In this chapter, we hear about the different rules applicable to regular wars versus holy wars. But the preparation is common to both.

Moses assures his people that numbers and weaponry won’t matter because God is on their side. So the people should not be afraid if they see larger armies, even if they have horses and chariots. This is reminiscent of the story in Numbers 13 and Numbers 14, where the scouts bring back reports of giants and the people are punished for being hesitant to run in guns blazing.

Before going into battle, the priest first must give his inspirational speech: “Hear, O Israel, you draw near this day to battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint; do not fear, or tremble, or be in dread of them; for the Lord your God is he that goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory” (v.3-4).

After this, the officers are to send home any man who has:

  • built a new house and not yet dedicated it
  • planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its fruit
  • betrothed a wife but not yet “taken her” (v.7)

Just in case they should die and some other dude get their stuff.

They should also be sent home if they are “fearful and fainthearted” (v.8). According to my study Bible, this is because the numbers don’t matter, but faith does. Given God’s track record when it comes to doubt or reticence, this seems rather rational.

War

When fighting cities “which are not cities of the nations here” (v.15) – in other words, outside of the Promised Land – they must first offer terms of peace. Of course, these terms of peace aren’t exactly nice. If the city accepts the terms, they must open their gates and all become slaves.

If they refuse the terms, battle ensues. If (“when”) the Hebrews win, they must kill all the men, but they can keep the women, children, cattle, and “everything else in the city” (v.14) as spoils.

Holy War

When fighting against the current residents of the Promised Land, the terms are a little different. Here, nothing that breathes can be left, er… breathing. No terms of peace can be offered. The Hebrews are simply to attack and “utterly destroy” the people of the city.

The seizure of Edessa in Syria by the Byzantine army and the Arabic counterattack, from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes

The seizure of Edessa in Syria by the Byzantine army and the Arabic counterattack, from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes

The reason given in the narrative is concern that anyone left alive might then tempt Hebrews away from God – teaching them “their abominable practices” (v.18). Though I wonder how, say, a 2 month old baby would pose any such threat. The inclusion does make some distasteful sense, though, if written from the perspective of a scholar in King Josiah’s court. Coming from a future vantage point, and having seen so many years of attempts to squash local, non-authorised religious practices, I imagine that it must have seemed to them desirable that the Hebrews had just tabula rasa‘d the crap out of the country before settling down.

Regardless, it recalls the instructions in Deuteronomy 13 regarding cities that follow other gods. There, it’s specified that all the inhabitants and their cattle must be killed, and all their possessions burned. When this chapter says that “nothing that breathes” (v.16) can be left alive, I imagine that this would include the cattle as well. And, certainly, the situations do seem like enough to each other.

While I thought that this requirement had to do with discouraging accusations of heresy as an excuse for pillaging, here my study Bible argues that it has to do with offering up the conquered city as a sacrifice to God.

Berend de Boer, over at SAB Answered, argues that the reason for this is that God was using the Hebrews as an instrument to punish the people being invaded. Of course, the big problem with this line of reasoning is that the text was written by the victors. If a war’s winner tells you that they are guiltless because they were merely instruments of God in punishing evil, always be wary.

But there’s a big difference between this chapter and Deuteronomy 13. Here, while besieging a city, the Hebrews are not to destroy any fruit-bearing trees (they can eat the fruit, but not use the wood to build siege weapons). Only non-food trees can be cut down. Given how long it can take for a fruit tree to start baring fruit, it certainly makes sense that an invading army would want to keep those resources that are pre-existing.