Tag Archives: holy war

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.

If God told you to kill children, would you do it? (Two Thoughts on those Holy War passages in the Old Testament)

11 Sep

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If God told you to kill children would you do it?

Quite a question, isn’t it?  The answer should be an obvious “No”, right?

We’re studying the biblical book of Deuteronomy on Sunday mornings at Faith Church, and we’ve come to some troubling passages where God commands the armies of Israel to kill children. In chapters 2 and 3, Moses is reviewing with the people of Israel the story of how they made it to where they are encamped on the east side of the Jordan River.  Their journey took them through lands inhabited by Canaanites, and both times they proclaimed holy war on the Canaanites, utterly wiping them out.

Look at Deuteronomy 3:3, “We left no survivors.”  Skip ahead to verse 6: “We completely destroyed them…men, women and children.”

What in the world is going on?  They actually killed children!  It was holy war.

Holy war will come up again in Deuteronomy chapters 7 and 20, so I decided this week that we’re going to talk about Holy war this one time and be done with it.  Why?  Well, quite frankly, it is difficult material.  I wonder how you are feeling as you read these passages?

Sometimes in the past, when we have come to a difficult section of the Bible, people in my church family have said, “Joel, just tell us how to understand it.”  Or they’ve said, “Joel, how do you personally interpret this passage?”

I think behind these comments is desire for relief from tension.  We feel very uncomfortable with tension, right?  Tension is when you are the middle and you are being pulled in two directions, and generally-speaking we hate it.

Do you feel that pull, the tension, when you read passages about God commanding the people to kill all the men, women and children of a nation?  I think you should feel tension.  I do.

Where is the tension coming from?

I think it is coming from the fact that we want to believe in a loving, good, merciful God on one hand, and on the other, we want to believe the Bible is true.  And when our true Bible teaches us about a violent, destructive, genocidal God, we’re stuck.

We want peace, not tension.  We want our impressions and beliefs about God to make us feel good, comforted and safe.

So what do we do to relieve the tension? I do not believe there is a satisfying answer to relieve the tension about the amount of violence in the Old Testament.

Here are some ways that people have tried to resolve the tension of the violence in the OT. I got these from pastor and author Brian Zahnd.  Check out a great interview with him here.

  1. Question the morality of God? Maybe he is actually monstrous.  But we know that isn’t true.  God is good, right?
  2. Question the immutability of God? Maybe he is changing. But we’re hesitant about this too, because God doesn’t change, right?
  3. Question our reading of Scripture? Maybe we shouldn’t take it so literally. But how do we know which parts of the Bible should be literal or not?

None of these options resolve the tension for me.  What does resolve the tension for me?  Nothing.  Instead, I have two thoughts on holy war in the Bible.

Thought #1 – Be humble about difficult passages.

I think it is vital that I view my interpretation of difficult biblical passages as unfinished interpretations.  A work in progress.  My seminary Old Testament prof Dave Dorsey taught us this, and I think it is incredibly wise.  He said that whenever he comes to a part of the Bible that does not line up with what he knows to be true of God, he does not allow himself to come to a final conclusion on the interpretation of that passage.  He waits.  He studies.  Often, he said, there is more going on that he has not yet encountered or does not understand.  It could be cultural or language or translation issues.  I encourage you to follow Dr. Dorsey’s advice.

Thought #2 – Maybe the holy war passages are a justice issue.

Here’s where I’m at with all the times God commands Israel to commit holy war against people.  It seems to me that the people of Canaan, including the Amorites (like King Sihon in Deuteronomy 2), were incredibly evil, and also very powerful.  Think Nazi Germany with the atom bomb.  For any of you that have watched the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, this is exactly what happens. That TV show presents an alternate history, imagining that the Nazis win World War 2 because they create and use the atom bomb before we do.  They bomb Washington DC and win the war, together with Japan controlling the USA.

It is possible that Israel was up against similar powerful, wicked nations.  Archaeologists have done work on the Canaanites, finding them to practice child sacrifice and female temple prostitution, both practices treating vulnerable people terribly.  It was evil that needed to be stopped.  Also, take a much weaker nation with a slave mentality like Israel*, and the chances are incredibly high that Israel could have been quickly enslaved again by the Canaanites.

God knows this.  And so when you have Nazis versus your Jewish people, what happens? Nazis exterminate Jews.  Nazis are powerful and evil.  But God has a plan, a hope for the redemption and recreation of the world, and it is a plan that is to come through the line of the Jews.  Thus God empowers the Jews to eradicate the Nazis, judging evil in the land, and creating this new just society which is to be a blessing to the whole world.

Am I satisfied with this interpretation? Nope. Not in the least. Do I like it?  Not really.  I pray, “God, could there not have been any other way?” It seems like there should have been. So I follow Dr. Dorsey’s advice, and I keep studying.  I’m leaning toward the interpretation that it was a justice issue, to eradicate evil and pave the way for a new just society, in much the same way as World War 2.

Today, in our world, if I had a vision or dream or heard the voice of God asking me to kill children, I would assume that I had not heard or interpreted God correctly, and I would not kill children.  I’d be looking for any other way.  And you know what I find?

I find Jesus on the cross. I find God dying for us.  I find him weeping for us, weeping at sin, and then I find him giving his own life, so that they world could be radically changed.  And I focus on that.  That is powerful.  That is what we need, that is what we know to be true.  God the forgiver, God the merciful, God of second chances, God who loves you so much he would die for you.  God who wants to remove violence from this world.  I find a God of justice who wants wickedness and evil to stop, who has hopes and dreams, and empowers his people to recreate the world as it should be.

*Consider that Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for 400+ years, and only 40 prior to the events we read about in Deuteronomy 2 and 3.  Compare that to slavery in our own nation’s history.  Our American slavery was a shorter length, about 250 years, and 150 years we are still very much feeling the pain of slavery’s wickedness.