Deuteronomy 20:16
However, in the cities of the nations that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not leave alive anything that breathes.
Sermons
Religious WarsR.M. Edgar Deuteronomy 20:1-20
Forbearance and SeverityJ. Orr Deuteronomy 20:10-20
The Terrible Side of Human DutyD. Davies Deuteronomy 20:10-20
Extermination of CanaanitesMarcus Dods, D. D.Deuteronomy 20:16-18
The Command to Extirpate the CanaanitesL. H. Wiseman M. A.Deuteronomy 20:16-18
Unselfish ConquestF. D. Maurice, M. A.Deuteronomy 20:16-18
If these rules embody a severity happily rare in modern warfare, they also exhibit a forbearance which many modern nations might well learn from. We have here -

I. WAR'S HORRORS MITIGATED.

1. Peace was invariably to be offered before attack to a foreign city (vers. 10, 11). It is presumed that the war was just, and undertaken with the sanction of Jehovah. If peace was accepted, no one was to be injured, but only tribute imposed. The peacemaking spirit is pleasing to God (Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:18).

2. In the case of a city taken by storm, no women, children, or cattle were to be destroyed (ver. 14). The amount of self-restraint which this implies can only be appreciated after reading the accounts of warfare as anciently conducted. But we may get some light upon it by studying the horrors of the sack of a city, even in modern times, and under European, or even British, generalship (see histories of the Peninsular wars).

3. In the sparing of trees useful for food (ver. 19). War conducted on these principles, however severe in certain of its aspects, cannot be described as barbarous.

II. WAR'S SEVERITIES EXEMPLIFIED.

1. The resisting city, if foreign, was to be punished by the slaughter of its adult males (ver. 13). This, which sounds so harsh, was perhaps a necessity from the circumstances of the nation. It certainly typifies the "utter destruction" which shall fall on all resisting God's will, and placing themselves in an attitude of hostility to his kingdom on the earth.

2. The Canaanites were to be completely exterminated (vers. 16-18). This case differs from the other in being the execution of a judicial sentence, as well as an indispensable means to their own preservation against corruption (ver. 18). A general type of the fate which shall overtake the ungodly. - J.O.







Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.
Is not this fierce irruption in Canaan with fire and sword precisely similar to the wave of Mahomedan conquest? Is it any way different from the most pitiless of heathen invasions? How can we justify such an acquisition of territory as this, whilst we are, at least in theory, so scrupulous about adding one acre of unjustly acquired land to our dominions, and cannot let one drop of blood be shed, even in a conquered race, without inquiry? The key to this difficulty was given in the very first confirmation of the grant made to Abraham. When the land of Canaan was made over to him and his descendants, he was told that they could not at once enter on possession, "because the iniquity of the Amorites was not full." The transference of territory was thus from the first viewed and treated as a judicial transaction. God reserves to Himself the right which all sovereigns must and do reserve — the right of removing offenders from the earth, and of confiscating their goods. In other respects this invasion finds a parallel in almost every century of history, and in every part of the world. It is, in point of fact, by conquest that civilisation has spread and is spreading upon earth, and in the career of progress the nations whose iniquities are full — that is to say, which have fallen too low for national redemption — have been swept away by the purer and stronger races. In this, therefore, there is no difference between the conduct of Israel and the conduct of other great nations. The difference consists in this — that while other nations have pushed their conquests for love of gain or glory, or through pride in their leader or mere lust of adventure, Israel entered Canaan as God's servant, again and again warned that they were merely God's sword of justice, and that if they forgot this, and began to think it was their own might that had emptied the land for them, they should themselves suffer the like extermination. Between this and many other outwardly similar conquests there was, in short, all the difference which there is between a righteous execution which rejoices the hearts of all good men, and a murder which makes us ashamed of our nature.

(Marcus Dods, D. D.)

The difference between the Jews and other people is precisely this: — All the great nations that we read of have effected extensive and, on the whole, salutary conquests. Their triumphs have been the means of spreading law, government, civilisation, where they would otherwise not have reached. They have swept away feeble, corrupt, sensualised people, who had become animal worshippers or devil worshippers, and had lost all sense of their human dignity. But we feel that the nations who have done these works have done them in great part for their own glory, for the increase of their territory, at the instigation and for the gratification of particular leaders. All higher and more blessed results of their success, which it is impossible not to recognise, have been stained and corrupted by the ignoble and selfish tendencies which have mixed with them, and been the motives to them; so that we are continually perplexed with the question, what judgment we shall form of them, or what different causes we can find for such opposite effects. There is one nation which is taught from the very first that it is not to go out to win any prizes for itself, to bring home the silver or gold, the sheep or the oxen, the men servants or the women servants; that it is to be simply the instrument of the righteous Lord against those who were polluting His earth, and making it unfit for human habitation.

(F. D. Maurice, M. A.)

This command to extirpate the Canaanites is regarded by many as one of the chief difficulties in the Old Testament. The difficulty lies not so much in the thing itself, as in our defective views of God, or of mail's relation to Him, or of the supernatural character of the revelation made to Moses. The objection, it will be observed, is grounded (or it has no force) upon the supposed inconsistency of this command with the Divine righteousness and equity. Yet there are other acts of God, equally terrible and equally indiscriminate in their effects, which we never presume to call in question. When, for example, the Almighty sends an earthquake or a pestilence, there is no complaint of injustice; and yet earthquake and pestilence spare neither age nor sex nor rank, but involve all in the same ruin. Do fire or famine or cholera discriminate between the sexes, or spare the aged or the young? If the sword of Israel was commissioned to destroy all that breathed of the Canaanites, it certainly was not more indiscriminate than these other judgments of God. If we dare not assert or even insinuate injustice in the case of the one, neither can we rationally do so in the case of the other; nor can we deny to the Almighty the right to choose this or that method of chastising a guilty people, whether earthquake or famine, pestilence or war. We may further remember that the annihilation of a people is so far from being a new or an unexampled occurrence, that similar events in the overruling wisdom of God have been continually taking place ever since the dawn of history. For an example of it we need not travel beyond our own shores. Where are the original inhabitants of England? The Briton was subdued by the Saxon, the Saxon was driven out by the Norman and the Dane, each race leaving, however, some trace of itself in the stock and blood of the country. Yet the original race has been more completely extirpated than ever the Canaanitish races were during the Hebrew occupancy of Palestine. Still more complete has been the disappearance of the North American Indians. The red man has been driven farther and farther towards the setting sun, till the race seems threatened with absolute extermination, and is actually extinct over an area twenty times as great as that of Palestine. It appears to be an unvarying law, that the savage recedes before the civilised man. We cannot justify all the means by which this result is accomplished, or palliate the dark and monstrous crimes which have been perpetrated in the name of civilisation; yet it is an evident fact that the Ruler of nations is pleased to ordain, or to permit, that nations should be driven from their ancestral inheritance, and their places filled by others. Thus we see that what happened to the Canaanites is happening continually in the history of nations. In this view the phenomenon of the destruction of the Canaanite nations does not stand alone. It can be referred to a class. And there is no more ground for disputing the Divine justice in regard to the destruction of those people than in regard to the disappearance of scores and perhaps hundreds of other ancient races from the face of the earth; for it cannot be contended that there is any difference, as it regards justice and equity, whether a nation be extirpated by war, destroyed by famine or pestilence, or left to perish, like the aborigines of Australia, by hopeless and helpless exhaustion.

(L. H. Wiseman M. A.)

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