Deuteronomy 20:10-20: The Principles of Biblical Warfare Part Two: How To Fight Biblical Holy War

This note explores Part Two of Deuteronomy 20, one of the most difficult scriptures of the Bible concerning biblical warfare.   This particular part of scripture is not difficult because it is particularly difficult to understand–in fact, it is very straightforward–but rather it is difficult because the commands of this scripture concerning biblical warfare in this passage violate our delicate sensibilities and because God’s commands strike us as barbaric.  Nonetheless, this scripture is absolutely vital to understanding how God sees the practice of war, which is how we must see it if we are to obey Him.  Holy War is not a light matter with God by any means.

Principles of Conducting Ordinary War

The fourth part of Deuteronomy 20 deals with the principles of ordinary warfare.  Remembering this fact will make this passage much easier to understand, if no less shocking than it would be otherwise.  Deuteronomy 20:10-15 gives the manner of warfare for fighting those nations which are part of Israel’s foreign conquests and not a part of their “home” territory.

Deuteronomy 20:10-15 reads as follows:  “When you go near a city to fight against it, then proclaim an offer of peace to it.  And it shall be that if they accept your offer of peace, and open to you, then all the people who are found in it shall be placed under tribute to you, and serve you.  Now if the city will not make peace with you, but war against you, then you shall besiege it.  And when the Lord your God delivers it into your hands, you shall strike every male in it with the edge of the sword.  But the women, the little ones, the livestock, and all that is in the city; all its spoil, you shall plunder for yourself; and you shall eat the enemies’ plunder which the Lord your God gives you.  Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations.”

Since the principles of siege warfare are discussed in the sixth part of Deuteronomy 20, let us leave aside reference to that for now, as it will be discussed then.  Nonetheless, let us examine that there are only two options given to a city which is in opposition to the army of God–surrender or decimation.  Let us remember as well that this is the biblical standard for normal warfare, not any extraordinarily harsh war.  The term of peace offered by the army of God to its opponents, even those far away, is surrender and the acceptance of tribute and the legitimate authority of Israel and its leaders.  That is the only term of “reconciliation” to God on the table that can be accepted.  If you do not wish to surrender and you resist the authority of God’s people, the only other military options are less pleasant–the killing of all males, and the appropriation of little ones, women [1], and property to the victorious Israelite army.  Needless to say, it does not pay to be an enemy of the armies of God.

Given the fact that such treatment strikes the delicate modern sensibility of “civilized” people as somewhat brutal, let us examine why this is the case.  For one, the Bible does not intend for there to be permanent warfare between the forces of Good and those of Evil.  Those who reject His offer of mild and gentle rule are rebels against His kingdom, and are judged as guilty of the capital offense of sedition and rebellion, punishable by death.  There was to be no man left to rebel against Israel (i.e. God’s authority) at a later time, so all of those men of fighting age who refused to surrender to God and accept His rule and his ordained leadership in Israel were to be killed to prevent their repetition of the error in future generations.  The fact that the spoils of those enemy nations belonged to Israel’s army meant that war paid the righteous armies and cost the defeated armies everything they owned–their property, their territory, their women and children, and their lives.  So shall it be for all of those who decline the offer of obedience and paying tribute to God who would rather fight the armies of God than bow the knee in surrender.

Principles of Conducting Holy War

The fifth part of Deuteronomy gives the most savage biblical requirements for war that can be found, and represents a major stumbling block to people who do not accept the reality and severity of divine judgment in the physical sphere against those who are convicted by God of evildoing.  Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent, and Deuteronomy 20:16-18 describe a severe standard of military war that is still in force today [2].

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 reads as follows:  “But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God has given you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them:  the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God.”

Let us first examine the severity of this command, which was not obeyed by the Israelites.  The nations of the heathen inhabitants of the Promised Land were to be utterly destroyed–not even their livestock was to be spared, but everything was to be slaughtered as condemned under the death penalty.  We see this particular command most pointedly in the destruction of Jericho, though even here there was mercy shown to the family of one inhabitant, Rahab the innkeeper, who showed mercy to the spies, though everything else in the city was utterly destroyed (see Joshua 6).  Unfortunately, the trickery of the people of Gideon [3] and the alliance made with Shechem [4] were major factors in the continuing apostasy of Israel that led eventually to great judgment.

Let us, before we condemn God for being harsh, examine why this command was made.  The whole promise of the promised land to Israel itself was based on the condemnation of the original inhabitants of that land for sin and abomination.  Indeed, Israel was not to take over the land in the first place until the sins of the tribes of Canaan had reached the point of completion (Genesis 15:13-16).  Like the sins of the bloodthirsty Aztecs, which were repaid on their head with the destruction of the Spaniards, the Canaanites were not an innocent indigenous people who were wrongly and cruelly despoiled by the Israelites.  Instead, they were a people judged as guilty by God for abominations and sentenced to absolute destruction.  When God gives such a sentence it is the responsibility of His armies to carry that penalty out.  We cannot attempt to out-mercy God and think He will see our ways as just; God means what He says about the judgment of destruction on the wicked who refuse to repent of their ways.

Principles of Conducting Siege Warfare

The sixth and final part of Deuteronomy 20 examines the principles of a godly army conducting siege warfare against its enemies, a matter alluded to in the fourth section of this chapter alluded to above.  Deuteronomy 20:19-20 gives the straightforward biblical principles of besieging a city.

Deuteronomy 20:19-20 reads as follows:  “When you besiege a city for a long time, while making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them; if you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use in the siege, for the tree of the field is man’s food.  Only those trees which you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, to build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it is subdued.”

Let us look briefly at three aspects of siege warfare that are of interest from this passage.  First, let us note that God commanded the destruction of either all men of fighting age (ordinary war) or every human and animal that draws breath (holy war), but does not allow for fruit trees to be destroyed.  Why is that?  For one, the land of areas at war against Israel and God were to pay for warfare in terms of food and tribute.  As Israel was expected to enjoy the fruits of conquest, it was sinful for Israel to destroy those fruits in order to make war.  Israel’s armies were to preserve the agricultural capability of the land so that they may enjoy its fruits after conquest.  Long-term thinking was to trump short-term thinking.

Second, we see here that even though Israel was not to trust in horses and chariots and other examples of “military technology” (Deuteronomy 20:1, 17:16), Israel was expected to have skilled workers who could engineer siege weapons, such as battering rams and catapults and siege towers and other related weapons.  It was a responsibility of the physical army to be skilled in battering the walls of the wicked just as it is the responsibility of the godly to be capable of tearing down the emotional towers and intellectual strongholds of the spiritual fortresses of the wicked, bringing every thought into captivity to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).  Ultimately, physical and spiritual warfare are fought under the same principles and according to the same biblical standard.

Finally, let us examine that the promise to Israel is of victory.  Israel was not expected to huddle behind its fortresses afraid of defeat and hanging on by a threat while heathen nations ruled all around.  Israel was expected to be victorious–the gates of the wicked enemies of Israel were promised to fall before their forces, and not stand proud and unconquered.  The same promise is true of spiritual Israel (Matthew 16:18).  We will be victorious, and God is our strength and might, and so the strongholds of the wicked will not restrain the advance and conquest of His Kingdom until it covers all creation, leaving no realm free from His rule and authority.

Conclusions For Part Two

Let us briefly examine the point that the second half of Deuteronomy 20 is making about the Israelite way of war.  First, warfare was divided into two types–ordinary warfare and holy warfare.  Additionally, there were special requirements made for siege warfare.  Under ordinary warfare, terms of surrender were to be offered and if rejected all men of fighting age were to be slaughtered while women, children, and all the property of the defeated city were to belong to the victorious army of Israel.   Under holy warfare, everything that drew breath–every animal and human being–was to be utterly destroyed in enforcement of the divinely commanded death penalty.  Lest we think that standard too harsh and barbaric, God promises to limit the enforcement of that standard only for the sake of the elect (Matthew 24:21-22, see note #2 below).  Finally, the Bible provides standards of biblical siege warfare that are applicable both to physical and spiritual warfare and that allow for the economic use of conquered lands to remain for the Israelites to profit from.  Though we might find this particular section of scripture to be among the harshest, we must remember that all of God’s law is applicable to us today for doctrine and practice (Matthew 5:17-20, 2 Timothy 3:16-17), including this law.


[2] This requires some explanation.  Though the principle of herem warfare is little understood now, Malachi 4:5-6 gives a solemn account of this standard of warfare and how it relates to the plan of God:  “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of that great and dreadful day of the Lord.  And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”  The word for curse used in Malachi 4:6 is herem, for doomed or set apart for destruction.  This is not a garden variety curse.  Lest we think that this severe curse is merely an “old covenant” matter, let us examine the parallel scripture in Matthew 24:21-22, which explains it much the same way as in Malachi:  “For then there will be great tribulation, such as not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.  And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.”  God is not playing games–the standard of herem warfare for those who are flagrant and unrepentant enemies of God remains valid, and let us pray that we may escape condemnation under that judgment, and that we may be numbered among the elect who escape destruction.

[3] The inhabitants of the city of Gibeon tricked the Israelites into making peace with them by pretending to be a far off city offering tribute (see Deuteronomy 20:10-15) rather than a city subject to herem warfare (Joshua 9:3-15).  Even after the deception was uncovered, the permanent treaty was valid, as it had the force of God’s protection, despite the unhappiness of the Israelites (Joshua 9:16-27), who forced the Gibeonites into slavery but protected them from the armies of the other cities of the area under the terms of the treaty they signed under false pretenses.  It is probably not coincidental that it was the Benjaminite inhabitants of Gibeon which in Judges 19:22-30 committed a crime that nearly led to the destruction of that tribe for their abominations.  Saul himself, the first (legitimate) king of Israel, was a Benjaminite from Gibeah (1 Samuel 11:4) whose refusal to conduct herem warfare against the Amalekites led to his rejection as Israel’s king (1 Samuel 15:10-35).  Interestingly enough, Saul’s murder of seven Gibeonites led to troubles in David’s reign, forcing the death of seven members of his own family in order to pay the bloodguilt for their murders (2 Samuel 21:1-14).  Ironically enough, Saul showed greater zeal in killing those whose death penalty had been covered by a perpetual treaty than those whom God had explicitly put under the penalty of total destruction.  Some people have the wrong priorities.

[4] The city of Shechem was an important one to Israel.  The blessings and the cursings were to be read out from Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, respectively, both just outside of Shechem (Deuteronomy 27:11-13).  Likewise, Shechem was the place where Joshua gave his final warning and exhortation to the people of Israel before his death, after the initial conquest of the Promised Land (Joshua 24:1-28).  Unfortunately, Shechem was also the place where an alliance between the half-Canaanite son of Gibeon (Abimelech) and the Canaanite inhabitants of that city led to the establishment of a corrupt monarchy and eventually civil war within Israel (see Judges 9).  Later on, Shechem was the first capital of the heathen northern kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:25).  Shechem was clearly an example of a city whose pagan culture led Israel astray into sin.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical Art of War, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Deuteronomy 20:10-20: The Principles of Biblical Warfare Part Two: How To Fight Biblical Holy War

  1. Pingback: Fragmented Book Reviews: Part Three | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Swords And Hilt Weapons | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: The Gospel Of Matthew Is A Long Way From The Koran, Or The Strange Ignorance Of Victor Davis Hanson | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s