God and the word “warfare” appear incongruous as part of the same topic. People for millennia have wrestled with the thought of a loving God allowing and even promoting warfare. “How can a God who loves humankind enough to have created everyone, promote and condone war?” people ask. Deuteronomy 20:1 speaks of the Israelites going to battle against enemies while having God’s presence with them. This assumes that God was a part of, if not condoning, warfare. We must understand this idea before we can study Deuteronomy 20. We must understand what makes a person or nation an enemy of Israel and why the LORD would be with them as if He condoned it.
ENEMIES AND WARFARE
What did Moses and God mean by the word “enemies?” The Hebrew word used for the English word “enemies” in Deuteronomy 20:1 is ‘ayab. The literal interpretation of ‘ayab is to be hostile or to be an enemy. Today we might understand an enemy as being someone who is against or actively opposes another person, what that person wants, or what the person tries to do. This definition describes what an enemy of Israel was, too. Since Israel was a theocracy, a nation created and directly led by God, an enemy of Israel was an enemy of God.
Just because God led the theocracy of Israel does not mean the people of Israel were always righteous like God is righteous. Repeatedly the Israelites rebelled against God and were unfaithful to their covenant with Him. This made them enemies of God just as the people who were enemies of Israel were enemies of God. However, God’s mercy prevented Him from destroying Israel, though He judged and punished them. Added to this, for seven hundred years God sent prophets and judges to call the Israelites to return to Him. They did often repent and return to God, but in due time God exacted judgment on them and sent the Assyrians to overthrow the northern kingdom, Israel, and make them slaves. About one hundred seventy years after that, God judged the southern kingdom, Judah, and sent the Babylonians to overtake and disperse them around the Babylonian empire.
The Bible says everyone has sinned against God and gone his or her own way. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That makes each person an enemy of God. Does that mean God sends armies against us to annihilate us or disperse us among the nations? Not directly. He disciplines and judge us individually. Whether the discipline comes while we live on earth or judgment at God’s judgment seat, which comes at the end of time, that is God’s decision. Judgment will come; God decides when.
To take this further, actions against God’s people, Israel, were actions against God because Israel was a theocracy. So when God commanded the Israelites to put the Canaanites under the law of the ban (“utterly destroy” them) in Deuteronomy 7 and 20, He commanded them to destroy/annihilate them. Because Israel was a theocracy, God directly ruled them. When God commanded the annihilation of the Canaanites, the Canaanites’ destruction was His judgment against them (Exodus 23:27-30, Deuteronomy 7:3-6, and Joshua 8:24-26). They did evil in Yahweh’s sight for the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness even though they saw the power, might, and reality of Yahweh in the Israelites’ lives. Noah cursed the Canaanites from their foundation as a people/nation. He cursed his son, Canaan, after Canaan saw him drunk and naked in his tent and ridiculed him to his brothers, Shem and Japheth (Genesis 9:25). The destruction of Canaan marks one instance of God’s justifiable killing. Remember, the important fact at that time was that Israel was a theocracy that God ruled directly. They did not instigate the war of their own volition. The war with the Canaanites occurred as a direct result of God’s judgment of them.
Two other instances occur where God justified killing in the Bible. One circumstance where killing was justifiable was for capital punishment. Genesis 9:6 speaks to this when God told Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.”
The other instance in the Bible where God justified killing was in self-defense. Exodus 22:2 says, “If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account.” Deuteronomy 19 speaks on this as well when it speaks of the “avenger of blood” being allowed to execute the premeditated manslayer of his kinsman. The use of this rule of justifiable killing occurred on a large scale, too. When the Philistines, Egyptians, Assyrians and others killed Israelites in an attempt to take over Israel, God permitted self-defense by the nation of Israel – killing in retaliation for the bloodshed of a citizen by another nation.
Since we have identified who enemies of Israel were, and hence enemies of God, we can study Deuteronomy 20 in depth. We understand in which instances God condoned bloodshed, too. Before we go further though, we must better examine the first verse of this passage. It says, “When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of the for the LORD your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt is with you.”
Notice this verse does not say “if” you go to battle, but when. Because all humans are sinners, a constant battle/rebellion occurs each day against God. Since Israel was God’s chosen people of whom He made a nation for Himself, they would fight battles for the LORD as He commanded. Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land (Canaan), God commanded them to destroy the Canaanites. By doing this, their own faith would not be corrupted by the religion of the Canaanites – the worship of Baal and the Asherim. God told them they would fight other battles, too. Because Israel was a theocracy, God directly commanded their army. God’s command to destroy the Canaanites came from His judgment of them.
God knew other nations would challenge the Israelites for their land and prosperity. The Promised Land had the reputation of being a land flowing with milk and honey. This land was fertile, too, from God’s blessing of early and late rain in the year. God knew greed would bring armies from other nations against the Israelites. In verse one, Moses referred to Egypt. He spoke of horses and chariots. Egypt was the renowned maker of chariots and the breeder of horses strong and fast enough to pull a chariot in war. This let the Israelites and later readers know God would be with the Israelites in battles He commanded. The next nineteen verses gave more information about how God wanted the Israelites to prepare and fight in battle with the Canaanites and other countries.
Though God gave rules about preparation of soldiers and the actual fighting in Deuteronomy 20, the most important part of the twenty verses is the last half of verse one. Moses reminded the Israelites of God’s might, power, and favor towards them. He said, “Do not be afraid of them (the enemies) for the LORD your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt is with you.” Moses, in those few words, reminded them they were God’s chosen people. He reminded them God brought them out of Egypt and up to that point in time. He provided shelter, food, water, and protection during those forty years. Hence, God would continue to be with them so do not be afraid.
After Moses told the Israelites God’s promise to be with them in battle, he told them that the priest, the chief God-elected ruler, must speak to the Israelite army before they approached battle. This priest (kohen) was one of the Levites who led the worship of Yahweh in the sanctuaries and temple. This was the chief ruler God provided for the Israelites in Deuteronomy 18. The priest’s words would address their spiritual preparation for battle. His speech included four negative commands followed by three positive absolute statements about God relating to the negative commands to the soldiers.
God, through His servant, Moses, commanded the priest tell them, “Do not be fainthearted. Do not be afraid or panic or tremble.” When we look at these commands closer, we note minute differences in each word, but all lead to the same end – fear, faltering, and failure. “Fainthearted” comes from the Hebrew word rakak and means to be weak of heart, soft, or fearful. This speaks of a mental fear. “Afraid” comes from the Hebrew word yare’ and means to fear or to stand in awe others. “Afraid” like “fainthearted” speaks of a mental attitude or anguish. “Panic” comes from the Hebrew word chapaz and means to hurry, flee, and be terrified. This word takes the mental fear to the next level, an active physical response. The final word, “tremble,” comes from the Hebrew word ‘arats and means to tremble, dread, fear, and be terrified. This word is a passive physical occurrence. The fear within a person makes his body shake or quiver, but does not make him or her fight or flee.
The priest’s talk to the soldiers addressed the three sides of fear. His next three statements about God related to each of the negative commands. In verse 4, God commanded the priest tell the soldiers of what the LORD God would do with and for them. God’s being for them would remove their fear. God commanded the priest must say, “For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to save you.” Notice the three verbs “go,” “fight,” and “save.” A progression exists in this list. First, we not the verb “goes” is a present tense word. God is ever with His people when they walk with Him. This repeats what Moses said in the promise of verse one. Joshua reminded the Israelites of this, too, in Joshua 23:10. “Goes” is an active physical verb. The verb “to fight” is an active physical verb, too. God promised to battle for them. The priest would remind them of God’s great might and power as He fought the Egyptians on their behalf. As God goes with them into the Promised Land and in future battles of self-defense, God would go and fight for them again. The final verb the priest spoke to the Israelite army is “to save.” This word comes from the Hebrew word yasha and means to save, deliver, and give victory. God will be physically active in the Israelites’ lives to save them from their enemies while they remained His people by being faithful to their covenant with Him. Knowing and remembering God is for them and goes with them to fight and save them, encouraged the soldiers not to be fainthearted, be afraid, panic, or tremble. The LORD God would be their deliverer.
The last three verses encouraged the soldiers not to be afraid because the LORD was with them and would fight for and save them. The next four verses, verses five through eight, tell what God commanded the officers speak to the Israelite army. God defined the role of the officer in Deuteronomy 17. The Hebrew word used in verse five for “officer” is shoter, which means official, officer, or foreman. In Deuteronomy 17, we learned the officer was a Levitical priest who managed matters in the sanctuaries and temple. These men were the ones who accounted for and stored the offerings given to the priests, kept the temple maintained, and other tasks. The Levitical officers were not the ones who led the worship services, went into the holy of holies, or slay the offerings.
This officer, Moses said, must speak of practical things to the soldiers. He would speak of lives, homes, properties, families, and fellow kinsmen/nationals. A regular pattern unfolds in this section of the chapter as the officer spoke to the soldiers. The first command of the officer to the soldier is, “Who is the man that has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would dedicate it.” The officer reminded the soldiers to make sure they dedicated and set apart their home for God and His purposes. Unless a person gives every part of him or herself to God, he or she is not ready to walk with the LORD.
Verse 6 continues in the same way by saying, “Who is the man that has planted a vineyard and has not begun to use its fruit? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would begin to use it.” The officer reminded the soldier that God cares enough for a man to reap the reward of his hard work. If the man had not yet experienced the fruit of his produce so it was common to him, then he would not have the experience of receiving reward from God as a normal occurrence. He would not have that experience of God in his life because his vineyard was not established.
In verse 7, Moses commanded the officer to say to the soldiers, “And who is the man that is engaged to a woman and has not married her? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would marry her.” Israelite law, set up by the LORD said, “When a man takes a new wife, he shall not go out with the army nor be charged with any duty; he shall be free at home one year and shall give happiness to his wife whom he has taken” (Deuteronomy 24:5). The soldier, from verse seven, would realize God cares for the man’s own family and the future of the Israelite nation. When a person realizes God cares for what is near his heart, he will give more of himself in service to the LORD in battle. The soldier knows God will take care of his family.
Notice in verses five through seven, God commanded the officer speak to the soldiers about what was new in their lives – homes, vineyards, and wife/family. When the soldier had the opportunity to dedicate each of these to the LORD, they became a part of Him. From this, the soldier saw God’s hand on his life in these ways, so he would be a better soldier for the LORD who provided each of his blessings. The soldier would be more willing to give himself completely to the LORD who gave him everything.
God gave a final command to the officer for him to say to the army in verse eight. He said, “Then the officers shall speak further to the people and say, ‘Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers’ hearts melt like his heart’.” As a final command, after the three statements of the priest made and the three commands of the officer, the soldier has one other chance to bow out of the battle. The officer tells him that if the soldier is afraid, even after remembering and realizing what God did and promises to do, his continuing to the battle will lower the morale of the other soldiers who are his brothers/kinsmen. No person wants to be the reason the morale of an army sank so they lost the battle. This speech by the officer to the soldiers gave the soldier one last chance to examine himself and decide if he would help bring victory for God and Israel. The officer spoke of practical matters, but then reiterated what the priest said about faintheartedness and added a personal message to it. God commanded the priest and officer to say each of the above commands. They, too, held responsibility in helping God and Israel win their battles.
Moses spoke to each level of a person in these commands – spiritual, physical, emotional, proprietorial, familial, and national. He highlighted that God cares about every need of a person. Moses knew that in each of these areas a person needed to be reminded God gave the blessings and would protect them. Hence, the soldier could focus solely on God and the battle ahead of him.
Rules of Warfare
After the priest and officers spoke to the soldiers of the Israelite army, those who remained with the army were the soldiers ready to fight for the LORD. From these soldiers, the officers would appoint commanders of the army. The English word “appoint” comes from the Hebrew word paqad, which means to attend to, set over, and muster. The word “commander” comes from the Hebrew word sar and means leader, captain, general, and commander. These commanders would be the chiefs in front of the people. They would lead them and make sure God’s will for the battle occurred.
Interestingly, God had rules about warfare. The rules differed depending on if the Israelites fought people from afar or not. The two main differences between these two enemies dealt with offering peace and the people God did not want killed.
For battles against non-Canaanite armies, “cities that are very far from you” (vs. 15), God, through Moses, commanded the commanders, “You shall offer it terms of peace.” He then gave them two commands about what they were to do if the city accepted peace or not. Moses said, “If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you” (vs. 10). The text means if you cry out and offer peace. The Israelite army must call out to the city before it besieged the city walls and gates. If the people of the city shouted out and answered peace, then anyone found in the city would live and be servants for the Israelites.
For cities that did not offer peace and open their gates, death occurred. Verse 12 says, “If it does not make peace with you, but makes war, then you shall besiege it.” The army could make siege weapons and destroy the city walls and gates. Whoever died during the siege was a casualty of war. Additionally, the LORD said in verses thirteen and fourteen when they gained the city, the Israelite army was to kill every the men with the sword. The women, children, animals, and the spoils in the city were booty/plunder for the Israelites to use. The men were killed because they were the ones who filled a city’s or nation’s army. The women and children became servants. Remember, from Deuteronomy 14:22-15:23, God made sure the Israelites provided for their families, their servants and slaves, the orphan, widow, and foreigner in their land. God meant for each person living in the Promised Land to have what they need.
In the last six verses, Moses told the commanders what they and the soldiers of the Israelite army were to do when battling people from cities that are very far from them – non-Canaanite cities. In verses 16 through 18, Moses reminded the Israelites what God commanded they do to the nations who lived in the land of Canaan - the land God promised to Abraham and his descendents. What God commanded through Moses here is what God also commanded them in Deuteronomy 7:1-5. This passage is the law of the ban. God was adamant that no person escape death who lived in Canaan before His giving the land to the Israelites.
In verses 16, Moses said, “Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.” God did not give a suggestion. He commanded them by using the word “shall.” For emphasis, Moses repeated this command of God in another way in verse seventeen. He said, “But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you.” From verse 16, the Hebrew word translated as “alive” in English is chayah. It means to live or remain alive. The word “breathes” comes from the Hebrew word neshamah and means has breath or the spirit of man. The spirit of man shall not breathe in the old Canaanite nations. This command is specific. The Israelites know the law of the ban. The command is such an intensive one they were not likely to forget it the first time Moses passed God’s command to them in chapter seven.
What is of importance is that God commanded this of the Israelites. They have a covenant with God to which they agreed at Mount Sinai/Mount Hebron. That reason is enough to demand obedience. However, for God’s created, thinking, and reasoning human, He provided another reason. Moses stated God’s reason in verse eighteen, “So that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God.” God gave this same reason in Deuteronomy 7:4 and Exodus 23:33. The Canaanites’ worship of Baal and Asherim and the practices they performed in the worship of these false gods were detestable to the LORD God. God tried to prevent the people He called His own – the Israelites – from being lured into following the ways of the Canaanites. In Deuteronomy 7:1-5, God told the Israelites not to intermarry with them so that the children of the Canaanites would not teach the Israelite children their ways. The LORD God set up laws to prevent His people from sinning so they would remain pure and stay faithful to their covenant with Him.
What came next in this chapter, verses nineteen and twenty, is like the cherry on top. God considered the fear and trembling the Israelites would face in battle. He reassured them. God considered their hope for a future and consecration to Him so He allowed a few soldiers to stay at home for a time. He considered the morale of the soldiers of the army when faced with one who remained fainthearted, so provided a way for that one to stay home. God provided clear guidelines for peace against a far enemy or victory in battle should the enemy not give peace. He commanded that only men be killed. However, God did not change His stance when the Israelites battled the Canaanites. He remained faithful and purposeful. God showed Himself mighty, merciful, and caring for enemies and for the soldier’s best interests. The next verses show another facet of God’s care.
Rule about Trees
God commanded the Israelites when they besieged a city to make war with it not to destroy the fruit trees (vs.19-20). This appears to be an arbitrary command at the end of a chapter, which boosts the morale of the soldiers and gives rules of warfare. What can these two verses mean?
In the instance where the enemy of a far city chose not to offer peace, the capture of a city would occur by building siege works to batter the walls and gates of the city. The Israelite army would build siege works against cities within Canaan, too, who closed their gates to them. These siege works would be made of the wood from nearby trees. In verse 19, God said through Moses, “You shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down.” The word “destroy” in Hebrew is shachath and means destroy, ruin, and spoil.
What was the purpose for not cutting down the fruit trees? The purpose was two-fold. God cared that they had food to eat during the battle. The other purpose for not cutting down the fruit trees is so that when they took over the land, they would take possession of a fruitful place. By doing this they would not spoil the land. If they destroyed the trees, then a large part of the ecosystem would be lost, which affects other parts of ecosystem. Added to this, a large part of the provision God made for them would be destroyed. The land would not have as much “milk and honey” as before the battle. As before when we saw God’s care of the mental, familial, spiritual, national, and proprietorial needs of the individual soldier in His army, so He cares about their physical need for food as an army and as a nation. God’s plans were all-encompassing for each individual soldier in His army and for the army as a whole. His plan was holistic and aimed for each man and for the betterment of the whole army.
REVIEW AND REFLECTIONS
God set up rules for battle in Deuteronomy 20. He provided for the needs of each individual soldier – physical, spiritual, familial, and proprietorial – and for the whole army – national. The priest of God spoke to the spiritual needs – God is great and mighty and they saw Him fight and save them before (vs. 2-4). The officer spoke to the spiritual, familial, national, and proprietorial when he put four questions before them and gave them a permitted reason to leave the army at that time (vs. 5-8). The appointed commander provided military leaders who were accountable to God for the soldiers of God and led them to follow His rules for peace, servitude, or death and destruction (vs. 9-18). At the end of the chapter, God showed His care for the physical and future needs of His people when He commanded them not to chop down the fruit trees.
After the Israelites asked to have a king like the surrounding nations, they were no longer a theocracy, a people founded and ruled by God. They could not claim to go out in holy battle against any other nation, just as we cannot accuse and judge another person for his or her sin. God can use an army to punish another country. He allows a battle to occur, just as He did the Assyrians when they took the northern kingdom and the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom. God’s judgment will occur ultimately at His judgment seat. He may punish or judge before then, but that is His decision, not the decision of humans. The annihilation of a people group or nation by another group of people for religion’s sake is not done by God anymore because a theocracy no longer exists on earth.
God is not a God of hate and warfare. He is a God of love as we read in the Old and New Testaments. God’s love is why humankind was and continues to be created. His love is why He provided a way for humankind to return to Him. Allowing war is one way God brings judgment and punishment on His enemies. His enemies are those who rebel and oppose Him. The chief and leader of God’s enemies is Satan.
From the Bible we learn Satan opposes believers in 1 Chronicles 21:1, Job 2:1-7, Zechariah 3:1-2, and 1 Thessalonians 2:18. We read, too, that he slanders believers in 1 Timothy 5:14. Satan opposes God’s purposes as we read in Matthew 16:23 and Mark 8:33. He opposed God’s Word in Matthew 13:3-19, Mark 4:3-16, Luke 8:4-12, and Acts 13:8-10. Satan opposed God’s righteousness and blasphemed God in 1 John 3:7-10 and Revelation 13:6. Whenever a person rebels against God, His laws, His statutes, and denies Christ, he or she chooses to follow Satan. Doing that makes a person an enemy of God.
Yet, God did not create humankind to let us die. He provided a way for us – rebels and sinners – to return to Him even though we deserve judgment. Romans 5:10 says that while we were enemies of God, He reconciled us to Himself through the death of His Son and provided salvation through Jesus’ life. This redemption and salvation God provided through Jesus is not just for the Israelites. He provided them for every person of the world.
In addition to God’s provision for our salvation, Jesus came teaching a new thing. He taught we are to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-36), bless them (Romans 12:14), feed them (Romans 12:20), pray for them (Matthew 5:43-48), and forgive them (Luke 23:34). God alone judges. Jesus said He did not come to judge but to save the world (John 12:47). In John 8:11, Jesus told the woman caught in prostitution He did not condemn her either. Jesus came bringing the complete message. He said every person in the world is a sinner who needs a savior. No human is righteous and sinless so no one is a righteous judge of anyone else. Therefore, we cannot stand in judgment of other people. We are sinners just like the people at whom we want to point an accusing finger. This is what Jesus told the Pharisees who wanted the prostitute judged and punished. Instead of judging people, Jesus taught we are to love our enemies, those people who actively oppose us.
None of us is righteous/sinless. We all have sinned. That makes us all enemies of God. We deserve judgment. Yet God, because of His love, provided a way for us to return to Him through the death and life of His Son, Jesus Christ. He provided a way for us not to receive our just penalty for sin - death, and eternal separation from God - through Jesus. Deuteronomy 20 speaks to us today reminding us we will battle. Our battles will involve fighting the temptation to sin – to follow Satan’s desires. God, in verse one, said when we go in battle against strong enemies, “Do not be afraid of them for the LORD your God is with you.” God did not just go with you the last time you battled and then leave you to fight on your own in the future. Verse 4 says God “goes” with you to fight for you and to save you. As you have experienced Him in your life in the past, remember His power and strength and know He will go with you now and in the future. God goes, fights, and saves. He does not do it partly, but fully. He takes care of the whole person – spiritual, physical, mental, familial, national, and proprietorial. God’s promise can fill you with certainty and give you the power of His Holy Spirit to walk with Him through whatever comes.
Go in the certainty of the power and might of God
being filled with His power through the Holy Spirit.