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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable
Deuteronomy 20



Verses 1-20

War ch20

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 , p282.]

"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 . . .," p82.]

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 ," p183.]

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, p220.]

"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 , pp283 , 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, pp46-47; and Kaiser, pp172-80.]

"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, p458.]

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 . . ., p276.] 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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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.

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Wednesday, January 29th, 2020
the Third Week after Epiphany
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