Warriors and Deuteronomy 20

Hermeneutically, new covenant instruction to Christian warriors supersedes old covenant material (Jer 31:31-34; Gal 3:15-4:7; Rom 6:14-15; Heb 8:6-13). As the above discussion has established, the new covenant affirms and guides the godly warrior.[1] Through the lens of the new covenant, the Christian reader should study the principles and practices of warriors in the old covenant such as those in Deuteronomy 20.[2]

Deuteronomy 20 was Israel’s strategic guidance for warfighting.[3] In the face of war, God calls His people to reject their own strength and ability, place their trust in Him in spite of fear and  fin confidence in God’s presence with them in combat (Deut 20:1-4). For Israel, combat is a spiritual endeavor requiring the presence of spiritual figures, words of spiritual comfort, and faith in divine intervention (Deut 20:1-4).[4] Israel was no stranger to the emotions of war, they recognized the viral nature of fear and the need to combat it with truth, trust, and confidence (Deut 20:3-4, 8).[5]

God is a warrior: this truth should rest deeply in the souls of uniform-wearers (Deut 20:4). He understands the rigors of war, the impact of the sacrifices on homes and families, and the need to protect domestic stability (Deut 20:6-7).[6] He appoints leadership for good order and discipline and urges that peace take precedence over war (Deut 20:9-15).[7] At times, war is the vehicle of God’s judgment which undergirds the call to proportionality and avoiding undue damage to the innocent and the environment (Deut 20:16-20).[8]

The war principles of Deuteronomy 20 concern three dimensions of warrior health: vertical, horizontal, and internal. Recognition of the divine-human dynamic in combat is essential as the warrior must know his standing before God, the role of his abilities, the place of dependence, and the reality of being mortal. The warfighter must acknowledge the horizontal impact of his actions and affirm the inherent dignity in others, strive for peace, and engage with proportionality. Finally, the warrior must strive to keep his soul intact in the face of combat. Healthy family relationships, obedience to God, good order and discipline, and adherence to a moral code are essential for interior warrior health.


[1]After a review of John the Baptist’s instruction to soldiers (Lk 3:14) and Paul’s instruction on sword-bearing vocations (Rom 13:1-7), Luther concludes: “Clearly then the waging of war is confirmed by God’s word and command in the New Testament as well. Those who use war rightly and fight obediently are obedient to his word and serve God by doing so.” Luther, Can Christians Be Soldiers, 24. Furnish, “War and Peace in the New Testament,” 377, 379.

[2]Further examples include Deuteronomy 21:10-14, 23:9-15, and 24:5. Christopher Zeichmann, provides an extensive review of NT scholarship on soldiering and suggests that this is an untapped area of research. He argues that the Roman Army was an important fixture in New Testament times. He anticipates that focused attention on this NT theme will yield significant fruit. This line of research and study will certainly provide deeper insight into the topic at hand. Christopher B. Zeichmann, Essential Essays for the Study of the Military in First-Century Palestine: Soldiers and the New Testament Context (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2019), xi-xv. See also, Punt, “Paul, Military Imagery and Social Disadvantage,” 219.

[3]“The chapter makes clear, yet again, that the tradition of Deuteronomy lives in the real world…Here it acknowledges the world of real war and all its hatred of the enemy and its ensuing violence, and makes only a start on relating war to the claims of covenantal faith. This tradition knows that ‘war is hell.’ It is no less ‘hell’ if it is fought in the name of YHWH.” Brueggemann breaks down the strategic guidance into four parts: “(a) preparation for war that is constituted by speech (vv. 1-9), (b) permissible strategies for combat implemented toward an enemy “very far from you” (vv. 10-15), (c) possible strategies for enemies “close at hand” (vv. 16-18), and (d) a concluding coda alert to the environmental costs of war (vv. 19-20).” Walter Brueggemann, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 207.

[4]Ibid, 209. “In terms of troop preparation, this recharacterization of war is accomplished by two preliminary addresses. The first by a priest is perhaps not unlike the address of a military chaplain before combat. The role of the priest is to accent that the ‘either/or’ issues are theological and not military.”

[5]Ibid, 210. “The tradition knows that fearlessness (faith) cannot be commanded and fear cannot be prohibited by mandate. It knows, moreover, that cowardice is contagious. The provision, however, should be understood theologically and not psychologically. This battle is not for ‘the brave,’ but for those who trust YHWH (see Judg 7:3). Those who do not submit to the reassuring sovereignty of YHWH have no place in YHWH’s combat.”

[6]Ibid. “These three provisions reflect Israel’s conviction about the enti­tlement of living a good life; the location of the community must protect the rights of its members to enjoy and complete the mate­rial processes of life. The exemptions are cast with an awareness that if a man is not exempted for these reasons, ‘another man’ will enjoy them. Thus the exemption protects male honor in the community of competing males.”

[7]“Deuteronomy 20:10-14 limits killing to the fighting population and calls for negation prior to attack…[and] reflects the traditional just war criteria, which, while recognizing the necessity of conflict, tries to impose severe restraints on warmaking. This human ruling reflects a universal concern with limiting soldier’s unbridled brutality and demonstrates consideration for the feelings of the captives.” According to Wood, this text is the “first attempt to be found in historical records which regulates the wartime treatment of women…and concern to vegetation.” Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible, 149.

[8]“These laws bespoke a humanitarian idealism that sought to hold in check military abandon, bestiality, destructiveness and cruelty; in addition, they do not emphasize the distinctive peoplehood of the Israelites.” Rofe, “The Laws of Warfare in the Book of Deuteronomy,” 37.

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