Friday, October 26, 2007

Deuteronomy 20

Deuteronomy 20: Rules for going to war


In this chapter, Moses gives the Israelites some rules to follow, whenever they go to war. He lays out five main rules.

The first rule, laid out in verses 1–4, is that the Israelites are not to be afraid when they go into battle—since it’s the LORD who is fighting for them, they have no reason to be afraid. (How’s that for a rule that people would love to obey?) In fact, the priest is to remind them of this fact:

When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: “Hear, O Israel, today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not be terrified or give way to panic before them. For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” (verses 2–4)

The passage says “the priest,” instead of “a priest,” so I think this means the High Priest.

So the first rule was not to be afraid. But if you think that’s strange, the second rule, outlined in verses 5–9, could be considered even more strange: Moses outlines men who should be exempted from the army:

  • Anyone who has built a new house, but not yet dedicated it
  • Anyone who has planted a vineyard, and not yet “begun to enjoy it” (verse 6)
  • Anyone who is pledged to be married, and hasn’t yet married the woman
All of these rules are given for the same reason (which I’m grossly paraphrasing): it would be a shame for the person in question to die in battle, and someone else would end up dedicating the house, or enjoying the fruits of the vineyard, or marrying the woman he was pledged to. But then Moses gives one more reason why someone should be exempted from the military:

Then the officers shall add, “Is any man afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his brothers will not become disheartened too.” (verse 8)

I’m not much of a one for following military affairs, but I don’t know of any modern-day armies that have such a rule.

The third rule, outlined in verses 10–15, concerns treaties with conquered peoples. When the Israelites are about to attack a city which is far away, they are to make an offer of peace, first. If the people of the city accept the offer of peace, they are to become servants of the Israelites. (Or, as it’s phrased in verse 11, “all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.”) But if the people refuse the offer of peace, the Israelites are to lay siege to it, and when they have conquered it, they are to kill all of the men, and take the women, children, livestock, and anything else in the city as plunder.

That’s for cities that are far away; the fourth rule, outlined in verses 16–18, is that the third rule doesn’t apply, when the Israelites are battling people in the nations the LORD is giving them. For the nations that are being given to the Israelites, they are to completely destroy all of the people and animals—“anything that breathes” (verse 16). Moses gives a reason for this: “Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (verse 18).

And the fifth rule, in verses 19–20, is that the Israelites are to avoid cutting down fruit trees, when besieging a city, because they can eat the fruit. They are allowed to cut down other types of trees, though, to use in building siege works.


If there is anything in the Old Testament that causes confusion, disagreements, and misunderstandings, it’s the subject of war. (Of course, there are many things in the Old Testament that cause confusion, disagreements, and misunderstandings. But war is a big one.) Interestingly, just before I wrote this blog post, I’d been at a Bible study where we briefly talked about war; one of the things we mentioned is that the Bible seems to take it for granted that wars will happen. This chapter is, in my mind, one of the chapters that will add to that confusion, for the modern-day reader.

First, you have the first two rules in the chapter, which seem odd, to us, but in a good way: the Israelites are not to be afraid, and people who have recently been given a new facet of their life to enjoy are to be exempted from military service.

But then you get to the third rule, in which the Israelites, when doing battle with people who are far away, are to either enslave them, or kill all of the men, and take the women and children—as if they’re property. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to make any sense, to my eyes.

The fourth rule is one that very often comes up when Christians discuss the Old Testament: How could God order the slaughter of entire nations of people, including women, children, and livestock? In a sense, I can get it, if I distance myself from it, because God had specifically decided to wipe these people off the face of the Earth, because of their sins; the Israelites were His tool in doing this. And there is also the aspect that the Israelites are to be holy, and God consistently tells them to wipe out these people, so that their sins won’t lead the Israelites astray. In that respect, this makes sense. But in other respects, it still seems so barbaric to me, just like treating the women and children as property, in the third rule.

But then, to make the confusion complete, the chapter ends with a rule concerning fruit trees.

As a Christian, when reading the Bible—Old or New Testament—I have to keep in the forefront of my mind that God is a loving, holy, just God. Sometimes this is easy; when I read the first nine verses of this chapter, I can see a God who cares for His people. But sometimes I have to exercise faith, and when something doesn’t seem like it fits with my picture of God, like in the middle part of this chapter, it is my faith in who He is that causes me to try and understand what I’m reading, rather than just ignoring it, or trying to have a God in my head who is less than who He really is. The Bible doesn’t sugar-coat these aspects of the Israelites’ history, and the fact that it was written down must mean that it will reveal something to me about who He is, or who I am in relation to Him. It may seem barbaric that the Israelites were to wipe out these nations, but do I fully understand God’s view of sin? (There is also the aspect that I find it easier, in some ways, to condemn my own sin than to condemn others’.)

I also have to remember, when reading things like this, that we are to try and be like the LORD, and that nothing should be more important to us than Him. In Matthew 5 Jesus says this:

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27–30)

And in Luke 14 he says:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

(Luke 14:25–35)

I had just started to quote the first part of this—if you love your parents or your spouse or your children more than you love God, you can’t be Christ’s disciple—and then realized that the rest applies, too. The point is that you are to love God more than anything else—or, as I’m saying here, that trying to be like Him should be more important than anything else—which is related to the act of worship, and of glorifying Him—so you need to count the cost. If you can’t do that, then it would be foolish to try and become a Christian. Similarly, the Israelites were to wipe out the other nations, lest the sin of those nations would tempt the Israelites into sin, too.

To which I would add—and I don’t think I’m going beyond what Christ is saying—that nobody can meet these requirements, which is where Grace comes into play. I don’t live up to these requirements, but Jesus did, and since his righteousness has been imparted to me, it’s as if I meet these requirements. I find this even more mind-boggling than the subject of war in the Old Testament. Or maybe not mind-boggling; maybe just guilt-inducing, since I don’t deserve the grace that has been bestowed upon me.

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