A common opinion of many non-Christians is that the Old Testament passages of the Bible depicts an angry, cruel God who sanctioned wars, murders and destruction analogous to the war-mongering Allah of the Quran. For some, this is the slickest excuse they rehearse to justify their rejection of God. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) a deist, in his Age of Reason made references to “all the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Bible is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death and religious wars, that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes.” To anyone conversant with history, this statement conveniently skips over huge gaps of millennia, civilizations and ethnicity, betraying a writer plagued by extreme prejudice and obtuse rhetoric.
While there are anti-Christians who use several Old Testament events to attack Christianity ignoring the obvious distinctions, there are some Christians that consider the OT to be uninspired or totally irrelevant. We need to take a look at the bigger picture, since the New Testament honours the Old: “Everything written long ago was written to teach us so that we would have confidence through the endurance and encouragement which the Scriptures give us.” (Rom. 15:4)
We must not ignore the Old testment, in fact, we cannot have a clear understanding of the New testament without having a good grasp of it. The Old testament gives us the background of God’s relationship with His people, His Laws and prophecies of Jesus the Messiah. But the loaded questions that the OT wars often generate makes it important to approach it in the context of history, prophecy, purpose, theology and dispensation.
“The OT came into being in the course of a history, and most of what it says has to do with history,” says Werner Schmidt, an Emeritus Professor of Old Testament. “The historian’s task, therefore, is to sift critically the data of Israelite history from the OT.” The Biblical accounts of the wars the Israelites fought were historical records of their time and not prescriptive commands for Christians today. The historical timeline of the nation of Israel can be divided into six:
Nomadic Antiquity (15th? -13th century BC) – The period between God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, liberation of the Jews from Egypt and God’s Laws given at Sinai.
Prenational Early Period (12th-11th century BC) – Settlement of the Jews in the Promised land, age of the Judges and wars of Yahweh.
Monarchic Period (1000-587 BC) – Period of the kings of Israel (Saul, David, Solomon etc), the prophets Elisha, Elijah, Isaiah etc, Syro-Ephramite war against Judah, the division of the kingdom and Assyrian siege of Jerusalem.
Exile (587-539 BC) – Final destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonians. Period of prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel.
Post- Exilic Period (539-515 BC) – Fall of Babylon to the Persians, rebuilding of the temple. Time of prophets Haggai, Zechariah etc.
Hellenistic Age (333-64 BC) – Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persians, Maccabean revolt, rededication of the Temple and conquest of Palestine by the Romans. (Werner Schmidt, Old Testament Introduction, St. Paul Press: India, 2010, 9-10)
Any appeal to the OT wars without a consideration of this historical timeline is deceptive and invalid. For instance, the Jews enjoyed a period of relative peace during the monarchic and post-exilic period than the nomadic and prenational era; and most of the wars of that era were over the “Promised Land” God gave them.
This naturally leads us to concisely explore the prophecies underlying Jewish history. God promised a land of clearly defined boundaries to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants forever (Gen. 13:15; Jos. 26:3). This promise was fulfilled over 400 years later when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt “with a mighty hand” and tells them He “has chosen you out of all the people on the face of the earth” (Dt. 7:8; 14:2).
There were responsibilities attached to this position. God said to them: “You only have I known of the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2) He warned that they will “uprooted from the land [they] are entering to possess” and He will “scatter [them] among all the nations” if they practiced the abominations of the nations that had occupied the promised land. (Dt. 28:63, 64) This later happened and the Jews were taken into captivity by other nations. God foretold that they would “become a byword and an object of ridicule among all people” and “a thing of horror and an object of scorn” among these nations (1 Kgs. 9:7; Dt. 28:37). True to this prophecy, the Jews were hated, mistreated and despised.
God promised to preserve the Israelites and their “descendants from the land of their exile” ( Jer. 3:11) He said: “For I will take you out of the nations: I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.” (Jer. 36:24) This was fulfilled also.
God has dealt with the nation of Israel for her sins more than any other nation of the world. What then was the purpose of their wars with other nations?
a) Many of the wars they fought were in self-defense as many surrounding nations hated and sought to destroy them. When they left Egypt, “The Amalekites came and attacked” them at Rephidim. Through God’s intervention, they defeated the Amalekites and God said to Moses “Write this on a scroll…because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven.” (Ex. 17:8-14) Each generation of the Amalekites persisted in waging war against Israel. This was why God later commanded King Saul to destroy them.
As they sought to peacefully pass through another nation, the Canaanite king “attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. Then Israel made a vow to the LORD: ‘If you deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” God granted their plea. (Num. 21:1-3) The king of the Amorites also sent his army to attack them but the Israelites also defeated them (vs 21-25). Even after Moses’ death, “when all the kings west of Jordan heard about these things … they came together to make war against Joshua and Israel.” (Jos. 9:1, 2)
It was in a bid to survive in the midst of these hostilities, that the Israelites had to fight in self-defense. God also supported and defended them as long as they were faithful to Him (John Barton, Introduction to the Old Testament, Oxford Press, 2001, 9)
b) Just as God punished the wicked with a deluge in Noah’s day and fire in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, He used the nation of Israel as His medium of judging the wickedness of the nations they fought. “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Dt. 9:5) D. M. McFarlan noted that:
“The Canaanites were the inhabitants of the land when the Israelites invaded Canaan. They included Amorites (a Semitic people), Hittites and Hivites.” (Dictionary of the Bible, Geddes and Grosset, 2003, 39) These nations practiced child sacrifices, demon worship and ritual sex (Ps. 106:38; Jer. 7:30). God gave the Amorites 400 years because their sins “had not yet reached its full measure” but when they persisted in their evils, He judged them. “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.” (Gen. 15:13,16; Eccl. 8:11)
c) The battles were fought only under God’s commands and the outcomes depended on whether the Israelites were obedient to Him or not (Ex. 34:24; 2 Sam. 5:17-25). Before a certain war, Moses warned them: “you shall fall by the sword because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you.” They still went ahead to fight that war and they were defeated (Num. 14:39-45). They didn’t wage war to convert others to Judaism (as Muslims do today) but only according to specific divine directions against nations deep in depravity.
Bible scholar, Allan R. Millard stated: “It is important to realize that Israel was only one of the Canaanites’ enemies, although ultimately the worst. The history of the 13th century BC includes major military actions, invasions, and a general decline in cultural standards.” (ed. David and Pat Alexander, The Lion Handbook to the Bible, 1983, 213) Scholars have also pointed out that the OT suggestions of genocides were common ancient eastern hyperbolic war victory rhetoric which shouldn’t be taken literally.
d) Even in these incursions, God extended His mercy to these nations. The Jews were to announce to the cities their terms of peace to avoid war (Dt. 20:10-13) and in some cases, inhabitants, such as Rahab and her family, were spared:
“By recounting the rescue of Rahab twice within this one narrative [Josh. 5:17, 23], the writer underscores the importance of the theme of salvation in the midst of judgment. This was not a war of plunder or personal revenge against the Canaanites. It was, rather, the work of God’s judgment against the people of the land (5:14). Those who helped the Israelites, such as Rahab, were exempt from divine judgement.” (John Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 1994, 187-188)
In their war against the Midianites, the women were also spared. God also used dreams to warn their enemies before an attack (Num. 31; Jud. 7:13-15). This reveals the justice and holiness of God who punishes generations of those who hate Him and shows His love and mercy to the generation of the righteous. (Ex. 20:5-6). The New Testament also reveals these two aspects of God’s dealings side by side: “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God.” (Rom. 11:22) Having an accurate picture of God entails keeping both aspects of His character before us.
e) The Israelites were under a theocracy i.e God was their ruler. Nations today are not under God’s rule and do not have a specific history or covenant with Him as Israel had, so the OT wars do not apply to them. Those commands of war were specific for that time of Israel’s history, not for any other nation either then or now.
“God led redeemed Israel down to Sinai, where He entered into a covenant with the nation. He was setting the Israelites apart as a special people for Himself. Israel became God’s mediator of God’s theocratic kingdom on earth through the Mosaic covenant.” (Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 2008, 57)
This leads to the question: should the Church today follow the examples of the Jews in the OT and wage wars against heretics or pagans? The answer is no. The church is not Israel. There are clear distinctions between both:
1. Israel is composed primarily of one nationality, and it is identified with a particular geographical location – Palestine. The church, however, includes people from every tongue, tribe and nation and is not related to any area of the earth.
2. Israel was given a specific land with specific boundaries and promises. The church extends all over the earth and is not given a specific land.
3. The Christian church didn’t exist in the Old testament; it had a beginning. Jesus said “On this rock I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18) and it was built on the foundations of apostles and prophets with Jesus being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20).
4. Israel differed from the church in their calling. God chose Israel to be His mouthpiece to other nations. He gave them His laws, and through them, the Scriptures and the Messiah who came to save the world. But the church is to witness, evangelize and disciple all nations for Jesus Christ.
5. Israel alone had a covenant relationship with God in the OT. But now, God has made this first covenant “obsolete” and has made a “new covenant” with Christian – whether Jew or Gentile – to have access to Him through Jesus (Heb. 8:13).
6. God has spoken “in the past” to the Israelites “through the prophets at many times and in various ways.” But now, “He has spoken to us [Christians] by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). The blueprint of the Christian is based on what Jesus and His apostles taught which are revealed in the New Testament:
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God.” (Mt. 5:9)
“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:44)
“And the Lord’s servant must not quarel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” (2 Tim. 2:24)
This explains why there were no wars in the New Testament between Christians and the heathen and many Christians were persecuted and killed. Aside this, the Christian warfare is a spiritual one, directed against spiritual enemies:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world [physical arm, guns, bombs or swords], On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4)
With the exception of instances of self-defense, the punishment of evil doers lies in the rightly constituted authority of the secular state – military, law enforcement etc. This necessitates a Biblical separation of the church and state: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong…for he doesn’t bear the sword for nothing. For he is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3,4).
Thomas Schreiner notes that the vs 4’s mention of rulers bearing the sword refers “to the broader judicial function of the state, particularly its right to deprive of life those who had committed crimes worthy of death.” (Romans, ed. Moises Silver, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 1998, 6:684)
A sound interpretation and understanding of the Bible does not confuse the Old Testament wars with true Christianity. The hoary rhetoric that Christianity “reformed itself of the OT wars unlike the religion of Islam” is simplistic and shallow to put it mildly.