Christian Living: War in the Old Testament

This is the first article in a series that addresses the topic of military service and warfare and the related topic of Christian pacifism.

Christian pacifists must deal with what is said about warfare in the Old Testament. Warfare was part of the life of the Old Testament people of God. At times, God himself commanded Israel to go to war. While Christians differ on the weight they give the Old Testament witness, they cannot ignore it. It provides the background for what Jews would have believed before they followed Jesus.

Thus, a proper understanding of the Old Testament perspective on war helps us compare and contrast its teachings with the instructions given by the greatest Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, and his apostles.

Before the Fall

The Garden of EdenOn the sixth day of the creation story of Genesis 1, God created humans in his image. He gave man and woman authority over all the earth and its life. While Genesis does not describe God’s intended nature for human rule, it implies that he intended it to be peaceful. In that world there was no bloodshed. The foods of man and beast were plants (Genesis 1:29–30). Following the sixth day, God rested.

In Genesis 2, we read that God created the male first. After creating him, God put the man into a garden in Eden, a garden that God himself had planted. The garden was full of trees, both pleasant to the eyes and good for food. Two special trees were there as well — the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The garden was well watered, and the trees were to be the source of the man’s food. Only of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the man not to eat. God did not deny him the tree of life. Following this instruction, God created, out of the man’s side, a woman for the man. She became his wife. Despite their nakedness, they had no shame.

As in Genesis 1, so in Genesis 2. The world is at peace. Human beings do not shed blood, not even the blood of animals. Genesis 2 also adds that they lack any sense of shame, for there is nothing for them to be ashamed about. Humans have no knowledge of evil. That, of course, is about to change.

Christians insist that Genesis 1 and 2 portray an ideal. It is the ideal of what human society would be like if humankind had no knowledge of evil. If we all had nothing for which to be ashamed, the world would be at peace. Humans would not shed blood. We would be what our Creator wished us to be.

From the Fall to the Flood

Genesis 3 quickly moves from the ideal pacific creation to humanity’s first sin. The serpent’s temptation of Eve, her eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and her subsequent sharing of that fruit with Adam are all part of the well-known story. Their innocence is lost. They know shame. They cover their nakedness with sewn-together fig leaves.

Genesis 3 speaks theologically about humankind’s problem. Human life is cursed, because humans fall short of the ethics of their Creator, even in the simplest of matters. Genesis 3 describes those curses in terms of painful childbirth, the relationship between husbands and wives, and man’s hard labor until the day he dies.

the serpent and a footThe first hint of violence comes in God’s cursing of the serpent. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This is the protoevangelion, the first preaching of the gospel. God will deliver humanity from the one who introduced them to sin. Yet God will not accomplish this without violence. The crushing of the serpent’s head is good news.

Before the close of chapter 3 we also read a hint of the first possible bloodshed. After banishing Adam and Eve from the garden and denying them access to the tree of life, God clothes them. He covers their nakedness with skins (verse 21). Normally this requires an animal’s death.

Abel was one of the sons of Adam and Eve. He was a shepherd who brought the fat from his flock to God as an offering. Though the passage does not say so, in the broader context of Genesis we may conclude that Abel sacrificed his offering. Humans were now killing animals. Abel’s offering was acceptable. The passage does not explain why this type of killing was acceptable to God. Was it a sin offering? Was it a thank offering? Was it another kind of offering? Genesis does not say.

Cain, jealous of his brother because God preferred Abel’s animal offering over what may have been Cain’s deliberately inferior vegetable offering, killed Abel. Cain’s murder of Abel brought on an additional curse. God exiled Cain to be a wanderer. Cain complained that he feared someone would avenge Abel’s murder and kill him. God promised Cain that if this occurred, the cycle of violence would increase. Cain’s killer would “suffer vengeance seven times over” (verse 15).

As time passed, violence increased. Lamech confessed to killing a man. His was not a jealousy killing or done to avenge the murder of another. Lamech had vengefully killed a man who had injured him in some way (verse 23). In his lament he referred to Cain, perhaps implying that Cain had suffered violence. “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech is to be avenged 77 times.”

By chapter 6 the earth was filled with violence (Genesis 6:11). Because of this, God decided to violently drown the earth in a great flood. Of all humans, God would only spare righteous Noah and his immediate family.

In summary, from Genesis 3 to 6 we read that violence resulted from the Fall. The Fall violently affected both humans and beasts. Though originally God gave humans no mandate to kill animals, after the Fall killing animals was permissible, at least sacrificially and perhaps for clothing. (The first instruction on eating animals is not found until Genesis 9). Murder originated in jealousy.

Up through Genesis 6, the Bible mentions no human government that would have dealt with murder or any other crime. God administered the first punishments — exile and cursing, and some kind of marking for the first murderer. Vengeance killing for the murder of an innocent person happened, but those who killed for vengeance were themselves cursed.

The pre-Flood chapters of Genesis do not discuss how justice might interrelate with vengeance, or how humans might administer justice. As the story unfolds, the cycle of violence gradually increases to the point that it fills the entire earth. Though cities existed, Genesis does not tell us whether human violence was individual on individual, or city-state on city-state. Nor is there any discussion of self-defense, the defense of innocents or the responsibility of governments to defend their citizens.

Genesis never mentions how God expected a righteous person in that violent society to conduct him or herself in given situations. Genesis simply portrays violence as a universal evil. Because Noah was a righteous man in contrast with the rest of his world, the implication is that Noah was nonviolent.

From the Flood to the Patriarchs

After the Flood, God instructs Noah on bloodletting. The first part of his instruction deals with killing animals. He tells Noah that he may eat all living creatures if Noah properly bleeds them (Genesis 9:3–4). This is clearly a new instruction, as God deliberately contrasts this post-Flood teaching with his earlier Edenic instructions about eating vegetables. It is not a sin to slay animals for food. Not all killing is bad, despite whatever Edenic ideal the Bible may suggest.

The second instruction on bloodletting deals with the killing of people. People are not to murder. God created human beings in his image. For that reason murdering them is not permissible. Yet not all killing of humans is murder. In Genesis 9 God tells Noah that a murderer is to be killed for his crime.

Murder by definition is the illegal killing of another human, especially with malice aforethought. This cannot be allowed, for it fails to respect the victim as an image of God. Therefore God said, “I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.” This accounting is placed into the hands of fellow human beings.

God may not necessarily intervene every time. Humans are to decide such issues and execute murderers when they discover them. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:5–6). Therefore, after Noah’s flood, capital punishment and murder are different. Murder is sin. Capital punishment for murder is justice. Genesis does not discuss whether capital punishment is a deterrent to murder. This is not an issue. Justice is.

Genesis 9 does not discuss exactly what standards humans were to use in deciding a capital case. Nor is there any mention of who was responsible for carrying out a death sentence. Genesis avoids difficult issues like the mistaken execution of the innocent or the prejudicial application of the law against minorities. These are modern concerns.

Genesis 9 simply says that humans are to execute murderers. The motivations of the executioner, or whether the execution takes place under ideal conditions, or whether the government can grant pardons in some cases do not negate the God-ordained command to execute murderers.

Were executions to be painful or painless? Were they to be sanitary or could they be messy? Surely the fallenness of human beings would have given any opponents of the death penalty ample reason to oppose God’s decree. Surely God knew that occasionally innocent people would be executed. Yet there it is. In Genesis 9, God tells fallen humans to execute fallen humans who murder.

As the story unfolds, human society again became corrupted. Few of Noah’s descendants served God. Out of all the peoples on earth, God called Abram. Like all the biblical heroes, Abram sinned. Yet because of his faith, God would declare him righteous. Abram strove to obey God. As God prospered him, Abram gained ever more servants. He trained some of these servants in war and thus formed his own army. When marauding kings captured his nephew, Abram sent his army to rescue Lot and those captured with him (Genesis 14:14). Abram ordered his army to attack at night without warning. In the battle that followed he routed his enemies and rescued the captives.

This is the first mention of armies in the Bible — the first mention of organized state violence. On one side we have the armies of the invading kings. On the other side we have the army of Abram, the man of faith. This is also the first mention of military tactics. Abram used a night attack to catch his enemies off guard. He did not simply fight a defensive war. Abram went on the offensive in territory far from his own to rescue his nephew.

When Abram returned from battle, Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God, attributed Abram’s victory to God. “Blessed be God Most High,” he says, “who delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19). He has no condemnation for what Abram has done.

“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1). Following this military metaphor, God made his covenant with Abram, promising that his many descendants would possess Canaan.

Commentators often overlook that the giving of the Abrahamic covenant followed Abram’s military victory and God’s introduction of himself to Abram as Abram’s shield. The way Genesis tells the story shows no divine displeasure with what Abram has done.

As Abram became the father of the faithful, one other point may prove important for Christian ethics. Abram was willing to suffer loss for the sake of peace. Genesis 13 tells how Abram gave up the greenest pastures in exchange for peace between his servants and Lot’s servants. Yet peace was not his highest ethic. When Lot and his neighbors in Sodom suffered from invasion, Abram’s army went to battle to rescue them. The men of Sodom were wicked; Lot may have been greedy, but Lot was kin, and Lot’s friends were the victims of an invading army. By going to war, Abram again proved his willingness to suffer loss for another’s benefit.

As the Abrahamic covenant expanded, it included the promise that Abram’s descendants would include kings (Genesis 17:6). That kingship includes the commanding of armies is understood.

After having his name changed to Abraham, Abraham lived to see God execute capital punishment on a grand scale. For the cities’ wickedness, God killed everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah (many of whom Abraham had probably rescued earlier). Innocent babies perished with the most perverse of adults. The author of life also has the moral authority to take away life.

On another occasion, Abraham resolved a dispute with a king named Abimelech over a well that Abimelech’s servants had seized (Genesis 20:22ff). Instead of resorting to war, Abraham first sought a diplomatic solution. This approach succeeded and resulted in a treaty that acknowledged Abraham’s rights to the well. Though Abram was a man of war, he also was a man of peace. In the Old Testament, these characteristics are not mutually exclusive.

As time progressed, the Abrahamic covenant expanded to include the promise that his descendants would possess their enemies’ cities (Genesis 22:17). How they would accomplish this was not explained. Was this to be by warfare, natural disaster, plague, miracle or all of the above?

Moses, Joshua, covenant and holy wars

The patriarchal age ended with Abraham’s descendants in Egypt—at first exalted, but a change of dynasty led to their enslavement. God arranged for Moses, an Israelite of the tribe of Levi, to be raised as a member of Pharaoh’s family. We can presume that his social status required military training.

Moved by the abuse of one of his fellow Israelites, Moses murdered an Egyptian and was forced to flee. In Midian, Moses fought with shepherds who had denied a priest’s daughters access to a well for their flocks. Forty years later, God called Moses to deliver Israel out of bondage. Instead of a sword, Moses returned to Egypt with a shepherd’s staff. He used it to display God’s unprecedented miracles. The hand of God delivered Israel and executed vengeance on Egypt.

The route God choose for the Exodus was deliberately circuitous. He meant to keep Israel from contact with the Philistines, lest Israel see war and wish to return to Egypt (Exodus 13:17). The text does not comment on whether war is right or wrong. It is simply states that if Israel sees war they might become fearful and return to Egypt.

Another possible reason for the circuitous route is so that Israel would see the power of God. He was the One who fought for them. In the Red Sea, God miraculously drowned the entire Egyptian army that Pharaoh had sent to reenslave Israel.

Soon after that, the Amalekites attacked Israel. The Bible gives no reason why God allowed the attack. Though one might assume that it was because of Israel’s rebelliousness, the Bible makes no such claim. One could just as easily argue that God introduced Israel to war so that they would be less fearful of war. He would be with them in battle. Had they not seen God destroy Egypt’s army? With faith in God, Israel would conquer her enemies. From this perspective, the knowledge and experience Israel gained in fighting Amalek would be invaluable preparation for Israel’s coming invasion of the Promised Land.

Whatever the reason for God allowing the war, the Amalekite method of attack was evil. Deuteronomy 25:18 tells us that the Amalekites struck those who were weary and therefore lagging behind the main body of Israelites. These would have included the infirm, the elderly and families with young children. Without hesitation, Moses ordered Israel to strike back. Joshua led their army. Thus, the future commander of the army that would invade Canaan gained valuable battle experience.

As long as someone held up Moses’ arms, Israel was winning. When his arms dropped, the Amalekites gained the advantage. The battle lasted until sunset, with Israel victorious (Exodus 17:10-13). After the battle, God spoke. He had no moral condemnation. Nothing to teach Israel. No lesson to be learned. No correction given. He wanted the battle’s story to be recorded and he promised that he, the Lord, would be at war with the Amalekites from generation to generation (verses 14–17). Yahweh has revealed himself to be the great warrior.

Later at Mount Sinai, God entered into a covenant with Israel. This covenant, known by Christians as the old covenant, had at its core the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). The Ten Commandments are listed in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. God introduced the Ten Commandments by reminding the people to whom he was giving them — to Israel.

The first four commandments regulated Israel’s worship of God. The fourth commandment also regulated the work relationships of individuals within Israel. The fifth through the tenth commandment further regulated interpersonal relationships within the community.

Nothing in the Ten Commandments dealt with Israel’s relationship toward outsiders. Nor did they address what to do with individuals from within the community or from without who violated the Ten Commandments. One has to look elsewhere to see how the law addressed these issues.

Included among the Ten Commandments was the simple command “You shall not murder.” This command did not prohibit all killing, but only certain kinds of killing. Under normal circumstances, capital punishment and killing during warfare were not considered murder. Capital punishment was a part of the covenant itself (Exodus 21:12–17). Capital crimes included kidnapping, cursing parents and Sabbath breaking. Other capital offenses included failing to deal with a dangerous animal that subsequently killed a man (21:29), sorcery (22:18), bestiality (22:19) and idolatry (22:20).

Christians who turn to the Law to justify warfare are rarely consistent in their use of Scripture. For example, some prowar arguments focus on the Law’s regulation of warfare (which we will soon discuss), but avoid advocating capital punishment for cursing parents or Sabbath breaking. What justifies the claim that one part of the Law is authoritative while another part is not? Christian ethics often fails the test of consistency.

Returning to the Mosaic covenant we notice that if Israel had obeyed the covenant, God promised to fight for them, using the forces of nature (Exodus 23:22–30). Hornets (or perhaps pestilence [NRSV]) would drive out the inhabitants of Canaan (verse 28). Yet God would not do all the fighting. Embedded in this same context was the statement “I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you” (23:31-33). The only way Israel could drive the people out would be through force.

A similar promise is found in Deuteronomy. (Deuteronomy is basically a repetition and revision of the Sinaitic covenant.) It is found in Deuteronomy 7:17-26. There it is clear that although God would send hornets and other signs and wonders, Israel was to pick up the sword and “wipe out their [the Canaanite’s and related people’s] names from under heaven. No one will be able to stand up against you; you will destroy them.” The Mosaic Law knows nothing of pacifism.

In Deuteronomy 20, God gave laws regulating warfare. Offers of surrender, plundering and enslavement of the enemy’s females and children are all regulated in chapter 20. The operative theological point of this chapter is that God would march with Israel to war. One might argue that this chapter is the beginning of “just war” ethics.

Most strikingly, some nations were to be treated more savagely than others. “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:16). Why? “Otherwise they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God” (verse 18).

The major justification of this genocidal slaughter is that it is necessary to keep Israel’s religion pure. Another is that Israel was the instrument of God’s justice. Israel was to become the sword of the Lord (Leviticus 18:24ff). Whereas in the past, God executed his justice without human involvement (as at Sodom), he now has humans involved as well.

Some have argued that warfare under Moses and Joshua was permitted only because God commanded it. While it is true that God ordered some of Israel’s wars, we see no such command regarding the already discussed battle with the Amalekites. Yet God was actively involved on Israel’s behalf. Furthermore, Deuteronomy 20 does not demand that its laws regulating war apply only to wars that God commands. The chapter assumes that God would generally support Israel in all its warfare.

Deuteronomy 20 plainly says that some of Israel’s future wars would take them far from their borders. So the warfare anticipated in the chapter was not even limited to defensive warfare fought only in their own territory. Nor was it limited to the occupation of the Promised Land. It involved the destruction of cities and the enslavement of women and children far from the land of Israel.

While the Law commanded the love of God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), such commands did not automatically exclude capital punishment or going to war. The assumption in the Law was that Israel would go to war and that they could fight wars God’s way. The Garden of Eden was in the past.

One note on loving our neighbor. In Leviticus 19 we find many laws that required Israelites to treat each other equitably. Those who lacked social influence and power were to be defended. The justice system was to be impartial. In that context the law reads

Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. Do not hate your brother in your heart. . . . Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:16b–18)

In the Law, a neighbor was a fellow Israelite. A fellow Israelite was like a brother. As for an alien, if he lived among Israel, then the people were to treat him as a native-born Israelite. God told the Israelites to “love him as yourself” (verse 34). Loving someone did not mean that one would never execute that person. In the Law, the ethics of loving your neighbors and executing them if they committed a capital offense existed side-by-side. They were not mutually exclusive principles. They were not ethically inconsistent with one another. One could love God, love neighbor and kill.

Before closing this section we will suggest that the reader review the books of Joshua and Judges. Both books relate the holy wars of Israel in the period between the death of Moses and the establishment of the monarchy.

two warriors fightingThese wars were bloody affairs. Combat was at close range, often hand-to-hand. In such circumstances, soldiers would have been soaked in blood. They would have slipped on the entrails of their enemies. The screams and agonized cries of the wounded would have filled the air.

Do we believe that when Israel stormed Jericho that the soldiers who slew fleeing mothers along with the babies they sheltered in their arms were unaffected by what God commanded them to do? Though God commanded some of these wars and others received his blessing, we should not suppose that this made them any less horrific. Because war is horrific, that does not make it inherently immoral.

David, a man of war

Among the great warriors of Israel was David. Tens of millions of children have heard how he slew the giant Goliath. For many decades the Philistines and Israelites were continually at war with each other. At one point during this period the Philistines and Israelites faced each other across a valley. The Philistine champion challenged any Israelite man to fight him to decide the outcome of their war. He openly defied Israel’s God. David accepted Goliath’s challenge. With faith in God, a sling and a few stones he felled the giant. Then taking Goliath’s sword, he cut off his head. This gory story of faith is one of the beloved stories of Scripture.

There is, however, a part of the story that few know. David had, of course, already fought and slain both a bear and a lion. He knew how to handle a sling. He took five stones, not just one. People do not realize that David, though a youth, had already trained for war.

Before Goliath’s taunting, David had been summoned to play the harp for Saul. On recommending him, a servant described David as “a brave man and a warrior” (1 Samuel 16:18). During this time of service in Saul’s court, David became Saul’s armor-bearer (verse 21). How this story fits in with the Goliath account that follows is unclear, for in that story Saul seems not to know David. Yet if the placement of the story is chronologically accurate, then David knew something of warfare before his confrontation with Goliath.

Eventually David rose high in rank in Saul’s army. The people proclaimed him a greater warrior than Saul. This lead to Saul’s infamous jealousy and David’s flight, during which time he lived as a guerilla leader or brigand. However, David never attacked any Israelite, including Saul and his supporters, during this time. During all these trials God was with David, preparing the way for David’s assumption of Israel’s throne.

After becoming king, David warred to unite the nation and to fight Israel’s neighbors. We will not relate those battles here. Still, there is one important part of the story that we should not overlook.

David wished to build God a temple, but God denied him the opportunity. Though he was a man after God’s own heart, God said that David was too bloody a man to build the temple. That would have to be left to his son Solomon, who would build the temple in peace (1 Chronicles 22:7–9). Is this an important theological statement? The temple of God must be built by a man of peace. (A man of peace who nonetheless commanded a standing army.) Do we see shades of the new covenant in this part of the story?

David understood that his military victories came only because God was with him. In Psalm 33:16–18 he wrote

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love.

This thought is also expressed in Psalm 44.

You are my King and my God, who decrees victories for Jacob. Through you we push back our enemies; through your name we trample our foes. I do not trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you give us victory over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame. (verses 4–7)

Although David did not trust in his weapons or in the size of his army to bring victory, he did not disarm himself or his nation. David understood that it was God who worked through his weapons and his army to bring the victory. So David’s problem was not that he was a warrior, but that he had shed “so much blood” (2 Chronicles 22:8 NRSV). That is why he could not build the temple.

We should not leave the story of David without considering Psalm 18. David wrote and dedicated this psalm to God after God delivered him from all of his enemies, especially Saul. David began the psalm with

I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies.

Military analogies abound. David uses poetic imagery in attributing his deliverance in war to obedience to God. Particularly interesting is David’s description of battle and his training for it. Read his words carefully.

With your [God’s] help I can advance against a troop [or can run through a barricade], with my God I can scale a wall. . . . It is God who arms me with strength. . . . He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights. He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze. . . . I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed. I crushed them so that they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet. You armed me with strength for battle, you made my adversaries bow at my feet. (verses 29–39)

Whatever David’s excesses may have been, he clearly understood that part of his natural strength came from God. God trained David for war. Those who canonized the Scripture kept these words in the Bible. If we understand the Holy Spirit to have influenced and inspired the canon, then we must balance the biblical statement that God judged David to be a bloodthirsty man with those scriptures that say that God gave David his fighting ability, trained him for war and gave him success in battle.

One incident in David’s life illustrates the distinctions that people in the Old Testament made between murder and killing in war. In 2 Samuel 3 we read how Abner, the military commander of the army of Ish-Bosheth, of the house of Saul, switched sides to support David. However, Joab, David’s commander, opposed this alliance. So “Joab and his brother Abishai murdered Abner because he had killed their brother Asahel in the battle at Gibeon” (verse 3). For this Joab was cursed and Abner lamented.

While the account does not directly address God’s attitude toward war, it does illustrate the general perspective of Israelites living at the time. Abner’s killing of one of David’s soldiers was not considered murder, because that had occurred in battle. However, Joab’s killing of a former enemy who had become an ally was considered murder. This confirms what we have already observed from our study of the law. Going to war was not an inherent violation of the Ten Commandments.

Faith, love and warfare in the Old Testament

Sometimes Christians pose pacifism as a faith issue. That it is. Yet some make the additional claim that Israel’s resort to military arms resulted from their lack of faith. Had they had faith, they argue, Israel would not have had an army. God would have delivered them miraculously. After all, obedience to the covenant guaranteed Israel protection from her enemies (Leviticus 26:6).

I think by now we have shown that such a view is untrue. Faith and the use of weapons are not mutually exclusive. Many great faith stories of the Old Testament involve victory in battle. While it is true that there were times when God delivered Israel without their having to resort to warfare (such as the slaughter of the Assyrian armies before the gates of Jerusalem) this was not always the case.

In Leviticus 26 we read of the blessings God would have bestowed on Israel for their obedience to the Mosaic covenant. They were told that if they obeyed, God would “grant peace in the land.” They would lie down and no one would make them afraid. The sword would not pass through their land. Yet this promise did not mean that Israel would be free from warfare. Quite to the contrary. God said:

You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you. (verses 7–8)

A similar blessing is found in Deuteronomy 28. There too, victory in war, not freedom from war, was the blessing. Israel’s enemies would flee from them.

The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven. (verse 7)

So obedience and faith did not mean an end to war. It meant that Israel would have victory in war and that their land would not see war’s ravages. (Though obviously the soldiers who fought would experience the ravages of war.) Fighting in war was not an ipso facto evidence of a lack of God-fearing faith. From an Old Testament perspective, in most circumstances (though not all) the refusal to fight Israel’s enemies meant a lack of faith. That is what David saw in the soldiers who refused to fight Goliath.

But what about those cases where Israel’s enemies were defeated without Israel having to fight? Do not these stories teach us that if we are righteous and faithful to God that he will fight our battles for us, without us ever having to raise a sword in anger? Are not these stories written to encourage a pacifist ethic?

Two such stories have already been mentioned: the drowning of Pharaoh’s army and the defeat of the Assyrian army before the gates of Jerusalem. We could add to those two the invasion of Judah by the Moabite-led coalition recorded in 2 Chronicles 20. There we read that after praying and fasting, Judah’s army marched toward the invaders with a choir singing praises to God. In response, God moved Judah’s enemies to turn and slay each other.

Do these examples teach pacifism? If so, why is it that in all cases, God never required Israel to disband their army or lay down their arms? God’s prophets never taught a pacifist ethic. In the three cases we have cited, God’s intervention was necessary because the odds against Israel were overwhelming. God fought for Israel, but he never counseled them to disarm. In other situations where Israel needed less dramatically miraculous help, Israel fought. Even during the reign of Solomon, the typological Prince of Peace, the nation maintained a standing army.

If we may draw an analogy between warfare and medicine, it does not follow that because God miraculously heals it is wrong to be a surgeon. That God does heal says nothing about his feelings about medicine or those who practice it.

Returning to an earlier point, we have seen how Old Testament ethics did not consider love and killing necessarily to be in opposition. One was to love one’s neighbor, but if a neighbor committed certain crimes, your neighbor had to die. One was to love one’s neighbor, but the blessings for obeying God’s law included victory in battle, not freedom from battle.

Pacifism is not an Old Testament ethic. Sometimes, to have been a pacifist would have been blatantly unethical.

If it was not obvious before, it should be obvious now why Christian pacifists cannot rightfully use the Old Testament to support pacifism. Pacifism is not an Old Testament ethic. Sometimes, to have been a pacifist would have been blatantly unethical. The Old Testament people of God were not pacifists. Capital punishment and killing in war were not considered different forms of murder. Such killing was not sinful. The days of the Garden of Eden were past. The people of God lived in the present. The present required killing some criminals. It required killing in defense of one’s people and home, and in the occasional deliverance of other people from oppression. At times it was required to fulfill the command of God.

The prophets Isaiah and Micah spoke of a day when nations would beat their swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3). Nation would not lift up sword against nation, and no one would study war anymore. That day was far off, in the last days, when God would rule the earth with a rod of iron. Yet even before then, God himself would go to war against his enemies, crushing all opposition (Zechariah 14:3–16). God, the great warrior, would be victorious.

Author: Ralph Orr


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