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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 , [ hashoT

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 , [ uwpaaq

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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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:4". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". 1871-8.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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