Deuteronomy 20

The Word Made Fresh

1“When you are preparing for battle against an enemy and see they have horses and chariots and a bigger army than yours, don’t be afraid of them. The LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt will be with you. 2Before the battle begins, the priest will come and speak to you 3and say to you, ‘Listen, Israel! Today you do battle with your enemy. Don’t be fainthearted. Don’t be scared. Don’t be terrified or frightened at the sight of them. 4The LORD your God will fight with you and you will be victorious.’

5“Then the leaders will speak to the soldiers and say, ‘Is there anyone here who has built a new house that has not yet been blessed? Go home. It wouldn’t do for you to die in battle and have someone else get the blessing. 6Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed the grapes? Go home. You don’t want to die and have someone else benefit from your labor. 7Is there any among you who are engaged to be married? Go home. If you are killed some other man will marry your girl. 8Is anyone afraid? Go home. Don’t stay here and let your fear rub off on your comrades.”

9“When the leaders have addressed the troops the officers will take charge 10and lead you to the town you are going to attack. But first they will offer terms of surrender to the town. 11If they accept your terms, all the people who live there will become your forced laborers. 12However, if they refuse to surrender and agree to your terms, then lay siege to that town, 13and when the LORD gives them into your hands, kill all the men who live there. 14The women and children and animals and everything else in that town will belong to you. The LORD your God has given it to you. 15That is how you will deal with the towns across your borders that go to war with you. 16But if you go to war against any of the towns in the territory the LORD your God is giving you, you must not allow anything in that town to live. 17You must utterly destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – for this is what the LORD your God has ordered you to do. 18If you destroy them they won’t be able to lure you into all the filthy things they do for their gods and make you sin against the LORD your God.

19“If you lay siege to a town and the siege becomes drawn out, don’t cut down the trees around it. You can enjoy the fruit they give, but don’t destroy the trees. They are not your enemy. 20Only cut down trees that do not produce food to build siege works to use against them until you are victorious.”

Commentary

1-4: The first rule Moses gives for battle is, don’t worry how big or technologically advanced the enemy may be because God is fighting with you. Modern “just war theory” counsels just the opposite – don’t go to war unless there is a reasonable chance for success. Moses is telling them that they will have the advantage against any foe because the LORD their God is with them.

5-9: This paragraph presents a surprisingly humane assessment of who should fight and who should not.

10-18: This paragraph is not humane at all. In Canaan, a besieged city is to be put to the sword. Every living thing – men, women and children – must be killed in order to prevent them from enticing the Israelites to worship their gods. I somehow don’t think God could have been so threatened by that possibility! In foreign territories only the males should be killed, unless they surrender peacefully, in which case they could be made slaves. How lenient!

19-20: In another curious example of ancient justice, the fruit and nut trees around a besieged town must be treated with greater humanity than the human beings in the town!

Takeaway

Moses, knowing he will not cross the Jordan with them, is telling them how to deal with enemies they may face. At this point in history, the people of Israel are the only people in the world who believe in the LORD God. It is essential to keep their relationship with the LORD pure and unchallenged by other religions. That is why God chose them; a people enslaved by Pharaoh, descended from ancestors God had claimed centuries before, so that they could carry their belief and faith in God into the promised land where that faith could be nurtured until the time was right for God to be revealed to the world through the miracle of a resurrection.