Tag Archives: deuteronomy 20

When trusting in God is scary [Christians & War – Deuteronomy 20, part 5]

11 Jan

What will really change the heart of humanity?  Fighting wars?  No!  Only Jesus.

So what does trust in God look like when we are faced with strife in our world?  Christians should be known as a people who pray deeply for and strive for peace.  We should love our enemies.  We should seek to share the good news of Christ with all.  I think of missionaries who train young people to minister in what is called the 10/40 Window.  We have friends and family in Muslim countries.  At what point do we see Western Christians so trusting in God that they are willing to give up the comforts and ease of America to share the good news about Jesus, even in places that are opposed to Christianity?  We should serve locally as well!  Faith Church is near the city of Lancaster, and through refugee resettlement, the world has come to us. We could volunteer with an organization like Church World Service, caring and loving refugee families from many countries. 

But these ideas are scary, even risky. Thus I want to conclude with where the passage started.  The principle in the first four verses is that we must trust in God and depend on him about anything difficult or scary that we are going through.  But how do we do this? 

We follow his ways, even when people make fun of us. 

We allow God’s ways to define us, and not the way of the world.

And that means we need to learn God’s ways, and thus we spend time reading the stories of Jesus over and over, for it is there we most clearly see Jesus live out God’s ways.  Make 2019 a year where you commit to read through the four stories of Jesus in the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 

Then we spend time in prayer, in God’s presence, listening for his voice, even when we feel like we don’t have time.  That means we have to open up time in our busy schedules to learn to hear his voice!

We start our day asking God to show us himself in those around us.

We trust him even when we don’t understand what he is telling us to do or why he is telling us to do it. And we are okay with not understanding all of his ways. We act on what we know to be truth and we act humbly and graciously as we interact with others, knowing that we don’t understand it all.

For me it is starting doctoral studies.  I have one semester of classes under my belt. I will be honest that while I got through that, and it went well, there is a part of me saying, “Drop out, drop out, it’s too hard. You can’t do it.”  But that’s not the whole story.  God is with me, and I believe he has opened the door to this, and he is for me.   What is God calling you to do that seems impossible?  Are you dragging your feet because you are scared, finding it difficult, thinking you aren’t ready or capable?  All those things are probably at least a little bit true, but they are also not the whole story, because God is with you, and he is for you, and he has called you to this!

Should Christians take up arms? [Christians & War – Deuteronomy 20, part 4]

10 Jan

How should Christians view war?  We are not the nation of ancient Israel which had a special covenant with God.  We are the church, and we are under a new covenant.  So from this passage in Deuteronomy, we can learn God’s heart, but we have to also take into consideration the new covenant we have with God, and that is found in the teaching of the New Testament.

There are those who look at Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, especially in the Sermon on the Mount when he says to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, and to “Love your enemies.” These Christians look at the prohibitions against killing in both the Old and New Testaments, and they conclude that war is never right.  Our Mennonite and Amish and Brethren friends are examples.  They hold to what is called pacifism, or peace.  No war, period.  They would list Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr as examples of what is called non-violent resistance in order to deal with injustice.  They would not serve in the military, receiving conscientious objector status in a draft.  What they hold to is a completely legitimate and viable understanding of New Testament teaching.

Then there are those Christians who look to other teaching in the New Testament, and they conclude that war is right in certain specified conditions.  They see Paul, in Romans 13, for example, teaching that God instituted governments to restrain evil.  From that they create what is called just war theory.  Here “just” is being used not in the sense of “only”, but in the sense of “right”.  In other words, what are those are circumstances when it is just or right or legal for one country to wage war against another? 

Of course there are many viewpoints on this, disagreements, but here are the most common points of what is called Just War Theory: 

  1. For one nation to go to war against another, they must have a just cause – Usually this boils down to self-defense.
  2. Next, war must be a last resort – All means of diplomacy must first be tried and tried again.
  3. War must be declared by a proper authority – A recognized sovereign nation.
  4. War must have right intention – The cause must be justice, not self-interest. 
  5. War must have a reasonable chance of success – Count the cost, particularly to human life.
  6. The end must be proportional to the means used – For example, don’t use nuclear weaponry for a small border dispute.

And in fact that last point is related to what we see in Deuteronomy 20 verses 19-20 where God says to Israel, “when you bring a siege on a city, don’t cut down fruit trees to build your siege works.”

On the one hand, this is simply wisdom.  You need food! So don’t cut off your source of sustenance.  Think about the needs of the army, and plan for the future because when you eventually occupy the land, you’ll need those trees for food. 

But on the other hand, there is also a principle: when in war use self-control, don’t allow yourself to use anything and everything to make war. 

So Just War Theory sets a high bar.  I once heard a lecture from a Christian speaker from the Center for Public Justice applying just war theory to some of America’s wars in the past.  The most obvious war considered to be just was our involvement in the Allied cause during World War 2.  In that war multiple unjust aggressors were not going to stop invading nations and slaughtering millions of people until they ruled the world.  After Japan bombed our naval base at Pearl Harbor, we committed our military to the cause, sacrificing much.  The Allied mission to defeat Japan, Germany and Italy in World War 2 is widely considered to be a just war. That doesn’t mean that every Allied action in the war was just.

But the speaker that day made a surprising comment.  He said that the American Revolution might not have been a just war!   Was it possible that our forefathers, when they rebelled against the British, did not meet those six standards of just war?  Maybe.  I’ll let you think on that!

My church and my pastoral credential is with the EC Church, our denomination, and we are not pacifistic.  We believe that when there is just cause, one nation can enter into war against another, to restrain evil, and we believe that Christians can in good conscience serve in the military.  But because this is an area of theology where Christians disagree, including Christians within the same church, each individual should hold their view with love and grace towards one another.

What I want to be clear about, though, is that Christians and the church should never use violent means to accomplish the mission of God. Sadly we have a poor track record of doing just that, most famously perhaps in the Crusades. We must call any military or violent action of the church what it is: sin. And we must repent of it, over and over. The mission of God is accomplished in love, humility, selflessness, following the example of Jesus who gave his life for the world.

The difficulties of holy war passages in the Old Testament [Christians & War – Deuteronomy 20, part 3]

9 Jan
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In part 1 and part 2 of this series on Deuteronomy 20, we learned that Israel’s priests and army officers are to address the army before battle. Now God gives them some instructions about how to carry out battle. If you aren’t aware of these passages of Scripture, brace yourselves, as they can be shocking.

In verses 10-18, God refers to two kinds of enemies.  Those that are far away, and those nearby.  Israel was to handle them very differently.

First, in verses 10-15, when Israel goes to war against nations far away, make them an offer of peace, and if they accept, all the enemy’s people will be subject to forced labor and work for Israel.  Is God condoning slavery?

But if the people in the faraway nation refuse Israel’s offer of peace, and they engage Israel in battle, God says Israel is to lay siege to the city.  When God delivers the city to Israel, he says they should kill all the men, but keep everything else for themselves: women, children, animals, and possessions.  Do you feel like it is hard to read a passage like this where God is approving such devastation?  I really struggle with it.  But it is about to get worse.

Next in verses 16-18, God moves his focus from the nations far away, and now directs Israel’s attention to those enemies nearby. He is referring to the nations who currently lived in the Promised Land of Canaan that they were about to enter. About those nations, God says, kill them all, total destruction, period.  He also tells them why they are to take this severe action.  “To keep yourselves from worshiping their gods and sinning against God.”

Whew. Enslavement of people.  Total decimation in war.  This is isn’t the first time we encountered this concept.  It came up in 2017 when we studied Deuteronomy chapters 2, 3, and 7.  I remember thinking, at the time, how often should a pastor preach about Old Testament holy war?  I have wondered numerous times throughout this Deuteronomy series if I made a mistake choosing to preach through it.

I’m not going to rehash it here.   If you want you can read the post here in which I discuss options for interpreting these passages.  As you’ll read there, I don’t feel there is any satisfying way to understand these instances where God commands holy war leading to total decimation of foreign peoples. I do want to say this, though: war is always devastating.  Our nation has fought wars like our Civil War where we slaughtered each other.  And we’ve slaughtered other nations, including civilians in other nations, such as dropping atomic bombs on Japan.  I say that simply to bring up the reality that war is always awful. We need to remember that when we consider the question I’m going to ask now: how should Christians approach the concept of war? 

Can we find anything in Deuteronomy 20 that will help us? Take note that in Deuteronomy 20, Israel is making war.  They are going out and starting war.  They are about to enter into someone else’s land and try to capture it.  Is that right?  Why would God do that at all? 

Let’s quickly go back to Egypt 40 years before. At the time Israel was a nation of slaves.  God rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and when we hear that, we are cheering God.  Freedom for the enslaved.  Yes!  But that raises a huge logistical question: where would this nation go once they have been freed?  We’re talking about a nation that is likely a couple million people.  That’s enough people to fill a large city.   That many people need a land that can sustain them, so they can’t just go into the desert.  But the fertile land nearby, land that could provide for them, is already occupied.  Who is going to say, “2 million people, here you can have our land.  It’s all yours now, and we will just leave and say goodbye”?  Not going to happen.  It’s like the Syrian refugee migration in Europe.  It’s a massive logistical situation.

So what does God do?  God gives Israel a land that had been in their family history, the land of Canaan, the land where their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived.  He calls it the Promised Land.  God is essentially saying, “Israel, I am returning land to you that was previously yours.”  But they lived in that land over 400 years before.  In 400 years time, when they were in Egypt, things had changed.  New peoples and towns and cities and nations lived in that land now.  So Israel wasn’t going to be able to walk back in and say, “Alright people, we’re back!  You can go away now.”  Nope.  It was going to be a fight.  Here’s the question, though.  Was that a just cause?  I don’t know that I can answer that.  Some say yes, and some say no.  Some might say, “Yes, that was their land originally, and they have every right to want it back, and to fight for it.”  Others might say, “No, that was 400 years ago.  I’m glad they are not slaves any longer, but they chose to leave Canaan looking for food in Egypt, and they have no right to now go back to Canaan and claim it as their own.”  Still another might remind us that God is involved, giving the land to them.  The whole earth is the Lord’s so he can give it to whomever he desires.  Still we have to ask: Is it right for God to have Israel totally decimate the people in the land so God can give it to them?  Is that just?  What kind of God would do that?  So we are back to that difficult issue. How should Christians think about war?

Frankly, I don’t find any material in Deuteronomy 20 that is helpful to Christians who are seeking to form a distinctly Christian viewpoint on war. Instead Christians must head over to the New Testament, and that is where we are going next, in part 4.

Soldiers in the garden? [Christians & War – Deuteronomy 20, part 2]

8 Jan

Soldiers are hardy, rugged fighters, right? They train to kill, learning not only weaponry, but also hand to hand combat. But what we will find out is that God has some surprising news for Israel’s officers. Some soldiers need to be in their gardens.

In part 1 of this series, we read that right before the Israelite army engaged the enemy in battle, their priests would give them a final pep talk, directing them to remember that God is with them, fighting for them. Now in part 2, we continue in Deuteronomy 20, looking at verses 5-9 where we read that the officers of the army also speak to the soldiers.  Chronologically, however, this speech by the officers likely happened before the priests spoke.  The scene is back at camp, before the army gets close to battle.  In these verses the officers are to let people go home who are not qualified to fight!

God lists specific categories of people who would not be qualified to fight: those who built new homes, those who planted new vineyards, those who are engaged to be married, and those who are fainthearted.  All these men can go home, and don’t have to fight.

Is this simply a description of troop selection that is wise or pragmatic for war?  Or could we say that this is a description of God’s heart for his people to enjoy life and not be forced beyond what they are capable of?  I suspect this surprising directive is both wise and caring.  God knows that those who are distracted will not be quality soldiers.  Their heart and mind will be elsewhere.  The fainthearted could really bring down the morale of the other soldiers, maybe even spook them out.  So let them go home.  Keep only those who are ready and willing to serve.  In Deuteronomy 24 this will come up again, when God says that after a man is married, he is not allowed to fight for a whole year.  There again we see God’s heart to provide a good foundation to a new family. 

This thinning out of the ranks requires the army to have quite an amazing trust in God, doesn’t it?  Think about it.  What kind of army reduces its numbers?  In the face of battle, that is ridiculous.  You want to sustain or, even better, increase your numbers.  So the officers push their soldiers hard, even the ones that are fainthearted or missing home or scared.  They say, “You want to go home to your wife and garden?  Ha!  No way.  Buck up, buddy, this is what you signed up for. We’ve got a mission, and you’re going to give your all to help accomplish it.”  But maybe the soldier didn’t sign up for the army.  Maybe they were drafted into the military?  There are plenty of times in our country’s history when people had no choice but to serve.  There are many countries around the world today where every single person has mandatory military service, often for two years.  No choice! 

It is amazing, then, to hear God say that he wants the officers to reduce the size of the army.  I can imagine plenty of stalwart officers, when they heard Moses giving this part of his teaching, thinking, “This is insane.  Every able-bodied person over 20 should be in the army, period.  God, you want to let people go home?  They’re all going to say they want to go home.”  But that’s God, caring for his people, and wanting them to trust in him.  The officers, then, must let people out of the army! 

That means those officers and soldiers who stay are going into battle with reduced numbers.  They are going to have place their trust in God.  You don’t trust in numbers, God is saying, you trust in me.  A smaller army with God on its side is in no danger against a much larger more powerful enemy.

And that enemy is who God addresses next.  Now that the army is prepared, trusting in God, he gives them very curious instructions about battle, which we’ll study in part 3.

War & Peace [Christians & War – Deuteronomy 20, part 1]

7 Jan

As I was studying Deuteronomy 20 last week, I had songs going through my mind. War songs. Anti-war songs. It is interesting to me that there is in our culture an intersection of war and music. Then again, I suppose music touches all aspects of life. And, perhaps, so does war. I wanted to start my sermon with one or two of these songs, maybe a representative piece from each side of the war debate. There are so many songs about war and peace, so I asked my son to help me mash-up one of each. My younger kids later told me that it was a very weird way to introduce my sermon. See what you think:

How do you view war?

As we return to our study of Deuteronomy, we come to chapter 20, and it is all about war.  Deuteronomy is written with a backdrop of war.  The people of Israel were a nomadic, traveling nation, with an army.  They left Egypt as slaves 40 years before, but in the intervening years, they had been transformed into a nation with a military, having fought battles here and there.  Read the first chapters of the book of Numbers, for example, and it refers to the men 20 years old or older that are able to fight.  That brings us to Deuteronomy where they are encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, getting ready for their most significant battle yet, the conquest of the land of Canaan.  This is a people at war. 

Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, particularly in chapters 2, 3, and 7 we talked about war.  This goes back to the fall of 2017, and I remember thinking back then, “Why did I choose to preach through Deuteronomy?  All this talk about war?”  That was over a year ago, and so we’re going to talk about it again today.  One final time in this study of Deuteronomy.  And we need to talk about it.  The USA has been at war for almost 16 years…did you know that?  We invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003.   Then go back through our history, and it has been one war after the other.  We, too, are a nation with a context of war. 

Can Deuteronomy help us at all?  Turn to Deuteronomy 20.

Verses 1-4 are very straightforward.  Moses is saying to the people, “When you go to war, and the enemy seems more powerful than you, do not be afraid, God is with you, and God fights for you.”  Remember that this was a major issue for the people.  They had sent spies across the river into the Promised Land of Canaan, scoped out the land, and most of the spies came back saying, “All the people over there are giants, and we will surely lose.”  But two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, said, “No…God will fight for us…we can take them.”  Moses is reminding the people that God, the one with unlimited power, is on their side.

I find it interesting that the priest is the first person described as addressing the people.  Look at verse 2, and it says the priest will speak before they go into battle.  It seems that Moses is not speaking chronologically here.  The words “into battle” give the impression that the message from the priest is a final encouragement before the army engages the enemy.  It is a reminder to the army of the reality of God at work.  But Moses lists it first in the chapter showing its thematic preeminence.

This is a principle that can carry over to us.  God is with you, he is for you, no matter what you are going through in life.  Israel was not to trust in their own ability, their own weaponry, the size of their army, or the wisdom of their officers.  They were to trust in God’s power.  From the moment they left Egypt 40 years prior, this was a principle they were to build their nation on: that God was with them and would fight for them.  Humanly speaking, there was no way they should have won any of the battles they fought through the whole process.  They were a nation of slaves, with no military training, no history, no experience, while the nations around them were much stronger and experienced.  But Israel had God who has ultimate power.  The whole point was that they should trust in him.  We should trust God too.  The principle is not saying that we can wage war whenever we want, and God will put his stamp of approval on it, if we just somehow trust in him.  No. The principle in these first four verses is that we must trust in God and depend on God about anything difficult or scary that we are going through.  But how do we do this?  I regularly struggle with how a person actually places their trust in God. It has to be more than saying, “I trust God,” or believing it in our minds. What do we do with our bodies, our choices, our possessions, our time, our relationships, that show we trust in God? We’ll come back to this question at the end of the series. 

Check back in to part 2, as we continue looking at what God says about Israel’s army.