Deuteronomy 20: The Conduct of War

James Tissot, The Taking of Jericho (1896-1902)

James Tissot, The Taking of Jericho (1896-1902)

Deuteronomy 20

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. 2 Before you engage in battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the troops, 3 and shall say to them: “Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near to do battle against your enemies. Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; 4 for it is the LORD your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.” 5 Then the officials shall address the troops, saying, “Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another dedicate it. 6 Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another be first to enjoy its fruit. 7 Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.” 8 The officials shall continue to address the troops, saying, “Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own.” 9 When the officials have finished addressing the troops, then the commanders shall take charge of them.

 10 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. 11 If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. 12 If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; 13 and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 14 You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. 16 But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17 You shall annihilate them– the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites– just as the LORD your God has commanded, 18 so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.

 19 If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? 20 You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.


I would love to be able to say that the remarks made by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the President of Liberty University that his students should arm themselves so that they could ‘end Muslims before they come in’ has no scriptural place to justify it, but that would mean looking aside from passages like Deuteronomy 20. Ultimately, from the way I read scriptures his remarks were not only wrong but inflammatory and yet passages like this probably feel like home for some conservative evangelical Christians who seem to feel the right to bear arms is more important than anyone else’s right freedom of religion. Yet, passages like this are in need of discussion and the warrior image of the God of Israel is a potent image which can be used for both good and ill.  As I discuss when talking about the second half of Deuteronomy 2 the warrior image of God which is used throughout the scriptures can be used in both powerful ways for good and evil. We have uncomfortable, well at least uncomfortable for a Christian who tries to take the witness of Jesus seriously, passages like this as a part of our scriptures. What I will attempt to do below is first talk about this text within the context of war in the ancient world and what it meant then, discuss some of how this powerful language can be used appropriately in our day as well as the challenges of this text in our secular and polarized age.

The Passage in the Ancient World

War is an assumed reality for the people of Israel, especially being at the crossroads for trade and movement of troops in the ancient world. In a world where empires would rise and fall around them the land of ancient Palestine would (and still does) find itself pulled between competing kings and empires. Ancient Israel, with the exception of a brief period under David and Solomon, is never a major military power in comparison to the other ancient empires (and in Deuteronomy 17 we see how Solomon is the opposite of the model king Deuteronomy envisions). And if the people of Israel are not to be a society whose strength relies upon its military might and muscle they probably felt the need for a way to demonstrate their reliance upon God in this reality. If Deuteronomy is finalized within the context of the Babylonian exile it may also be reflecting back upon the ways the focus on their own military solutions failed them in their conflict with Babylon.

The practice of a priest coming forward and blessing the troops for combat would not have been unusual in the ancient world. The soldiers of Israel, especially if they were fighting a larger opponent with better equipment, would want to believe that the fighting they were engaged in was a part of a holy war. Perhaps Psalms like 144 would become individual prayers for the soldiers after the priest gave their blessing:

1Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; 2 my rock and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under me. Psalm 144: 1-2

These words and the sense that the endeavor that they are taking part in is the LORD of Israel’s battle and war may also serve to provide a sense of justification for the horrors of war they are to endure. The charge given by the mustering officer which gives an opportunity for those who have not yet been able to enjoy the fruits of a good life (house, fruit of the harvest and family) to return from battle so that they would not be deprived of these things. These three things the mustering officer allows people to return to also are lifted up as a part of the curse of disobedience:

You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruits. Deuteronomy 28:30

Also the charge for anyone who is disheartened to return home does point to the reality that fear in combat is contagious, and yet for Deuteronomy this fear is also the result of a lack of trust in the God of Israel. While there is no stigma attached to the previous reasons for release from service in an honor based society there would be for this last one. Military duty was expected of the males of ancient Israel, they were to fight for their God and for their king (or judge or leader).

This passage addresses two types of conflicts, the conflict of occupying the promised land (which is covered second although in the narrative of Deuteronomy its time is near at hand) and the invasion of future enemies.  For the enemies of the future where the people of Israel come to take a city they are to offer terms of peace, the word behind this is shalom, but it is a brutal peace. The only way a city would probably accept these terms was if they saw no possibility of resistance for it ensured forced labor of all the people. In many respects this envisions a society, like Egypt, that is based upon conquest and slavery. Unlike our current world where war is an endeavor which societies go into debt for, war was a profitable endeavor in the ancient world. If a city resists their invasion there is the spoil of the city which goes to the conquerors once the men defending the city are slain. The booty is not just wealth, but also the women and children and livestock which may all serve to enhance the wealth of the invader. War in the ancient world, and in modern society as well, is not kind to women. Even for the Israelites, who have a little more protection for the conquered than some societies, the women are viewed as spoil. Even though we may interpret the commandment on adultery prohibiting the rape of women from a conquered village ancient Israel probably did not, they still viewed women as a commodity and adultery was primarily an offence against the male.  The ancient world was a violent world and war in any time in hellish.  For the list of enemies of the towns they will be occupying there is to be no accommodation, they are to be completely wiped out. There is to be no spoil but they are to be dedicated for destruction, they are herem (those to be destroyed, annihilated). In modern times we would consider this genocide.

A final note is on the environment which is also a victim in times of war. Siege warfare, which is the type of warfare represented in this section of Deuteronomy, involves cutting a city or refuge off from the surrounding resources of food and water and waiting for the supplies within the city to become desperate. Part of siege warfare against a walled city (which is the first line of defense for a city in the ancient world) is constructing siege engines which are designed to either breach or to go over a city wall. Siege engines and the practice of war in the ancient world would often consume the trees for use in these engines or burn them so that they couldn’t be used by an enemy. While crops can grow back in the next growing season the loss of trees involves a long term loss of production. The limit of cutting down only the trees that do not produce fruit to limit the environmental destruction of the siege is unusual, as well as the way the Deuteronomist frames it, “Are the trees human being that they should come under siege from you?” For the author of Deuteronomy, the conflict is with the people and not with the environment.

Militaristic Language and Its Positive and Negative Usage

You do not have to look far for examples of how religion has been used to justify any number of horrors. This is not exclusive to any faith and occurs even in non-religious governments. As Miroslav Volf states memorably:

The majority of the world’s populations is religious, and when they are at war, their gods are invariably at war too. It would seem that if we reconciled the gods we would come closer to reconciling the peoples. The question is, however, who is fighting whose battles in those wars? Are the people fighting the battles of the power-hungry gods or are the gods fighting the battles of their bellicose peoples? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. My suspicion is, however, that the gods mostly get the short end of it: they end up doing more of the dirty work for their presumed earthly servants than their servants do for them. And when the gods refuse to do the dirty work most people involved in conflicts either discard them in favor of more compliant gods or seek to reeducate them, which amounts to the same thing. The poor gods! What they have to endure at the hands of their humble devotees! (Volf, 1996, p. 284)

And it is not hard to see how passages like Psalm 149 “Praise the Lord!…Let the high praise of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands” (verses 1, 6) can quickly evolve into “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. There is great damage that has been done when people are absolutely convinced that the LORD or another god is on their side and that they are involved in a struggle against an unredeemable opponent. Whether it is groups like ISIS/ISIL, or Christian groups calling for the elimination of Muslims, or even the inter-ethnic atrocities like Rwanda and Bosnia that are justified under the belief that they are the righteous ones of a god purging the earth of the infidel. These actions seem to come first from the desire to do violence or oppress another group and then the religious militaristic language is brought in as justification of the work. The poor gods, what they must suffer from the hands of their devotees.

Yet, for all of its danger and the way that militaristic language has been utilized to sanctify violence, oppression, enslavement, rape, environmental destruction and even genocide, I still think there is a place for this language. Psalm 46, which was Luther’s inspiration for “A Mighty Fortress”, is full of militaristic images as the song itself is and yet it also speaks to the conflict that the faithful feel in the world. In the hands of the oppressed it has often been utilized to point to the God of liberation that cares for and lifts up the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten and the least. It has certainly been misused by the powerful as well as the disenfranchised to authorize their violence. Yet, it also has spoken to people in their lives. We may not be able to redeem texts like Deuteronomy 20, or at least not all of it, but it speaks to a people whose lives did involve conflict. We may not share the Deuteronomist’s certainty that God is on our side, and when we are too certain we probably have crafted a god in our own image, but we do need to wrestle with, in a world that is still full of conflict, war and oppression, where our God is in the midst of these struggles.

War, God and our Secular Age

The enlightenment arose out of the ashes of conflicts over religion in Europe and now we live in an age where, in the United States and much of Europe, spirituality has been consigned to the realm of private choice. When pastors and priests blessed the soldiers of the various armies going off to war in World War I, the war to end all wars as it was known then, they believed that their causes were linked directly to God’s cause and that nation and God were closely joined together. After two world wars and countless other wars of the twentieth and twenty first century for most people in the United States our current wars may have religious undertones but they are not authorized by God. There are exceptions to this, but the wars of state are no longer uniformly blessed by the churches, mosques, and temples of the land. In the United States the war on terror has at times moved towards being portrayed as a between Christianity and Islam, yet within many religious circles there has been a continual lament and protest against this conflict as well.

As people of faith how do we engage warfare and conflict? What are the central beliefs that shape our interpretation of the world around us? If faith in merely a private spirituality we never have to engage questions like this but if it is a public faith, then we have to engage our faith in the messiness and the conflicts of the real world. As a Christian and as a Lutheran I do go back to the life and witness of Jesus which continually calls us to love even my enemy and to pray for them, to turn the other cheek in response to being struck and to learn how to forgive. Christians have long struggled with theologically making a case for various wars or military service and I won’t even attempt to answer those questions here. I am a military veteran and that is a part of my own history and the things God used to shape me for my life and thankfully I never had to endure the hell that is war, training for war is hellish enough. And yet, I can hope, with Isaiah, for the time when nations no longer train for war, when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

7 thoughts on “Deuteronomy 20: The Conduct of War

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