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Deuteronomy 20:1-20 – Holy War


In the midst of regulations on warfare are attempts to limit the loss of human life and destruction.


Deuteronomy's treatise on war falls into four unequal sections:

1. Priestly exhortation to courage (vv. 1-4). Whether "holy war" existed in actuality or is a theological construct of Deuteronomy is debated these days. Holy war is characterized by the basic belief that war consisted of God's battles against God's enemies. Thus:

  • God is the one who fights and wins these wars as demonstrated in the defeat of Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea. Israel is to stand firm and not be afraid (Exodus 14:13).
  • The spoils of war belong to God and must not be plundered, but must be "dedicated" or "devoted" to God in the total destruction of the "ban" or herem. Israel is not to profit from war.
  • The conquered land becomes God's "inheritance" (nahalah).
  • God grants the inheritance to Israel, though it remains God's.

2. Deferments (vv. 5-9). Israel's victory depends upon God's presence, not military might. Thus, exemptions are allowed in a number of cases where important aspects of life lived in relationship to God take precedence over the requirements of military service.

3. Rules for war (vv. 10-18)

  • Though debated, many interpreters see verses 10-11 as a demand that Israel offer peace to every city it encounters; essentially the resultant policy, should they accept Israel's terms, is slavery.
  • Verses 12-15, then, state the policy for distant cities that reject Israel's offer of peace (men are killed, women and children become slaves, and animals and material goods become plunder).
  • Verses 16-18, then, state the policy for Israel's neighboring cities (cities in the promised land) that reject Israel's offer of peace (total destruction under the ban).

4. Limitations (vv. 19-20). The destruction of trees was common in the ancient Near East. Such total destruction was forbidden to Israel, though this is somewhat tempered by the fact that they would become Israel's fruit trees.

Deuteronomy 20:1-20

Rules of Warfare

20When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. 2Before you engage in battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the troops, 3and shall say to them: ‘Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near to do battle against your enemies. Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; 4for it is the Lord your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.’ 5Then the officials shall address the troops, saying, ‘Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another dedicate it. 6Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another be first to enjoy its fruit. 7Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.’ 8The officials shall continue to address the troops, saying, ‘Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to fail like his own.’ 9When the officials have finished addressing the troops, then the commanders shall take charge of them.

10 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. 11If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you in forced labour. 12If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; 13and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 14You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. 16But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, 18so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

19 If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? 20You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siege-works against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.

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