Question: Why was Israel instructed about fighting OUTSIDE the land? That looks more offensive than defensive!

[Draft: October 6, 2019]

This came in:

“I just read your piece on “No Welfare” that looped in commentary on this passage (Deut 20:10-15). Your pieces, by the way, are amazing, and the most thorough work I’ve seen! What a fantastic resource you have created!

But it does seem like a stretched inference to say that these verses imply Israel must be defending herself. How can we call a siege a defensive war tactic? I just can’t believe they’re allowed to approach a foreign city in the first place. I’m glad there are limits on the horrors of war, but still.

Do you have any other writing on why this had to be a defensive response? I really hope you are right. :)

Thanks so much!”


I dug into it and here’s what I wrote back:

Great question—no one has asked me that before. And when I did a quick check of the many commentaries I have on that passage, I could not see anybody raising/addressing that question.

Let’s dive into analyzing this:

One. The entire chapter is about warfare, and almost seems self-contained, isolated from the chapters before and after it. It starts out with this conditional clause: “If you go out (yasa) to war against (=before, opposite, towards) your enemy (oyev), and you see horse and chariot and army greater than yours…”

Two. The ‘go out’ word (yasa) refers to (in non-symbolic contexts) ‘going out from a particular locality’ (TWOT, #893]. This would likely connect it with our passage about the cities that are NOT in Israelite territory. This is not required, but the reference to large armies and chariots would point more to the surrounding nations (e.g. Syria, Egypt, Philistine territory) which had large enough population footprints to suggest such, and more plains areas (in which chariots were most effective). The Canaanite cities in the Northern and Southern coalitions would be too small for this to be referring to them.

(These nations could still be ‘mightier than Israel’, though, since that is simply a relative phrasing. The ‘seven nations greater than you’ reference in Deut 7.1 would not contradict this—since most of those ‘nations’ did not have war-chariots and large standing armies.)

Three. The key word, though, is oyev – enemy. This is a strong word beyond attitude. So, TWOT gives ‘to be hostile to’, and it is the root of the word for ‘hatred, enmity’. There are two groups of enemies noted in these discourses: (1) the seven nations INSIDE Canaan (to be disposed by Israel) and (2) the nations AROUND the Israelite territory (not given to Israel, and sometimes explicitly stated as given to others).

So, after Israel is to be settled in their land, they still need the Lord to give them ‘rest’ from the enemies AROUND THEM:

“But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety, 11 then to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the LORD. 12 And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male servants and your female servants, and the Levite that is within your towns” [Dt 12:10–12]

Four. The foreign nations around Israelite territories were not all and were not always enemies. For example, David was able to place his family in Moab (his ancestor Ruth was from there) for safety, while Saul was still pursuing David to kill him (1 Sam 22.4). He had positive relations with Ammon at some point, before Ammon became an enemy again (2 Sam 10).

But probably for the most part, they were enemies and either exploiters themselves (as in Judges) or as allied with other enemies or larger, invading empires (e.g. 2 Sam 10):

“When the Ammonites saw that they had become a stench to David, the Ammonites sent and hired the Syrians of Beth-rehob, and the Syrians of Zobah, 20,000 foot soldiers, and the king of Maacah with 1,000 men, and the men of Tob, 12,000 men. 7 And when David heard of it, he sent Joab and all the host of the mighty men. 8 And the Ammonites came out and drew up in battle array at the entrance of the gate, and the Syrians of Zobah and of Rehob and the men of Tob and Maacah were by themselves in the open country.

9 When Joab saw that the battle was set against him both in front and in the rear, he chose some of the best men of Israel and arrayed them against the Syrians. 10 The rest of his men he put in the charge of Abishai his brother, and he arrayed them against the Ammonites. 11 And he said, “If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come and help you. 12 Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may the LORD do what seems good to him.” 13 So Joab and the people who were with him drew near to battle against the Syrians, and they fled before him. 14 And when the Ammonites saw that the Syrians fled, they likewise fled before Abishai and entered the city. Then Joab returned from fighting against the Ammonites and came to Jerusalem.

15 But when the Syrians saw that they had been defeated by Israel, they gathered themselves together. 16 And Hadadezer sent and brought out the Syrians who were beyond the Euphrates. They came to Helam, with Shobach the commander of the army of Hadadezer at their head. 17 And when it was told David, he gathered all Israel together and crossed the Jordan and came to Helam. The Syrians arrayed themselves against David and fought with him. 18 And the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed of the Syrians the men of 700 chariots, and 40,000 horsemen, and wounded Shobach the commander of their army, so that he died there. 19 And when all the kings who were servants of Hadadezer saw that they had been defeated by Israel, they made peace with Israel and became subject to them. So the Syrians were afraid to save the Ammonites anymore.

Five. So, the foreign cities of our passage (also in V4) are in open/active hostility to Israel, and are walled/fortified with soldiers capable of warfare (v12). Therefore the going outside the boundaries of Israelite territory to neutralize this must have been important enough to disrupt much of civilian activity (i.e. there were no standing armies in Israel at this time, so the soldiers would have to suspend their day-to-day occupations to protect the nation from surprise attacks).

Six. Note that this would not have been a case of imperialism or territory-grabs or colonization. Israel had been forbidden to take the lands of Moab and Ammon, and their borders were set by the Lord Himself.

God had granted these areas to the descendants of Lot, as He had given Edom to Esau. Israel was not allowed to take those lands as an act of imperialism. Only in one case where the nation(s) openly attacked Israel (Bashan / Amorites) was the land given to Israel (the Transjordanian tribes).

But these nations were more-often-than-not hostile to Israel sending raiding parties into the land (cf. Judges) and/or invading to retake areas (e.g. Gideon and the Midianites; Jephthah and the Ammonites; Saul and the Ammonites). They were either a constant threat (to be neutralized via force) or a neutral state (under subjection/allegiance to Israel). There was essentially no middle ground – as witnessed to by the biblical record of conflicts with them!

So, even though Israel could not CONQUER and OCCUPY those land-grant nations, they had to constantly DEFEND themselves against their incursions and invasions. Hence, the relevance of our passage to the individual cities in those nations.

Seven. The fact that a foreign hostile city (pagan, idol worshippers – in the view of Israel’s covenant) was not forced to GIVE PAGANISM UP in the least—if they surrendered-- shows that colonization or ‘conversion’ was not a goal at all. It was simply to get the enemy to capitulate (explicitly in treaty) or to eliminate their military power-soldiers (if they persisted in acting hostile as enemies).

Eight. Israel simply did not have the resources (or authorization) to ‘build an empire’, and even in the high days of David and Solomon (when they DID have adequate resources to do some ‘land-grabbing’) they didn’t pursue that. They had their hands full defending their nation against these foreign nations and cities.

The above case with Ammon’s new king Hanun (son of Nahash) is a case in point.

Even though Nahash had been hostile to Israel earlier, during David’s fleeing from Saul, a treaty must have been created.

“During David’s outlaw period he not only spent time as a Philistine mercenary but also sought out help from Saul’s enemy Nahash of Ammon. This would have involved a pact of mutual nonaggression and support, and would have been of benefit to both David and Nahash. Most treaties found in ancient Near Eastern documents are suzerain treaties in which a stronger state imposes tribute and other obligations on vassal states (see the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon). Some, like the treaty ending the war between Egypt and Hittites in the thirteenth century B.C., recognize “brotherhood” or parity between the two sovereigns (Rameses II and Hattusilis III). Since treaties were considered to be “eternal,” it is not unusual that David would have sent a delegation to Hanun to renew the elements of this agreement. The hostile reaction the diplomats received suggests Ammon’s fear that David wished to transform the treaty from a parity agreement to a suzerain treaty.

“David’s messengers have half their beards shaved (symbolically emasculating them and by extension David) and “their garments [were cut] in the middle at their hips,” leaving them naked like slaves or captives (see Is 20:4). These men were ambassadors and as such were entitled to both respect and diplomatic immunity. What may seem like a “prank” was in fact a direct challenge to David’s power and authority, and precipitated a war between the two nations. David could not allow such an obvious “rape” or symbolic castration of his representatives to go unavenged. A review of Assyrian royal annals (Sargon II, Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal) contains justifications for a declaration of war based on a violation of a sworn agreement or the physical challenging of Assyrian authority. Although the annals are not as graphic as this example, they also serve as a “dropping of the gauntlet” in political terms.” [BBCOT; Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (electronic ed.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 2 Sa 10:2–3.]

“The phrase “show kindness” suggests that a treaty or covenant relationship existed between David and Hanun’s father, Nahash, even though it was the latter’s aggression toward Israel that had in part contributed to Saul’s rise to power (see 1 Sam. 11:1–11; 12:12). David’s fugitive period, when he was on the run from Saul, would have been a logical time for him to enter into some kind of agreement with Nahash, and it probably was something akin to a “parity treaty” (between more or less equal partners), as distinguished from a “suzerain-vassal treaty” (between a greater and a lesser power). … Both kinds of treaties are well attested in the ancient Near East. In a parity treaty between the Hittite king Ḫattušiliš III and the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, the two kings agree to mutual nonagression, mutual defense, extradition of fugitives, and even assistance in cases of contested royal accession. All was designed to “establish good peace (and) good brotherhood be[tween us] forever.” That Hanun should dishonor David’s emissaries is, in essence, to renounce the treaty of peace and wittingly or unwittingly to invite retaliation by David. … Beards also were considered a sign of manliness. For example, in one of the Mari letters, the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad challenges his son: “Are you not an adult? Is there no beard on your chin?” Thus, to shave off half the beards of David’s envoys was to rob them symbolically of their manhood. As if that were not enough, Hanun also “cut off their garments in the middle at the buttocks.” McCarter remarks that the combination of shaving the beard and exposing the buttocks “suggests symbolic castration.” In the ancient Near East, such acts of disdain, defiance, or disloyalty typically elicited strong responses from the affronted party or power, and David’s response to Hanun’s affront was to be expected.” [John H. Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (vol. 2; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 455–456.]

The refusal to renew or accept the parity treaty was essentially a statement of national policy of hostility toward David/Israel. If that was not enough proof, the hiring of the mercenaries by Ammon CLEARLY indicated a VERY dangerous threat to Israel.

Notice—though—that it was only AFTER the foreign nation had assembled this huge army did David take military action / response (“When David heard of it…”).

Joab and Abishai defeat the armies, but the city of Rabbah – capital of Ammon and the royal city – is still in hostility. They have not sought peace or surrender. In the spring, David goes out to the city, captures it, and subjects the populace to forced labor contracts (as in our Deut text).

They do take spoil, but there is no mention of execution of the soldiers in this case:

““So David gathered all the people together and went to Rabbah and fought against it and took it. 30 And he took the crown of their king from his head. The weight of it was a talent of gold, and in it was a precious stone, and it was placed on David’s head. And he brought out the spoil of the city, a very great amount. 31 And he brought out the people who were in it and set them to labor with saws and iron picks and iron axes and made them toil at the brick kilns. And thus he did to all the cities of the Ammonites. Then David and all the people returned to Jerusalem.” [2 Sa 12:29–31.]

And there is no occupation of the city or the land – just subjection, creating peace.

Nine. To me it is interesting in that even though these cities had to be aggressors PRIOR TO these sieges by Israel, they were still offered the option to surrender and not be killed. By using the term ‘enemy’ (as opposed to just ‘foreigner’ or such), the message is clear: the city’s soldier-class people had either MADE AN ATTACK on Israel, or was PREPARING TO. It is not just a matter of ‘anti-Semitism’ in attitude -- most foreign nations would have had plenty of that floating around already – but of overt threat, impending incursions, or past incursions. This is unusual especially when you compare Saul’s remark about David’s sparing his life:

“As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17 He said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 18 And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the LORD put me into your hands. 19 For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe?” (1 Sam 24:16-19).

Ten. The ‘forced labor’ – the only requirement placed on them for acceptance by Israel – was not slavery and not that onerous: “…refers to a contingent of conscripted laborers working for the state on agricultural or construction projects (HALOT, 603-4)” [Michael A. Grisanti, “Deuteronomy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Numbers–Ruth (Revised Edition) (ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland; vol. 2; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 2664.]

Eleven. Their walls were allowed to continue standing, which would allow the city to defend itself against ITS enemies, and no monetary tribute/reparations/spoils were required by Israel—no economic loss. [The LXX adds the word ‘tribute’ in its translation, but this is not the common understanding of the underlying word. Corvee labor was considered ‘tribute’, but it was not an actual tax – like some forms of tribute were.] They were not required to give up weapons either—allowing them to defend themselves against enemies. And they might NEED these, because making an alliance with one nation often brought you in conflict with a DIFFERENT nation. Compare how the Canaanite kings were going to destroy Gibeon for allying with Israel (Joshua 10):

“As soon as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, 2 he feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors. 3 So Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, to Piram king of Jarmuth, to Japhia king of Lachish, and to Debir king of Eglon, saying, 4 “Come up to me and help me, and let us strike Gibeon. For it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.” 5 Then the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, gathered their forces and went up with all their armies and encamped against Gibeon and made war against it.”

Twelve. The sequence is somewhat instructive too:

If they accept the offer:

This is not a lot of damage for somebody who has already inflicted some damage on Israel.

If they do NOT respond peaceably, but ‘make war’ (perhaps fighting from the wall, or raids at night):

That a city without the (main) male warrior class present would still be a viable community (especially in a fortified, walled city) is clear from the situation deliberately created by the Transjordanian tribes in the time of Moses):

“Then they came near to him and said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, 17 but we will take up arms, ready to go before the people of Israel, until we have brought them to their place. And our little ones shall live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. 18 We will not return to our homes until each of the people of Israel has gained his inheritance. 19 For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on this side of the Jordan to the east.” 20 So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will take up arms to go before the LORD for the war, 21 and every armed man of you will pass over the Jordan before the LORD, until he has driven out his enemies from before him 22 and the land is subdued before the LORD; then after that you shall return and be free of obligation to the LORD and to Israel, and this land shall be your possession before the LORD. 23 But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out. 24 Build cities for your little ones and folds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.” 25 And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben said to Moses, “Your servants will do as my lord commands. 26 Our little ones, our wives, our livestock, and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead, 27 but your servants will pass over, every man who is armed for war, before the LORD to battle, as my lord orders.” [Num 32:16ff]

Thirteen. There is a possibility that even in the case of the city choosing combat, that ALL the males might not be executed—but only the DOMINANT leaders (presumably the main antagonists against Israel?).

This possibility is suggested by the above passage from Numbers 32, actually.

The text itself refers to the Transjordanian fighting force with comprehensive terminology: “every armed man” and “every man who is armed for war”. But when the census/count numbers are compared, we see that only about 40,000 men went over (Joshua 4:12-13), about one-third of the total adult male population of 110,580 (Numbers 26:7, 18, 34).

This would suggest that ‘every armed man’ refers to a select / elite force (“shock troops” in Jacob Milgrom’s commentary), which MIGHT allow ‘every male’ to refer to a smaller group than the entire male populations. [Again, it is not required for the issue we are discussing here—which has to do with military campaigns on foreign soil.]

Fourteen. Israel’s ‘authorized’ boundaries grew SMALLER over time, rather than LARGER.

The land promises to the patriarchs are worded such as to suggest a wider initial promise—which was narrowed as Israel moved through history.

The first statement was in Gen 15.18:

“On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your 1descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.””

Scholars dispute whether the ‘river of Egypt’ is the Nile or a specific Wadi, but that is not germane to our study here.

But the extent of the promise is:

“The boundaries of the Promised Land are now given for the first time. This promise has not yet been fulfilled but will be when Christ returns. See 17:8, note; Josh. 21:43–45, note; and 1 Kings 4:21, note. the river of Egypt. I.e., the Nile. Some understand this to refer to the Wadi el-Arish (E of the Nile), which is also called “the river of Egypt.” However, the word for river used here means “a large river.” A different word meaning “a stream” is used for a wadi, which does not always have water in it.” (Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible: New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update (Expanded ed.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 27.)

“God obliges himself to give to Abram’s descendants the land of ten nations, all of which fall within the land of Canaan proper. The river of Egypt (see Num. 34:5; Josh. 15:4, which use naḥal instead of nāhār) is not the Nile but the modern Wadi el-Arish, the dividing line between Palestine and Egypt. The geographical extremes of the promise obviously extend beyond Canaan, witnessed especially by the phrase to the great river, the river Euphrates. In fact, only during the apogee of David’s reign, many hundreds of years later, was this promise actualized. But even then the empire was maintained only for a generation. By Solomon’s time cracks appeared in the empire, and portions of the empire rebelled and reclaimed their own land for themselves.” (Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17 (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 438.)

River of Egypt (15:18). This is the only reference to the “river of Egypt.” Usually Israel’s southwestern border is designated the “Wadi [brook] of Egypt” (e.g., Josh. 15:4, 47), which is identified as the Wadi el ʿArish in northeastern Sinai. It is unlikely that the reference in this verse is to the Nile River, though it could conceivably refer to the easternmost Delta tributary of the Nile that emptied into Lake Sirbonis.” [John H Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (vol. 1; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 86.]

“At the end of his proclamation, God specified the boundaries of the Promised Land—from the River of Egypt (probably the Wadi el-Arish) to the great river (the Euphrates). Israel has never possessed all this land in its entirety. In the days of the conquest, the Canaanite tribes listed (15:19–21) were largely dispossessed, but not completely. In the days of David and Solomon, Egypt still controlled the coastal region, and the Philistines and other groups remained a hindrance in the land promised to Israel. So the promise of the land was never fulfilled; it remained a hope for the believing Israelites and was carried forward in the royal psalms and messianic passages (Ps 72:8–17). And at Israel’s darkest moment, when it was being expelled from the land, the New Covenant reiterated the old promise of their dwelling in a land in complete peace and prosperity (Isa 54:1–14; Jer 31:31–37; Ezek 36:24–36). The restoration to the land after the Exile would not fulfill the promises made to the fathers, not without the coming of the Messiah, the forgiveness of sins, or the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. This hope will find ultimate fulfillment in the creation of a new heaven and a new earth where everlasting peace and righteousness will exist.” [Allen Ross and John N. Oswalt, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Genesis, Exodus (vol. 1; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 113.]

And of direct relevance to us:

the great river The geographic boundaries given here represent a generalized ideal that cannot be reconciled with any historic reality of the past. They include Tyre-Sidon, Lebanon, and Byblos, which the Davidic-Solomonic empire, even at its height, never encompassed, as 1 Kings 5:1, 4 and 8:65 show. Moreover, the conquests of David aimed at asserting political and economic control beyond the borders of Israelite settlement, but there was no attempt to dispossess the local population and to settle Israelites in their stead.” [Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis (The JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 117.]

When the Israelites are about to enter the land, the borders are smaller (Numbers 34):

“These verses outline the borders of Israel. They are limited to the land west of the Jordan for the nine and one-half tribes. Many scholars point to the ideal nature of this boundary list. It is true that Israel did not inhabit the territory outlined here; e.g., Israel’s western border was not the Mediterranean Sea until ca. 144 B.C. under Simon Maccabeus (1 Macc. 14:5). But this passage presents a fairly accurate picture of the land of Canaan as found in Near Eastern texts from the middle of the 15th cent. B.C. on, and matches particularly well with the territory in the Egyptian district of Canaan in the second half of the 13th cent. B.C., at least according to Y. Aharoni. Here as elsewhere many of these sites remain unknown at the present time, especially on the north and northeast borders. … Other lists of Israel’s borders are found in various places in the OT. The most common designation for the whole land is “from Dan to Beer-sheba” (e.g., 1 Sam. 3:20), which comprises a smaller territory north to south than the present passage. Gen. 15:18 expands the land from the River of Egypt (as here, v. 5) to the Euphrates. Closer parallels to the present passage are found in Josh. 15:1–4 for the southern border, and in Ezek. 47:13–20 for the whole territory. Some scholars have concluded that the Numbers passage is based on one or both of these passages.13 Indeed, the Numbers passage was probably written at a time after the conquest of Canaan, in which case a passage like Josh. 15:1–4 may have been used as a source document. It is also possible, however, that the passage in Ezekiel may have used both Joshua and Numbers as a source.” [Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 639.]

My point here is that even with the most expansive land-grant verbiage, Israel never tried to claim all the land for occupation. Forays outside of central Palestine were defensive, not colonization and occupation through conquest.

Fifteen. The Case of Moab and tribute.

Although this case is not terribly similar to the Deut text, there are still a couple of connections.

In 2 Kings 3, Moab was under tribute to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The form of the tribute was in livestock, not corvee labor. After the death of the king of Israel, the king of Moab (Mesha) rebelled. There is no indication of the type of rebellion – other than the implied non-compliance with the tribute requirements (this was always understood as a subject nation asserting independence and hostility to a previous suzerain nation. (cf. wh2 Kings 17.4: “But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year.”).

Israel gathers forces, asks Judah to help them, and Edom (subject to Judah at the time) comprises a third part of the army. They run into trouble in the trek to Moab, and call upon Elisha for help. Elisha only speaks to the king of Judah (not officially recognizing the idolatrous king of Israel). Elisha delivers an explicit command to the armies:

“He said, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Make this valley full of trenches.’ “For thus says the LORD, ‘You shall not see wind nor shall you see rain; yet that valley shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, both you and your cattle and your beasts.” (2 Ki 3:16–17.)

Then, Elisha goes on to predict what the Lord will do:

This is but a slight thing in the sight of the LORD; He will also give the Moabites into your hand.”

This is a promise that the combined armies would achieve power/dominance over the Moabites (but doesn’t tell them what to do with Moab when they are ‘in their hand’). And it doesn’t actually say that they will achieve final victory---the terminology is a bit ambiguous.

Cf. The interaction between king Ahab and a prophet in 1 Kgs 20:

“Then he [the prophet] hastily took the bandage away from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him that he was of the prophets. He [the prophet] said to him [Ahab, king of Israel], “Thus says the LORD, ‘Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction [king of Aram], therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people.’ ”

Just being ‘in the hand’ of someone doesn’t ensure a particular outcome…

Then Elisha predicts what Israel will do once the Moabites are ‘in their hand’:

Then you shall strike every fortified city and every choice city, and fell every good tree and stop all springs of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones.’ ”

Notice that this is NOT a command from YHWH (like the ‘make this valley full of trenches’ was), and cannot be understood that way.

Predictions are not ‘commands’ as a later utterance by Elisha makes clear:

“Then Elisha came to Damascus. Now Ben-hadad king of Aram was sick, and it was told him, saying, “The man of God has come here.” The king said to Hazael, “Take a gift in your hand and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD by him, saying, ‘Will I recover from this sickness?’ ” So Hazael went to meet him and took a gift in his hand, even every kind of good thing of Damascus, forty camels’ loads; and he came and stood before him and said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Aram has sent me to you, saying, ‘Will I recover from this sickness?’ ” Then Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You will surely recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he will certainly die.” He fixed his gaze steadily on him until he was ashamed, and the man of God wept. Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” Then he answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the sons of Israel: their strongholds you will set on fire, and their young men you will kill with the sword, and their little ones you will dash in pieces, and their women with child you will rip up.” Then Hazael said, “But what is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” And Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you will be king over Aram.” (2 Kings 8)

This was prophetic prediction – not a command to do those horrible things!

[But what a jerk! Hazael doesn’t refute Elisha with “I would never do such things”, but rather “how could I do such a GREAT THING?”!!! ]

Many commentators [but not all] note that these actions are contrary to the rules of early Israel—especially the instructions in Deut 20:

“Elisha’s prophecy, worded as a command, of a scorched-earth policy against Moab is at variance with the rules of siege warfare in Deut 20:19” [Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (vol. 11; Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 45.]

“The wartime measures depicted here are severe and, in the case of the despoiling of the fruit trees, even beyond the normal limitation of battle (cf. Deut 20:19–20)” [R. D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, “1, 2 Kings,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; vol. 4; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 4182.”]

3:19 cut down … stop up … ruin. These actions are in clear violation of the Torah (see, e.g., Deut 20:19–20, which specifically forbids the cutting down of trees in enemy territory); the hearer/reader is therefore expected to grow uneasy at the prospect of the fulfillment of what is “prophesied” here (cf. Leithart 2006:180–181).” [William H. Barnes, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: 1-2 Kings (ed. Philip W. Comfort; vol. 4; Cornerstone Biblical Commentary; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2012), 210.]

Through mis-direction, the Moabites are lured to their defeat, and apparently there is an extended period of time before the final scene in verse 27. The text says that the Israelites (no mention of Judah or Edom – except Mesha’s attempt to break through to the king of Edom), do a partial “scorched earth” tactic (as predicted):

“But when they [the Moabites] came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites arose and struck the Moabites, so that they fled before them; and they went forward into the land, slaughtering the Moabites. Thus they destroyed the cities; and each one threw a stone on every piece of good land and filled it. So they stopped all the springs of water and felled all the good trees, until in Kir-hareseth only they left its stones; however, the slingers went about it and struck it.”

This would have taken a good while—Moab had a lot of strong cities:

“The biblical indication of Moab’s numerous fortified cities has been demonstrated to be accurate by the archaeological investigations of Nelson Glueck, “Explorations in Eastern Palestine,” AASOR 3 (1939): 60ff.; 4 (1951): 371ff.” [R. D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, “1, 2 Kings,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; vol. 4; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 4182.]

The narrative seems to suggest that the nation was subdued, but that Mesha was making a last stand at the Kir-hareseth. It was on a steep incline, suitable for a last stand:

leaving only the stones of Kir-haresheth (intact). Usually taken to be identical with Kir-Moab (Isa 15:1; cf. Isa 16:7; Jer 48:31, 36), this major city in southern Moab is located at el-Kerak (so already in Targum to Prophets). … The steep approaches to the site may have been a factor in Mesha’s successful resistance to the rigors of the Israelite siege.” [Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (vol. 11; Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 46.]

Mesha takes 700 swordsmen and tries to break through the weakest part of the encircling army (at the king of Edom), but fails, and somehow successfully falls back to the city.

Whereupon he sacrifices his first-born and heir on the city wall (presumably in full sight of the Israelite army) and the biblical text has this odd sentence:

Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land.”

Commentators are generally baffled by this terminology, since almost always it refers to YHWH’s anger against wrongdoers (but not Mesha in this case? – although Mesha is already pretty knocked down by the weakening of ‘all the cities’ and the land, of course):

There was great wrath against the Israelites. This clause is one of the most perplexing items in Scripture. Heb. qeṣep, “wrath,” describes YHWH’s visitation upon wrongdoers—e.g. Num 18:5, Deut 29:27, Josh 9:20, 22:20.” [Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (vol. 11; Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 47.]

Why would God’s anger be against the Israelites (the majority of the armed combatants in our narrative)?

“While some argue that the present text of 2 Kings is indicating that Chemosh indeed had such power (cf. Cogan and Tadmor 1988:51–52), surely the more likely conclusion the narrator wishes us to accept is that Yahweh may well have been the deity who was “angry” with his people, therefore allowing their “Gentile” opponents to gain the victory ... To be sure, we have hints as to the reasons for such disfavor scattered throughout the text—Elisha’s Elijah-like contempt for the house of Omri; the trampling of “holy war” or kherem laws … indeed, the odd syncretistic nature of the coalition itself and their clear disinterest in any oracle at all from a Yahwistic prophet. But the surprise ending so nicely delineated by Leithart is precisely the point of the passage. Yahweh did “have it in” for the Omrides; and furthermore, Yahweh would not passively abide the breaking of his Torah by his people, not even by an otherwise godly Davidic king. “The ends do not justify the means,” not then, not today. We do serve a tricky God, but tricky only in the sense of his remaining ever faithful to his nature and to his word. Let the would-be leader beware!” [William H. Barnes, Cornerstone Biblical Commentaryb: 1-2 Kings (ed. Philip W. Comfort; vol. 4; Cornerstone Biblical Commentary; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2012), 213.]

And it would be no surprise that the God who would punish as covenant-violators His people Israel by sending the Assyrians, would then justly punish the Assyrians. Cf Isaiah 10:

“God says, “How terrible it will be for the king of Assyria. I use him like a rod to show my anger; in anger I use Assyria like a club. I send it to fight against a nation that is separated from God. I am angry with those people, so I command Assyria to fight against them, to take their wealth from them, to trample them down like dirt in the streets.

“But Assyria’s king doesn’t understand that I am using him; he doesn’t know he is a tool for me.

He only wants to destroy other people and to defeat many nations. The king of Assyria says to himself, ‘All of my commanders are like kings. The city Calno is like the city Carchemish. The city Hamath is like the city Arpad. The city Samaria is like the city Damascus. I defeated those kingdoms that worship idols, and those idols were more than the idols of Jerusalem and Samaria. As I defeated Samaria and her idols, I will also defeat Jerusalem and her idols.’ ”

When the Lord finishes doing what he planned to Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will punish Assyria. The king of Assyria is very proud, and his pride has made him do these evil things, so God will punish him.

“The king of Assyria says this: “By my own power I have done these things; by my wisdom I have defeated many nations. I have taken their wealth, and, like a mighty one, I have taken their people. I have taken the riches of all these people, like a person reaching into a bird’s nest. I have taken these nations, like a person taking eggs. Not one raised a hand or opened its mouth to stop me.”

“An ax is not better than the person who swings it. A saw is not better than the one who uses it.

"A stick cannot control the person who picks it up. A club cannot pick up the person!

Therefore the Sovereign Lord, Yahweh of the hosts, will send wasting disease among the most prosperous of his people, under his most distinguished folk a fire will be kindled.”

Sixteen. God’s instructions in our passage contrast SHARPLY with what ‘the nations around them’ did!

Compare how Israel was instructed to treat these foreign enemies with the descriptions of other nations’ kings.

Contrast this with some accounts of the Assyrian and Egyptian kings:

… the town of …]ḫadara, the home of the dynasty of Rezin the Damascene, [the pl]ace where he was born, I surrounded (and) captured. 800 people with their possessions, their cattle (and) their sheep I took as spoil. I took as spoil 750 captives from the city of Kuruṣṣa (and) the city of Sama, 550 captives from the city of Metuna. I destroyed 591 cities of 16 districts of Damascus like mounds of ruins after the Deluge.”

In explicit contrast to God’s instruction to Israel in our passage, there seemed to be in the Levant a special focus on destroying orchards – not for siege purposes – but as vengeance (since it was done AFTER a city capitulated).

In a detailed study of siege actions and fruit trees, Michael Hasel makes the ‘punishment’ theme clear:

“The results of this survey - after thorough analysis of the textual and iconographic data pertaining to the military activity of Egypt, Canaan, and Hatti in the second millennium and of Assyria and Babylonia in the first millennium - afford significant insights concerning the cutting down of fruit trees and their use in siege warfare. It is certain that the first-millennium texts available do indicate that trees were cut down and destroyed as part of military policy. Both the Assyrian texts and iconography indicate that even fruit trees and orchards were cut down. However, one must recognize the sequence of these events. In most cases, it was only after a city had been captured, razed, and its spoils confiscated that trees were cut down. At times the failure to take a city resulted in reprisals that included the cutting down of orchards and trees. The trees were not then used to make siege works but were frequently collected in piles and burned. Not once do the texts indicate that fruit trees were cut down prior to a battle, and the iconography most frequently depicts them standing before, during, and after the siege. … When the fruit trees were cut down, the Assyrian records are consistent in depicting their destruction as a punishment of the enemy, meant to further cripple their life support system." [OT:MPP, Military Practice and Polemic: Israel's Laws of Warfare in Near Eastern Perspective. Michael G Hasel. AndrewsUP:2005; 126-127]

A summary the horrors of siege and capture (by everybody else in the ANE) paints a vivid picture, to which the sanity and humane character of our passage contrasts almost shockingly.

“The horrors attending the siege of a city were only surpassed by the barbarities perpetrated at its capture. The emptying of a city by its capture is likened to the hurling of a stone from a sling (Jer 10:17, 18). Deportation of the whole of the inhabitants often followed (2 K 17:6; 24:14). Not only were the inhabitants of the captured city deported, but their gods were carried off with them and the idols broken in pieces. This is predicted or recorded of Babylon (Isa 21:9; 46:1; Jer 50:2), of Egypt (Jer 43:12), of Samaria (Hos 10:6). Indiscriminate slaughter followed the entrance of the assailants, and the city was usually given over to the flames (Jer 39:8, 9; Lam 4:18). “Cities without number,” says Shalmaneser II in one of his inscriptions, “I wrecked, razed, burned with fire.” Houses were destroyed and women dishonored (Zec 14:2). When Darius took Babylon, he impaled three thousand prisoners (Herod. iii. 159). The Scythians scalped and flayed their enemies and used their skins for horse trappings (ib, iv. 64). The Assyr sculptures show prisoners subjected to horrible tortures, or carried away into slavery. The captured Zedekiah had his eyes put out after he had seen his own sons cruelly put to death (2 K 25:7). It is only employing the imagery familiar to Assyr warfare when Isaiah represents Jeh as saying to Sennacherib: “Therefore will I put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou camest” (Isa 37:29). Anticipating the savage barbarities that would follow the capture of Samaria by the Assyrians, Hosea foresees the infants being dashed to pieces and the women with child being ripped up (Hos 10:14; 13:16; cf Am 1:13). The prophet Nahum predicting the overthrow of Nineveh recalls how at the capture of No-amon (Egyp Thebes) by the Assyr conqueror, Ashurbanipal, “her young children also were dashed in pieces at the head of all the streets; and they cast lots for her honorable men, and all her great men were bound in chains” (Nah 3:10).” [T. Nicol, “Siege,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 2788–2789.]


“Most regularly, however, the texts use the imagery of siege warfare. Siege warfare was brutal; it involved the building of a siege wall and siege ramps around a city, the cutting off of food and water for the inhabitants, and the subsequent impaling and mutilation of captured citizens. Assyrian reliefs frequently depict siege warfare, which was a common practice in the ancient Near.” [B. E. Kelle, “Warfare Imagery,” ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 832.]


Our passage is about how Israel is to deal with foreign cities which are fortified, hostile, and a threat to Israel’s well-being.

There was no option to just ‘leave these cities alone’—without a treaty with Israel, they were a constant and ‘imminent’ threat – which a ‘good defense’ would need to neutralize.

There is no colonization or occupation of the conquered in this passage – it was NOT a ‘land-grab’.

Even though these cities were enemies, they were offered peace FIRST.

If a peaceful surrender was achieved, the city suffered no damage, kept its ability to defend itself, kept its idolatry, and only became responsible for mandatory work assignments for Israel.

Even if the city initiated hostilities toward the Israelite camp, only (a part of) the warrior class was killed—the rest of the population (including teenage males) survived and became subject to Israel (and therefore under the provision and protection of Israel). There is no deportation in our text.

We have zero records of Israel colonizing outside of their land-grant borders, and all accounts we have of warfare against foreign cities follow the pattern (roughly) in our passage.

God held Israel to this ethical standard, and there is good evidence to support the view that the reprisal against Israel in the Moabite rebellion was due to violations of these ethics.

God’s instructions about the fruit-trees are in such contrast to the nations around Israel that they illustrate the principle of ‘do not be like the rest of the nations’.

The records we have of foreign nations in imperialism are in super-sharp contrast to the humane-ness of our passage.

Thus, any siege against foreign nations WAS a defensive measure, albeit one ‘laced with grace’.

I hope this helps, friend –

Little glenn

The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)