Returning to our study of the book of Deuteronomy, we engage with chapter 20 and with the laws regarding warfare.
This chapter is divided by several movements focused on mustering an army to combat and the treatment of defeated enemies.
The ultimate loyalty of the people to Yahweh is necessary if they are going to prevail in battle against any of their enemies. Fear—and this is going to sound so much like Yoda—of ones enemies is to give them power. The loyal Israelite fears only the God of Israel. The declaration of the priest demonstrates this.
There are several conditions which exclude an Israelite from service in times of war, and in two categories. Rushdoony classifies the first as, “those whose minds are distracted and preoccupied by their affairs at home…”(1) Those “distractions” are:
- An undedicated house. Given the fact that these laws are cast in preparation for occupation of the promised land, the building of a new home would be a significant achievement. The fact that the person is excluded from military service because of the fact that he has built a home that he would not be liable to enjoy is a significant exclusion.
- A new vineyard. Since, under the Levitical code, the first four yields of fruit trees were dedicated to the LORD, and so the person would not be able to enjoy the fruit of his labor until the fifth, this is also a significant exclusion.
- A new wife. A man was entitled to a deferment of one year for getting married in an effort to produce a potential heir to inherit his goods.
These three deferments seem to focus on certain idealisms present in the Hebrew mindset. A wife, a home, and a productive crop were signs of God’s blessings and to protect the honor of men in a competitive society.(2)
The second category are those whose, “presence in the army is a threat to their fellow soldiers.”(3) These would be those described as “fearful and faint hearted.” “Fear can spread like an infection if left unchecked. should be understood theologically and not psychologically. This battle is not for “the brave,” but for those who trust YHWH (see Judg 7:3). Those who do not submit to the reassuring sovereignty of YHWH have no place in YHWH’s combat.”(4)
The actual practice of warfare in the Israelite context was to be one of seeking peace with their enemies. These practices were not to be extended to the “people of the land” who were under God’s immediate judgment, but these were to be those “very far away” (v15). Israel was clearly to operate defensively once they had control of the promised land. God had given them Canaan and they were expected to maintain it and not to set about expanding their frontiers as conquerors. Peace and terms for peace were to be sought first. Only after these efforts were exhausted was actual combat to be sought. (5)
When peace could not be achieved, then the Israelites were to destroy the ability of their enemies to cause them any more trouble. The troubling element for many in that the women and children are considered spoils of war. There is a certain harshness in this, namely that it may imply that male children who had been weaned would be perceived as a potential threat and may have been killed, while nursing children, male and female, would have received protection. The question is, what did this mean would happen to these people? Would they be treated simply as slaves, or would they receive better treatment, even adoption into the people of Israel? (6) This section is silent on that matter, but there may be hints in other texts, not necessarily covered in the law specifically.
Here a clear distinction is made between two areas: those cities far away and those near, that is the cities inhabited by those under God’s immediate judgment and those not. The nations that inhabited Canaan were under God’s indictment. V17, uses a specific construction that implies that the entirety of the cities, both people and goods, was to be considered as an offering to God himself, in regard to specific sins, and placed under a curse. These people had done terrible things and no quarter was to be given and no mercy was to be shown because of their wickedness and debauchery.
This law should be seen in contrast to ancient practice in warfare. Typical practice was to eradicate any potential food source for an enemy, however, this law specifically forbids such action. Only trees that did not produce anything edible were to be used in perpetuating a siege. The ancient ways of war inflicted that war against the entirety of the land. God’s method of warfare only focused on the offenders.
In looking at these laws, we may often perceive them as harsh, but we must keep in mind that warfare is not a pleasant activity. Modern warfare is no longer conducted on the battlefield, in a man-to-man situation, but is now conducted from control rooms on the other side of the world, by drones and planes. Man has tried to wash his hands of the ugliness of combat only succeeding to become more brutal because his disconnection from the acts of war. Let us not judge the commands of God towards his people, in their time, with their means, without first being prepared to judge ourselves more harshly.
- Rousas J. Rushdoony. Commentaries on the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy. Chalcedon Publishing. Valencia, CA. 2008. p 294.
- Walter Brueggemann. Abingdon Old Testament Commentary Series: Deuteronomy. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. 2001. p 210.
- Rushdoony. p 294
- Brueggeman. p 210
- Ibid. p 211
- Paul Copan argues that these would have been inducted into the people, writing, “Rather than being outcasts or the low woman on the totem pole, women captured in war could become integrated into Israelite society through marriage.” (Excerpt From: Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Baker Publishing. Grand Rapids, MI. 2011. p 179.)