Soldiers are hardy, rugged fighters, right? They train to kill, learning not only weaponry, but also hand to hand combat. But what we will find out is that God has some surprising news for Israel’s officers. Some soldiers need to be in their gardens.
In part 1 of this series, we read that right before the Israelite army engaged the enemy in battle, their priests would give them a final pep talk, directing them to remember that God is with them, fighting for them. Now in part 2, we continue in Deuteronomy 20, looking at verses 5-9 where we read that the officers of the army also speak to the soldiers. Chronologically, however, this speech by the officers likely happened before the priests spoke. The scene is back at camp, before the army gets close to battle. In these verses the officers are to let people go home who are not qualified to fight!
God lists specific categories of people who would not be qualified to fight: those who built new homes, those who planted new vineyards, those who are engaged to be married, and those who are fainthearted. All these men can go home, and don’t have to fight.
Is this simply a description of troop selection that is wise or pragmatic for war? Or could we say that this is a description of God’s heart for his people to enjoy life and not be forced beyond what they are capable of? I suspect this surprising directive is both wise and caring. God knows that those who are distracted will not be quality soldiers. Their heart and mind will be elsewhere. The fainthearted could really bring down the morale of the other soldiers, maybe even spook them out. So let them go home. Keep only those who are ready and willing to serve. In Deuteronomy 24 this will come up again, when God says that after a man is married, he is not allowed to fight for a whole year. There again we see God’s heart to provide a good foundation to a new family.
This thinning out of the ranks requires the army to have quite an amazing trust in God, doesn’t it? Think about it. What kind of army reduces its numbers? In the face of battle, that is ridiculous. You want to sustain or, even better, increase your numbers. So the officers push their soldiers hard, even the ones that are fainthearted or missing home or scared. They say, “You want to go home to your wife and garden? Ha! No way. Buck up, buddy, this is what you signed up for. We’ve got a mission, and you’re going to give your all to help accomplish it.” But maybe the soldier didn’t sign up for the army. Maybe they were drafted into the military? There are plenty of times in our country’s history when people had no choice but to serve. There are many countries around the world today where every single person has mandatory military service, often for two years. No choice!
It is amazing, then, to hear God say that he wants the officers to reduce the size of the army. I can imagine plenty of stalwart officers, when they heard Moses giving this part of his teaching, thinking, “This is insane. Every able-bodied person over 20 should be in the army, period. God, you want to let people go home? They’re all going to say they want to go home.” But that’s God, caring for his people, and wanting them to trust in him. The officers, then, must let people out of the army!
That means those officers and soldiers who stay are going into battle with reduced numbers. They are going to have place their trust in God. You don’t trust in numbers, God is saying, you trust in me. A smaller army with God on its side is in no danger against a much larger more powerful enemy.
And that enemy is who God addresses next. Now that the army is prepared, trusting in God, he gives them very curious instructions about battle, which we’ll study in part 3.