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Daniel Block: Having dealt with personal violence in chapter 19, Moses now shifts the focus to corporate violence, the violence of war. The placement of these instructions immediately after the lex talionis (“the principle of retaliation”) suggests that in warfare even soldiers must recognize the limits of violence, and the state for whom one is fighting must respect this principle when dealing with the enemy. Against the backdrop of Moses’ instructions on how to pursue righteousness in the internal affairs of the nation (16:18–19:21), he now instructs the Israelites on pursuing righteousness in external relationships.

Gerald Gerbrandt: Israel knew and understood war. For Israel, war was not some theoretical notion or report on the news but an ever-present reality, always accompanied by hunger, humiliation, and death. The small nation-states to the east of the Mediterranean (Israel, Edom, Moab, and Syria) regularly had conflicts with each other. And there was always the threat that one of the superpowers of the day (Babylon or Assyria to the northeast, or Egypt to the south) would impose its will on the land, wreaking havoc as it exercised its power over the region, or simply passing through it on its way to confront another superpower. The Northern Kingdom ended when Assyria captured Samaria, carrying away as captives many of its citizens (722 bce); and the Southern Kingdom ended when Babylon sacked Jerusalem, taking many of its people into exile (587 bce).

Deuteronomy comes out of a world at war: its audience knows what war is like firsthand. Recognizing this is necessary so we can grasp what the passage is really about rather than becoming caught up with what strikes us on the surface.

Chapter 20 consists of three distinct sections introduced by the identical when/ if you, followed by an imperfect second-person masculine singular verb, intended as a collective to the people as a whole. The same construction is used in 21:10 and 23:10, marking these five passages as a series dealing with war. The first unit presents the basic logic or principles of Israelite war (20:1–9). The second section addresses how Israel is to treat its enemies, first those far from you (20:10–14), then those within the land (20:15–18). The last part of Chapter 20 introduces an unusual consideration for the trees of a besieged town (20:19–20).

Thomas Constable: God’s people should conduct their spiritual warfare confident in God’s presence, power, and ultimate victory (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3-4; Ephesians 6:10-17; Colossians 2:15).


A. (:1-4) Exhortation by the Priest Not to Fear Strong Enemies but Depend on God

1. (:1) Because of the Presence of the Lord with You

“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 them; for the LORD your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you.”

Daniel Block: Arguing from greater to lesser, he reassures Israel that if Yahweh could liberate them by defeating the superior Egyptians, his presence will surely guarantee victory against the Canaanites.

2. (:2-4) Because of the Power of the Lord to Fight for You

“Now it shall come about that when you are approaching the battle, the priest shall come near and speak to the people. 3 And he shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, you are approaching the battle against your enemies today. Do not be fainthearted. Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, 4 for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.’”

Duane Christensen: It is when God’s people step forward in his strength that things happen. In vv 1–4, it is clear that the soldiers of ancient Israel were not a mighty military force. They needed someone to encourage them by reminding them that it is God’s enabling presence in their midst that brings victory in the battles of life (v 2). The key to success for them, and for us today, is to realize afresh that God’s strength is made present in our weakness. As the apostle Paul once put it, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Paul knew this by experience as God revealed that his strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:1–13). Our culture cries out: “Be independent! Stand on your own two feet!” God’s word tells us to increase our dependence on God; for when we increase our independence, we accomplish only what we can accomplish alone. When we learn true dependence on God, nothing is impossible (Matt 17:20; Luke 1:37).

Gerald Gerbrandt: In the face of fear that is only natural when confronting a stronger enemy, with language reminding the people of God’s exclusive claim upon them, Israel is encouraged to trust and not be afraid since it is God who gives victory.

B. (:5-7) Exhortation by the Officers Not to be Distracted by Other Obligations but Be Fully Committed

“The officers also shall speak to the people, saying,”

Most commentators take these exceptions or military deferments to be reasonable concessions to allow God’s people to live in the blessing of God’s promises and not suffer the futility of being deprived of life’s blessings. They point to the example of Gideon following the Lord’s instructions to pare down the number of forces so that God will get the glory for the victory. But I disagree. Something negative is going on here. God has promised victory – so the warriors should not be fearful of defeat and death. The males involved in these areas of exemption would be of prime fighting age and should be taking the leadership in the invasion campaigns. They are being dismissed from the battle because they cannot be fully committed as they should be. Look at Christ’s condemnation of similar excuses in Luke 14:15-35 as He teaches on counting the cost of discipleship and full commitment to Him.

Duane Christensen: The law on preparing the army for battle focuses on four grounds for military deferral: three in cases of persons with new commitments that distract them (i.e., new houses, new vineyards, and newlyweds), and a fourth for those who are afraid, lest their fear spread panic among the rest of the troops.

Eugene Merrill: The concessions and exemptions that follow (vv. 5-9) are not so much prompted by compassion (though that is not altogether lacking) as by the desire for singlemindedness on the part of those who bear arms. It is a well-attested fact that fear or preoccupation in the midst of conflict can endanger the life not only of the person afflicted by it but also the person’s compatriots. Far better for a few who are wholly committed than for sheer multitudes of hangers-on where the well-being of the community is involved. But there may also be an undercurrent here of that same spirit that later was manifest in the paring down of Gideon’s army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred men. This was done so that Israel might not boast “that her own strength has saved her” (Judg 7:2). In line with holy war, once more, it was to be clear to all observers that battles were won because of the power and presence of the Lord and not because of human prowess.

Peter Pett: He begins by warning against fear of the enemy. That is always a great problem in war. But he points out that for them that is foolishness, for Yahweh, the God of battle, the Man of war (Exodus 15:3), has promised to be with them. He assures them that before they have to fight each battle Yahweh’s own representative, ‘the Priest’, will encourage them prior to the battle, assuring them that Yahweh is fighting alongside them. He then goes on to deal with the fighting speech that would come before all battles, in which an offer would always be made to anyone who so wished that they withdraw before battle commenced. If they did not wish to fight, Yahweh would not require it of them (compare Judges 7:2-8). So when they fought it would be because they had chosen to do so. No response would probably be expected to the offer, for none would want to be branded a coward, but it made all feel that they were acting together as one as willing volunteers.

1. (:5b) Military Deferment for Distraction over Material Possessions

“Who is the man that has built a new house and has not dedicated it?

Let him depart and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it.”

2. (:6) Military Deferment for Distractions over Agricultural Pursuits

“And 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, lest he die in the battle and another man begin to use its fruit.”

3. (:7) Military Deferment for Distractions over New Marriage Commitments

“And who is the man that is engaged to a woman and has not married her?

Let him depart and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man marry her.”

C. (:8-9) Final Preparations for Battle

1. (:8) Dismiss the Fearful

“Then the officers shall speak further to the people, and they shall 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.’”

Peter Craigie: The best possible army was the one wholly committed to God and absolutely confident in his strength and ability for the battle lying ahead of the army. . .

fear in an army is like an infectious plague, which can quickly cripple the ranks with its debilitating effect. The strength of the army, it is true, lay in God’s presence; but to experience God’s presence in battle, the people were to be wholly committed to him, and fear undermined the wholeness of commitment.

2. (:9) Delegate Leadership under Appropriate Commanders

“And it shall come about that when the officers have finished speaking to the people,

they shall appoint commanders of armies at the head of the people.”

Daniel Block: Verse 9 is transitional, describing the final stage in preparing soldiers for war. After the “officers” have delivered their speeches, and after those with legitimate reasons for exemption and those who are fearful have returned home, the officials are to appoint “commanders” to lead the army into battle.

Duane Christensen: The commanders of the army that is on the move to engage the enemy in battle should be selected from the ranks of the faithful who are willing to give God’s work their undivided attention and commitment.


A. (:10-15) Terms of Engagement for Distant Cities –

Goal of Dominion Rather than Total Extermination

1. (:10) War Must be a Last Resort

“When you approach a city to fight against it,

you shall offer it terms of peace.”

John Dummelow: War is to be regarded as the last resort, and only to be employed when negotiations for peace have been tried and failed. In the event of victory, only the fighting men are to be put to death; women and children are to be spared, except in the case of neighbouring idolatrous tribes.

2. (:11) Dominion is the Goal

“And it shall come about, if it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then it shall be that all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you.”

3. (:12-14) Conquest Must Also Demonstrate Restraint

a. (:12) Fully Engage Where Necessary

“However, if it does not make peace with you,

but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it.”

b. (:13) Follow up on God’s Gift of Victory by Eliminating All Opposition

“When the LORD your God gives it into your hand,

you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword.”

c. (:14) Forbear from Total Destruction

“Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you.”

4. (:15) Pattern Holds Only for Distant Cities

“Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby.”

Peter Craigie: This relatively humane approach to military conquest was only to apply to the cities at some distance from the land, which it was Israel’s first duty to acquire.

B. (:16-18) Terms of Engagement for Cities of the Promised Land –

Goal of Total Extermination

1. (:16) Extermination of All Life is the Goal

“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.”

Daniel Block: The policy demands the slaughter of the entire human population of the Canaanite towns. Whereas the women and children of distant towns that reject Israel’s peaceful overtures are to be spared, in the cities of the land Yahweh is giving to Israel as their grant (naḥalâ), nothing “that breathes” is to survive. Towns in the Promised Land proper are to be treated even more severely than the towns east of the Jordan had been (cf. 2:34–35; 3:4–7). . .

the ḥērem policy was driven by religious rather than genocidal or military considerations: the need to “keep Yahweh’s holy people free from syncretism and idolatry.” For Israel, implementing ḥērem on a town not only secured its absolute transfer to the divine sphere; it was also intended to secure Israel’s survival. At the level of the material, it prevented Israelites from contamination by contact with the “devoted” articles, which would have brought them under the same curse and subject to destruction (7:25–26). At the level of the spirit, it cut off the possibility of the Canaanites teaching the Israelites their abominable religious practices (cf. 12:30–31; 13:1–18[2–19]; 18:9).

2. (:17) Extermination of the Designated Idolatrous Nations is the Goal

“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,”

3. (:18) Elimination of the Temptation of Idolatry is the Goal

“in order 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.”


A. (:19) Spare the Fruit Trees

“When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, 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. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?”

B. (:20) Construct Siegeworks from the Non-Fruit Trees

“Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut

down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.”

Daniel Block: The expression reflects human subsistence from fruit trees and represents an idiomatic way of saying, “Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” or “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” The trees symbolize life. Since the Israelites will have conquered the fields around the besieged city and eventually will occupy the city, it is contrary to self-interest ruthlessly to cut down the orchards around the city.

Gerald Gerbrandt: God has created the trees also, so they should not be destroyed needlessly. The passage does reflect an ecological restraint, a concern for God’s creation. This concern is so significant that the normal tendency of war to become unconditional is placed under an external limitation.

Eugene Merrill: The real thrust of the passage, however, is to contrast the tree with humankind (v. 19b). It is only humans, ironically the image of God and the crowning glory of creation, who sin against the Creator in such egregious ways as to call upon themselves divine judgment. The innocent tree, tainted as it is by the fall of humankind, is nevertheless not culpable and should therefore be spared. No more graphic depiction of the awful calamity brought by sin could be imagined.