Holy War

Last Sunday I began a new preaching series in Judges. Reading through the opening chapter of that exciting Old Testament book, you can’t miss the religiously sanctioned genocide of the Canaanite tribes. And it troubles us. It’s discomforting confronting a God who did that.

In the short time that was available I made a few observations. But I thought I ought to think about it some more and write something up. Here it is. I don’t suppose it’s the last word on the subject. And so let me recommend another couple of answers here and here.

Christians find some of what God commands in the Old Testament unpalatable. For example, Old Testament Israel’s foreign policy was pretty full on. Look at Deut 20:10-18. God commanded the wholesale slaughter of nations. And He wasn’t simply talking about the fighting men. He ordered the eradication of men, women and children. It would be fair to say that it’s not only unbelievers who struggle with this depiction of God. Incidents like these have led people like Richard Dawkins to accuse the God of the Old Testament of being genocidal. We might not agree but we can see where he’s coming from.

To the believer, this depiction of God troubles us for two reasons.

In the first place, we want to know why God commanded the wholesale slaughter of cities. This raises questions about the character of the God we’re expected to worship and adore. Are we really being asked to serve a God who advocates the slaughter of women and children?

In the second place, we want to know whether this command still stands. The idea that Christians should conquer the world in a re-enactment of the Crusades sounds preposterous. Trying to propagate a religious ideology through the use of force is abhorrent. If that’s what Liberal Democracies fear that the Islamic Fundamentalists are trying to do, you can see why they might be suspicious of Christian with similar ambitions.

But the idea that God is guilty of genocide is a distortion of what was going on. We’re in danger of leaving certain aspects out of our reckoning. These are some of them.

1. God was preserving a nation through whom He would bring salvation

God intended to bring the nation of Israel into existence because they would be the means by which He would pour out His blessing to the nations. God’s plan of salvation, which would culminate with Jesus’ birth, began centuries beforehand in the midst of hostile Canaanite territory. Therefore, the command for Israel to engage in military conflict with the surrounding nations was not an isolated, nationalistic agenda. It was part and parcel of God’s intent to bring salvation to the world. He began with the historical situation and had to move the nation through the gruesome horror of war to clear the way for salvation through Jesus Christ. And so we need to come to terms with the fact that war was a normal, though ultimately unacceptable, way of life in the ancient Near East. If Israel was to continue as a nation then they had to fight for their existence. Their ‘full on’ foreign policy was shaped with this in mind. They were required to take up arms in self-defence as they faced enemies who sought to eradicate them. Therefore, in most of the wars, the Israelites were defending themselves and were not the aggressors. Israel did not initiate most of the conflicts in which they were involved [Ex 17:8, Num 21:1 & 21-32, 31: 2-3, Deut 3:1, Josh 10:4]. In fact as Deut 20:10 makes clear, Israel’s first responsibility in warfare was to offer terms of peace. If the city complied they went into forced labour. But if the city refused then Israel would make war against it. That’s not the case in Judges though, where God instructed Israel to initiate conflict and wipe them out. But Israel’s foreign policy was shaped with preservation in mind. And Judges is Joshua part II.

2. God was punishing the nations for their wickedness

In Lev 18:24-30 we read about God’s attitude to the nations. There are similar warnings about the Canaanite practices in Exodus 23:24 & 32 and Leviticus 18:25. The Archaeologist W.F. Albright, in his book From Stone Age to Christianity, puts some flesh on the phrase ‘abominable practices’. He identifies ‘their orgiastic nature-worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross idolatry’ [W.F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity, (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1940), p214]. And so we need to come to terms with the fact that the nations that were destroyed by the Israelites were not an innocent, decent civilization. God had been patient with this unbelieving and immoral people. But His patience had run out. In fact, an argument could be made that it was in the best interests of society in general that this culture was wiped out, much as we might argue for something similar with regards to Nazi Germany. The eradication of this immoral culture should not be viewed as a regrettable incident in Israel’s history, but the righteous act of a God who is intolerant of all forms of evil. The shocking thing is not that God does this, but that He doesn’t do it more often.

3. God was purging the land of idolatry

If Canaanite culture survived it would present a continual temptation for Israel. And in Judges, it does. The idolatrous worship of the original inhabitants of the Promised Land turned Israel from serving the one true God. This is assumed in Moses’ words in Ex 23:23-33. Tolerant co-existence of false worship and wicked lifestyles was problematic in a theocratic state. God’s requirement for Israel to be holy is repeated throughout the early chapters of the Old Testament [Lev 18:30 & 20:26]. The ongoing presence of the Canaanite tribes threatened this. The monotheistic faith and practice of Israel could only be preserved through the destruction of corrupting rival cultures. If Israel was to be holy in the Kingdom of God they needed to rid all unholy pockets of resistance to God’s rule.

4. God was exercising His right to take life

We’re understandably appalled at the treatment of the women and children who took no part in warfare. We think that this raises questions about God’s goodness. But that’s not the case at all. It’s God’s decision how long we live for. It’s his prerogative to give and take life. Whatever we think, it’s not an inalienable right that we exist. Life is God’s good and undeserved gift. If He decides that we live for only a few days we cannot charge Him with injustice. He’s done nothing wrong. God was under no obligation to create. And having created, God is not under obligation to sustain the universe. So even the termination of women and children, though shocking, isn’t unjust. For me, it’s the inclusion of the kids that I find hardest to accept. But God’s not doing anything wrong if He sends suffering or ‘prematurely’ ends a life. I instinctively think that I have an inalienable right to exist. But every breath I have comes from the Lord by grace. All of life is undeserved! So if He ends my life seconds after conception, birth, my fifth birthday or even forty I should be grateful for what He’s given me. It’s not unfair if I die young. It’s true that God treats people unequally if my kids die young and someone else’s don’t. But He’s not been unfair. Justice isn’t the issue. Mercy and grace are undeserved and if God chooses to extend my life longer than someone else’s that’s His choice. God is amazingly kind to us and more gracious than perhaps we’ve ever imagined.

5. God was employing Israel as His instrument

The Israelites were instruments of God’s judgement. He directed their military activities. He was the divine commander directing His army. Every conflict in which Israel was supposed to engage was initiated by God. Unlike her neighbours, Israel did not fight wars for war’s sake. The conquest of the Promised Land was not simply the means of giving His land to His people, but it was also the means by which He destroyed a wicked people. Moses says as much in Deut 9:4&5.

Many of us struggle to rid our minds of the marauding images of medieval crusaders wreaking a campaign of havoc, pillage and rape. But God required His Israelite army to uphold ethical and moral standards even as they were engaged in the act of killing (Deut 23:9). Israelite soldiers were to stand apart from their ancient Near Eastern counterparts in the way they conducted themselves. It’s also true that God employed other nations as His instruments to exact His punishment on His own people when they compromised their covenantal loyalty. Israel wasn’t exempt from the demands of living under the lordship of God. When Israel broke faith with God, He treated them like the other nations. He struck them down as they incurred His judgement and wrath. God judges disloyalty and disobedience whether it occurs amongst His people of amongst His enemies.


And so with these five aspects duly considered it’s reasonable to conclude that God cannot be charged with immorality. The nations weren’t innocent; they were immoral idolaters. They did not deserve to live and neither did their offspring. In that sense they’re no different to us. God was entirely just in the way he treated them, as he has of all humanity. But He was merciful to Israel and to all those who allied themselves with their ultimate ruler, their covenant keeping Lord. God continues to be merciful to all humanity in our continued existence. But He’s especially merciful to those of us who have allied ourselves to His Son Jesus Christ. In him we’re not assured of a lengthy existence in this world. But that’s a given for the next.

It ought also to be clear that the particularity of Israel’s situation means that the command to drive the nations out of the Promised Land is no longer applicable. They were strict limits to Israel’s military activities. God determined where they went and who they fought. He told them how to fight. And He gave them victory. It was all tied up with God’s promise of the land of Canaan. God’s people were not to embark on a worldwide crusade to force conversion through the sword. They were simply to establish a theocracy through whom God could bring His Saviour to the world.

That God used Israel as His instrument in the past does not provide justification for any nation to claim God’s support for their military activities now. There is no theocratic state that can claim God’s permission to engage in modern crusades. Of oucrse, in his providential over-ruling of all things, God continues to use nations as the instruments of His judgement and punishment. But we have no way of knowing certainly when He does. We simply do not know precisely what God is doing in the world. What we do know is that if we live now as his enemy we will face Him as His enemy. And God doesn’t lose. The wise thing to do, like the cities in Deut 20, is to make peace whilst we can and to enjoy the blessings of His rule.

10 thoughts on “Holy War

  1. Phil C January 11, 2011 / 10:13 pm

    Perks, thanks for this. I found part 4 and the conclusion particularly helpful.

    However, I am wondering if we are defending something that the Bible doesn’t actually record. There are some Christians who say that we should read the accounts of genocide in Joshua and Judges as hyperbole, rather than literal – very roughly, like we say “Man U annihilated Liverpool”, back in OT times it was common for nations to use the language of total destruction when they were actually engaged in something less extreme. So, they might say, the Israelites engaged in war but not outright genocide.

    It certainly seemed to me on Sunday that this could be the case – for example, the major concern in Judges 2:1-5 seems to be idolatry, rather than some Canaanites being left alive (from memory, there is also the language throughout the passage of the other peoples being “driven out”, rather than actually killed).

    Here’s an example of this argument being laid out – it is the first of two parts:


    Sorry to link to a long article, but I don’t want to sound like I’m pulling something out of thin air. Is this a responsible approach to these Old Testament accounts, do you think?

  2. Tom C January 11, 2011 / 10:31 pm

    Thanks for posting this Perks.

    In the stuffy confines of Chestnut Grove on Sunday evening I was struggling to make sense of why God would want the Israelites to go through with something like this – it’s deeply, deeply distressing.

    I think you were right not to call for questions and observations at that stage, but I’m very glad you’ve made these points available for our consideration. As Phil did, I found your 4th point especially useful – in my arrogance it’s never really occurred to me that God is under no obligation to continue to give me life.

    I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable, but after reading this I’d draw the same conclusions as you.

  3. Lauri Moyle January 12, 2011 / 10:20 am

    When does God self-limit, why does he do so and what does it mean in relation to justice and mercy? For me this is a question that relates to Gods ‘right’ to annihilate his creation and his character and willingness not to do so. Yes he is justified to do so, but how does this elf limitation function?

    I put the word ‘right’ in inverted commas because the baggage that comes with ‘rights language’ isn’t very helpful when thinking about justice, particularly within the context of justice and mercy, and Gods judgement and Grace through Jesus’ sacrifice, resurrection and ascension. But the question of self limiting rights is an important one.

    Also how does the following play itself out in practice Perks? (Could you point me to some biblical passages where it says he is especially merciful to believers?

    “God continues to be merciful to all humanity in our continued existence. But He’s especially merciful to those of us who have allied ourselves to His Son Jesus Christ.”

  4. Laurence January 13, 2011 / 9:41 am

    Why not simply recognise that the Old Testament shows a developing understanding of God which is challenged by the picture of a compassionate loving God as given by Jesus in the New Testament. That’s why Christians call it the New Testament.
    You tie yourself in knots.

    • theurbanpastor January 13, 2011 / 12:25 pm

      Thanks for commenting. I think it is a ‘knotty’ problem. To our modern ears the idea that God destroys the Canaanite tribes sounds horrific. But then again the idea that God sends people to hell for all eternity to suffer everlasting punishment for their wicknedness is also unwelcome. I’m sorry if I make it harder to understand. Your solution is neat, I’ll concede. But wrong. Christians don’t call the New Testament new because a new version of God is presented. That’s an old chestnut that’s been doing the rounds for years. The idea that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and the God of the New is a God of compassion just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Theologically the idea that God changes is also not one that the Bible would support. God’s immutability is a well attested theological concept. I’ve blogged on that here. The New Testament is New because it articulates a New Covenant; one in which death of Christ guarantees God’s favour so that any who turn to him in repentance and faith will be welcomed into His Kingdom. The righteous and wrathful condemnation meted out on the Canaanite tribes, that we also deserve for our wickedness, was borne instead by our nloving saviour, Jesus Christ.

    • Lauri Moyle January 13, 2011 / 12:26 pm

      Laurence, I think you will find that your possition departs quite a lot from an orthodox understanding of Gods character, knots or not.

      • Lauri Moyle January 13, 2011 / 12:27 pm

        Ah, I see the urban pastor was quicker in responce than I was…

  5. Kip' Chelashaw January 13, 2011 / 9:38 pm

    Rev Perkins,

    This is great.

    A few months ago the church I used to attend in North London started a sermon series on Judges. The one on Judges 4 entitled “What women should do when men fail” is a cracker and can be listened to, by following this link http://northlondonchurch.org/2010/09/05/judges-4-what-women-should-do-when-christian-men-fail/ . The others sermons on Judges are equally good and will give you more ammo for the good work you seem to doing, teaching the Balham saints about our Mighty God from this unfamiliar (not difficult) book.

    Every blessing to you bro.

    Kip’ Chelashaw

    • theurbanpastor January 13, 2011 / 10:55 pm

      Rev Perkins – who’s that?!
      Thanks for the respect though, appreciated.
      Thanks also for the for the heads up. I’m guessing that’s Steve Jeffrey’s sermon. I’ve always understood that Deborah’s appointment was a judgment on the men of Israel so I’ll look forward to hearing what Jeffers makes of that.
      Go well bro

      • stevejeffery1703 January 14, 2011 / 5:16 pm

        Hey Perks,

        I think you’re right. Barak was pathetic – the only words he says were (to paraphrase) “I ain’t going if I have to go on my own.” And he was presumably one of the best men around in Israel at the time.

        Notice also that the narrator makes fun of Barak (and correspondingly dignified Deborah) at the start of the so-called “Song of Deborah and Barak” in chapter 5. Although the text says that “Deborah and Barak” both sang, the verb “sang” is feminine singular. It’s as if Barak’s weedy voice was drowned out by the battle cries of the woman.

        And all the other stuff about Jael and Heber too.


        Blessings to you and all the folks at CCB,


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