Deuteronomy 20
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Of War—Three Laws

These laws, Deuteronomy 20:1-19 f., separate 19 from Deuteronomy 21:1-9 (both of manslaughter) and are in phrase and substance akin to Deuteronomy 21:10-14 and Deuteronomy 23:9-14, cp. Deuteronomy 24:5. All are in the Sg. address, have similar introductions, and, while some breathe the humane spirit prevalent in D’s code, all work on the same primitive beliefs in the sacredness of war and the consequent need of eliminating from the army, from its treatment of captives and from the spoil and the camps, all that might incur the wrath of either a people’s god or some other supernatural power. Like other groups in the Code they are not an exhaustive treatment of their subject; they contain nothing as to the rites due on starting a campaign, or the place of the king in the host, or the materials or moneys to be levied, or the mercenary soldiers, who from David’s time onwards were an organised part of Israel’s forces.

As we saw on the ḥerem, Deuteronomy 2:34, War was to the settled Semites a religious process. A people’s army was led by their god and a campaign conducted throughout as a sacrament; cp. the Moabite Stone, the Assyr. and Babyl. inscriptions and Ezekiel 21:21 f. Israel’s God was Jehovah of Hosts, a name earlier than the prophets’ cosmical use of it and signifying originally God of the armies of Israel (Bk of the Twelve Prophets i. 57, n. 1), a man of war (Exodus 15:3, cp. Deuteronomy 14:14, Psalm 24:8); and the symbol of His Presence the Ark went with the army to battle (1 Samuel 4:3 f., Deuteronomy 14:18, 2 Samuel 11:11). A campaign was opened with burnt-offerings and enquiry was made of the Deity, with the consequent presence of priests (Jdg 6:20; Jdg 6:26; Jdg 20:26, 1 Samuel 4:3 f., 1 Samuel 7:9, 1 Samuel 13:10 ff., 1 Samuel 14:18 f., 1 Samuel 23:4; 1 Samuel 23:6; 1 Samuel 23:9; 1 Samuel 30:7 ff.). To prepare war (EVV.) is literally to consecrate it (Mi. Deuteronomy 3:5, Jeremiah 6:4, Joel 3:9; armies were consecrated for war (Jeremiah 22:7; Jeremiah 51:27 f., Isaiah 13:3) and the individual soldiers kept themselves from ritual uncleanness (1 Samuel 21:5, 2 Samuel 11:6 f.), as among the Arabs (W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem.2 455), while those who had not completed propitiatory or other rites involved by other relations or occupations were ruled out of the ranks (Deuteronomy 20:5 ff.). Contact with foreign captives or spoil, devoted as these had been to other deities, involved danger which was only averted by drastic rites such as we have seen in connection with the ḥerem. In the warfare of some nomad Semites there is an almost entire absence of religious acts (see Dissard’s sketch of the tribe of ‘Amr, Revue Biblique 1905, No. 3). But the holy man of the tribe is consulted as to the proper day for commencing war and may thus by his wisdom avert it (Jennings-Bramley PEFQ 1907, 280). The ‘Higa̅,’ the poem frequently delivered on their outset to battle, was probably developed from the solemn curses which poets were called upon (like Balaam) to pronounce upon the foe (Goldziher, Abhandlungen z. Ar. Philologie i. (1896), 1–121; Jacob, Altar. Beduinenleben, 202). See further O. C. Whitehouse, art. ‘War’ in E.B., Nowack and Benzinger’s works on Heb. Archaeology, Schwally, Semit. Kriegsalterthumer (rich in material but with many unsatisfactory inferences); and ch. xix. of Johns’ Bab. and Assyr. Laws, etc.—Cp. the belief of the Puritans: ‘Times of War should be times of Reformation’ (M. Henry).

In these laws of D religion is seen sometimes mitigating and sometimes enhancing the ferocity of War.

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.
1. When thou goest forth to war, etc.] So Deuteronomy 21:10, cp. Deuteronomy 23:9 (10). On go forth see Deuteronomy 13:13 (14). Enemies, so Sam. LXX; Heb. enemy (but collective).

and seest horses, and chariots] Foreign to early Israel, see on Deuteronomy 17:16 Joshua 17:16, Jdg 1:19; Jdg 4:3.

and a people more than thou, thou shalt not, etc.] So Sam. LXX, Heb. omits and. On the rest see Deuteronomy 7:17 ff.

the Lord thy God is with thee] Cp. Deuteronomy 1:30; Deuteronomy 1:42, Deuteronomy 7:21, Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 8:8.

which brought thee up] instead of the usual brought thee forth, Deuteronomy 7:19, etc. Was it on the strength of this verse that Josiah adventured on his fatal encounter with Pharaoh-Necoh in 612 b.c.?

1–9. Of War and Exemptions from Service in it

When Israel goes to war with a foe more numerous and having horses and chariots they shall not fear; Jehovah is with them (Deuteronomy 20:1). On the eve of the campaign a priest shall exhort the people (Deuteronomy 20:2-4). Officers shall discharge every man who has built a house and not dedicated it (Deuteronomy 20:5), or planted a vineyard but not completed the rites opening its fruits to common use (Deuteronomy 20:6), or betrothed a wife but not taken her (Deuteronomy 20:7); and all who are faint-hearted (Deuteronomy 20:8). This done captains shall be appointed (Deuteronomy 20:9).—In the Sg. address except for Deuteronomy 20:2 a, where, however, LXX has Sg. and the Heb. Pl. is due to the attraction of the vbs in the priest’s speech to the ranks, in which the Pl. address is natural.

Thus Steuern.’s allotment of this part to his. Pl. author loses one of its reasons. His other, the use in Deuteronomy 20:2 of the people instead of Israel, common in Sg. passages, is not relevant to a quotation which besides has not the usual Pl. phrase for fearing (see on Deuteronomy 1:29); while his suggestion that Deuteronomy 20:1 is borrowed from Deuteronomy 21:10, Deuteronomy 23:9 (10), and Deuteronomy 7:17 and so editorial, is ungrounded. It is more natural to take Deuteronomy 20:2-4 as secondary (so Berth. and Marti) because of the Plurals, because they repeat Deuteronomy 20:1, and because the priest appears in them alone (Berth.: from a time when there was no king but a high-priest in Israel). Yet even this is doubtful; for (as we have seen) the Pl. in Deuteronomy 20:2 a is accidental, while the presence of a priest at the opening of a campaign, attended by sacrifices and oracles, was to be expected, and is confirmed for the time of the Judges and early Monarchy by such passages as Jdg 20:26, 1 Samuel 4:3 f., 1 Samuel 14:18 f., etc.

I see, therefore, no reason for doubting the unity and originality of the whole passage.

Exemptions from war-service are granted by most Asiatic powers, but their range varies much from time to time. In Palestine the Turks used to let an only son and widows’ sons go free, and for a time every married man. Later service was obligatory upon all except Christians and the tent-dwelling Arabs (Baldensperger PEFQ, 1906, 18). Recently Christians have been obliged to serve.

And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people,
2. when ye draw nigh] LXX thou drawest nigh: see introd. note.

to the war] Not battle. The captains had still to be appointed (Deuteronomy 20:9) and this must have taken place at the start of the campaign, not on the eve of engagement with the foe.

the priest] Or (it may equally be) a priest: see introd.

Hear, O Israel] Deuteronomy 4:1; here as there with Pl. vbs following.

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;
3. fear not, etc.] neither the standing phrase of Pl. nor that of Sg.: see on Deuteronomy 1:29.

For the LORD your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.
4. to save you] Better, to give you the victory.

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.
5. officers] shoṭerîm, Deuteronomy 1:15, Deuteronomy 16:18.

a new house … not dedicated] The vb is used of the dedication of the Temple, 1 Kings 8:63 = 2 Chronicles 7:5, but nowhere else in the O.T. is there any mention of the dedication of a private house. (A.V. of title to Psalms 30 is misleading.) At the present day in Syria, when a house is built a goat or sheep is slain and the blood stamped (often by the open hand) on the door or walls, as the present writer has seen in Moab and elsewhere: cp. Doughty Ar. Des. i. 136, W. R. Smith Rel. Sem. 133 f., Musil, Moab, 372, Ethn. Ber. 417. The sacrifice propitiates the spirits of the disturbed soil. To leave for war without fulfilling such rites was regarded as fatal; see Schwally, 91 f., who quotes as parallel Iliad ii. 698 f.: Protesilaus, the first Greek slain by the Trojans, had left his house unfinished. That such a superstition prevailed in Israel is probable, but by the addition and another man dedicate it, D’s motive for this law is shown to be rather one of humanity.

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.
6. not used the fruit thereof] As in Deuteronomy 28:30 EVV. paraphrase the Heb. ḥalal, a ritual term for bringing into common use. In the 5th year after planting the vine, one might use the fruits which in the 4th were reserved for the Deity, and for the three previous years were left alone. See Leviticus 19:23 ff.

And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.
7. that hath betrothed, etc.] Cp. Deuteronomy 24:5, exempting the newly-married from service for a year. The reason can hardly be that he was unclean for, as in the case of other married men, this obstacle could be removed (2 Samuel 11:6 f.). Evidently the motive is humane, in the wife’s interests, or in order to secure descendants to the man himself.

And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart.
8. shall speak further] The change in the formula is no proof that this is a later addition to the law (as Steuern. avers).

fearful and fainthearted] It is true that such were also supposed to be possessed by evil spirits (Schwally). For a Celtic analogy see Scott’s Fair Maid of Perth, in which Conacher’s timidity is attributed by his foster-father to possession. But there is no evidence of such a superstition here. The rule is rather in sympathy with this Book’s constant insistence upon whole-hearted devotion in the service of God. In no direction of life is He content with less. Cp. Jdg 7:3.

lest his brethren’s heart, etc.] ‘Fear is catching.’ (M. Henry.)

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.
9. they shall appoint] They, not necessarily the officers of the previous clause, but indefinite: those whose duty it is to appoint, or the people as a whole. Cp. 1Ma 3:55 f.

captains of hosts] The chiefs of the main divisions, cp. 1 Kings 2:5. These are not appointed till the host has been sifted of all whom it was not proper to allow to accompany it, because the exemptions apply to all ranks. With these rules for sifting the host, cp. Cromwell’s measures with the recruits for his Ironsides.

When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.
10. When thou drawest nigh] Cp. Deuteronomy 20:2.

to fight against it] With another preposition the same vb is used of attacking or besieging a city, Jdg 9:45, 1 Samuel 23:1, etc.

proclaim peace unto it] Jdg 21:13. Negotiations between enemies on the eve of battle were frequent (e.g. Jdg 11:12-18, 1 Kings 20:2 ff.) and it cannot have been unusual for besiegers to offer to the besieged their lives on condition of surrender (2 Kings 18:28 ff.). For a case among the Arabs see Doughty Ar. Des. II. 429.

The humanity here enjoined by D must be estimated in the light of the ḥerem, according to which for religious reasons heathen enemies were never to be spared. The injunction therefore is not so much a mitigation of the rigours common in Semitic warfare as a qualification of the religious zeal with which Israel (like Islam) fought their foes. For an instance in which after a siege had begun a Jewish besieger listened favourably to the petitions of the besieged see 1Ma 13:43 ff. (Simon at Gezer).

10–18. Of the Capture of Heathen Cities

Before besieging a city Israel shall offer peace, and if it surrenders its people shall be subject to service (Deuteronomy 20:10 f.). But if it will not, Israel shall lay siege, and having taken it, shall slay every male, but reserve women, children, cattle and spoil for booty (Deuteronomy 20:12-14), a milder form of the ḥerem; so in the case of distant cities. But of the cities of the land, nothing that breathes is to be saved; to this severest form of the ḥerem must all the seven nations be put (Deuteronomy 20:15-17), so that they teach not Israel their abominations (Deuteronomy 20:18).—In the Sg. address except for Deuteronomy 20:18, possibly an addition from Deuteronomy 7:4; Deuteronomy 7:25, etc.

Cornill’s opinion (Einl.3 26) that all of 15–18 is secondary is too drastic: it is a fundamental principle of D not to allow mercy where there is any risk thereby to the purity of Israel’s religion. Steuern.’s milder suggestion, that the formulas in 14 which Jehovah thy God has given thee and 16 which … is to give thee for an inheritance and the list of nations in 17 (so too Meyer, ZATW i. 135) are editorial, is possible. On the question whether the law implies the survival of Canaanites when it was written see Introd. § 11.

Characteristically D enjoins less rigorous measures in war than were usual at the time, but only when there is no danger of Israel being tempted by them to the worship of other gods. In modern Arab raids women and children are never touched and no prisoners are made. The men are killed if they defend their property or are left unharmed if they have nothing or are defenceless (Jennings-Bramley PEFQ 1908, 33; confirmed by other travellers). But Islam, like Israel, when waging war against peoples of another faith has not observed these equities.

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.
11. tributary] Heb. la-mas. Mas means a body of forced labourers, e.g. of Israelites in Egypt, Exodus 1:11, or of Solomon’s levies for work in Lebanon and upon his buildings, 1 Kings 5:13 (27), Deuteronomy 9:15; but frequently of the Canaanite peoples surviving among Israel, J, Joshua 16:10; Joshua 17:13, Jdg 1:30; Jdg 1:33; Jdg 1:35; while both J and P say that the Gibeonites who were admitted to league with Israel upon their statement that they had come from a distance, were, on the discovery of their fraud, condemned to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. Such forced labour was recognised as the natural fate of the defeated, Isaiah 31:8.

And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it:
12. But if it will make no peace with thee … thou shalt besiege, i.e. confine or blockade it.

And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
13. when the Lord thy God delivereth it] As to this D has no doubt.

thou shalt smite, etc.] See on Deuteronomy 2:34.

But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.
14. but] or only. Heb. rak, introducing exceptions. See on Deuteronomy 10:15.

the women, etc.] A mitigated form of the ḥerem—see on Deuteronomy 2:34—urged not only from motives of humanity but on utilitarian considerations.

take for a prey, etc.] Deuteronomy 2:35, Deuteronomy 3:7.

Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.
15. these nations] near or round Israel.

But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
16. But] Heb. rak, introducing an opposite case, see Deuteronomy 10:15.

thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth] Heb. any breath, i.e. human life (Genesis 2:7, 1 Kings 17:17, Isaiah 42:5), cp. the deuteronomic Joshua 10:40; Joshua 11:11; Joshua 11:14. Only in Genesis 7:22 does the phrase cover animals.

But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:
17. utterly destroy them] put them to the ḥerem in its severer form (see on Deuteronomy 2:34). But from the passages quoted above on tributary, Deuteronomy 20:11, we see that Israel did not put these nations to the ban but only to forced labour. Here D did not mitigate but aggravate the fate of the peoples conquered by Israel, and as Islam did, from religious motives.

the Hittite, etc.] Six nations, but LXX adds the missing seventh, the Girgashite. See on Deuteronomy 7:1.

as … commanded thee] may be an editorial addition founded on Deuteronomy 7:2; Deuteronomy 7:25, cp. Exodus 23:31-33.

That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.
18. The one Pl. passage in this law, see introd. note.

abominations] See on Deuteronomy 7:25, Deuteronomy 12:31, Deuteronomy 17:1.

19 f. Of Sparing the Fruit Trees in a Siege

In a prolonged siege, Israel, while eating of the besieged’s fruit-trees, shall not destroy them (Deuteronomy 20:19). Trees which do not yield food may be cut down for siege-works (Deuteronomy 20:20).—In the Sg. address.

The practice of cutting down the enemy’s fruit trees was common. Several Assyrian kings boast of it: cp. Tiglath Pileser iii. (quoted in E.B. 4512): ‘The plantations of palms which abutted on his rampart I cut down.’ Both Pompey and Titus cleared away the trees round Jerusalem, the latter for a distance of 90 stadia (Josephus VI. B.J. i. 1, viii. 1, v. B.J. iii. 2). Mohammed destroyed the palms of the Banu Nadir, and justified this in an oracle, Ḳuran lix. See also Doughty Ar. Des. i. 23.

On invading Moab Israel cut down the fruit-trees and stopped the wells, in obedience to a word of Jehovah by Elisha (2 Kings 3:19; 2 Kings 3:25). That prophet, therefore, and his biographer cannot have known of this law of D, which shows a real advance in the ethics of warfare.—Further on Sieges see O. C. Whitehouse art. ‘Siege’ in E.B.; Billerbeck, Festungsbau im Alten Orient.

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:
19. besiege … a long time] From this and build bulwarks in Deuteronomy 20:19, we see that Israel were already familiar with siege-operations and did not depend on carrying a city by immediate storm, as the nomad Semites were obliged to do or retire.

in making war against it to take it] Curiously redundant.

by wielding an axe against them] The vb as in Deuteronomy 19:5.

for thou mayest] Or, but. Even here a utilitarian reason is given.

for is the tree of the field man …?] or human. So according to LXX and other versions. The Heb. pointing, which omits the interrogative, gives no sense.

that it should be besieged of thee] Lit. that it should come into siege before thee: the technical phrase, 2 Kings 24:10; 2 Kings 25:2. Cp. our state of siege.

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.
20. bulwarks] Heb. maṣor, from the vb to besiege, therefore, siege-works, or circumvallation. See Micah 5:1 (Deuteronomy 4:14), Isaiah 29:3, Jeremiah 6:6, fell ye trees and heap up a wall against Jerusalem, cp Ezekiel 4:2, Jdg 9:46-49, 2 Samuel 20:15. Specimens of such works, of wicker and wood, are seen in Assyrian sculptures.

until it fall] Deuteronomy 28:52, Isaiah 32:19.

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