Rules Regarding Warfare

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and 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 out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.’ Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.’ And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.’ And when the officers have finished speaking to the people, then commanders shall be appointed at the head of the people.– Deuteronomy 20:1-9 ESV

As has already been stated, God cared deeply for the people of Israel and left no area of their corporate life unregulated by His holy standards. From the foods they ate to the manner in which they worshiped Him, God provided clear and unequivocal guidelines for conducting their lives. Every moment of their day was to be focused on and governed by His law. And Moses had reminded them repeatedly to incorporate God’s commandments into every facet of their daily life.

“…you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NLT

In this chapter, Moses addresses what was about to become a major part of their existence as they entered the promised land. Canaan was filled with other people groups who were not going to welcome Israel with open arms. There was going to be warfare, and God had clearly communicated His expectations regarding Israel’s interactions with the pagan nations occupying the land He had awarded as an inheritance to Abraham.

“Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images, and demolish their high places. You must dispossess the inhabitants of the land and live in it, for I have given you the land to possess it. …But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, then those whom you allow to remain will be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your side, and will cause you trouble in the land where you will be living.  And what I intended to do to them I will do to you.” – Numbers 33:51-53, 55-56 NLT

Battle was going to become an unavoidable aspect of their everyday life. And what made this particularly challenging was that Israel had no standing army. There were no trained soldiers in their midst. All of the men who were old enough to fight had spent their entire lives wandering through the wilderness. Yes, they had fought and won a few battles on the east side of the Jordan, but for the most part, they were little more than shepherds and wandering nomads. And yet, God expected them to conquer the entire land of Canaan and dispossess long-entrenched kingdoms with standing armies and well-fortified cities.

But this passage reveals a great deal about the character of God. Moses will assuage the people’s fears by reminding them of God’s omnipotence.

“…let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” – Deuteronomy 20:3-4 ESV

They had no reason to fear because they had God on their side and He was going to fight on their behalf. They had a secret weapon that none of the nations living in the land of Canaan could hope to withstand. Their powerful armies and walled cities would prove no match for God Almighty. And Moses wanted the people to remember that the same God who had conquered the Egyptians some 40 years earlier was going to be fighting for them in the land of Canaan.

“…the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 20:1 ESV

But Israel’s God was not only powerful, He was also compassionate. He cared about His people and took into account their individual situations and circumstances. This passage paints a remarkable picture that blends God’s sovereignty and lovingkindness. He was their compassionate, caring King. And while He fully expected them to obey His commands and carry out His orders, He was not oblivious to their personal circumstances. He did not view them as cogs in a machine or mindless instruments in His all-powerful hands.

Warfare was going to be inevitable and unavoidable, but so was life. Between battles, men would be marrying, starting families, building homes, and establishing their lives in the new land. The final objective was for the Israelites to possess the land, not simply conquer it. Battle would be necessary, but only so the people of Israel could inherit and inhabit the land that God had given them.

So, God provided four mandatory exemptions from military service. When the time for battle arrived, if any man of fighting age met the requirements, he was to be released from his commitment to fight. God was well aware of the fact that death was a potential outcome for every man who went into battle, so He provided these gracious exemptions that seem to be aimed at younger men who were starting new lives in the land. The first exemption involved the dedication of a new home. If a man had recently built a home, but had not had time to properly dedicate it, he was dismissed from mandatory military service so that he could do so. There seems to be a religious connotation behind this directive because the Hebrew word for “dedicate” is khanakh and it is the same one used when referring to Solomon’s dedication of the temple. The home was an important aspect of Jewish life. It was a symbol of prosperity and the epicenter of life. For a man to die in battle without having dedicated his own home would have left his family without shelter. Since women were not allowed to own property, it is likely the house would have been sold to someone else, leaving the deceased man’s family destitute. So, God provides a gracious exemption.

The second case involves a man who has planted a vineyard, but has not yet had time to reap a harvest from it. He too is provided with an exemption from military service so he can remain home and harvest the fruit of his labors. Otherwise, he might die in battle, and someone else reap the benefits of all his efforts. Once again, it is likely that, with the man’s death in battle, his land would have become the property of someone else and his wife and children would have received no benefit from all his labor.

The third scenario deals with a man who has become engaged to be married. If there was a call for battle, this man was to be relieved of his commitment so that he might marry his bride and consummate his marriage. Otherwise, he could die in battle, and his betrothed become the wife of another man. Marriage and the family were important to God and vital to the well-being of the nation, so He ensured that these young men were protected and the sanctity of the family unit was preserved.

The final exemption is a somewhat surprising one. In this case, Moses instructed the military commanders to approach their troops and offer an exemption to anyone afraid of going into battle.

In addition, the officers are to say to the troops, “Who among you is afraid and fainthearted? He may go home so that he will not make his fellow soldier’s heart as fearful as his own.” – Deuteronomy 20:8 NLT

This seems like an odd and potentially risky proposition. After all, what man in his right mind would not be afraid of the prospect of going into battle? It seems that this question could have resulted in the mass exodus of every able-bodied man.

But the real point behind all of these exemptions is that the victory God has assured will be by His hands and not that of men. God did not need a large standing army. He did not require every able-bodied man in order to defeat the enemies of Israel. And if men were too fearful to fight alongside God, He would rather they return home than run the risk of them infecting the rest of the army with their fear and faithlessness.

This reminds me of another occasion when God exempted some of His troops from going into battle and used a handful of faithful men to accomplish a great victory. This story is found in the book and involves Gideon defeating an army of Midianites that “had settled in the valley like a swarm of locusts. Their camels were like grains of sand on the seashore—too many to count!” (Judges 7:12 NLT).

And to make matter worse, God had ordered Gideon to send home the vast majority of his troops, leaving him with a paltry force of only 300 men. But God had assured Gideon, “With these 300 men I will rescue you and give you victory over the Midianites. Send all the others home” (Judges 7:7 NLT). And God did as He had promised. He brought about a great victory. It was not the size of Gideon’s army that mattered. It was Gideon’s God.

God was not dependent upon Gideon and his troops. And God was not limited by the number of Israelites who showed up when they were called up for battle. The victory would be His regardless of the size of the army at His disposal. Israel’s God was great and gracious. He was caring and compassionate. And Moses wanted the Israelites to never forget that “the Lord your God is with you.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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