Deuteronomy 20:1 (CSB)
1 “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses, chariots, and an army larger than yours, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, is with you.
This passage comprises a number of rules concerning war. It is apparent that the Israelites will not be immune from the pains of war, as the tone of the entire passage is of coming war, and not just for the pending seizing of Canaan. Yet despite this fact, the overarching theme here is that the Israelites should continue to trust in God, and he is with them throughout.
The passage starts off with a command to not fear enemy armies, despite their larger numbers. The priest is even to speak to the army, encouraging bravery, and reminding them that it is God himself who goes into battle with the Israelites, and gives them victory.
Next we see a list provisions for exemption from service. The first three exemptions appear to be related to establishing a family and provision for it: a home, produce, or income, and marriage. It would seem these would all allow for the continuation of God’s people through the establishment of the family units and what they would need to continue on. Note that the threat of death is absolutely real, as all these exemptions mention the possibility of it! We should not be deceived into thinking that since God is with the Israelites, none of them will die. The truth is that death does still strike, even while we are walking with God, but our eternity is secured if we are his child. The final exemption is due to cowardice and fear. The point here is that this attitude is unhealthy for a fighting unit, and rather than have it spread to others, lowering the moral and effectiveness of the force, that individual should stay home. Additionally, since it was established at first that God enters battle with his people, fear and cowardice are not just a reflection of fear of war, but, it could be argued, a lack of faith in God.
The remaining part of the passage describes a high level look of what battle should look like. Some interesting points are as follows:
- Peace is preferable to war. God, it would seem, is not a blood-lusting fiend, but prefers peace over war. It is not the same as harmony, or some sort of blending of the two people groups, as the surrendered enemies become laborers, but we should not expect the pollution of God’s people, even when peace is the course of action.
- When war does come, all male enemies are to die. Presumably this was to thwart any future uprising, as well as “make examples” of these enemies for others, possibly to avoid future conflict.
- The exception to allowing women and children to survive comes with the nations currently populating Canaan. The nature of the land, it being an “inheritance” for Israel, required the complete extermination of the peoples, the enemies, remaining in Canaan. God continues on to outline exactly why it was so crucial in Deut. 20:18: “so that they won’t teach you to do all the detestable acts they do for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God.”
- There is a seemingly weird provision to not harm certain trees, those that provide food. This does not suggest some sort of radical environmentalist God (God is most certainly an environmentalist, but his agenda here is not environmental protection), but instead it seems clear that this provision is to guarantee a fruitful and usable land that can be used to sustain the Israelites following war and conquest.
Lord, thank you for reassuring us that, even in hard, scary, and risky, times and situations, you are with us. War is not something we should relish in, but we should relish in your provision, and more importantly, your proximity to us. I ask for forgiveness for my lack of, and pray for, bravery and confidence, not in ourselves, but in you, when in the face of adversity. Amen.