Call to Worship February 16 2020

Thoughts on Deuteronomy 20

Often time portions of Deuteronomy seem out of place or order. We must remember there are connections in the broader context of Deuteronomy to God’s purpose for the ethnic people of Israel. Life, death, future and family are important themes in scripture. In Deuteronomy 19 the main concerns were accidental death versus murder and the future of a family in property rights. Chapter 20 considers life, death, future and family from the perspective of war.

God spoke directly to His people, through Moses, concerning some considerations of war, the context of an army for war, and conduct in war. Second Samuel 11:1 indicated there were seasons for war. So war was an inescapable part of life. Israel had previously taken the land of the Canaanites per God’s command and was stationed in the middle of often warring factions. (R. Brown, 196) Most tribal peoples and warring nations had standing armies to some degree. Israel was different, during this period it did not have a standing army. (J.G. McConville, 318) In consideration of the situation of Israel being such a small nation, they had to contemplate who ultimately led their army? Verses 1 and 2 established it was the Lord who led them, so there was no need for fear. God even gave His priests His word to remind and exhort the people in such occasions that they were the Lord’s army (vs. 3-4).   

The next passages developed a context concerning how to draft an army. (vs. 5-9) Family and household were important in the framework of God’s people. This was a portion of God’s blessing to His people for their enjoyment. (J.G. McConville, 319) Therefore, God relieved new farmers, newly settled families and new husbands of the burden of war. Agriculturally a vineyard would not be ready for four years and the first fruits went to God. (R. Brown, 198) So the owner needed time for the vines to mature and aid supplies for his family. The young married couple needed time to procreate and further the family lineage in a national covenantal sense. The newly settled home was in similar condition. (E.H. Merrill, 284). Hope for a future ethnic Israel was partly based in the creation ordinance of procreation and working the land. Therefore, for the future well-being and existence of Israel, these men were not considered for the drafting of an army.

The second and most certain issue was fear. Since Israel was a covenant display and all Israel was not converted, God made provision for the consideration of fearful men. Those who had great fear were relieved from being drafted in regimental duty. This was not necessarily for the individual’s sake, although it certainly contributed to the exemption. It was mainly for the good of the army, “fear is infectious.” (Ridderbos, 215) Afterward, commanders were to be installed and trust could form the foundation of an army for the protection of Israel. (E.J. Woods, 231) Subsequently, Israel was more likely to have a quality army instead of one with quantity. (R. Brown, 196) Much like the time of Gideon, never forgetting who led their army to victory.

Moses does not necessarily establish a full justification for war. “The subject, moreover,” according to J.G. McConville, “is the conduct of war, not the justification of it, whether in general or in particular.” (McConville, 317) Moses established the conduct of the army at war (vs. 10-20). Conduct of those soldiers was related to cities and surroundings. Those cities which were nearby were often most problematic. Closer proximity meant more usual interaction and opportunity for disputes and frustrations. Most certainly they would seek to economically, politically, and spiritually intermingle with Israel. The latter was of the greatest concern as idol worship was forbidden by God’s Law. When confronted with the possibility they may take over, by either economic means, political means, or means of violence, Israel was commanded to completely destroy these nearby nations. (E.H. Merrill, 282) These actions were in contrast to those cities far away whose people were less likely to have the same effect. Peace was the first offering with no death, but with the enslavement of the Gentile tribe or nation. If a peace settlement was not reached only the men were to be killed, but the women, children, and animals were taken as the spoils of war. Furthermore, fruit bearing trees were left alone. Once again future and family were concerned in this subject. Fruitless trees could be cut down for use during the siege. So Moses outlined particular conduct for the army of Israel at war.

These passages seem out of order for modern readers in several ways, which are not simply contextual. The first portions of the chapter make sense, but the last portion is difficult. Why would God command His people to attack these other nations with such brutality? God sought to keep the purity of His people as a testimony to His holiness and the righteousness of His future kingdom. God was the one passing judgement on these other nations. This was Yaweh’s war. He alone is holy! Therefore, He is just and reserves the right to deal with rebellious people according to His perfect essence. Since Israel was a display, they were used by God to reveal His sovereignty, power and condemnation of sin. He even revealed condemnation against Israel for the world to see. We must recognize God’s immensity, power and sovereignty in all of life or we will weaken the true message of the scripture.

Today people want to detract or water down these passages. Yet these passages are the very essence of God’s sovereignty over all of life on earth and in heaven. If the church loses the covenantal context displayed in these passages it will soon lose the new covenant all together. This is already happening as theologians discuss the brutality of the death of Christ and it is called “cosmic child abuse.” Atheists use the passages to ridicule the modern church and call out God as a ruthless dictator. Sadly, they do not see God for who He is in holiness and mankind for who we are as rebellious sinners. Christ’s sacrificial atoning death must be brutal due to the grotesque fatal rebellion of sinners against the only true, living, Holy God. Do not weaken these passages, but consider them in the context of the book of Deuteronomy and the whole of scripture. Apart from this thinking the modern church will continue to diminish God and elevate mankind. When God is small His sovereignty and gospel are muted, not heralded as prescribed in His word.


Brown, Raymond, The Message of Deuteronomy, ed. J. A. Motyer and Derek Tidball, The Bible Speaks Today (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).

McConville, J.G., Deuteronomy, ed. David W. Baker and Gordon Wenham, Apollos Old Testament Commentary, (Downers Grove, IL. Inter-Varsity Press, England, Apollos, 2002).

Merrill, Eugene H., Deuteronomy: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture NIV Text, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, The New American Commentary, ( Broadman & Holman, 1994).

Ridderbos, J., Deuteronomy, trans. Ed M. van der Maas, Bible Student’s Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1984).

Woods, Edward J., Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth and Tremper Longman III, Tyndale Old Testament, Commentary Series, vol. 5, (Downers-Grove, IL, Inter-Varsity Press, 2011).