Reflections On Holy War
What are we to make of the presence of holy war in the Scripture?
When the descendants of Jacob came out of Egypt, they were organized into the people we call the Israelites, and they were commanded to take possession of the land then occupied by the Canaanites. This process involved armed conflict, and though it was commanded by YHWH, it was brought into effect by such notables as Moses, Joshua and David.
Now for a great many people, it simply doesn’t seem possible that a good god would ever take life. But it’s not very difficult to expose the naivety of this view, for the one who gives life is precisely thereby vested with the right to take it, and every grownup understands that goodness comprehends justice every bit as much as love. Nevertheless, it’s also important to remember that we humans are not the givers of life, that we err more often than not when it comes to making judgments about when to punish and when to be merciful, and therefore it’s reasonable to ask on what grounds we arrogate to ourselves this divine prerogative.
In the Bible, there are two places where God grants man the right to take life, and both are demonstrably for the sake of preserving life. The first is granted to all members of creation, and vests them with the right to inflict the death penalty on murderers: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed(Gen. 9:6). The second was granted to the members of his covenant, and vested them with the right to uproot a nation that not only was guilty of mass bloodshed, but that also stood in the way of his plan of salvation: When YHWH your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, he will cast out many nations before you… And when he delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them (Deut. 7:1-2).
Although some people think this passage advocates genocide, it’s easy to see that it doesn’t. The point is not to destroy the Canaanites, but to found the nation of Israel. In fact, the passage quoted above indicates that the larger number of foreigners would have been simply driven out, and that military force was only to be used on the few who remained entrenched. Furthermore, even this step was only taken when it had been thoroughly established that the people could be said to warrant death through their own wickedness (Gen. 15:16). Now admittedly, this idea would sound like nothing more than just another piece of nationalist propaganda if it were not for the fact that it was applied with equal severity to the people of Israel, who, when they had fallen into sin, were tolerated for many centuries, but then driven out of the land, and as a last resort put to death by their enemies (II Kgs. 17:18). The point, of course, is that the sword of divine justice cuts both ways. It is not put into the hand of one people to use against all others. It is God who wields it, and as befits the impartiality of his divine justice, it is used not only against his foreign enemies, but against his own people as well.
But there is an even deeper matter for reflection here. For the founding of the earthly nation of Israel was not an end in itself, but a preparation for the founding of a more heavenly Israel. When the first Joshua defeated the Canaanite kings, he placed them under a curse, hung their bodies on trees and entombed them in caves (Josh. 10:26-27). But when the second Joshua came, he became a curse for us, submitting himself to death on a cross, and rising again from the grave (Gal. 3:13). The holy war that divine justice would have had to wage against the whole of humanity, divine love suffered on our behalf at Calvary. And thus there is a sense in which there has only ever been one holy war, the one that Joshua began and that Jesus ended. As Christians, we live in the light of that reality. We are not among those who deny that there is such a thing as holy war, but neither do we join with those who would indiscriminately slay the just with the unjust in a misguided zeal for God. Rather, we are witnesses of a war that has already been fought and won, not by the power of the sword, but by the power of an indestructible life. Though nation will continue to take up the sword against nation, the church’s proclamation will remain the same: Peace on earth, good will to men.
Pastor Chad LewisOctober 7, 2017