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Addressing the Old Testament
(Part 2 of 2)
God’s use of Government to carry out His Will
When discussing this topic, the question always arises: how do we handle passages in which God blesses, or sanctions, war as carried out by the Israelites in the Old Testament?
This question is extremely important in this discussion, and I will attempt not to skirt the validity behind asking it; though, I will be upfront like I said earlier, and admit to you that the Old Testament does not, by itself, support the nonviolent ethic I advocate for. Instead, I believe that it points to it in glimpses of God’s perfect Will amidst these difficult passages, and this Will is made apparent in Christ’s teachings.
I cannot for the sake of length, and for the sake of my own sanity, go through every instance of battle in this section. However, I would like to highlight some passages that would do adequate justice to attempting to answer this valuable question.
“8 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9 So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13 And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.” (ESV)
To begin in our understanding of this passage, we must first recognize that the Israelites at this point were not trained and professional warriors; they needed God’s help. Moses trusted that God would aid them in battle, and so he devoted himself to the Lord in recognizing this need for help, and raised his arms and his staff throughout the whole battle, with the help of Aaron and Hur when his arms and body grew weary.
This passage communicates both the real intervention of God in Old Testament warfare, as well as the need and call for his people to have faith in Him, and to give Him the Glory. Moses did not arrogantly think that they could do this without God, or His blessing, he knew that God was absolutely essential to overcoming this early enemy that was trying to crush the people that God desired to lead to the promised land.
“41 “Then you answered me, ‘We have sinned against the Lord. We ourselves will go up and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us.’ And every one of you fastened on his weapons of war and thought it easy to go up into the hill country.
42 And the Lord said to me, ‘Say to them, Do not go up or fight, for I am not in your midst, lest you be defeated before your enemies.’ 43 So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of the Lord and presumptuously went up into the hill country.44 Then the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do and beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. 45 And you returned and wept before the Lord, but the Lord did not listen to your voice or give ear to you. 46 So you remained at Kadesh many days, the days that you remained there.” (ESV)
Preceding this passage, is the information regarding how the Hebrews sinned against the Lord. In verses 19-40, we see that the Israelites were told to go and take possession of the land that God had promised to them, the hill country of the Amorites, and they were hold that they needn’t fear, for the Lord was with them. Upon exploring this new land, the Israelites became fearful of the fortified cities, and the civilization dwelling there, so they refused to take possession of the land, even though the Lord said that He would give it to them. Because of this, the Lord punished them by saying that because of their disbelief in His mighty power, they were not permitted to enter the land, and were instead told to wander in the wilderness (Deut. 1:40).
It is here where the Israelites, recognizing their sin, decide to go up and fight themselves, relying on the Lord’s previous blessing which they did not trust the first time. Concerned for His people, the Lord told Moses to tell them to not go up and fight, for the Lord will not be with them. Moses conveyed this very important message to the people, and they chose to proceed with the conquest anyway, without the Lord’s blessing.
They did not win this battle, for God was not with them.
Matthew Henry, an 18th century minister and theologian, accurately wrote in his well-renowned commentary of the Bible, that:
“An unbelieving heart was at the bottom of this. All disobedience to God’s laws, and distrust of His power and goodness, flow from disbelief of His word, as all true obedience springs from faith”(pg. 183)
Therefore, this account conveys the truth of the first account mentioned in this section from Exodus 17:8-13; The Lord’s blessing, and faith in that blessing, is absolutely essential for the involvement in battle. Without the Lord’s blessing, the army will succumb to the power of the enemy.
1 Samuel 13:8-14
“8 He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the Lord.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 And Samuel said to Saul,“You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”” (ESV)
Like the preceding account, this account indicates that the Lord detests when humanity takes these things into their own hands apart from the Lord’s blessing. The context of this passage was that the Philistines were preparing for battle, and Saul sought the blessing of the Lord over this battle through Samuel, the Prophet. But Saul, after waiting the amount of days prescribed by Samuel, took the matter into his own hands on the final day by offering a burnt sacrifice to the Lord which he figured would bless him in battle. After doing this, Samuel arrived.
The problem was that Saul knew that Samuel would eventually come, but he was scared of the approaching battle so he did not trust Samuel to come in time, and therefore, he did not trust that God would Move in time. It was then that we read in verses 13-14, that Samuel communicated to King Saul that his kingdom, which would have lasted through his sons, is now going to end with him. Samuel even informed Saul that God has already selected a new King to come along in due time; one that would honor the Lord (this would be King David).
“1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”
5 “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. 6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. 8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. 11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!””(ESV)
This Oracle, or divine revelation, that Habakkuk saw was foretelling the way in which God would use the Babylonians (Chaldeans) to judge Judah (the lower Kingdom of the ancient Israelites for a time) for its wickedness and violence. It is in this passage where we see that God used an evil pagan nation to carry out His Will of punishment against the rebellious and destructive Judah.
It is a common thought to assume that God only works through good governments when we read about his involvement in the ancient Israelite governments, as well as when we read Romans 13 and apply it to our own government. However, it is important to remember that both in this passage in Habakkuk, as well as in the passage in Romans 13, the writers were referring to God using pagan and ungodly nations to carry out His will.
The relevance of this passage to our discussion is that again, we see that God works through Government, and it is Just. What is peculiar however, and what really aids in the discussion of this topic, is what happens in the next passage we will study.
“6 Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?— and loads himself with pledges! 7 Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them. 8 Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them. 9 “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! 10 You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. 11 For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond. 12 “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” (ESV)
The Lord revealed this to Habakkuk in response to Habakkuk’s complaint about Judah being punished by the Chaldeans, as seen in Habakkuk 1:12-17, in which he exclaims to the Lord: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13 – ESV). The NKJV MacArthur Study Bible notes on this scene state:
“In response to Habakkuk’s second complaint (1:12-2:1), the Lord announced that He would judge the Chaldeans as well for their wickedness. His reply included: 1) the instructions to write it down, as a reminder that it would surely occur (vv. 2,3); 2) a description of the character of the wicked in comparison to the righteous (vv. 4,5); and 3) the pronouncement of 5 woes describing the Chaldeans’ demise (vv. 6-20).” (pg.1319)
Therefore, it is seen that even in specific instances of God using a pagan nation and peoples to carry out His will, they are still to be punished for their wrongdoing, and likely, for their treatment of the people of Judah. This idea is seen in the Exodus, which we studied before, as we see how God used Pharaoh in the Exodus of the hebrews to carry out His will, and then later punished Pharaoh and his people for doing things as a result of God hardening their hearts. For another example, Isaiah 10:5-19 speak of God using the Assyrians to carry out his wrath on godless nations, however, he then punishes them for boasting about their conquest.
The conclusion that we can draw from these examples is the repeated element throughout: God’s blessing over battle, and killing, was essential for these battles to be won, or for these battles to bless the Israelites.
To apply this section to the thrust of my argument, even within this Old Testament understanding, I would not be willing to enter a military that would not have the special relationship with God like the ancient Israelites did (which rules out every modern government) because I would be expected and commanded to enter battles as they come up, without for sure knowing what the will of God is. And even if I think that I know what the will of God is, I may only be acting on my own desires, as the Israelites did when they sought to take the promised land without the Lord’s blessing, as we studied in Deuteronomy 1:41-45. Or even if it Is the Will of God for a nation to go to war and capture another nation, they still may be held accountable to God for their actions. Therefore, to reiterate my point: as a Christian, in trusting God to carry out his Will, I would never want to align myself with a human institution that may force me to violate my allegiance to God.
The Canaanite Conquest
One of the most problematic scenes in the Old Testament is what is referred to as “the conquest of Canaan”, which was recorded predominantly in the book of Joshua. In reading about the subject, many authors have expressed deep confusion and concern about this passage, choosing instead to call this scene “The Canaanite Genocide”.
Preston Sprinkle struggles with this conflict in his book “Fight” when he says:
“The most glaring concern comes when the Old Testament sanctions wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites. Israel’s “warfare policy” has raised an ageless ethical problem for anyone who looks to the Old Testament for moral guidance.
For instance, God commands Israel to save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded. (Deut. 20: 16– 17; cf. 7: 1– 2)
God tells Israel to slaughter everyone living within the borders of the Promised Land. We have a term for this sort of thing. We call it genocide.” (Kindle Locations 465-471)
“16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.” (ESV)
Deuteronomy 20 serves as the initial instruction to the ancient Israelites on how they are to come to possess the promised land, which is carried out throughout the book of Joshua. In this passage, The Lord commanded the Israelite people to destroy these pagan nations that were dwelling in the land that God had promised to Israel. This passage is hard to honestly grapple with because God ordered the killing of whole people groups, which doesn’t seem to jive with the message of Jesus.
The traditional approach to this command is the true statement that these pagan nations would corrupt the newly freed Israelites who were still re-learning, or learning, about the one true God after being steeped in a powerful pagan culture for 400 years. These ancient ancient Israelites were still heavily into idol worship, as seen in the creation of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-6. They even had the audacity to say of this newly created idol that “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” in verse 4. Aaron, a main leader, even led them in offering sacrifices to the “god” that they had just created out of the gold jewelry that they had on hand. To place this new and growing civilization in a land and culture that was just as steeped in paganism as Egypt, would more than likely quickly derail the Spiritual renewal that God was working through Moses to establish.
Eugene H. Merrill, in a book titled “Show them no Mercy: 4 views of God and Canaanite Genocide” which lets each author defend their approach on the matter, says the following:
“The option of making covenant with such people or undertaking marriage with them or even of showing mercy and sparing them for some other reason can never be entertained. They will induce Israel to follow their gods and embrace their abominable forms of worship (7:4). Instead, they and their worship apparatus must be exterminated (7:5). The introduction of Yahweh-war legislation so early in Deuteronomy can be explained by its near juxtaposition to the commandments to have no other gods and to desist from making and worshiping pagan idols (Deut. 5:7–10).” (Kindle Locations 1231-1235)
I cannot deny the truth of dramatic spiritual corruption, or possibly an annihilation of the ancient Israelites by the hand of these nations had God not intervened. And while I struggle with the concept of God commissioning the slaying of so many, I cannot help but hope that if there was but one person who was redeemable, or who could be redeemed, that God would spare them. We see this in how he spared Rahab the prostitute and the relatives within her house in Joshua 6:5, as well as when Abraham kept asking God if he would spare the righteous of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:27-33. Yet still, though the canaanites must have been extraordinarily corrupt, they are human lives nonetheless.
The reason why I struggle with this specific scene from the Old Testament is because I have a New Testament understand of who God is. As I have mentioned before, the Old Testament does not represent the perfect Will of God, but rather God working with His people at that time, under that Covenant, which was all about getting His people the land, and establishing them as a nation set apart from the world. On this perspective, C.S Cowles wrote in “Show them no mercy”:
We cannot pretend, as we read these genocidal “texts of terror,” that Jesus has not come. In him we see the complete and undistorted “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). (Kindle Locations 1524-1525)
Therefore, Christ, being the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), as well as representing the fullness of God (Colossians 2:9), is the lens in which Christians should interpret Scripture’s application to their lives. This implies of course that the Christian should follow the ways of Christ, and adhere to His teachings when they appear to conflict with these troublesome passages in the Old Testament. John C. Maxwell contributes the following wisdom in his covering of Deuteronomy within “The Communicator’s Commentary” when conveying the use of war in Deut. 20, and warfare in general throughout the Old Testament by writing the following:
“In Deuteronomy 20, war is an instrument of divine policy; Israel could not have survived without it. But war does not always have the stamp of divine approval. Even in the Old Testament, David is denied the privilege of building the temple because his hands are stained with blood (1 Kings 5:3). One of the features of the coming Messianic kingdom is the abolition of war (Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3). That our society today still resorts to war proves nothing except that men are terribly resistant to the grace of God.” (pg. 247)
War is not the perfect Will of God, and while nations may wage war, the Christian should live as an example of what’s to come in the Messianic Kingdom. It is the Christian’s calling and responsibility to be counter-cultural when Christ calls them to go against the grain.
It is my hope that through the examples and arguments given, that I have handled the question of the Old Testament on this matter honestly. I do not expect my handling of this chapter to be immediately satisfying to the reader, as this issue is incredibly complex, and has been discussed throughout Church History at various times, and with various unique views represented. Nor do I view this work as the best contemporary work on the matter. I merely hope to add to the growing resources that are advocating for a radical interpretation of Christ’s teachings of nonviolence.
Cowles, C. S.; Merrill, Eugene H.; Merrill, Eugene H.; Gard, Daniel L.; Gard, Daniel L.; Longman III, Tremper; Longman III, Tremper (2010-04-24). Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 1231-1235 , 1524-1525, ). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Henry, Matthew. “Deuteronomy 1:19-46.” Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary On The Whole Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997. 183. Print.
MacArthur, John. “Notes on Habakkuk 2:2-20.” The MacArthur Study Bible: New King James Version. Nashville: Word Bibles, 1997. 1319. Print.
Maxwell, John C. “19.” The Communicator’s Commentary – Deuteronomy. Ed. Lloyd John. Ogilvie. Vol. 5. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987. 247. Print.
Sprinkle, Preston (2013-08-01). Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence (Kindle Locations 465-471, 488-494). David C. Cook. Kindle Edition.