Deuteronomy 20:1-3 It is interesting and informative that these instructions regarding warfare follow the instructions regarding punishment for murder and manslaughter. Warfare is completely different than criminal murder. Ever since the fall and actually even before warfare has been a constant reality. When Satan rebelled against God, he went to war against Him and His creation. First in the Garden and continuing now with God’s first-born sons, Israel. Israel was called to cleanse God’s land of the ungodly who occupied it. Since Israel was His holy people warfare would be conducted under His guidelines. Ultimately God was the one who fought for Israel but they had a part, just as we who also are at war. The nations were subject to the god of this world and as such were in defiance to the Lord and His rule. God told Abraham that in 400 years these nations would be removed when the fullness of their evil was complete. The following verses are God’s guidelines for His people in how they were to conduct warfare with their enemies. First Israel was told not to be afraid when they went into battle even if they were outnumbered and lacked the arms that their enemies had. Their Lord was their leader who fought on their behalf against their enemies just as he did against Egypt. The Lord’s emissaries, the priests would speak on his behalf to the armies of Israel to encourage them and focus their eyes on the Lord and not their enemies.
Deuteronomy 20:4 The reason to not fear is that the Lord is leading and fighting for them (Ex. 14:14). Victory was theirs through the presence and power of God. These verses make the significant point that man is helpless in his own strength but in and through the Lord he can overcome all. The language of warfare is a picture of the spiritual warfare we are called to fight against our enemies in this world. The war we fight is not an earthly war but a spiritual warfare. We fight against things like disease, accidents, immorality, greed, covetousness, anger, discouragement, financial difficulty and a myriad of other things that affect our joy and peace. Some enemies are small and weak and easy to conquer in our own strength. But there are other enemies that are far more powerful not able to be defeated by man, like disease, and death. These are only overcome by the presence and power of God.
Deuteronomy 20:5 There are some people who should not be included in battle for the affect they could have on others. The first to be exempted are those who have just built but not dedicated a new house, they were to be released to do so. The word used for dedication (hanak) is the same word in 1 Kgs 8:63; 2 Chron 7:5 which describes Solomon’s dedication of the temple as well as the dedication by the Maccabees and where the root of the word Hanukkah. The dedication of home pointed to a sacred ceremony before the Lord. There is a ceremony like this when one places a mezuzah on the doorpost of one’s home.
Deuteronomy 20:6-7 In the second example of disqualification, is the need to gather the fruit of the harvest in the vineyard. The harvest was necessary not only for the family but for the supply of the troops engaged in battle. In the case of marriage should a soldier die before taking a wife, he would leave no posterity and his name and family would be cut off. In each case compassion was provide so that God’s people would be able to experience the blessings of God for themselves and their families. Further, the exemptions allowed were for the need of total commitment by every soldier. Anything distracting needed to be eliminated. Full commitment was necessary when entering into battle. The largest army was not as important as the best army. This was an army that was confident that God would give them the victory over the enemy.
Deuteronomy 20:8-9 The fourth provision for exemption was for those who were fearful of the impending battle. Those who afraid and fainthearted were to return to their homes. Such soldiers were an enemy to the Lord’s army. They would undermine the morale of their fellow soldiers. This was put into practice with the Lord’s instructions to Gideon causing 2/3 of his army to disappear (Judg 7:3), but the Lord gave him the victory, nonetheless. Even those who remained so the Lord diminished them further so that all would say that the battle belongs to the Lord.
Deuteronomy 20:10-11 Having solidified the army, now the policy is laid out for war in cities that were not part of the promised land. The now alien inhabitants of the Promised Land were to be removed from the Land without making terms of peace. Those outside of the promised land who did not pose an immediate threat were given the opportunity to make peace with God’s covenant people. The Lord was giving these people an opportunity for repentance and salvation by turning to the God of Israel. If they surrendered to him and submitted to his sovereignty, they could live beside Israel. But repentance was not to be offered to the Canaanites who had reached the fullness of God’s patience toward them. To those who lived outside the land the army was to offer terms of peace. If they agreed a treaty could be made by making a covenant where the people would agree to be Israel’s servants at forced labor. The Gibeonites were an example of this when they deceived Joshua into making a treaty with them and were forced into compulsory labor.
Deuteronomy 20:12-15 If the offer of peace by Israel’s army is rejected the city was placed under siege until it was overcome by the Lord to Israel. The men of the city were to be killed, but the women, children, livestock, and any other goods were to be taken as plunder by the army. It was hoped that the women and children would come to repentance and faith in the God of Israel. Resistance by the men and their judgment was to serve as a deterrent to other nations that attempt to resist the Lord’s army and sovereignty.
Deuteronomy 20:16 Here is the command of destruction for the cities and people in the Promised Land. This was the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants and was entrusted to Israel. The Canaanite nations were to be destroyed as the fullness of their iniquity was now complete. This was discussed by the Lord to Abraham in Gen. 15:16 “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” This also relates to Rom. 11:25 “hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” and Luke 21:24 “and they will fall by the edge of the sword and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” The Canaanites had resisted the lordship of the Lord and were now under His judgment through His covenant people. They were now under haram just as Jericho was placed under haram (dedicated to the Lord for destruction Deut 7:2, 16; 12:2; 13:15).
Deuteronomy 20:17-18 The list of the nations that were removed is listed here except the Girgashites which are in the list in Deut 7:1. It is there that all seven nations are mentioned, seven pictures completeness. The removal of all those tribes indicated the complete removal of the peoples under God’s judgment. They were removed for their idolatry including child sacrifice.
Deuteronomy 20:19-20 The instructions for war ends with a call to care for the trees. The Lord calls Israel to conservation of His Land. The focus is on fruit trees while the other trees could be used for siege works. Trees are contrasted with mankind, who is created in the image of God and yet sin against their Creator leading to judgment. The tree like the rest of creation has not sinned and should thus be protected as it bears fruit for both God and man. This is the strategy of conservation, preserving the land for the public good (vv. 19–20). When the Israelites were laying siege to a city, the siege could last for months. An army often decimates the land of its enemy. But this was not to be done by the Israelites. They were to conserve and preserve the land for the public good. The law called Israel not to destroy the fruit trees or lay waste to the land. They could eat the fruit of the trees, but they were not to cut them down. They were to preserve both the trees and land for food for future generations. However, non-fruit trees could be cut as they were needed for firewood, battering rams, or other purposes. But even then, the non-fruit trees could be used only until the enemy was conquered (v. 20). Scripture teaches that the creation is suffering and in bondage because of the sin of man. Creation is longing for the day of redemption, for the new heavens and earth when corruption will be removed (Rom. 8:22).