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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 20

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Deuteronomy 20:0


Principles Governing WarfareRules for Waging Holy WarConcerning WarWar and Combatants
Deuteronomy 20:1-9Deuteronomy 20:1-9Deuteronomy 20:1-4Deuteronomy 20:1-4
Deuteronomy 20:5-7Deuteronomy 20:5
Deuteronomy 20:6
Deuteronomy 20:7
Deuteronomy 20:8-9Deuteronomy 20:8
Deuteronomy 20:9
Captured Towns
Deuteronomy 20:10-18Deuteronomy 20:10-18Deuteronomy 20:10-15Deuteronomy 20:10-14
Deuteronomy 20:15-18
Deuteronomy 20:16-18
Deuteronomy 20:19-20Deuteronomy 20:19-20Deuteronomy 20:19-20Deuteronomy 20:19-20

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the four modern translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. Deuteronomy 20:0 is a description of how Israel was to conduct holy war, which is a war done in the name of God, commanded by God, the rules controlled by God, for the glory of God (cf. Deuteronomy 20:1-20; Deuteronomy 21:10-14; Deuteronomy 23:9-14; Deuteronomy 24:5; Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

B. The problem moderns have with this type of text usually involve an ethical outrage. However, it is just not fair to apply modern notions of ethics and warfare to ancient military practices.

Another issue is the problem of modern Christians trying to apply every OT text to their day. It is not God's will that every generation in every locality reproduce an ancient Near Eastern culture, but that we seek the eternal truths bound up in the cultural actions, then apply these universal truths to our culture. A good book at this point is How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart.

Because it happened and is recorded in the Bible does not automatically mean it is God's will for every age and every culture (e.g., food laws, holy war, polygamy, slavery, subjection of women, etc.).

C. This chapter is a mixture of compassion and severity!

D. For a good brief discussion see Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, vol. 1, pp. 258-267.

Verses 1-9

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 20:1-9 1”When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you. 2When you are approaching the battle, the priest shall come near and speak to the people. 3He shall say to them, 'Hear, O Israel, you are approaching the battle against your enemies today. Do not be fainthearted. Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, 4for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.' 5The officers also shall speak to the people, saying, 'Who is the man that has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would dedicate it. 6Who is the man that has planted a vineyard and has not begun to use its fruit? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would begin to use its fruit. 7And who is the man that is engaged to a woman and has not married her? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would marry her.' 8Then the officers shall speak further to the people and say, 'Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers' hearts melt like his heart.' 9When the officers have finished speaking to the people, they shall appoint commanders of armies at the head of the people.”

Deuteronomy 20:1 “horses and chariots” The Canaanites had many horses and chariots (i.e., the ultimate military weapon of that time and place); the Israelis had none (cf. Joshua 11:4; Joshua 17:16; Isaiah 31:1-3; Hosea 14:3). The Israelites must trust in YHWH to provide the victory, not better weaponry (cf. Isaiah 30:15-17; Isaiah 31:1-9). See Special Topic: Chariots.

“do not be afraid of them” This VERB (BDB 431, KB 4387, Qal IMPERFECT) is a recurrent theme in holy war contexts (cf. Deuteronomy 1:21, Deuteronomy 1:29; Deuteronomy 3:2, Deuteronomy 3:22; Deuteronomy 7:18; Deuteronomy 20:1, Deuteronomy 20:3; Deuteronomy 31:6, Deuteronomy 31:8). They were not to fear the power or number of their Canaanite enemies, but they were to fear YHWH (cf. Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 5:29; Deuteronomy 6:2, Deuteronomy 6:13, Deuteronomy 6:24; Deuteronomy 10:12, Deuteronomy 10:20; Deuteronomy 13:4; Deuteronomy 14:23; Deuteronomy 17:19; Deuteronomy 28:58; Deuteronomy 31:12, Deuteronomy 31:13), because He is an awesome God (same Hebrew term, cf. Deuteronomy 7:21; Deuteronomy 10:17; Deuteronomy 28:58).

“for the LORD your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” See Exodus 14:26-28 for a reference to God's deliverance of His people from Pharaoh. Israel's trust was based on:

1. previous revelation to the Patriarchs

2. miraculous Egyptian deliverance

3. miraculous wilderness wandering provisions

4. victories on the eastern bank of Jordan

Deuteronomy 20:2 “the priest shall come near and speak to the people” The rabbis called this person “the anointed priest of battle.” Before battle, the priest admonished them to be brave because God was with them. Even if some died in battle, God would still take care of them and their families.

Deuteronomy 20:3-4 Notice the series of admonitions (“hear” BDB 1033, KB 1570, Qal IMPERATIVE) of the priest in verse Deuteronomy 20:3:

1. “do not be fainthearted” - BDB 939, KB 1236, Qal IMPERFECT, but JUSSIVE in meaning, cf. Isaiah 7:4; Jeremiah 51:46

2. “do not be afraid” - BDB 431, KB 432, Qal IMPERFECT, but JUSSIVE in meaning, see note at Deuteronomy 20:1

3. “do not panic” - BDB 342, KB 339, Qal IMPERFECT, but JUSSIVE in meaning, cf Job 40:23 (examples: 1 Samuel 23:26; 2 Kings 7:15; Psalms 48:5)

4. “do not tremble before them” - BDB 791, KB 888, Qal IMPERFECT, but JUSSIVE in meaning, cf. Deuteronomy 1:29; Deuteronomy 7:21; Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:9

The reason for the confidence is stated in Deuteronomy 20:4:

1. “the Lord your God is the one who goes with you” - BDB 229, KB 246, Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE

2. “to fight for you” - BDB 535, KB 526, Niphal INFINITIVE CONSTRUCT

3. “to save you” - BDB 446, KB 448, Hiphil INFINITIVE CONSTRUCT

Deuteronomy 20:5-8 “The officers” This is a special Hebrew word (BDB 1009) sometimes used in conjunction with the local judges or military leaders. It means “the representatives from each tribe” (cf. Deuteronomy 1:15; Deuteronomy 29:10; Deuteronomy 31:28). The officers made the judgment on any exemptions.

Here is a list of exemptions that allowed an Israelite man to not go into battle:

1. One who built a new house and had not dedicated it, Deuteronomy 20:5 (obviously a future event; there is no record of the nature or purpose of this procedure recorded in the OT, but the term is the same as the one used for dedicating the temple, BDB 335 II).

2. One who has planted a vineyard and has not begun to use its fruit, Deuteronomy 20:6 (obviously a future event, vineyard took three years to produce fruit, cf. Leviticus 19:23-25).

3. One who is engaged, but has not married yet, Deuteronomy 20:7, cf. Deuteronomy 24:5.

4. One who is afraid or fainthearted, Deuteronomy 20:8, because it may cause others to be afraid, cf. Judges 7:3; I Macc. 3:56.

Numbers 1:2, and 3 are related to inheritance issues. But they may also be seen in light of Deuteronomy 28:30. These very things are mentioned as being results of covenant disobedience.

“Let him depart and return to his house” This phrase is made up of the VERBS:

1. “depart” - BDB 229, KB 246, Qal IMPERFECT used as a JUSSIVE

2. “return” - BDB 996, KB 1427, Qal JUSSIVE

It is repeated with each possible exemption listed (cf. Deuteronomy 20:5, Deuteronomy 20:6, Deuteronomy 20:7, Deuteronomy 20:8). It was not the size of Israel's army, but the power of Israel's God that made the difference! The smaller and less equipped the army, the more it magnified God's victory (cf. Judges 7:0).

Verses 10-18

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 20:10-18 10”When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. 11If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. 12However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13When the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. 14Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you. 15Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby. 16Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. 17But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, 18so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God.”

Deuteronomy 20:10-15 These are surrender instructions about distant cities, cities on the periphery or out of the bounds of the Promised Land that God gave (i.e., outside Israel's inheritance, cf. Deuteronomy 20:15).

Deuteronomy 20:11 “shall become your forced labor and shall serve you” This reflects a common element of ancient Near Eastern warfare.

Deuteronomy 20:13 “the edge of the sword” The literal Hebrew is “to the mouth of the sword.” The implication is that all the men of a certain age were killed.

Deuteronomy 20:14 In the ancient world soldiers were not paid a salary, but their compensation was the spoils of victory. In Israel, especially “holy war,” the spoils belonged to YHWH to show that the victory was His victory and that the land was His land. These verses are exceptions because these cities were outside the Promised Land.

“the women” Even captured slaves had some rights (cf. Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 These verses refer to cities within the Promised Land. These cities are totally under the ban of destruction (cf. Deuteronomy 20:16-17).

Deuteronomy 20:16 “you shall not leave alive anything that breathes” This means small children, pregnant women, old people, animals. . .anything that breathes (cf. Joshua 10:40; Joshua 11:11, Joshua 11:14).

Deuteronomy 20:17 “utterly destroy” The word here is herem (BDB 355, KB 353, Hiphil INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and Hiphil IMPERFECT, which was a grammatical way to show intensity), which is the idea of total and complete destruction because it has been dedicated to God (cf. Deuteronomy 2:34; Deuteronomy 7:1-5).

“the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite” See Special Topic: the Pre-Israelite Inhabitants of Palestine.

Deuteronomy 20:18 How can this be done by a loving God? One answer is found in Deuteronomy 20:18 - a theological reason. If you don't wipe them out they will theologically pollute you. Another answer is found in Deuteronomy 9:4 and a third in Genesis 15:12-21. Human sins have consequences!

Verses 19-20

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 20:19-20 19”When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? 20Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.”

Deuteronomy 20:19-20 Walled cities in the ancient Near East were attacked by wooden siege machines. The wood was to be taken from non-fruit bearing tree, probably because this produce would be needed later by the Israeli inhabitants of the defeated city.

Deuteronomy 20:19

NASB, NJB“is the tree of the field a man” NKJV“for the tree of the field is man's foodNRSV“are trees in the field human beings” TEV“the trees are not your enemy”

The Hebrew text is difficult here. It seems to mean that the trees are not the enemy! They were YHWH's way of providing immediate and future food for His people.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. How was Israel's fear of greater numbers and technology dealt with?

2. List the four exemptions from military service:

3. Did God advocate slavery (Deuteronomy 20:11)?

4. How can one reconcile Deuteronomy 20:16-17 with our view of God?

5. List all the humanitarian aspects of this chapter.

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/deuteronomy-20.html. 2021.
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