Deuteronomy 20:10-11 NASB

When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your force labor and shell serve you.

If a city has agreed to peace with the Israelites, why would God command His people to enslave all their people? Is this chapter of Deuteronomy in the context of a larger war or is it speaking generally?

  • 1
    It is in the context of God pursuing his own purposes for the creation which he made. Being tributaries is a matter of taxation not of 'forced labour' That is a mistranslation. See KJV and YLT.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 8 at 13:47

2 Answers 2


Deut 20:11 (ESV) - And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.

Word Meanings

The operative word in Deut 20:11 is מַס (mas or mis) and means "forced labor" as per the BDB entry - see appendix below. Thus it is correctly translated by the major modern versions in all its occurrences, eg, Gen 49:15, Ex 1:11, Josh 16:10, 17:13, Judges 1:28, 30, 33, 35, 2 Sam 20:24, 1 Kings 4:6, 5:13, 14, 9:15, 21, 12:18, 2 Chron 8:8, 10:18, Esth 10:1, etc.

Politics vs Spirituality

There are two ways to view the situation of a conquered populations: the ensuing politics and the ensuing spiritual condition - both are important considerations for the all-conquering Israel in Joshua' time. Thus, we have several possibilities:

  • The conquered population is allowed to live in their cities and simply pay tribute and remain free provided they pay taxes, etc. The problem here is the continued use of the false gods and the enticing false worship associated with the population. This was part of the purpose of conquering the population - to be rid of their false gods.
  • The conquered population is reduced to serfdom and their culture and gods eliminated - this was the LORD's decision and removes the temptation for the Israelites to embrace false worship

Hence the directive in Deut 20:11.

APPENDIX - BDB entry for מַס

I. מַס noun masculine 1 Ki 5:27 usually: collective body of forced labourers, task-workers, labour-band or gang, also (late) forced service, task-work, serfdom ( ᵑ7 מִסָּא, especially in phrase מַסְּקֵי מִיסִּין (implying late and [for Biblical Hebrew] false sense 'tribute,' so Late Hebrew מַעֲלֵי מָסִּים; √ unknown, probably loan-word; follows analogue of ע׳׳ע); — absolute ׳מ 1 Kings 5:27 +; לָמַ֑ס Joshua 17:13 +; הַמַּ֑ס 2 Samuel 20:24 +; plural מִסִּים Exodus 1:11; —

  1. labour-band, labour-gang, body of task-workers for public service, formed by levy upon the people by Solomon וַיַּ֫עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ שׁלֹמֹה מַס מִכָּליִֿשְׂרָאֵל 1 Kings 5:27, amounting to 30,000 men v.1 Kings 5:27; אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה ׳הַמּ 1 Kings 9:15; ׳וַיַּעֲלֵם שׁ לְמַס עֹבֵד 1 Kings 9:21 and Solomon levied them for a toiling labour-band (compare Genesis 49:15; Joshua 16:10) = ׳לְמַס וַיַּעֲלֵם שׁ2Chronicles 8:8; apparently instituted, earlier, by David, compare וַאֲדֹרָם עַלהַֿמַּ֑ס 2 Samuel 20:24, i.e. had charge of the body of labourers, so 1 Kings 4:6; 1 Kings 5:28; 1 Kings 12:18 2 Chronicles 10:18.

  2. a. of labour-bands, slave-gangs of Israel in Egypt, only שָׂרֵי מִסִּים Exodus 1:11 (J) gang-overseers.

b. of conquered populations, subject to forced labour: יִהְיוּ לְךָ לָמַס וַעֲבָדוּךָ Deuteronomy 20:11 compare Judges 1:30,33,35 (see GFM), Isaiah 31:8; Lamentations 1:1; so ויהי לְמַס עֹבֵד Joshua 16:10 (compare Genesis 49:15; 1 Kings 9:21); וַיִתְּנוּ אֶתהַֿכְּנַעֲנִי לָמַ֑ס Joshua 17:13, compare (׳וַיָּ֫שֶׂם וגו) Judges 1:28.

  1. in General: וַיְהִי לְמַסעֹֿבֵד Genesis 49:15 and he (Issachar) became a slaving labour-band (poem in J; compare Joshua 16:10; 1 Kings 9:21); compare רְמִיָּה תִּהְיֶה לָמַ֑ס Proverbs 12:24 (here apparently of individual)

  2. forced service, serfdom (or possibly (in late passage) tribute = enforced payment, compare Late Hebrew, ᵑ7, see above), only of Ahasuerus: ׳וַיָּשֶׂם הַמֶּלֶךְ מַס עַלהָֿאָרֶץ וגו Esther 10:1.

  • Thank you for the helpful connect - freedom enabling the worship of gods, versus serfdom which constrains that worship, and thus limits the influence on Israelites.
    – Gremosa
    Jun 14 at 19:58

Deuteronomy 20:10-11

¹⁰And when you approach to a town to fight against it, proclaim peace upon it. ¹¹And if it will answer you, 'Peace!', and it will open up to you, all the people who are found in it shall be Servants to you, paying taxes, and they shall work for you

Pesitta (Aramaic to plain English)

I find KJV translation mostly very rigid

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