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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This whole chapter deals with the holy war that Israel was about to wage against the kingdoms of Canaan, and there are also some special instructions applicable to war against distant cities, envisioning a time when Israel, secure in its own boundaries, would be involved in war with nations outside the boundaries of Canaan.

The most notable part of the chapter is in Deuteronomy 20:16-18, where is recorded the Divine Commission looking to the utter destruction of the nations of Canaan, that remarkable commandment being found nowhere else in the Bible. This holy war had two purposes: (1) the execution of God’s sentence of death upon those nations of Canaan because of their shameless debaucheries and idolatries; and (2) the protection of the chosen people from any kind of social contact with those depraved nations. In the case of the “distant cities,” i.e., the nations outside Canaan, they also were Gentiles, but their wickedness had, at that time, not exceeded the boundaries of God’s mercy, and their times had not yet been fulfilled, contrary to what had happened to the nations of Canaan which were being replaced by Israel. This stern commandment for Israel to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites constitutes an incontrovertible argument in favor of the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. In light of the truth that Israel never, in any complete sense, obeyed this commandment, there could not possibly have been any reasonable motive whatever for some author later than Moses to have invented such a commandment and to have inserted it here! No critical scholar we ever heard of has attempted to refute this argument.

Verses 1-4

“When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses and chariots, and a people more than thou, thou shalt not be afraid of them; for Jehovah thy God is with thee, who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And it shall be that when ye draw nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people, and shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye draw nigh unto battle this day against your enemies: let not your heart faint; fear not, nor tremble, neither be ye affrighted of them; for Jehovah your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”

“To the Israelites, horses and chariots were always objects of terror in war (Joshua 11:4; Joshua 17:16; Judges 1:19; Judges 4:3, and 1 Samuel 13:5).”(F1) Furthermore, all of the nations they would confront in Canaan were well supplied with that very type of military equipment.

“And a people more than thou” Orlinsky translated this phrase, “forces larger than yours,”(F2) based upon the use, frequently overlooked, of the Hebrew word [~`am], which has the sense of the word “troops”.

The hope of victory for the Israelites was not centered in their strength but in the will of God who would go before them and fight for them. The subject of this whole chapter is the holy war in which Israel was about to engage. And, although there are a number of other passages in the O.T. that have a bearing upon this subject (Deuteronomy 7:17-24; Deuteronomy 21:10-14; Deuteronomy 23:9-14; Deuteronomy 24:5; and Deuteronomy 25:17-19), only in this chapter (Deuteronomy 20:16-17 ff) is the commission to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites included.

“The priest shall approach and speak unto the people” (Deuteronomy 20:3). “The priest here is not the High Priest, but the priest who accompanied the army, like Phinehas in the war against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6 f).(F3) Keil also stated that this priest who accompanied the troops was “raised to the highest dignity next to the high priest.”(F4) The priest appeared just before the battle began and began his exhortation with the formula announced in these verses, “Hear, O Israel,… etc.” The function of the priest here was not like that of a chaplain found in the armed services of many nations today; he was of higher rank and spoke upon the DIRECT authority and commandment of God.


The conception of “holy war” is stressed in the O.T., and no other war of human history ever attained a degree of holiness approaching that of the conquest of Canaan by Israel, although the conception has by no means perished. At this very moment (circa 1980) the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, religious and secular head of the nation of Iran, is waging a “holy war” for the spread of the Shiite Muslim religion. Soldiers motivated by the claims and promises of such “holy wars” are insanely fanatical and very difficult to overcome. However, the “holy war” Israel waged against Canaan was Divinely commanded, the purpose of it being two-fold:

(1) the judgmental destruction of a reprobate people already “over the hill” and beyond God’s mercy and fully deserving the destruction God commanded, and

(2) the provision of an idolatry-free environment for new people (Israel) who succeeded them.

The commanded destruction of those Canaanite nations was equivalent in every way to the destruction that came as a result of the Great Deluge, and both of these destructions were based upon the highest judgment and most urgent necessity. Furthermore, there is no moral problem with either one. God has every right to destroy any part of His creation that has lost the ability to conform, in some degree at least, to the will of God. Also, it should be remembered in this connection that God will ultimately “destroy” all of Adam’s race, when, for the fourth time, humanity has become judicially hardened against the Creator! (Read the prophecy of Zephaniah.)

Throughout the O.T., Israel’s war, particularly that for the possession of Canaan, was “holy.” “It was the Lord’s war, fought by GOD’S people against GOD’S enemies (Numbers 31; Numbers 6; 1 Samuel 4:3-4; Numbers 10:8-9; 2 Chronicles 13:10-12).”(F5) It could be that even today there are elements of sanctity in certain wars, designed to turn back fanaticism and atheism. Khomeini’s “holy war” on behalf of Islam must eventually be turned back by force of arms, and we simply cannot conceive of Almighty God’s being disinterested in the outcome of such a struggle. The same is true in regard to the struggles against atheistic communism. Despite the obvious truth of such observations, we cannot believe that any other war in human history ever partook of the same “holiness” and “sanctity” as did that of the conquest of Canaan. Back of that was God’s purpose to “save all mankind” through the advent of the Messiah into our world. Only by the coming of Jesus Christ could God’s promise to Abraham that “all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his Seed (Singular), the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:16). Furthermore, without the destruction of the idolatrous Canaanites, Israel could never have survived long enough to give birth to the Messiah. Therefore, what was ordered to be done was absolutely necessary.

Scott has an excellent word on this: “The reason the ban in its severest form (utmost destruction) was applied to the cities of Canaan was to save Israel from being infected with their abominations.”(F6) It is true perhaps that God looks at the whole human race as a single creation (indeed, it is just that), and that in God’s infinite wisdom it is far BETTER to cut off (with total destruction) SOME SMALL PORTION of the whole body than it would be to allow a fatal infection to proceed in the destruction of the WHOLE RACE. In their own bodies, men recognize this principle continually, every amputation of whatever kind, being an example of it. In the light of the truth, how weak and unjustified are the screams of sinners against God that “it was a terrible shame for God to order the killing of all those helpless little babies!”

The conception of TOTAL DESTRUCTION for the depraved population of Canaan, as Wright stated, “is one which a Christian has great difficulty in accepting.”(F7) But Wright went on to add: “If Israel had been dominated by any less tolerant attitude, she would have amalgamated with her pagan neighbors.”(F8) Amen! And furthermore, if that had occurred, the hope of a Redeemer for the human race would have been eternally lost. Israel’s case was a very special case, and from what God commanded them to do, no nation today may presume to operate on the same principles toward its enemies, but, again from Wright, “What Israel did must be understood in the light of God’s purpose and what was needed in that day and under those conditions to accomplish it.”(F9)

“To save you” (Deuteronomy 20:4). This comes from a Hebrew phrase [~lehowshiya’] [~’ethkem], which Orlinski affirms has the common meaning of “military victory, triumph,” concluding from this that the phrase should not read “to save you,” but “to bring you victory.”(F10)

Verses 5-9

“And the officers shall speak unto the people saying, What man is there who hath built a new house, and hath 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 that hath planted a vineyard and hath not used the fruit thereof? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man use the fruit thereof. And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her. And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart melt as his heart. And it shall be when the officers have made an end of speaking unto the people, that they shall appoint captains of hosts at the head of the people.”

There are four grounds of exemption given here:

(1) for a house-builder who has not yet dedicated his house;

(2) for the planter of a vineyard who has not yet brought the vineyard into common production;

(3) for the betrothed husband who has not yet taken his wife; and

(4) for all cowards.

We may only laugh at the remark by Watts that, “The officers act like king’s men.”(F11) Such a remark is only an idle speculation founded on the false premise that this portion of Deuteronomy was written in the days of the Jewish monarchy. The remark is untrue on its face. Can anybody name a single king in all of human history who voluntarily discharged all the cowards? Come on, John, you cannot fool anybody with a canard like that one! On the other hand, the classic story of Gideon furnishes us with a Scriptural example of how this principle was effective long before the monarchy.

Exemption No. 1. Cook tells us that this exemption, like that of No. 3, lasted for one year (compare Deuteronomy 24:5).(F12) He also added that, “Various ceremonies of a religious kind were customary among the Jews when taking possession of a new house.”(F13) The posting of certain passages of Scripture upon the posts of the door was certainly one of those ceremonies.

Exemption No. 2. Jamieson pointed out that for the first three years, the fruit of any newly-planted vineyard was considered unfit for use, and the fourth year was accounted to bear the firstfruits which were dedicated wholly to the Lord; thus, for one who had recently planted a vineyard, “this exemption would have lasted for at least four years.”(F14)

Exemption No. 3. This exemption is more fully explained in Deuteronomy 24:5 f, where it is extended to newlyweds also and lasted a full year.

Exemption No. 4. “These people were not to be bullied into battle, scorned for their fear, or court-martialed; they were to be sent home along with the others who qualified for exemption.”(F15) Of course, fear can debilitate and destroy any army, and by thus eliminating the fearful, the army would be protected from a mass infection of cowardice. As pointed out above, no other army in human history was constituted in such a manner as this. Faith in God and His faithful guidance could alone prevent fear from entering the hearts of those truly committed to God. In the light of this, it is safe to conclude that the fearful were those not fully committed to the Lord and to His work. Fear is still a deadly enemy of progress in the Lord’s work, and the antidote for it is the love of God. “Perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18).” The very first message of Christianity was that delivered by the angels of God over the hills of Judea, “FEAR NOT; for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

Verses 10-15

“When thou drawest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it; And it shall be, if it make the answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that are found therein shall become tributary unto thee, and shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: and when Jehovah thy God delivereth it into thy hand, thou shalt smite every male thereof 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 the spoil thereof, shalt thou take for a prey unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which Jehovah thy God hath given thee. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.”

The sentence of death imposed upon the nations of Canaan was not to be executed upon those cities of the Gentiles not identified with Canaan. This was therefore an extension of mercy to the pre-Christian Gentile world, a mercy that would be further extended in the Gospel of Christ and would continue “until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). If our understanding of the prophecies is correct, this mercy will expire in the holocaust of the final advent and judgment of the whole world by that “man whom God has appointed,” even Christ the Lord (Acts 17:31).

Kline was correct, therefore, in his observation that “If the total ban had been executed universally (and not solely upon the Canaanites), the age of grace for the Gentiles would have been prematurely terminated.”(F16)

“Shall become tributary unto thee, and shall serve thee” (Deuteronomy 20:11). This meant slavery in the full force of that word. Orlinsky stated that the passage should be translated, “They shall serve you as forced labor.”(F17)

We may pause here to consider an objection. Scott wrote that: “This whole chapter reads like an interruption between Deuteronomy 19 and Deuteronomy 21. Perhaps it originally stood after Deuteronomy 21:9.”(F18) To us it appears that the chapter fits as well where it is located as it would somewhere else. The explanation of the lack of organization of the whole Book of Deuteronomy is in the fact that it was delivered by Moses as an address, somewhat of a “shotgun sermon,” as we have frequently pointed out. The present arrangement of the Bible is already well known all over the world and has been so for ages, but when James Moffatt did his translation in the first quarter of this century, he extensively REARRANGED the chapters in the O.T., but the result was that of greatly diminishing the use of Moffatt’s Bible; and the whole world has gone right on using the OLD ORDER of the chapters. It appears to us that scholars should keep their hands off of that task!

Verses 16-18

“But of the cities of these peoples, that Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth; but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as Jehovah thy God hath commanded thee; that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so would ye sin against Jehovah your God.”

This is the TOTAL BAN in its severest form which God here pronounced against the Canaanite nations listed in Deuteronomy 20:17. We have already noted that this total ban is found only here in the O.T. The critical scholars have never assigned it to J, or P, or E, or to D, or to any other of their alleged sources of the Pentatech. How, then, did it happen to be in Deuteronomy? As pointed out above, it has to be considered CERTAIN that Moses is the author of this. McGarvey writing on this subject pointed out that, “The Jews never obeyed this commandment, and yet all of those Canaanite nations perished from the earth as God intended, and long before the days of the Monarchy, they had all vanished from the face of the earth.”(F19) Now what could possibly have motivated some later writer to invent a Divine commandment in order to expose the sins of his ancestors who never obeyed it? As McGarvey said, “No critic ever affirmed such a thing.”(F20) The inescapable conclusion is that Moses is our author of Deuteronomy.

Concerning the total ban executed upon the Canaanites, Oberst raised these questions: “Is there not some admission of weakness in the need to utterly destroy those nations, in order to prevent their teaching Israel to sin? Why not teach the other nations rather than learning from their teaching?”(F21) In reply, it must be said, “Indeed there is evidence of a terrible weakness here.” Israel simply was not strong enough to teach abstract truth about God against the opposition of a rearing tornado of paganism, reveling in the lusts of the flesh, and carrying the stamp of approval from the practical totality of the human race at that time. Further, Israel at that time had no gospel, such as we have. The great Charter of Salvation had not yet been written, the Christ would not appear for ages to come, and, in the meanwhile, only the grace and perseverance of God Himself could ever have prevailed to find a way for human deliverance. Blessed be that Holy Name.

Verses 19-20

“When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee? Only of the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it fall.”

This commandment to spare the fruit trees was squarely opposed to the “scorched earth” policy followed by many of the world’s ruthless conquerors. It was the Jewish conceit that the primary reason for this commandment was that, “Since the Jews were certain to have victory (promised by God Himself), they would be injuring themselves by destroying the fruit trees which they would soon possess.”(F22) Scott properly identified this as another instance in which God sought, through instructions to Israel, to moderate certain cruelties of ancient warfare.”(F23) Also, it seems to us that Peter E. Cousins was correct in seeing here, “an ecological wisdom that the world is only now recognizing.”(F24) Blair listed other humane considerations evident in God’s ancient instructions thus:

“Humane considerations appear in the allowance of exemptions in instances where men’s hearts might be crushed without them, the unusual courtesies extended to certain captive women, such as a month’s period of mourning, etc. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), also the freedom of captives no longer wanted by the captor and the law against selling such a person into slavery.”(F25)

It is basic that Israel, at the time of the conquest of Canaan, was as bloody a nation as ever appeared upon the face of the earth, despite the fact of their actions coming under the direct commission of heaven, but it should be remembered that this was a bloody world at that period of its history, and that there was no other way for God to do what had to be done.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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