen as backing down before their fellow soldiers. But unquestionably having to face up to their nerves in this way would powerfully assist them, and give them inner confidence. And the probable aim was that all should stay.

This would seem to be confirmed by the insistence that all the men of the two and a half tribes commit themselves to crossing the Jordan and fighting with their brothers (Numbers 32:16-27). Had they been able to use these reasons for avoiding doing so it would have made life so simple for them. After all most of them actually were building or occupying new homes, planting new vineyards, and many would be becoming betrothed as a result of the opportunity for settling down. Most could thus have opted out on these grounds. Yet to a man they asserted their determination to leave their loved ones until the invasion had been successful (Joshua 1:16-18).

Indeed the words applied particularly to them. To begin with they were the ones who had already received or built new homes. They would already have planted vineyards. They were challenged on a reality. The others would listen and recognise that that was what their comrades now had and that they were fighting for that too. For their comrades it was a reality, for them it was their dream which would gradually step by step become a reality.

The truth is that it is doubtful if the officials would expect anyone to respond to this offer. Had it been intended to be taken seriously Moses would have laid it down as an offer to be made some time previously, not on the verge of going to battle (which is specifically stated). We must remember that for a man to wait for the new fruit in his vineyard could take four years (Leviticus 19:23-24). Could men really be let off the fighting for four years? And while the dedication of a house might be ritually important, it would only take a short while, and could have been fitted in on an emergency basis, unless the significance of ‘dedication’ was that of living in it for a time, in which case how long a time? But could that replace the privilege of fighting for Yahweh? Presumably also the betrothal still awaiting consummation was not intended immediately to result in marriage, for provision would genuinely be made well before the battle for a newly married man not to be called up in the first year of his marriage (Deuteronomy 24:5), so that he could ensure the continuation of his house by having children. Thus these reasons appear to fall short of ones that could really be relied on. Rather they emphasised to them that some of them had houses, and vineyards, and women that had been given to them by Yahweh that they would not keep if they did not fight bravely, and to the remainder it spoke of what similarly would yet be theirs.

Those who have stood in line and have heard officers offer the opportunity of backing down from a dangerous mission would know exactly the position. All stood firm. Not one of them would even think of doing anything else. And that very fact would bind them together as comrades in arms.

And this makes sense of ‘lest you die in battle’. If it was said in such a way that it was intended to make men think seriously of the possibility it was a real flattener, but if it was said to all in a tone that indicated that they were all men of such courage that they would not even consider the question, then it would be a booster (men being what they are).

Some commentators do, however, see these as a genuine provision for exemption from fighting, given on the grounds that Yahweh could save by many or by few (1 Samuel 14:6). The idea then is that the opportunity of enjoying Yahweh’s inheritance should be able to be enjoyed before men had to return to arms, enjoying their new houses, their new vineyards and their new wives. They should be able to ‘enter into their rest’. After all, these things were the essence of what being in the land was all about, and the loss of these was precisely what would be the result of future disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:30). This would still leave the older, more experienced warriors available for battle. But this view would remove from the army most of the young men in their fighting prime on a permanent basis, for it was a pattern for the future. And the real question would be, how could the young men live with themselves after that, especially when the returning heroes came home?

Deuteronomy 20:8

And the officials shall speak further to the people, and they shall say,

“What man is there who is fearful,

And faint-hearted?

Let him go and return to his house,

Lest his brethren’s heart melt as his heart.”

The final challenge would be to the fainthearted, following a similar pattern. Note the changes which deliberately bring home the ignominy of the challenge. The noble personal challenge has been replaced by one that brings home the cowardice lying behind any response. One can almost hear the sneer in the voice, and the suggestion that such a person might be undermining all his comrades.

This would give an opportunity to anyone who was so terrified that they could not face the battle to leave before they weakened their fellow-soldiers with their fears. If a man was so afraid that he would step forward out of the ranks before his fellow soldiers and demonstrate such a fact he would have to be in a blue funk. If that were so it was better that he withdrew before the battle lest he discourage others. But again few, if any would be expected to accept. The purpose was to give all a psychological boost by their remaining standing in line, and the sense that they were there because they had chosen to be.

It is true that in Gideon’s case a large number did take advantage of such an offer. But they did it en masse. That was probably because all who took advantage of it had already agreed that really they had no chance, were resentful of Gideon’s call to arms, and as a whole were very reluctant to fight, and therefore, as one, took advantage of the anticipated offer when it came. They acted in unison. They resented Gideon’s call and had no desire to fight. Whole units withdrew together. That was a very different situation.

An example of what fearful talk among warriors could do is also found in the same context in Judges 7:13-14. Those men were beaten even before battle began.

Deuteronomy 20:9

And it shall be, when the officials have made an end of speaking to the people, that they shall appoint captains of hosts at the head of the people.’

Once the preliminary encouragements and offers had been given, and duly rejected by lack of response, duties would then be allocated. While the Israelite army was probably not a fully efficiently trained fighting force, the thought is not that they were to start from scratch deciding who would act as captains, but that the already appointed captains should be allocated their responsibilities, and set in place. Once this was done everything would be ready for battle. The placing of this arrangement last is not accidental. The point is that the actual leaders of the battle were of least importance to the outcome. What was most important was that Yahweh was with them, and then that the people were at the ready, trusting Yahweh and eager to respond to His call. In a modern army appointment of the leadership would be the priority, but here it was Yahweh’s presence with them and their faith in Him that was the priority.

In reading this passage we should call to mind the noble Uriah the Hittite. He refused to return to his house while on duties which brought him back to Jerusalem, even when offered the opportunity; he refused to go home to sleep with his wife even though the chance came; for the men of Israel were living under war conditions and he knew that he could do no other than rough it with them (2 Samuel 11:2-13). This was the spirit that these seeming exemptions were intended to foster.

It should be the same spirit that emboldens the soldier of Christ. We are told not to look around at the possible luxuries that could be ours but to ‘endure hardness as good soldiers of Christ’, not being entangled with the affairs of this life in order that we may please Him Who has chosen us to be soldiers (2 Timothy 2:3-4). We should not be saying, ‘once I have my house to rights, and my garden established, and my business booming, and have sorted out my life partner, I will be able to serve God.’ But rather, ‘we are on the Lord’s side, Saviour we are thine’.

Verses 1-20

III. REGULATIONS CONCERNING THE SHEDDING OF BLOOD (Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 21:9 ).

In this section the question of different ways of shedding blood is considered. Lying behind this section is the commandment, ‘you shall do no murder’. It should be noted that in some sense it continues the theme of the regulation of justice.

The shedding of the blood of men was always a prominent issue with God (compare Genesis 9:5-6). It is dealt with in a number of aspects.

a). In Deuteronomy 19:0 the question is raised as to how to deal with deliberate murder and accidental killing through cities of refuge. And this is linked with the removal of ancient landmarks which could cause, or be brought about by, violence and death, and was doing violence to the covenant of Yahweh. The mention of it here demonstrates the seriousness of this crime. It is also linked with the need to avoid false witness which could lead to an unjust death or could bring death on the false witness.

b). In Deuteronomy 20:0 the question of death in warfare is dealt with, both as something to be faced by the people themselves, and then with regard to how to deal with a captured enemy, differentiating between neighbouring lands and native Canaanites. But the trees are not to be killed.

c). In Deuteronomy 21:1-9 the question is dealt with as to what to do if a slain man is found and no one knows who did it.

Verses 10-18

Instructions For Besieging A City (Deuteronomy 20:10-20 ).

Israel had already experienced sieges in their battles with the Amorite kings. Once they had entered Canaan they would also have to besiege Canaanite cities. There total slaughter would be the order of the day. But Moses did not want them to see what they had to do with the Canaanites as an example of how they should generally behave. He saw further ahead and recognised that even though they dwelt securely in the land it would not be without effort. He was well aware of the international situation. Times would come when they would be invaded, times would come when they would have to invade their neighbours too. It was therefore important that they recognise the difference between how they should treat those neighbours and how they should treat the Canaanite cities. Israel was not to make itself a name for being remorseless. The principle of total destruction was to be limited to the Canaanites. It was not to apply to all.

Some may ask why Israel needed to invade its neighbours once Yahweh had given them their own land. The simple answer is that it is doubtful in fact whether they would be given any choice in the matter. Surrounding nations would attack Israel if they thought it was easy pickings, and especially once the nations themselves had a strong king. Once an aggressive king took the throne neighbours could soon become belligerent. The question was not if they would, but when they would. These things all depended on how strong kings were and what glory they sought. Then Israel would either have to make a pre-emptive strike or fight back.

“Going forth to war” was often seen as almost like hunting, a sport to be engaged in when the right season came around (2 Samuel 11:1). All kings who were capable had an eye for it and an eye for booty. See for example Genesis 14:0 and Psalms 2:0 and the Book of Judges where different nations are pictured as engaging in war against Israel in Canaan. These were not isolated situations. So the regulations were made in order to control future warfare and in order to prevent too harsh treatment of cities that became involved. Those who yielded without a fight would be treated mercifully. Those who fought back were to be treated more harshly, but even then more mercifully than they would have been by others. It was a harsh and cruel world. The slaying of the men of military age was a precaution against them joining another enemy and organising reprisals. There was no way of keeping them in POW camps, while, let loose, they could be a terrible danger But the main point being made is that the cities were not to be treated in the same way as they had been told to treat Canaanites. For what follows re-emphasised what must be done to the Canaanites. And that was total. The point thus being made is that other enemies should not be treated so severely.

So Moses is here seemingly concerned to deal overall with the general principles on the basis of which they should make war, before coming down to the particulars of what first lay ahead. War must on the whole not be seen as an excuse for a bloodbath.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a When you draw near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it. And it shall be, if it make you answer of peace, and open to you, then it shall be, that all the people that are found in it shall become tributary to you, and shall serve you (Deuteronomy 20:10-11).

b And if it will make no peace with you, but will make war against you, then you shall besiege it, and when Yahweh your God delivers it into your hand, you shall smite every male of it with the edge of the sword (Deuteronomy 20:12-13).

c But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all its spoil, shall you take for a prey to yourself, and you shall eat the spoil of your enemies, which Yahweh your God has given you (Deuteronomy 20:14).

c Thus shall you do to all the cities which are very far off from you, which are not of the cities of these nations (Deuteronomy 20:15).

b But of the cities of these peoples, that Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes (Deuteronomy 20:16).

a But you shall utterly destroy them; The Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, as Yahweh your God has commanded you, that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done to their gods. So would you sin against Yahweh your God (Deuteronomy 20:17-18).

Note that in ‘a’ when they draw near to a city of people outside the land, to fight against it, if an offer of peace is made the people within it will simply become tributary, but in the parallel the nations who dwell in Canaan will teach them to do after their abominations, and thus must be blotted out, otherwise they would cause them to sin against Yahweh. In ‘b’ if the city that they draw near to makes war then Yahweh their God will deliver it into their hand, and they must them smite all its males with the edge of the sword, and in the parallel when they take the cities which have been given to them by Yahweh their God as an inheritance they must save nothing alive that breathes, but utterly destroy them. In ‘c’ they must in the first case keep the women, children and cattle alive, and take them for a prey for themselves, and in the parallel this is the more merciful behaviour expected when dealing with cities which are not cities of the nations of Canaan.

Deuteronomy 20:10-11

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it. And it shall be, if it make you answer of peace, and open to you, then it shall be, that all the people that are found in it shall become tributary to you, and shall serve you.’

In the case of the cities of neighbouring countries, whenever they approached one to fight with it they must offer peace terms. And if the city accepted those terms and surrendered, the surrender was to be accepted. They would then become tributary to Israel and be their ‘servants’, that is, subject to forced labour and paying tribute.

Deuteronomy 20:12-14

And if it will make no peace with you, but will make war against you, then you shall besiege it, and when Yahweh your God delivers it into your hand, you shall smite every male of it with the edge of the sword, but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all its spoil, shall you take for a prey to yourself, and you shall eat the spoil of your enemies, which Yahweh your God has given you.’

If, however, the city refused to surrender they were to besiege it, and when God delivered it into their hands, while they were to put to the sword all the men, they must preserve alive women, children and cattle, and may take all the spoil for themselves. They would be free to partake of all the edible spoils and keep the remainder for their later use.

This appears very harsh to us, but it was in fact merciful in terms of the view of those days. In contrast many armies would instead rape and slaughter the women and dash the children against a convenient wall (Isaiah 13:16; Hosea 13:16; Nahum 3:10; Psalms 137:9, in this last case the Psalmist had recently watched it happen). The slaughter of the men was necessary for there was no provision for taking prisoners-of-war and they dared not leave them to their rear, or in order to organise reprisals, as they advanced further (although a good many may well have made their escape). This is simply giving permission for what was unfortunately, but necessarily, standard practise of the day while meanwhile demanding mercy for the women and children.

One thing, however, this treatment brings out in their favour. Israel were clearly not simply invading in order to get spoils and obtain tribute. If they had been, preservation of the male population to be slaves and provide the tribute would have been necessary. This was either a retaliatory punitive expedition, or a necessary subjection of a belligerent neighbour. The final aim was defensive.

Deuteronomy 20:15

Thus shall you do to all the cities which are very far off from you, which are not of the cities of these nations.’

This was how they should behave towards neighbouring cities outside the country, that were not cities belonging to those now about to be named. But now he comes down to main point for the present which was to show how they should deal with the cities in the land.

Deuteronomy 20:16-18

But of the cities of these peoples, that Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them; the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, as Yahweh your God has commanded you, that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done to their gods. So would you sin against Yahweh your God.’

However in the case of Canaanite cities as described, once they were taken nothing that breathed was to be left alive. Compare Deuteronomy 7:1-5. What ‘nothing that breathes’ means is then made clear, it is the peoples of the land. All without exception must be destroyed, men, women and children, so that there will be no danger of idolatry again rearing its head in the land. They were all ‘devoted’ to destruction. This was so as to avoid the danger of Israel themselves becoming rebels against Yahweh’s covenant. But in most cases, unless told otherwise (e.g. Joshua 6:17-19) they could keep the cattle and spoils.

This was to be seen in the light of the fact that God had decreed the destruction of these nations because of the abomination of their ways. They had been sentenced to death for their idolatrous behaviour. It was His way of carrying His judgment out. It was not to be seen as a normal way of doing battle. It was a purifying of the land.

“The Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite.” The description indicates ‘all peoples living in Canaan’. The sixfold description probably emphasises this, being three intensified. These nations were regularly mentioned in previous books in differing descriptions, sometimes sevenfold (Deuteronomy 7:1; Genesis 15:19-21; Exodus 13:5; Exodus 23:23; Exodus 23:28; Exodus 34:11).

The lessons from all this for us today are general ones They are that sometimes we do have to be harsh in dealing with what can lead men astray, but that where we can be compassionate we should be, and that we should recognise the dreadfulness of the sin which caused these awful things to fall on mankind. For we can look at what followed. We can see how Israel failed to obey Yahweh and allowed the Canaanites to live among them, and how this caused them to fall as well. And how it finally destroyed the dream of God’s kingdom on earth. Disobedience to this commandment thus brought an awful cost.

Verses 19-20

The Preservation of Trees (Deuteronomy 20:19-20 ).

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them

b For you may eat of them, and you shall not cut them down, for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you?

b Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, you shall destroy and cut them down

a And you shall build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it fall.

Note that in ‘a’ the siege is a long one but in making war against them they must not cut down the trees as a matter of policy, while in the parallel they can be used to build siege works while the siege is still in progress. In ‘b’ they must especially not cut down the trees from which they can eat, while in the parallel they may destroy and cut down the trees which are not trees that produce food if necessary.

Deuteronomy 20:19

When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them, for you may eat of them, and you shall not cut them down, for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you?’

An important principle was now being laid down, the preservation of trees in warfare. One of the worst crimes of the later Assyrians and Babylonians, shared also by the Egyptians, was their destruction of trees (Isaiah 37:24; Isaiah 14:8). But however long Israel were besieging a city they must not cut down the fruit trees. Indeed they might well need to eat from them. And they should consider that the trees are not men. Trees would not fight them or stab them in the back. They were there simply for man’s benefit. Again there is the stress on mercy wherever possible.

Deuteronomy 20:20

Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, you shall destroy and cut them down, and you shall build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it fall.’

The only trees that they should cut down were those which were not fruit trees and which were needed for siegeworks. It was permitted to cut these down for the purposes of building siege weapons, including ladders for scaling walls and protective defences behind which they could find shelter.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/deuteronomy-20.html. 2013.