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Deeper Commentary

Deu 20:1 When you go forth to battle against your enemies and see horses, chariots and a people more than you, you must not be afraid of them-
The implication is that Israel would repeatedly be the smaller force in their battles. But this must be squared with Ex. 12:37. Hebrew word translated as "thousand" can mean a family, or some other administrative division. Many of the 'number problems' in the Hebrew Bible are only really resoluble using this approach. And that may be in view in the census of Israel taken in Num. 1, and in the statement that six hundred 'thousands' of footmen left Egypt (Ex. 12:37). The census of Num. 1 gives figures such as those in Num. 1:21 for Reuben, which could be rendered: "forty six families ['thousands'] and five hundred (men)". Although a "hundred" might also refer to an administrative division. The total in Num. 1 would then be 598 families with a total of 5550 men. The sum given in the second census in Num. 26 comes out as roughly the same, with 596 families amounting to 5730 men. On this basis, the total population (including women and children) would be anything between 20,000 to 40,000. This would enable us to make better sense of the statements that Israel were the smallest numerically of all the surrounding peoples (Dt. 7:1,7; 11:23; 20:1). If we insist upon taking "thousand" literally in Ex. 12:37, then 600,000 male foot soldiers would imply a total population of between two and six million. The population density would have been intense, and far greater than that of many modern nations. Estimates of global population at the time suggest it was only about 40 million, and the population of Egypt was a maximum of three million (probably far less). If the Israelites were smaller than the other nations, and they numbered say 5 million, then the total population of the seven peoples of Canaan would have been at least 40 million. The territory of Canaan could not have supported such numbers. Only 70 Israelites came into Egypt with Jacob. Expansion over 430 years to several million is not realistic. This approach helps us better understand how all the men of war marched around Jericho (Josh. 6:3). If there were literally 600,000 men then the city would have had to be many kilometers in circumference for them all to march around it seven times in one day. Archaeological evidence from Jericho simply doesn't support the idea of such a vast city. If Israel numbered say 5 million people, and recall there was also a "mixed multitude" with them, then if they marched 10 abreast this would require a column stretching around 1000 kilometers. Their promises to Edom and the Amorites to march only along a highway and not spill over it (Num. 20:17; 21:22) is unrealistic if they had such huge numbers. A figure of 600 family units leaving Egypt is more realistic; otherwise we start to wonder how ever all the Israelites, millions of them, came to be in one place at one time on Passover night.

For Yahweh your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt-
The great works of Yahweh which He showed at the time of their exodus from Egypt (cp. the world) and baptism at the Red Sea were in essence repeated throughout their wilderness journey (Dt. 7:19). Therefore whenever they faced discouragement and an apparent blockage to their way, they were to remember how God had redeemed them at their baptism, and to realize that in fact His work was still ongoing with them (Dt. 20:1). He told them in the desert that He was "Yahweh that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 11:45). Therefore the overcoming of Edom, Moab and the Canaanite tribes is described in language lifted from the Red Sea record (e.g. Ex. 15:15-17). Throughout their history, Israel were reminded that what God had done for them in their Red Sea deliverance He was continuing to do, and therefore all their enemies would likewise perish if they remained God's people (e.g. Is. 43:16).

Deuteronomy speaks time and again of how Israel's Red Sea baptism [cp. ours] was to be the basis for their daily living; the fact they had been redeemed from the world by 'baptism' was to inspire them in every aspect of spiritual endeavour. Because they had been brought out of Egypt, therefore they were to keep the Sabbath, not worship idols, be obedient, witness to the surrounding nations, disfellowship false teachers who would take them back to Egypt, and especially, it was to motivate them to the faith that they could overcome all obstacles in their path to the promised land (Dt. 20:1). For those raised Christian, this sense of deliverance from the world and entering the body of Christ through baptism must be hard. But it is nonetheless true for you as it is for the hardest living worldling.

Deu 20:2 When you draw near to the battle, the priest shall approach and speak to the people-
He foresaw how they would see horses and chariots and get frightened; such was Moses’ sensitivity to his people. There is a parallel between the people drawing near to battle, and the priest drawing near to the people. As their fears approached, so the comfort of God was to approach them.

Deu 20:3 and tell them, Hear, Israel, you draw near this day to battle against your enemies; don’t let your heart faint; don’t be afraid or tremble, neither be scared of them-
The Lord applies these words to us (Jn. 14:1,2). Fear is always the antithesis of faith. God is often called an "awesome God" (Dt. 7:21 etc.). The Hebrew word for "awesome" is that for 'fear' (s.w. Gen. 3:10; 15:1; 18;15 etc.). The idea is that God's people are to be in such fear / awe of Him that they fear / are in awe of nothing else. Hence Dt. 7:21 says that Israel should "not be scared of" their enemies, because their God is "awesome", He is the one to be feared. 

Deu 20:4 for Yahweh your God goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to save you-
Like Paul in his time of dying, Moses in Deuteronomy saw the importance of obedience, the harder side of God; yet he also saw in real depth the surpassing love of God, and the grace that was to come, beyond Law. This appreciation reflected Moses' mature grasp of the Name / characteristics of God. He uses the name "Yahweh" in Deuteronomy over 530 times, often with some possessive adjective, e.g. "Yahweh thy God" [AV- i.e. you singular], or "Yahweh our God". He saw the personal relationship between a man and his God. Jacob reached a like realization at his peak.

Deu 20:5 The officers must speak to the people saying, Any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it, let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it-
Dt. 20:5-7 commanded that in time of battle, those who had just recently married, bought a new house or planted a new vineyard- should not go to the battle. But these are the very kind of reasons which the Lord Jesus alludes to in Lk. 14 as the reasons given by some for not going and working for Him. This connection not only shows that He is in a sense far more demanding than the Old Covenant was. But what the Old Covenant considered a legitimate excuse for not going to battle- He does not. And even appears to condemn those who take such ways out. Truly He is a demanding Lord. All must be for Him, and any earlier ways of legitimizing or making respectable anything less than total commitment to Him must be rejected. In this He was indeed the demanding Lord- although He had and has every right to be.

Deu 20:6 Any man who has planted a vineyard and has not eaten its fruit, let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man eat its fruit-
The Lord likened His preachers to men reaping a harvest. He speaks of how they fulfilled the proverb that one sows and another reaps (Jn. 4:37,38). Yet this ‘proverb’ has no direct Biblical source. What we do find in the Old Testament is the repeated idea that if someone sows but another reaps, this is a sign that they are suffering God’s judgment for their sins (Dt. 20:6; 28:30; Job 31:8; Mic. 6:15). But the Lord turns around the ‘proverb’ concerning Israel’s condemnation; He makes it apply to the way that the preacher / reaper who doesn’t sow is the one who harvests others in converting them to Him. Surely His implication was that His preacher-reapers were those who had known condemnation for their sins, but on that basis were His humbled harvesters in the mission field.

Deu 20:7 Any man who has pledged to be married to a wife and has not taken her, let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her-
Often the parables of the Lord Jesus warn that those who think He will understand their weakness, those who are too familiar with His softer side. The parable of the great supper records men explaining to Christ why they can't immediately respond to Him, although they want to when it's more convenient: "I have bought a piece of ground, and must needs go and see it... I have married a wife, therefore I cannot come" (Lk. 14:18-20). The implication is that they assumed that the servant calling them to the wedding (i.e. Christ) would understand that their excuses were quite reasonable; the man who pleaded marriage as his excuse would have been alluding to the Law's provision to have time off from the Lord's duties on account of marriage (Dt. 20:7; 24:5). All these reasons were assumed to be quite reasonable, and the men sound as if they were confident that of course Christ would understand. But His demands are in fact higher than those made under the old covenant.

Deu 20:8 The officers shall speak further to the people and say, Any man who is fearful and fainthearted, let him go and return to his house, lest his brother’s heart melt as his heart-
Mental attitudes spread so easily. Time and again, Moses speaks of the state of their heart. He warns them against allowing a bad state of heart to develop, he speaks often of how apostasy starts in the heart. Moses makes a total of 49 references to the heart / mind of Israel in Deuteronomy, compared to only 13 in the whole of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. This indicates the paramount importance which our Lord attaches to the state of our mind. This was perhaps his greatest wish as He faced death; that we should develop a spiritual mind and thereby manifest the Father and come to salvation. Moses likewise saw the state of our mind as the key to spiritual success. But do we share this perspective? Do we guard our minds against the media and influence of a mind-corrupting world? It's been observed that the phrase "The God of [somebody]", or similar, occurs 614 times in the Old Testament, of which 306 are in Deuteronomy. Our very personal relationship with God was therefore something else which Moses came to grasp in his spiritual maturity. Statistical analysis of the word "love" in the Pentateuch likewise reveals that "love" was a great theme of Moses at the end of his life (Moses uses it 16 times in Deuteronomy, and only four times in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers).

Deu 20:9 When the officers have made an end of speaking to the people, they shall appoint captains of armies at the head of the people-
The implication from :2,3 could be that this was to be done last minute, as the troops approached the enemy, when those who were fearful had returned home. The captains were therefore not to be a standing office, as in most armies, but were appointed at the last minute for each specific battle. In all Israel's Biblical victories, the military strategies were always in absolute defiance of secular military wisdom. For the victory was to be solely credited to God.

Deu 20:10 When you draw near to a city to fight against it, proclaim peace to it-
Is. 9:6 states that the Lord Jesus personally is "called" or "proclaimed" as peace. This is the same Hebrew word as in Dt. 20:10- Israel were to "proclaim peace" to cities they attacked, demanding either their submission or destruction. And yet we are the ones who "proclaim [the] peace" of Christ to men (Is. 52:7). Insofar as we represent Him in our witness, our hearers are faced with a radical choice- to submit to Him or eternally perish. It's easy to forget that this is how God sees it, as we witness to people. We're so used to the rejection of our message that we perhaps fail to see the eternal importance of the choice we lay before people; and this should impart a verve and urgency of appeal to our preaching, rather than an indifferent inviting of people to meetings, discussion, etc.

But the Israelites did this to the few remaining Benjamites after they had massacred most of them (Jud 21:13 s.w.). This was typical of how Israel at this time were taking fragments of God's law and applying them, but absolutely out of context. Whilst they disregarded the majority of the Law, both in letter and spirit. And we see this in the wider Christian movement. Bits and pieces of Divine principle are used in a misplaced way, when the majority of God's revelation and will is ignored.

Deu 20:11 If it makes you an answer of peace and opens to you, then all the people who are found therein shall become tributary to you and shall serve you-
Although :15 implies this legislation was only relevant to nations "far" from Israel, I discuss on Josh. 7 how that even Jericho was given the opportunity to repent and enter covenant peace with Yahweh. The conquest of Canaan was therefore only so bloody because they had refused these offers of peace. The agreement with the Gibeonites in Josh. 9 could then be read as acceptable within the spirit of this teaching here.

Deu 20:12 If it will make no peace with you but wishes to make war against you, then you shall besiege it-
Again we must observe that the conquest of Canaan was so bloody because the Canaanites therefore wished to make way with Israel; although this legislation applies to nations "far" from Israel (:15).

Deu 20:13 When Yahweh your God delivers it into your hand, you must strike every male of it with the edge of the sword-
"When..." suggests that victory was absolutely assured.
Despite being fully aware of how weak Israel were, Moses often speaks of the "blessing" which God would give them for obedience; he even speaks of the future blessing of obedience in the prophetic perfect, so confident was he that they would receive it: "Every man shall give as he is able (once he is settled in the land), according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which He has given you" (Dt. 16:17). Moses speaks with confidence of how God would grant them the blessing of the land and victory over their enemies, even though these things were conditional upon their obedience (Dt. 19:1; 20:13), and even though Moses clearly knew that most of them would disobey. The conclusion from this is that Moses thought so much of that minority who would obey his covenant, who would grasp the spirit of his life and the speech he was now making. And our Lord likewise- in His feelings for us.

Deu 20:14 but the women and the little ones, the livestock and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take for a prey to yourself, and you shall eat the spoil of your enemies, which Yahweh your God has given you-
The softness of Moses, the earnestness of his desire for their obedience, his eagerness to work with them in their humanity, is shown by the concessions to human weakness which he makes in Deuteronomy (with God's confirmation, of course). When they attacked a foreign city, OK, Moses says, you can take the women for yourselves- even though this is contrary to the spirit of earlier commands (Dt. 20:14; 21:11). Likewise with the provisions for having a human king (Dt. 17:17) and divorce (24:1-4). He knew the hardness of Israel's hearts, their likelihood to give way to temptation, and so he made concessions contrary to the principles behind other parts of the Law (Mt. 19:8). And Dt. 16:2 seems to imply that now, the Passover sacrifice didn’t necessarily have to be a lamb, and it could be boiled not just roasted (:7).

God told Israel to totally destroy the spoil from the cities they attacked. But when they failed to do this with Jericho, God told them that with Ai, the next city on the agenda, they were allowed to keep the spoil (Josh. 8:2); even though Dt. 20:14-16 said that this was how they should treat their distant enemies, but not cities like Ai which were part of their inheritance. This was an undoubted concession to human  weakness. The same concession to human weakness applied to other cities apart from Ai; it became a general policy that "all the spoil of these cities... the children of Israel took for a prey unto themselves"; and yet following straight on from this we are told that Joshua "left nothing undone of all that the Lord commanded Moses" (Josh. 11:14,15). God accepted those concessions to human weakness, this living on a lower level, as total obedience. The grace of all this is marvellous.

Deu 20:15 Thus you must do to all the cities which are very far off from you, which are not of the cities of nearby nations-
Nations "far off" surely still referred to nations within the land promised to Abraham. God had spoken of the time when He would "enlarge" the land up to that limit (Ex. 34:24; Dt. 12:20; 19:8). He presumably envisaged a 'stage two' of the conquest of that territory, but stage two was to be more lenient. The assumption was that all idolatry would be stamped out from Canaan, and Israel would be totally faithful to Yahweh. But this didn't happen, and so the planned "stage two" never happened. We see how God sets up potentials in great detail, but they may never happen because they depend upon human freewill. The fact that in one sense He knows the future... reflects His utter integrity in His dealings. He sets up potentials in great detail, even if He foresees that they will not be realized. The detailed descriptions of the temple to be built by the exiles in Ez. 40-48 is another example; this never happened as planned and as detailed, and never will do- for Israel would not. And the same is true in countless human lives.

Deu 20:16 But of the cities of these peoples that Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, you must save alive nothing that breathes-
See on :15. The destruction of all the breathes suggests a new creation. As the flood destroyed all that breathed within the eretz promised to Abraham, so Israel were to do in Canaan.

Deu 20:17 you must utterly destroy them: the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as Yahweh your God has commanded you-
Rahab was aware of what Israel had done to their enemies on their way to Jericho- and she appears to allude to Moses' commands to destroy utterly and not make covenant with the peoples of the land (Dt. 2:32-37; 7:1-5; 20:16-18). When she says that she was aware that God had "given you the land" (Josh. 2:9), she uses the same two Hebrew words used repeatedly in Deuteronomy regarding God's promise to give Israel the land of the Canaanites. "Your terror is fallen upon us" is likewise an allusion to Ex. 15:16; 23:27 [the same Hebrew word for "terror" is used by Rahab]. Rahab speaks of how her people are "fainting" in fear- quoting Ex. 15:15 about how the inhabitants of Canaan would "faint" (AV "melt away") because of Israel. Knowing all this, she has the ambition to request the impossible- that she would be the exception, that with her a covenant would be made. When she says that "we have heard" about the Exodus (Josh. 2:10), she may be referring to the prophecy of Ex. 15:14: "The people shall hear and be afraid". In this case, her emphasis would have been upon the word "have"- 'yes, we have heard indeed, as Moses sung, and yes, we are afraid'. Seeking God's face is actually to strive for the unachievable in this life; but it's what we are to do. Spiritual ambition of the type Rahab had lifts us far above the mire of mediocrity which there is in all human life under the sun.

Deu 20:18 so that they do not teach you to do after all their abominations, which they have done to their gods; so would you sin against Yahweh your God-
The total destruction of the Canaanites was because they would present a temptation to the Israelites which God foreknew they would not be able to handle. We see His sensitivity to the spiritual limits of everyone, and that is so to this day, leading up to the wonderful promise of 1 Cor. 10:13 that we will never be tested beyond our capability. This is a comfort when passing through apparently overwhelming tests and temptations. As discussed on :15, God envisaged a 'stage two' of the conquest of the territory promised to Abraham, but stage two was to be more lenient, allowing the conquered people to live. The assumption was that all idolatry would be stamped out from Canaan, and Israel would be totally faithful to Yahweh before they embarked upon this second stage. And therefore absolutely all remnants of Canaanites and their culture must be destroyed.

Deu 20:19 When you besiege a city a long time in making war against it to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them, for you may eat of them, and you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?-
The Law of Moses sought to inculcate a culture of care and sensitivity to others, and this spirit was fulfilled ultimately in the life and death of the Lord. The continued stress on not cooking a kid in its mothers milk was surely to teach sensitivity to the feelings of the mother goat- to encourage the Israelite to feel for others, even if they are animals, and seek to enter something of their feelings. And the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of God extends even to His plant creation; a tree was to be considered for who and what it was, and not treated as an enemy.  And how much more sensitive is the Father to humankind!

Deu 20:20 Only the trees which you know are not trees for food you shall destroy; cut them down. And you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you until it falls-
The implication may be that the bulwarks should be built from non fruit bearing trees, presumably those more evidently under the curse of Eden than others. Whatever the precise intention, clearly the soldiers were to be restrained from creating wanton havoc. There was to be a restraint of blood lust and a desire to destroy which can become obsessive in wartime. For the whole military operation, as any human enterprise, was to be of God and not man.