De 20:1-20. The Priests'
Exhortation to Encourage the People to Battle.
1. When thou goest out to battle against thine
enemies—In the approaching invasion of Canaan, or in any just
and defensive war, the Israelites had reason to expect the presence and
favor of God.
2-4. when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that
the priest shall approach and speak unto the people—Jewish
writers say that there was a war priest appointed by a special
ceremonial to attend the army. It was natural that the solemn objects
and motives of religion should have been applied to animate patriotism,
and so give additional impulse to valor; other people have done this.
But in the case of Israel, the regular attendance of a priest on the
battlefield was in accordance with their theocratic government, in
which everything was done directly by God through His delegated
ministers. It was the province of this priest to sound the trumpets
10:9; 31:6), and he had
others under him who repeated at the head of each battalion the
exhortations which he addressed to the warriors in general. The speech
4) is marked by a brevity and
expressiveness admirably suited to the occasion, namely, when the men
were drawn up in line.
4. your God is he that goeth with you, to fight
for you against your enemies, to save you—According to Jewish
writers, the ark was always taken into the field of combat. But there
is no evidence of this in the sacred history; and it must have been a
sufficient ground of encouragement to be assured that God was on their
5-8. And the officers shall speak unto the
people—literally, Shoterim, who are called "scribes"
or "overseers" (Ex 5:6). They
might be keepers of the muster-roll, or perhaps rather military
heralds, whose duty it was to announce the orders of the generals
26:11). This proclamation
20:5-8) must have been made
previous to the priest's address, as great disorder and inconvenience
must have been occasioned if the serried ranks were broken by the
departure of those to whom the privilege was granted. Four grounds of
exemption are expressly mentioned: (1) The dedication of a new house,
which, as in all Oriental countries still, was an important event, and
celebrated by festive and religious ceremonies (Ne 12:27); exemption for a year. (2) The planting
of a vineyard. The fruit of the first three years being declared unfit
for use, and the first-fruits producible on the fourth, the exemption
in this case lasted at least four years. (3) The betrothal of a wife,
which was always a considerable time before marriage. It was deemed a
great hardship to leave a house unfinished, a new property half
cultivated, and a recently contracted marriage; and the exemptions
allowed in these cases were founded on the principle that a man's heart
being deeply engrossed by something at a distance, he would not be very
enthusiastic in the public service. (4) The ground of exemption was
cowardice. From the composition of the Israelitish army, which was an
irregular militia, all above twenty years being liable to serve, many
totally unfit for war must have been called to the field; and it was
therefore a prudential arrangement to rid the army of such unwarlike
elements—persons who could render no efficient service, and the
contagion of whose craven spirit might lead to panic and defeat.
9. they shall make captains of the armies to lead
the people—When the exempted parties have withdrawn, the
combatants shall be ranged in order of battle.
10-20. When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight
against it, then proclaim peace unto it—An important
principle is here introduced into the war law of Israel regarding the
people they fought against and the cities they besieged. With "the
cities of those people which God doth give thee" in Canaan, it was to
be a war of utter extermination (De 20:17, 18). But when on a just occasion, they went
against other nations, they were first to make a proclamation of peace,
which if allowed by a surrender, the people would become dependent
20:11], and in the relation
of tributaries the conquered nations would receive the highest
blessings from alliance with the chosen people; they would be brought
to the knowledge of Israel's God and of Israel's worship, as well as a
participation of Israel's privileges. But if the besieged city refused
to capitulate and be taken, a universal massacre was to be made of the
males while the women and children were to be preserved and kindly
treated (De 20:13, 14). By this means a provision was made for
a friendly and useful connection being established between the captors
and the captives; and Israel, even through her conquests, would prove a
blessing to the nations.
19. thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by
forcing an axe against them—In a protracted siege, wood would
be required for various purposes, both for military works and for fuel.
But fruit-bearing trees were to be carefully spared; and, indeed, in
warm countries like India, where the people live much more on fruit
than we do, the destruction of a fruit tree is considered a sort of
20. thou shalt build bulwarks against the city
that maketh war with thee—It is evident that some sort of
military engines were intended; and accordingly we know, that in Egypt,
where the Israelites learned their military tactics, the method of
conducting a siege was by throwing up banks, and making advances with
movable towers, or with the testudo [Wilkinson].