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Laws Concerning Holy War (20:1-20)
The concept of "holy war," as held and practiced by the early Israelites, appears in Deuteronomy 7:17-24 (see comment). Here detailed prescriptions for it are laid down. Still other passages in Deuteronomy relevant to this theme are 21:10-14; 23:9-14; 24:5; and 25:17-19.
The large preoccupation with this subject in Deuteronomy is no evidence that the writers were violent men, who delighted in the massacre of whole populations. Rather does it grow out of their zeal for ethical monotheism. They and their predecessors had learned through sad experience that intermingling with and tolerance of polytheistic peoples and practices led to tragic consequences in the life of Israel: the Covenant was broken and Israel’s vision of the one true God and his will for the life of men was destroyed.
But neither should these men be praised overly much. They did not rise to the insight that monotheism can best be preserved by proclamation, demonstration of its beneficial results in life, and subsequent conversion and assimilation of heathen groups. Such an understanding of Israel’s saving role in the world came with the Prophet of the Exile, with Jesus, and with the Christian Church. The Deuteronomists were heirs of a point of view that was destined to pass away in God’s fullness of time. Though they mollified the brutalities and heartlessness involved in savage, exterminating wars, they did little to change the basic strategy of international relationships.
Certain humane considerations appear in these directions concerning the conduct of "holy war": the exempting of men who are on the verge of some high experience (the dedication of a new house, the enjoyment of the fruit of a new vineyard, the consummation in marriage of a betrothal); the excusing of the fearful and fainthearted; the avoiding of needless bloodshed in the offer of terms of peace; the sparing of fruit trees (apparently to avoid food shortage and famine) in the course of a siege. In 21:10-14, unusual courtesy to a captive woman is enjoined: safe conduct to the captor’s house; a month’s period of mourning for her relatives; an honorable position in the household; freedom rather than sale into slavery if the captor no longer desires her. All such humanitarian attitudes and actions are remarkable in time of war in civilizations ancient or modern! It is evident that the Deuteronomists’ call to right living and brotherly treatment of other persons had practical consequences in the tangled affairs of daily life.
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"Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
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