“When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 20:1)
There are always problems and conflicts in life. Even with God’s blessings, there were from time to time going to be battles to be fought and difficulties to overcome. They would at times face much better equipped armies and seemingly insurmountable odds. They were not to allow themselves to be intimidated by the opposition. The same God which destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea was still with them and had not lost his power. We have the same God, and as I John 4;4 says, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” When we allow ourselves to be intimidated, we ignore and deny who God is.
“And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people, And shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye approach this day unto battle against your enemies: let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them; For the LORD your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4)
Every time they went into battle, they were to be reminded by the priests that God was the source of their victories, and not their human power. Too often people get the idea it is their own efforts that produce the results. Just a few weeks later Israel would have that demonstrated resoundingly by defeating the fortified city of Jericho, then being defeated at the unprotected village of Ai. We need to be reminded to put our faith in the Lord.
“And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying, What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it. And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten of it? let him also go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of it. And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.” (Deuteronomy 20:5-7)
Most wars begin as a means of expanding power and prestige, rather than for the protection of the people, although it is usually portrayed a s being beneficial to them. God forbade future kings from building up excessive military force in Deuteronomy 17, to minimize the problem. Here he makes it clear the benefit of many is not to supersede the good of the individual. A man who had built a new house or started a vineyard was not to be forced to forsake his projects or property to satisfy the desires of the majority. After all, victory would mean little if attaining it meant losing the things one wished to protect. Victory means little if there is nothing to go home to when the battle is over.
Deuteronomy 24:5 expands this even more in the case of a newly wed. “When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken.” Establishing a strong marriage requires a great deal of working together. Working to obtain a college degree, or starting a new career, or service in the military with it’s attendant separation can prevent the development of a sound marriage relationship. Clearly God considers a sound marriage more important than success in other areas.
"And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart. And it shall be, when the officers have made an end of speaking unto the people, that they shall make captains of the armies to lead the people.” (Deuteronomy 20:8-9)
No one was to be forced to fight. In fact an effort was to be made send those who were afraid or weren’t committed to the fight home. Their attitude might spread to others and cause a lack of commitment and focus. Leaders were then to be selected from among those committed to the cause.
Rules of Warfare
“When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-11)
When Israel went up to war against a city, they were first to give and opportunity to surrender. They were not to attack without warning. If the people were willing to yield, they were to be treated a subject peoples, protected by and contributing to the nation.
“And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.” (Deuteronomy 20:12-15)
A city which refused to make a treaty was to be taken by force, when defeated every man who fought against them was to be executed. Women and children were to be preserved and become Israel’s, as did all the property that was taken. This was to be the treatment for those outside the area God had promised to Israel.
“But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
The land of Canaan was given to the Jews because of the wickedness of the people who occupied it. It was not given them until the current occupants had exceeded the level of sin God would permit. This was established in Genesis 15:16. “But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” Leviticus 18:24-25 warns Israel not to repeat the same mistakes. “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.”
When the level of iniquity or deliberate sin reaches a certain point God will destroy the nation which has allowed the sin. The Canaanite nations had exceeded that point and God would use the Jews to destroy them. Centuries later, when the Jews reached a certain level of iniquity, God would use the Assyrians and the Babylonians to destroy Israel, but at this time they were doing what God commanded. They were to completely destroy the Canaanites so they didn’t adopt the same attitudes and practices. Nations which had not gone to such extreme wickedness were nto to be completely obliterated.
“When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an ax against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man's life) to employ them in the siege: Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)
They were not to destroy long term infrastructure such as orchards for short term victory, Even the battles were to be fought with long term planning. After all, destroying necessary fruit trees to defeat a city would make it less habitable for many years. Only trees and infrastructure which didn’t have long term effects were to be destroyed.