In part 1 and part 2 of this series on Deuteronomy 20, we learned that Israel’s priests and army officers are to address the army before battle. Now God gives them some instructions about how to carry out battle. If you aren’t aware of these passages of Scripture, brace yourselves, as they can be shocking.
In verses 10-18, God refers to two kinds of enemies. Those that are far away, and those nearby. Israel was to handle them very differently.
First, in verses 10-15, when Israel goes to war against nations far away, make them an offer of peace, and if they accept, all the enemy’s people will be subject to forced labor and work for Israel. Is God condoning slavery?
But if the people in the faraway nation refuse Israel’s offer of peace, and they engage Israel in battle, God says Israel is to lay siege to the city. When God delivers the city to Israel, he says they should kill all the men, but keep everything else for themselves: women, children, animals, and possessions. Do you feel like it is hard to read a passage like this where God is approving such devastation? I really struggle with it. But it is about to get worse.
Next in verses 16-18, God moves his focus from the nations far away, and now directs Israel’s attention to those enemies nearby. He is referring to the nations who currently lived in the Promised Land of Canaan that they were about to enter. About those nations, God says, kill them all, total destruction, period. He also tells them why they are to take this severe action. “To keep yourselves from worshiping their gods and sinning against God.”
Whew. Enslavement of people. Total decimation in war. This is isn’t the first time we encountered this concept. It came up in 2017 when we studied Deuteronomy chapters 2, 3, and 7. I remember thinking, at the time, how often should a pastor preach about Old Testament holy war? I have wondered numerous times throughout this Deuteronomy series if I made a mistake choosing to preach through it.
I’m not going to rehash it here. If you want you can read the post here in which I discuss options for interpreting these passages. As you’ll read there, I don’t feel there is any satisfying way to understand these instances where God commands holy war leading to total decimation of foreign peoples. I do want to say this, though: war is always devastating. Our nation has fought wars like our Civil War where we slaughtered each other. And we’ve slaughtered other nations, including civilians in other nations, such as dropping atomic bombs on Japan. I say that simply to bring up the reality that war is always awful. We need to remember that when we consider the question I’m going to ask now: how should Christians approach the concept of war?
Can we find anything in Deuteronomy 20 that will help us? Take note that in Deuteronomy 20, Israel is making war. They are going out and starting war. They are about to enter into someone else’s land and try to capture it. Is that right? Why would God do that at all?
Let’s quickly go back to Egypt 40 years before. At the time Israel was a nation of slaves. God rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and when we hear that, we are cheering God. Freedom for the enslaved. Yes! But that raises a huge logistical question: where would this nation go once they have been freed? We’re talking about a nation that is likely a couple million people. That’s enough people to fill a large city. That many people need a land that can sustain them, so they can’t just go into the desert. But the fertile land nearby, land that could provide for them, is already occupied. Who is going to say, “2 million people, here you can have our land. It’s all yours now, and we will just leave and say goodbye”? Not going to happen. It’s like the Syrian refugee migration in Europe. It’s a massive logistical situation.
So what does God do? God gives Israel a land that had been in their family history, the land of Canaan, the land where their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived. He calls it the Promised Land. God is essentially saying, “Israel, I am returning land to you that was previously yours.” But they lived in that land over 400 years before. In 400 years time, when they were in Egypt, things had changed. New peoples and towns and cities and nations lived in that land now. So Israel wasn’t going to be able to walk back in and say, “Alright people, we’re back! You can go away now.” Nope. It was going to be a fight. Here’s the question, though. Was that a just cause? I don’t know that I can answer that. Some say yes, and some say no. Some might say, “Yes, that was their land originally, and they have every right to want it back, and to fight for it.” Others might say, “No, that was 400 years ago. I’m glad they are not slaves any longer, but they chose to leave Canaan looking for food in Egypt, and they have no right to now go back to Canaan and claim it as their own.” Still another might remind us that God is involved, giving the land to them. The whole earth is the Lord’s so he can give it to whomever he desires. Still we have to ask: Is it right for God to have Israel totally decimate the people in the land so God can give it to them? Is that just? What kind of God would do that? So we are back to that difficult issue. How should Christians think about war?
Frankly, I don’t find any material in Deuteronomy 20 that is helpful to Christians who are seeking to form a distinctly Christian viewpoint on war. Instead Christians must head over to the New Testament, and that is where we are going next, in part 4.