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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

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Commentary on Deuteronomy

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Commentary spanning earlier chapters

20.1–20 : Rules for waging holy war.

In contrast to other legal collections, which include only brief sections concerning military engagement (Ex 23.23–33; 34.11–16; Num 35.50–56 ), Deuteronomy, reflecting a literary setting of Israel about to enter the land, concerns itself extensively with the laws of holy war. God as divine warrior directly confronts the adversary on behalf of the nation, and God's presence in the camp imposes additional purity requirements on the people ( 23.10–14 ). The holy war is fought to extirpate iniquity and to create a covenantal community organized by divine law (Lev 18.24–29; 20.22–24 ). Accordingly, seizing the spoils of war, including human prisoners, is prohibited; all had to be devoted exclusively to God, like the “whole burnt offering” ( 13.16 ). Contemporary inscriptions like the Moabite Stone (ca. 850 BCE) establish that similar theologies of holy war were shared by a number of nations. In Deuteronomy, the conception of the conquest as a holy war represents a highly schematized idealization, formulated half a millennium after the settlement, at a time when ethnic Canaanites would already long have assimilated into the Israelite population.

1 :

Horses and chariots, the adversary is superior both in numbers and in military equipment (see Ex 14.9; 15.4; Josh 11.4 ). Army, lit. “people.”

3–4 :

See 9.1–3; 31.3–6 ; cf. Ex 14.14 ,25; 15.1–4 .

5–9 :

A reverse muster, designed to thin the ranks by removing conscripts who have competing priorities because they are in a transitional state.

5 :

Dedicated (or “inaugurated”), although Solomon's dedication of the Temple is narrated (1 Kings 8 ), there are no specific rituals of home dedication recorded in the Bible. The parallel curse employs “live” ( 28.30 ).

6 :

Enjoyed its fruit, priestly law required that newly planted fruit trees could only be harvested in the fifth year (Lev 19.23–25 ).

7 :

Engaged … married, see 22.13–30n.

8 :

Comrades, lit. “brothers,” to which Deuteronomy frequently, and distinctively, gives the meaning, “fellow citizens” (cf. 24.7 ); NRSV also translates the same word as “neighbor” ( 15.7,9,11; 22.1–4; 24.13; 25.3 ) and “Israelite” ( 23.19–20; 24.14 ).

11 :

The use of a defeated people for forced labor was widespread. Israelites so used the indigenous population of Canaan (Judg 1.27–36 ). David's cabinet included an official responsible for “forced labor” (2 Sam 20.24 ).

15–18 :

Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, a secondary addition retroactively restricts the preceding rules of engagement (vv. 10–14 ), which tolerate the taking of captives as “forced labor,” so that they apply only to foreign wars. The stipulation that the indigenous population of Canaan should uniformly be exterminated is a literary fiction (see v. 11n.; 7.2n. ).

15 :

The nations, the Canaanites. Here, on the anachronism, see 1.1n.; 2.12n.

16 :

But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord … is giving you refers to the inhabitants of the land (v. 17 ).

17 :

You shall annihilate them, the Heb phrase is elsewhere translated as “utterly destroy” ( 7.2; 13.15 ).

19–20 :

Wars often involved the kind of “scorched earth policy” prohibited here (2 Kings 3.19,25 ).

20 :

Siegeworks were regularly built against walled cities (1 Sam 20.15; 2 Kings 25.1 ).

5.1–33 : The revelation at Sinai/Horeb.

Ostensibly a retelling of Ex 19–20 , this version introduces significant changes in both detail and theology. The central idea is that God publicly reveals the law to the entire nation across boundaries of gender, race, and class, including non‐Israelites (Ex 12.38 ). Near Eastern legal collections, in contrast, were attributed to a human monarch and were concerned to preserve class distinctions. Moreover, a deity disclosing himself to an entire nation was unprecedented. The Decalogue has God address each Israelite individually as a grammatically masculine singular “you,” rather than the expected plural. In contrast to Near Eastern law, the prohibitions are universal and absolute: The aim of the law is to transform society by creating a moral community in which murder, theft, etc. will no longer exist. Obedience to God's will (vv. 6–16 ) demands active respect for the integrity of the neighbor (vv. 17–21 ). The editing drives home the point that there is no access to God or revelation without mediation and interpretation (vv. 5,28–32 ), preserving two mutually independent viewpoints about whether God spoke directly to the people (v. 4 ) or only through the mediation of Moses (v. 5n. ). Similarly, the editing retains a debate about the terror involved in hearing directly the divine voice (vv. 24–25 ).

5.1–5 : Making the past present.

3 :

Not with our ancestors … but with us, inconsistent with the earlier emphasis that the generation who experienced these events has now died off ( 2.14–15 ). The aim is to overcome the limits of historical time and place through participation in the covenant, which makes revelation “present” (see 4.9n.; 29.14–15n. ). Our ancestors may refer either to the Exodus generation ( 2.14–15n. ) or to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ( 1.11n. ).

5 :

NRSV suggests that the first sentence intends merely to clarify v. 4 . More likely, it presents an independent view that challenges the assumption of v. 4 . I was standing between … you, contrast “face to face” (v. 4 ). You … did not go up the mountain, contradicting v. 4 , “with you … at the mountain” (Heb). And he said, in Hebrew, the original transition from the end of v. 4 directly to the Decalogue.

5.6–21 : The Decalogue.

This version differs at several points from that in Ex 20.2–17 .

7–10 :

See 4.15–31n.

9 :

Punishment for sins against God extends across three generations. This principle of vicarious punishment contrasts sharply with the Israelite norm for civil and criminal law, which restricts punishment to the agent alone ( 24.16 ). Later layers of tradition challenged this theological principle of divine justice (see 7.10n.; Jer 31.29–30; Ezek 18 ).

10 :

Steadfast love or “grace,” loyalty of action as an expectation of the covenant (2 Sam 7.15; Hos 6.6 ). Who love me, technical language of Near Eastern treaties, whereby “love” refers to the loyalty of action that the vassal owes the sovereign.

11 :

The intent is to prohibit careless use of the divine name in the context of swearing an oath (“May God do X to me unless I do Y”); such oaths were viewed as legally binding (see Judg 11.29–40 ).

12 :

Observe, contrast Ex 20.8 .

14 :

The law equally benefits slaves and non‐Israelites ( 1.16n.; 15.15; 16.11; 24.17 ).

15 :

Contrast the rationale provided for the sabbath at Ex 20.11 . Deuteronomy here, as elsewhere, emphasizes the Exodus as a central motivation for religious and social practices.

16 :

As … commanded you, the ostensible precise repetition of the Decalogue here diverges from the original (Ex 20.12 ) by shifting to the perspective of Moses as speaker, whose annotation is now included in the revelation.

17 :

Murder is correct; text note a is an inaccurate translation (“kill,” as a global prohibition).

18 :

The absolute prohibition of adultery transforms it from the breach of the contractual rights of the woman's husband into an offense against both God and the larger community. Near Eastern law normally granted the husband the sole right of deciding whether to execute or otherwise punish the wife for adultery (see Laws of Hammurabi § 129). Biblical law here removes the wife from the disposal of the husband and grants her the status of legal person (see 22.22n. ).

21 :

Wife … house, contrast the sequence of Ex 20.17 .

5.22–33 : Moses as mediator.

While the Decalogue was given directly to the people (v. 4; 4.10–13 ), the rest of the laws were mediated to the people by Moses, at their plea (v. 27; 4.14 ).

23–27 :

4.33; cf. Ex 20.18–21 .

24–25 :

An awkward juxtaposition; v. 24 may be an insertion reflecting 4.33 . The anxiety explains the request that Moses serve as mediator.

28–31 :

The idea that Moses mediates between God and the people will be used in two ways: to justify the laws that Moses subsequently propounds as revelation (chs 12–26 ), and to justify the institution of “Mosaic” prophecy ( 18.15–22 ).

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