Deuteronomy 20 contains the longest theoretical account of how the nation of Israel (and, by extension, any nation in a covenantal relationship with God) was to fight its wars. As this chapter is somewhat long and deserves to be given its full context, it will be broken down into two shorter parts. Part One deals with the vital matter of what sort of people are to be exempted from military service and the morale the army of God is supposed to have.
Be Not Afraid
The first principle in the first section of Deuteronomy 20 is having courage in God. Let us examine Deuteronomy 20:1-4 to see what sort of espirit de corps the army of God was expected to have. We must remember that the Bible, along with Carl Von Clausewitz, considers the moral aspects of war to be far more important than the physical aspects.
Deuteronomy 20:1-4 says: “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. So it shall be, when you are on the verge of battle, that the priest shall approach and speak to the people. And he shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel: Today you are on the verge of battle with your enemies. Do not let your heart faint, do not be afraid, and do not tremble or be terrified because of them; for the Lord is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”
Let us look a little bit at what this passage is saying. First of all, priests were to be deeply involved in warfare. We might think of priests or ministers as being men of peace, but the Bible shows them as being deeply interested in the fate of God’s people in warfare. Believers are not pacifists, but are rather deeply interested in the relationship of morality and righteousness in all human endeavors, including that of warfare. The involvement of the priest was necessary for the divine sanction of physical warfare to be present. Only those wars that followed the will of God and were conducted by the standards of God could be expected to be blessed by God. We cannot force God’s will to conform with our own in our endeavors, including warfare, but we can and must make sure that our will conforms to that of God’s if we are to find success.
Second, let us look a bit at the message the priest gave and the reason why he gave it. First of all, Israel was not to engage in the quest for technological superiority, with the faith in technology or weapons systems rather than in God. It was the heathen nations of the world that were to have the chariots and massive amounts of horsemen, but it was the God of Israel that was to give them the victory even with their infantry-based forces. Victor Davis Hanson, in his examination of the importance of infantry to the “Western Way of War” has neglected to comment how the Bible precisely imagines an infantry-based army of a rather egalitarian basis fighting with courage and bravery, confident in victory. Indeed, we may judge the success of such Western nations as the United States and Great Britain in their major wars against civilizational enemies as a sign of God’s favor rather than their own intrinsic excellence. We must remember that glory belongs to God, and that often He desires to make that especially plain (see, for example, the story of Gideon’s 300 gravely outnumbered men against the Midianites in Judges 7). God can win battles with any kind of odds without any kind of difficulty because he is all-powerful. We can never forget that and let ourselves be afraid.
You May Go Home
The second section of Deuteronomy 20 deals with which people were to be exempted from battle after the citizen militia of Israel had been called to force. Let us examine Deuteronomy 20:5-7 to see just which people were sent home from battle to deal with more pressing concerns that might weigh on their mind and present special difficulties for them.
Deuteronomy 20:5-7 reads as follows: “Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘What man is there who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And also what man is there who has planted a vineyard and has not eaten of it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man eat of it. And what man is there who is betrothed to a woman and has not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man marry her.'”
Let us examine the role of the officer in battle, recognizing the context. Here we are just before the battle is started, and the officer, who is likely to be one of the Israelite civil leaders underneath a judge or a king who is skilled in warfare, is exempting among the mass of Israelite men those who met certain standards. Let us note, though, that all of these ordinary men were initially included in the levy of forces, meaning that Israel’s army was to be a broadly based one of citizen soldiers rather than a professional elite military made up of mainly mercenaries.
Let us take special notice though of the three categories of people who were exempted from military service automatically without any kind of shame or blame attached to their exemption, when it came time to face the enemy. First off are men who have built a new house but not dedicated it. These men are engaged in building their own houses and families, and God is concerned that people get to enjoy the fruits of their labor before they are called to risk their lives in warfare. The same is true of those who have planted a vineyard (or field) and not enjoyed its fruits. The hardworking farmer is to be the first to partake of the crops (2 Timothy 2:6). Likewise, those who have engaged a young woman and not married her yet were to be exempted from warfare so that they may marry and start their family before being subject to the chance of murder before having the opportunity to enjoy marriage. God’s concern for the well-being of the soldiers of his army is deep and profound, and worth imitating.
No Cowards Allowed
The third section of Deuteronomy 20 gives a fourth category of soldiers who were to be sent away from the army, but unlike the three categories above, there is blame and shame attached to this category of soldier. Deuteronomy 20:8-9 speaks about the army of God being a “coward free zone,” where malcontents and other doubters of God’s power and strength were to be removed from poisoning the faith of their brethren.
Deuteronomy 20:8-9 reads as follows: “The officers shall speak further to the people and say, ‘What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart.’ And so it shall be, when the officers have finished speaking to the people, that they shall make captains of the armies to lead the people.”
The fourth category of person exempted from warfare was the coward. Unlike those who were exempted for reasons of justice and equity concerning being able to enjoy their house, farm, or wife before being subject to the possibility of death, the coward was exempted for reasons of morale. A coward of malcontent who doubts God’s power or interest in victory can sap the courage of many others around them, and “less is more” when it comes to those who will actively hinder the operations of the army with their cowardice and lack of faith. Only those who are brave and courageous and believe firmly that God will lead them to victory are to be in God’s army. The rest are to receive their white feathers and go home in shame, having lost the ability to infect others with their fear and doubt.
Finally, after all of the reductions to the citizen levy were made, then captains were to be chosen for the army among the people, for those who had the respect and honor of their neighbors and relatives. Those people who were recognized local men of honor and good reputation were made officers and captains in what looks very much like a well-trained citizen militia. The biblical army was a relatively egalitarian one, not one with a permanent and sharp class difference between officers and soldiers. Its infantry basis made it even more strongly egalitarian than most armies that have existed in human history.
Conclusions For Part One
Let us examine in brief the point that the first half of Deuteronomy 20 is making about the Israelite way of war. First, the army was to be infantry based and imbued with faith and trust in God and not fear about inferiority in technology. Second, there were to be various people exempted from service either for reasons of equity and justice (those who needed to enjoy their homes, crops, or wives) or for cowardice (so they would not infect others with their fear). Third, we see that the permanent miltary presence was small (an officer and a priest) and that the army was to be egalitarian with captains chosen from among the broad citizen levy, presumably over their friends, relatives, and neighbors, who would know their courage and moral excellence and good reputation. We should all be so lucky to serve in such a band of brothers ourselves.