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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged

Deuteronomy 20

Verse 1

When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies. All the males of 20 years and upward were liable to serve, and during a campaign could not leave without an express permission from the commander. The following rules, although of course prospective in their obligation, were not a merely provisional or temporary arrangement in prospect of an impending war, but were to be of standing authority in Israel, after the people, having become settled in their possessions, should have begun to build houses, to plant vineyards, and to marry wives. In the approaching invasion of Canaan, or in any just and defensive war, the Israelites had reason to expect the presence and favour of God.

Verse 2

And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people,

The priest shall approach and speak unto the people. Jewish writers say that there was a war-priest appointed by a special ceremonial to attend the army. It was natural that the solemn objects and motives of religion should have been applied to animate patriotism, and give additional impulse to valour; other people have done this, but in the case of Israel the regular attendance of a priest on the battlefield was in accordance with their Theocratic government, in which everything was done directly by God through his delegated ministers. It was the province of this priest to sound the trumpets (Numbers 10:9; Numbers 31:6), and he had others under him who repeated at the head of each battalion the exhortations which he addressed to the warriors in general. The speech (Deuteronomy 20:3-4) is marked by a brevity and expressiveness admirably suited to the occasion-namely, when the men were drawn up in line.

Verse 3

And shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye approach this day unto battle against your enemies: let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them;

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 4

For the LORD your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.

Your God is he that goeth with you. According to Jewish writers, the ark was always taken into the field of combat. But there is no evidence of this in the sacred history; and it must have been a sufficient ground of encouragement to be assured that God was on their side.

Verse 5

And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying, What man is there that 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.

The officers shall speak unto the people, [ hashoTªriym (H7860)] - the musterers, roll-keepers (see the note at 2 Kings 25:19, where a different word is used; also on 2 Chronicles 25:11, where both of these occur). [The Septuagint, hoi (G3588) grammateis (G1122), writers, secretaries, who are called 'scribes' or 'overseers,' Exodus 5:6.] They might be keepers of the muster-roll, or, perhaps, rather military heralds, whose duty it was to announce the orders of the generals (2 Chronicles 26:11).

This proclamation (Deuteronomy 20:5; Deuteronomy 20:8) must have been made previous to the priest's address, as great disorder and inconvenience must have been occasioned if the serried ranks were broken by the departure of those to whom the privilege was granted. Four grounds of exemption are expressly mentioned:

(1) The dedication of a new house which, as in all Oriental countries still, was an important event, and celebrated by festive and religious ceremonies (Nehemiah 12:27); exemption for a year. 'It was, perhaps,' says Wilkinson, 'at the dedication of the house that the lucky sentences or omens, as the good abode of the modern Arabs, were affixed; and we may infer from the early mention of this custom among the Jews, that it was derived from Egypt-a conjecture greatly strengthened by the circumstance of our finding even the storehouses, vineyards, and gardens of the Egyptians placed under the protection of a tutelary deity.'

(2) The planting of a vineyard. The fruit of the first three years (cf. Luke 13:8) being declared unfit for use, and the first-fruits producible on the fourth, the exemption in this case lasted at least four years.

(3) The betrothal of a wife, which was always a considerable time before marriage. It was deemed a great hardship to leave a house unfinished, a new property half-cultivated, and a recently-contracted marriage unconsummated; and the exemptions allowed in these cases were founded on the principle, that a man's heart being deeply engrossed with something at a distance, he would not be very enthusiastic in the public service.

(4) The ground of exemption was cowardice. From the composition of the Israelite army, which was an irregular militia, all above 20 years being liable to serve, many totally unfit for war must have been called to the field; and therefore there was profound wisdom and great political expediency in these prudential arrangements, to rid the army of such unwarlike elements-persons who could render no efficient service, and the contagion of whose craven spirit might lead to panic and defeat (cf. Numbers 7:10-11; Psalms 30:1, inscription). The later Jews celebrated such occasions by a feast, called [ chªnukaah (H2598 ] feast of dedication.

Verses 6-8

And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten of it? let him also go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of it.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 9

And it shall be, when the officers have made an end of speaking unto the people, that they shall make captains of the armies to lead the people.

They shall make captains of the armies to lead the people, [ uwpaaqªduw (H6485) saareey (H8269) tsªbaa'owt (H6635) bªro'sh (H7218) haa`aam (H5971)] - and they shall set (appoint) captains of the hosts in the head (front) of the people. When the parties exempted on the specified grounds had been removed, and the whole body of soldiers fit for service was mustered, the army was then arranged in its old familiar division of thousands, hundreds, and families, under their respective captains (Numbers 2:34; Numbers 26:12; 1 Chronicles 27:1; 2 Chronicles 25:5). [ Saareey (H8269), chiefs, leaders]. This is the term used for both civil and military officers. [The Septuagint also has archontas (G758) for both (cf. Exodus 18:21 with Numbers 31:14).]

Verse 10

When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.

When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it. An important principle is here introduced into the war-law of Israel regarding the people they fought against, and the cities they besieged. With "the cities of those people which God doth give thee" in Canaan, it was to be a war of utter extermination (Deuteronomy 20:17-18). But when on a just occasion they went against other nations, they were first to make a proclamation of peace, which, if allowed by a surrender, the people would become dependent, and, in the relation of tributaries, the conquered nations would receive the highest blessings from alliance with the chosen people: they would be brought to the knowledge of Israel's God and of Israel's worship, as well as a participation of Israel's privileges (see the note at Judges 11:12-27).

If, however, the besieged city refused to capitulate and be taken, a universal massacre was to be made of the males, while the women and children were to be preserved and kindly treated (Deuteronomy 20:13-14). (Concerning this war-law, consult Josephus, 'Antiquities,' b. 4:, sec. 42, and 'Contra Apion,' b. 2:, sec. 30.) In concurrence with the most respectable rabbis, and the general tradition of the Jews, he interprets Deuteronomy 20:13 only to imply a permission, not a command. 'Thou mayest kill (not, thou shalt kill) the males,' that is, 'the adult males;' or, as Josephus interprets, 'those who had borne arms against them,' which at that time included all the adult males (cf. 2 Kings 6:22), which, however interpreted, shows an instance of mercy to prisoners by express divine authority.

Selden ('De Jure Gentium apud Hebraeos,' lib. 6:, cap. 16: vol. 1:, p. 673) quotes various authorities to show the Jews were authorized to spare all prisoners who should become proselytes (even of the seven nations), as there would then be no danger of learning abominations from them (Deuteronomy 20:18); and he proves that it was an ancient tradition among the Jews that, in besieging a city, an interval was to be left to give the besieged an opportunity of escaping. For the treatment of female captives, consult 'Philo de Charitate,'p. 547 (Graves 'On the Pentateuch,' 2:, p. 102, note).

See also an admirable exposition of the humane and merciful spirit of the Hebrew war-law, in contrast with the barbarities perpetrated by the Assyrians and other ancient pagan people, in De Quincey's 'Collected Works,' vol 3:, 'Introduction,' pp. 8-11. He concludes thus-`When we consider how intimate and how ancient was the connection between Assyria and Palestine, how many things (in war especially) were transferred immediately through the intervening tribes (all habitually cruel), from the people on the Tigris to those on the Jordan, I feel convinced that Moses must have interfered most peremptorily and determinately, and not merely by verbal ordinances, but by establishing counter usages against this spirit of barbarity, otherwise it would have increased contagiously; whereas we meet with no such hellish atrocities among the children of Israel.' By this means a provision was made for a friendly and useful connection being established between the captors and the captives; and Israel, even through her conquest, would prove a blessing to the nations.

Verses 11-18

And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 19

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 forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man's life) to employ them in the siege:

Thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof. In a protracted siege wood would be required for various purposes, both for military works and for fuel. But fruit-bearing trees were to be carefully spared; and, indeed, in warm countries like India, where the people live much more on fruit than we do, the destruction of a fruit tree is considered a sort of sacrilege.

Verse 20

Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued.

Thou shalt build bulwarks against the city. It is evident that some sort of military engines were intended; and, accordingly, we know that in Egypt, where the Israelites learnt their military tactics, the method of conducting a siege was by throwing up banks, and making advances with moveable towers, or with the testudo (Wilkinson). Forts or towers were constructed with planks of timber, when intended to be stationary; but they were made of a lighter frame, covered with wicker-work, when movable (see 'Nineveh and its Remains,' 2:, p. 368, 9).

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Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/deuteronomy-20.html. 1871-8.