Deuteronomy 20


Directions concerning campaigns, 1.

The priest shall encourage the people with the assurance that

God will accompany and fight for them, 2-4.

The officers shalt dismiss from the army all who had just built

a new house, but had not dedicated it, 5.

All who had planted a vineyard, but had not yet eaten of its

fruits, 6.

All who had betrothed a wife, but had not brought her home, 7.

And all who were timid and faint-hearted, 8.

The commanders to be chosen after the timid, &c., had retired, 9.

No city to be attacked till they had proclaimed conditions of

peace to it, provided it be a city beyond the bounds of the

seven Canaanitish nations; if it submitted, it was to become

tributary; if not, it was to be besieged, sacked, and all the

males put to the sword; the women, children, and cattle to be

taken as booty, 19-15.

No such offers to be made to the cities of the Canaanites; of

them nothing shall be preserved, and the reason, 16-18.

In besieging a city no trees to be cut down but those which do

not bear fruit, 19, 20.


Verse 1. When thou goest out to battle] This refers chiefly

to the battles they were to have with the Canaanites, in order to

get possession of the promised land; for it cannot be considered

to apply to any wars which they might have with the surrounding

nations for political reasons, as the Divine assistance could not

be expected in wars which were not undertaken by the Divine


Verse 2. The priest shall approach, and speak unto the people]

The priest on these occasions was the representative of that God

whose servant he was, and whose worship he conducted. It is

remarkable that almost all ancient nations took their priests with

them to battle, as they did not expect success without having the

object of their adoration with them, and they supposed they secured

his presence by having that of his representative.

Verse 5. That hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated

it?] From the title of Ps 30:1,-A Psalm or Song at the

Dedication of the House of David-it is evident that it was a

custom in Israel to dedicate a new house to God with prayer,

praise, and thanksgiving; and this was done in order to secure the

Divine presence and blessing, for no pious or sensible man could

imagine he could dwell safely in a house that was not under the

immediate protection of God. Hence it has been a custom in the

most barbarous nations to consecrate a part of a new house to the

deity they worshipped. The houses of the inhabitants of Bonny, in

Africa, are generally divided into three apartments: one is a kind

of state room or parlour; another serves for a common room, or

kitchen; and the third is dedicated to the Juju, the serpent god,

which they worship; for even those savages believe that in every

house their god should have his temple! At the times of

dedication among the Jews, besides prayer and praise, a feast was

made, to which the relatives and neighbours were invited.

Something of this custom is observed in some parts of our own

country in what is called warming the house; but in these cases

the feasting only is kept up-the prayer and praise forgotten! so

that the dedication appears to be rather more to Bacchus than to

Jehovah, the author of every good and perfect gift.

Verse 7. Betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her?] It was

customary among the Jews to contract matrimony, espouse or

betroth, and for some considerable time to leave the parties in

the houses of their respective parents: when the bridegroom had

made proper preparations, then the bride was brought home to his

house, and thus the marriage was consummated. The provisions in

this verse refer to a case of this kind; for it was deemed an

excessive hardship for a person to be obliged to go to battle,

where there was a probability of his being slain, who had left a

new house unfinished; a newly purchased heritage half tilled; or a

wife with whom he had just contracted marriage. Homer represents

the case of Protesilaus as very afflicting, who was obliged to go

to the Trojan war, leaving his wife in the deepest distress, and

his house unfinished.


καιδομοςημιτελης. τονδεκτανεδαρδανοςανηρ,


ILIAD, 1. ii., ver. 100.

"A wife he left,

To rend in Phylace her bleeding cheeks,

And an unfinish'd mansion: first he died

Of all the Greeks; for as he leap'd to land,

Long ere the rest, a Dardan struck him dead."


Verse 8. What man is there that is fearful and

faint-hearted?] The original rach, signifies tender or

soft-hearted. And a soft heart the man must have who, in such a

contest, after such a permission, could turn his back upon his

enemies and his brethren. However, such were the troops commanded

by Gideon in his war against the Midianites; for after he gave

this permission, out of 32,000 men only 10,000 remained to fight!

Jud 7:3. There could be no deception in a business of this kind;

for the departure of the 22,000 was the fullest proof of their

dastardliness which they could possibly give.

Verse 10. Proclaim peace unto it.] Interpreters are greatly

divided concerning the objects of this law. The text, taken in

connection with the context, (see De 20:15-18,) appears to state

that this proclamation or offer of peace to a city is only to be

understood of those cities which were situated beyond the limits

of the seven anathematized nations, because these latter are

commanded to be totally destroyed. Nothing can be clearer than

this from the bare letter of the text, unless some of the words,

taken separately, can be shown to have a different meaning. For

the common interpretation, the following reasons are given.

God, who knows all things, saw that they were incurable in their

idolatry; that the cup of their iniquity was full; and as their

Creator, Sovereign, and Judge, he determined to destroy them from

off the face of the earth, "lest they should teach the Israelites

to do after all their abominations," De 20:18. After all, many

plausible arguments have been brought to prove that even these

seven Canaanitish nations might be received into mercy, provided

they, 1. Renounced their idolatry; 2. Became subject to the Jews;

and, 3. Paid annual tribute: and that it was only in case these

terms were rejected, that they were not to leave alive in such a

city any thing that breathed, De 20:16.

Verse 17. But thou shalt utterly destroy them] The above

reasoning will gain considerable strength, provided we could

translate hi hacharem tacharimem, thou shalt

utterly subdue them-slaying them if they resist, and thus leaving

nothing alive that breathed; or totally expel them from the land,

or reduce them to a state of slavery in it, that they might no

longer exist as a people. This certainly made them an anathema as

a nation, wholly destroying their political existence. Probably

this was so understood by the Gibeonites, viz., that they either

must be slain or utterly leave the land, which last was certainly

in their power, and therefore, by a stratagem, they got the

princes of Israel to make a league with them. When the deceit was

discovered, the Israelites, though not bound by their oath,

because they were deceived by the Gibeonites, and therefore were

under no obligation to fulfil their part of the covenant; yet,

though they had this command before their eyes, did not believe

that they were bound to put even those deceivers to death; but

they destroyed their political existence, by making them hewers of

wood and drawers of water to the congregation; i. e., slaves to

the Israelites. (See Jos 9:23) Rahab and her household also were

spared. So that it does not appear that the Israelites believed

that they were bound to put every Canaanite to death. Their

political existence was under the anathema, and this the Hebrews


That many of the Canaanites continued in the land even to the

days of Solomon, we have the fullest proof; for we read, 2Ch 8:7:

"All the people of the land that were left of the Hittites,

Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, who were left in the

land, whom the children of Israel consumed not, them did Solomon

make to pay tribute to this day." Thus Solomon destroyed their

political existence, but did not consider himself bound by the law

of God to put them to death.

Verse 19. (For the tree of the field is man's life) to employ

them in the siege] The original is exceedingly obscure, and has

been variously translated, ki

haadam ets hassadeh labo mippaneycha bammatsor. The following are

the chief versions: For, O man, the trees of the field are for

thee to employ THEM in the siege-or, For it is man, and the tree

of the field, that must go before thee for a bulwark-or, For it is

a tree, and not men, to increase the number of those who come

against thee to the siege-or, lastly, The tree of the field (is

as) a man, to go before thy face for a bulwark. The sense is

sufficiently clear, though the strict grammatical meaning of the

words cannot be easily ascertained: it was a merciful provision to

spare all fruit-bearing trees, because they yielded the fruit which

supported man's life; and it was sound policy also, for even the

conquerors must perish if the means of life were cut off.

It is diabolic cruelty to add to the miseries of war the horrors

of famine; and this is done where the trees of the field are cut

down, the dykes broken to drown the land, the villages burnt, and

the crops wilfully spoiled. O execrable war! subversive of all

the charities of life!

THERE are several curious particulars in these verses: 1. The

people had the most positive assurances from God that their

enemies should not be able to prevail against them by strength,

numbers, nor stratagem, because God should go with them to lead

and direct them, and should fight for them; and against his might

none could prevail. 2. All such interferences were standing

proofs of the being of God, of his especial providence, and of the

truth of their religion. 3. Though God promised them such

protection, yet they were to expect it in the diligent use of

their own prudence and industry. The priests, the officers, and

the people, had their respective parts to act in this business; if

they did their duty respectively, God would take care that they

should be successful. Those who will not help themselves with the

strength which God has already given them, shall not have any

farther assistance from him. In all such cases, the parable of

the talents affords an accurate rule. 4. Their going to war

against their enemies must not deprive them of mercy and

tenderness towards their brethren. He who had built a house and

had not yet dwelt in it, who had planted a vineyard and had not

eaten of its fruits, who had betrothed a wife and had not yet

taken her to his house, was not obliged to go to battle, lest he

should fall in the war, and the fruits of his industry and

affection be enjoyed by others. He who was faint-hearted was also

permitted to return, lest he should give way in the heat of

battle, and his example have a fatal influence on others.

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