Reading Deuteronomy 20, I could not help but get the feeling that the meaning of all the passages in the Scriptures that relate to wars and all their unsavory details (slavery, bashing infants heads against the stones, etcetera) are all allegories pertaining to the spiritual life.
Now, I did not invent this. One can easily go to Aquinas Study Bible and read patristic commentaries on the same subjects. Nevertheless, here is my take on applying the principle to the passage at hand:
1 When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you.
When we feel that we are facing challenges in our lives, whether temptations, trials, or whatever else that is “too numerous” for us–too big, we are to remember our Lord. He brought us out of “the land of Egypt,” that is, our bondage to sin. We were in Satan’s domain. If God broke our chains in the past, this should give us confidence to face future challenges.
Should. I don’t always have this confidence. I often don’t. But, this is what the passage is saying.
2 When you are approaching the battle, the priest shall come near and speak to the people. 3 He shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, you are approaching the battle against your enemies today. Do not be fainthearted. Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, 4 for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.’
I personally think the priest here is Christ. He speaks to us through the Holy Spirit, our Comforter. He reminds us not to trust in our own virtue, goodness, or good works–for it is the Lord who fights our enemies and saves us.
5 The officers also shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Who is the man that has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would dedicate it. 6 Who is the man that has planted a vineyard and has not begun to use its fruit? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would begin to use its fruit. 7 And who is the man that is engaged to a woman and has not married her? Let him depart and return to his house, otherwise he might die in the battle and another man would marry her.’ 8 Then the officers shall speak further to the people and say, ‘Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers’ hearts melt like his heart.’ 9 When the officers have finished speaking to the people, they shall appoint commanders of armies at the head of the people.
I will give a shot at allegorizing the preceding. The officers are demons who come to us with tempting thoughts. The man who is reminded of his new house is the one who falls away because of temptations pertaining to worldly gain. The damned are too busy worrying about accumulating their own wealth, prestige, or whatever else per chance “another man” gains these hollow things in their stead.
The man who leaves due to his engagement represents all who fall away pursuing sexual sin.
The man who is “afraid” are those who fall from despondency. Often, we lie to ourselves that we cannot worship God because it will break our families, careers, GPA, or whatever. We try to justify that we hurt others if we “fight the good fight” and “keep the faith.”
After the apostates or prospective converts fall away, those who are inclined to fight temptation and spiritual trial “appoint” themselves leaders, or in other words, clergy who will preach the Gospel. In the early Church, the laity appointed the clergy and succession was granted through the ratification (ordination) of those with succession from the Apostles.
10 “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. 11 If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you.
This is a difficult passage, but in Questions from Thalassius Saint Maximus speaks of the passions and suffering being good because they teach us to repent and pursue God with great vigor. Sort of a “no pain no gain” mentality towards the spiritual life.
For example, battling against hunger by fasting teaches us how bad hunger is, giving us the motivation to hunger for something other than food, sex, entertainment, etcetera–ideally. So, when the people of God fight temptation (“a city”) and it accepts peace terms, this is an example of making our passions and pain work for us. “Forced labor” and the passions “serv[ing] you” is an example of battling against sin through spiritual discipline and increasing in sanctification as a result.
12 However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it.
If we cannot easily conquer temptation and it is a struggle to the death, we must be vigilant and “take every thought captive.”
13 When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. 14 Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you.
We are to take every sinful thought and temptation which can only bring about our destruction–the men–and slaughter them. We are to fight sinful thoughts with virtuous ones. We conquer pride by considering others greater than ourselves. We conquer lust with chastity.
Those who are taken captive represent the passions which can be repurposed. We take women, who represent lust, captive. But we repurpose lust into a sincere devotion for good. We take children, who represent worldly gain, captive. We use what the material goods God has given us for the edification of others. We take animals, who represent the blameless passions for food and self-gratification, captive. Food can be eaten to the glory of God and blesses us with sustenance. If any of those who war against us are left alive in their present state, like the Israelites did after the days of Joshua, they become a snare to us and destroy our faith.
15 Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby. 16 Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God.
We concern ourselves with “only…the cities” that God give us, meaning, ourselves. The cities are our own selves. It is not our concern to make war on the temptations of another’s mind–we are to tend our own vineyard. Utterly destroying the seven pagan nations of Canaan represents what we already discussed previously. Seven represents completeness; the nations all demonic thoughts. Hence, we are to utterly destroy all wicked thoughts.
This interpretation is so compelling, because we know full well if we keep these thoughts alive “they may…teach you…detestable things.”
19 “When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? 20 Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.
The passage ends with an admonishment for us to use discernment. We must discern what can be repurposed from what was the field, animal, and home that belonged to the enemy. What cannot be repurposed must be destroyed.
Certainly, we must not destroy fruit-bearing trees. Take for example creativity. Creativity can be incredibly dangerous. It leads to every heresy. But, creativity can also be of great worth and edify others. Fruitful creativity comes from a questioning mind thinking of new things.
Now, creativity (of the questioning sort) comes from the fall, because it requires a gnomic form of willing. But, it does not mean that it is bad and cannot be put to good use. Gnomic willing is completely unavoidable. It is a fruit bearing tree when it manifests itself into something good amongst the landscape of a fallen world.
The other trees, which are chopped down and turned into siegeworks, are negative things which must be destroyed and put to good use. An obsession with work for gain, must be chopped down and replaced with desire to work towards fuller repentance. Work ethic must be converted to a weapon that serves the purpose of pursuing greater Godliness. Sexual passion must be converted towards greater sacrificial love for another. Great inclinations towards evil must have their energies repurposed to work good.
Our greatest example is the Apostle Paul, who’s great zeal (which was not according to knowledge) was repurposed from persecution to spreading the Gospel. The zeal was completely perverse and of no use in its former state. It had to be destroyed. The man had to be humbled. And that zeal was then repurposed to put to siege to the devil’s ramparts around the hearts of men.