Notes & Commentary:
Ver. 1. Egypt. Hence it appears that the doctrine of the Quakers, who condemn all wars, is contrary to that of God. If they were always essentially unlawful, He would never have authorized them. (Haydock)
Ver. 2. Priest. Eleazar, the high priest, acted in this capacity in the war against Madian, and sounded the trumpet, as it was not beneath his dignity. Many priests always attended the army, (Calmet) the captain of whom (Haydock) first made the declarations (ver. 5, 6, 7,) to the whole army; and these were repeated by the inferior priests at the head of each company, when the army was set in array. So were also the promises of protection, (ver. 3, 4,) when all were ready for battle. The Rabbins assert, that the option was granted only in those wars which were undertaken without the express command of God, and that officers were placed in the rear with hatchets or scythes, to cut the legs of those who attempted to flee. (Grotius; &c.) — But this seems to be an invention of their own, and Moses makes no distinction between voluntary wars and those of precept. These regulations were, no doubt, observed, though the sacred historians do not mention the particulars. (Calmet) See 1 Machabees iii. 56.
Ver. 3. Back. Hebrew, “do not quake,” (Haydock) or fall into disorder, hurry, &c.
Ver. 4. God. All must be done in his name, by the direction of his ministers. The Jews pretend that the ark was carried, in the midst of the army. But this does not seem to have been generally the case. (Calmet) — Of you. “We must co-operate, being assisted” by God, as St. Augustine (q. 30,) observes, in our spiritual conflicts. (Du Hamel)
Ver. 5. Captains. Hebrew, “shoterim, (Septuagint grammateis,) shall proclaim to the people.” Whether these were the chief officers, or only heralds, does not appear. (Calmet) — They were probably the priests attached to the army, ver. 2. See chap. i. 15. (Haydock) — Dedicate it. Hebrew, “begin to use it,” on which occasion a feast was made. (Jansenius) — Psalm xxix seems to have been intended for such a solemnity. At the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem, great rejoicings were made, 2 Esdras xii. 27. Josephus and the Rabbins allow a whole year for the occupation of the house, before the builder or new owner, could be obliged to go to war, in like manner as that term is specified for a person who had lately married a wife, chap. xxiv.5. The ancient Greeks deemed it a great misfortune to leave a house unfinished and a new wife desolate, which was the case of Protesilaus. (Homer, Iliad i.)
Ver. 6. Common. Hebrew, “hath not profaned it.” (Menochius) — During the three first years, the fruit was not eaten. In the fourth it was sacred to the Lord, and given to the priests, so that the owner could not partake of the fruit till the fifth year, when it ceased to be in a manner sacred. Jonathan translates, “and has not redeemed it,” by paying the first-fruits of the fifth year. Septuagint, “has not rejoiced in it,” by feasting, as was probably the custom at the first vintage. Other fruit-trees entitled the owner to the like privilege. (Schikard., Jus. reg. 5.) — Whereof all may eat, is added by the Vulgate to explain what is meant by common. (Calmet)
Ver. 7. Taken her. It was customary to leave the espoused virgin in her father’s house for the space of a year, (during which time, if she proved unfaithful, she was punished like an adulteress, chap. xxii. 23, &c.) and she could not be given till she was 12 years old. If she were 13 complete, when she was asked in marriage, she was only obliged to wait 30 days. (Selden, Uxor. ii. 1.) (Chap. xxv. 5.) Philo allows this immunity from war, only to those who had espoused a virgin. They were also freed from paying taxes, mending roads, &c., chap. xxix. 5. (Calmet) — Those who are entangled with worldly cares, are apt to discourage the valiant, and to dissuade fighting, for fear of losing these advantages: much more are those in danger who have to fight for a heavenly kingdom, if they be too much attached to the things of the earth. (Worthington; Haydock) — “That man who is enslaved to his wife, cannot serve in the warfare of the Lord.” (St. Jerome, contra Jov. i.)
Ver. 8. Fear. Such often occasion the loss of battles. Alexander sent away all who had not courage to follow him in his expeditions. (Curt. x.) The Rabbins condemn these faint-hearted soldiers to carry water, &c., for the army, to prepare the roads and places for encampments. (Calmet) — But this seems contrary to the intention of the lawgiver, who sends them back to their houses.
Ver. 9. Man. Hebrew and Septuagint, “when the officers have made an end of speaking to the people, they shall appoint captains of the armies to lead forth the people.” (Haydock) — It seems rather late to have this to do, when the battle was ready to commence, unless perhaps the whole was arranged in a general assembly, when no one was at the head of the people, (Calmet) as was sometimes the case in the days of the judges. (Haydock) — Hebrew of the Massorets implies, “The princes of the army shall make a review (or take down the numbers) at the head of the people.”
Ver. 10. Peace. Interpreters are not agreed whether this law was general, and included the nations whom God had ordered the Hebrews to exterminate, or not. They were nothing but the executioners of his decree. They were commanded not to marry any of their daughters, but to put all to fire and sword, Exodus xxxiv. 15, 16. The cities which were not assigned to them for a possession, were to be treated in a different manner; (ver. 15,) and hence the Gabaonites, being convinced that they were comprised in the number of the devoted cities, pretended that they came from a great distance. Josue (ix. 4, 7,) and the heads of the people, acknowledge that they could not make a league with those nations whose lands they were to possess. Yet the Gemarra of Jerusalem asserts, that Josue proposed to the Chanaanites, “flight, peace, or war.” The Gergesites hereupon fled into Africa, the Gabaonites accepted peace, and 31 kings declared for war. (Selden, Jur. vi. 13.) — Maimonides and Grotius (Jur. ii. 13,) maintain, that no war can be lawful, unless an offer of peace be made. The latter undertakes to prove, that the commands respecting the Chanaanites were conditional, and presupposed that they would not yield to the terms which were offered. Hence Rahab was saved, the league with the Gabaonites was kept, even after it was known who they really were. Solomon, who conquered some of the surviving Chanaanites, did not think himself bound to destroy them, 3 Kings ix. 2., and 2 Paralipomenon viii. 7. The reason why they seem to be consigned to death without pity, is because God foresaw their evil disposition, as Josue (xi. 20,) insinuates, and the Israelites under his eye gave quarter to some Chanaanites. “War, says St. Augustine, (ep. 189. ad Bonif.) is waged only that peace may be obtained.” But these arguments do not seem so convincing, as to take away the opposition which God has established between these devoted nations and others, ver. 15. What he commands cannot be unjust, and the army only executes his sentence. (St. Augustine in Jos. q. 10.) Grotius allows that he foresaw the obstinacy of the Chanaanites, so that it would have been useless to offer them any terms; and in effect, we find no vestiges of any being offered in the books of Moses or of Josue. (Calmet) — Yet see chap. xxi. 10. (Haydock) — The Israelites might have many reasons for going to war either with their brethren, or with foreign nations, as to punish a heinous crime, a rebellion, &c. (see Judges xx., 2 Kings x. 4, and xx. 15,) on which occasions they were bound to offer terms. (Calmet) — “A wise man ought to try every expedient before he takes up arms.” (Terence.)
Ver. 11. Tribute. This was usually imposed by the victor, to defray the expenses of the war, and to prevent its breaking out again. The kings of Moab had to pay 100,000 rams, and as many sheep, to the kings of Juda, 4 Kings iii. 4. Hiram gave 120 talents of gold to Solomon, by way of tribute, 3 Kings ix. 15. Josue and Solomon condemned some of the Chanaanites to manual labour, 2 Paralipomenon viii. 8.
Ver. 12. Besiege it. The Rabbins assert, that when the city of Madian was attacked in the days of Moses, one side was left unmolested, that the inhabitants might escape, and that this practice was afterwards observed as a law. But we see nothing of the kind in Scripture.
Ver. 14. Excepting women, &c. These were supposed incapable of making any resistance, or of carrying arms. Slaves also were excused, on account of their want of liberty to choose for themselves, and old men, unless the war was undertaken by their advice. “I am not accustomed to wage war with captives, nor with women,” said Alexander. (Curt. 5.)
Ver. 16. Live. Hebrew, “thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.” Josephus ([Antiquities?] iv. 8.) acknowledges that all were to be slain; though some of the Rabbins have supposed that they might be spared, if they would abandon idols, &c.
Ver. 17. Jebusite. Samaritan and Septuagint add, “the Gergesite.” (Calmet)
Ver. 19. Not a man. Hebrew, “the tree of the field, man.” Which the Protestants supply, “is man’s life to employ them in the siege.” Septuagint, “is the tree….a man?” (Haydock) — We might render the Hebrew, “as for the tree of the field, it shall come to thy assistance in the siege,” ver. 20. (Haydock) — They are “like men,” and may be of great service in making warlike engines. They are here contrasted with fruit-trees, which must not be cut down, unless they be in the way, or of service to the enemy. All other things of the same nature, as houses, corn, water, &c., must be spared, as well as those who do not bear arms. Yet God ordered the houses to be demolished in the war with the Moabites, 4 Kings iii. 19. (Calmet) — Pythagoras enjoins his disciples not to spoil a fruit tree. Jamblic and the greatest generals have complied with this advice. (Calmet)
Ver. 20. Engines. Hebrew matsor. Besieged cities were surrounded with palisades, for which a great deal of wood was requisite, Luke xix. 45. Josephus (Jewish Wars v. 31,) informs us, that Titus surrounded Jerusalem with a wall in the space of three days, having cut down the wood all around. See 4 Kings vi., and xvii., and xxv., and Ezechiel xxvi. 7. (Calmet)
Bible Text & Cross-references:
Laws relating to war.
1 If thou go out to war against thy enemies, *and see horsemen and chariots, and the numbers of the enemy’s army greater than thine, thou shalt not fear them: because the Lord thy God is with thee, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt.
2 And when the battle is now at hand, the priest shall stand before the army, and shall speak to the people in this manner:
3 Hear, O Israel, you join battle this day against your enemies, let not your heart be dismayed, be not afraid, do not give back, fear ye them not:
4 Because the Lord your God is in the midst of you, and will fight for you against your enemies, to deliver you from danger.
5 And the captains shall proclaim through every band, in the hearing of the army: *What man is there, that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go, and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.
6 What man is there, that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not as yet made it to be common, whereof all men may eat? let him go, and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man execute his office.
7 What man is there, that hath espoused a wife, and not taken her? let him go, and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man take her.
8 After these things are declared, they shall add the rest, and shall speak to the people: *What man is there, that is fearful, and faint-hearted? let him go, and return to his house, lest he make the hearts of his brethren to fear, as he himself is possessed with fear.
9 And when the captains of the army shall hold their peace, and have made an end of speaking, every man shall prepare their bands to fight.
10 If at any time thou come to fight against a city, thou shalt first offer it peace.
11 If they receive it, and open the gates to thee, all the people that are therein shall be saved, and shall serve thee, paying tribute.
12 But if they will not make peace, and shall begin war against thee, thou shalt besiege it,
13 And when the Lord thy God shall deliver it into thy hands, thou shalt slay all that are therein of the male sex, with the edge of the sword,
14 Excepting women and children, cattle and other things, that are in the city. And thou shalt divide all the prey to the army, and thou shalt eat the spoils of thy enemies, which the Lord thy God shall give thee.
15 So shalt thou do to all cities that are at a great distance from thee, and are not of these cities which thou shalt receive in possession.
16 But of those cities that shall be given thee, thou shalt suffer none at all to live:
17 But shalt kill them with the edge of the sword, to wit, the Hethite, and the Amorrhite, and the Chanaanite, the Pherezite, and the Hevite, and the Jebusite, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
18 Lest they teach you to do all the abominations which they have done to their gods: and you should sin against the Lord your God.
19 When thou hast besieged a city a long time, and hath compassed it with bulwarks, to take it, thou shalt not cut down the trees that may be eaten of, neither shalt thou spoil the country round about with axes: for it is a tree, and not a man, neither can it increase the number of them that fight against thee.
20 But if there be any trees that are not fruitful, but wild, and fit for other uses, cut them down, and make engines, until thou take the city, which fighteth against thee.
1: Year of the World 2553.
5: 1 Machabees iii. 56.
8: Judges vii. 3.