The Wars of the Lord 2

In my last post we wrestled with difficult texts in the Bible, particularly ones in which God commands the Israelites to annihilate certain people groups, which today we would label as genocide.  How are we to understand these texts?  Is it possible to square these texts with other biblical presentations of God as a God of love, mercy, and compassion?

Possibly, but it isn’t easy.

One possibility raised to my last post was that God was showing people, in a warring culture, how to act in war.
1.  Offer terms of peace.
2.  Spare the women and children and cattle (who doesn’t love being lumped in a group?)

And all of this was part of a plan:
3. God was giving the Israelite people a new identity and land.

I like this approach.  I really like it.  This was a different era in history, a different time and culture and context in which warring between nations was a common reality.  Perhaps God was merely working within that culture, and even presenting some improvements on how things might normally be done.

These are some good thoughts.

The trouble is that the first two points above didn’t apply in every case for Israel.

When we look at Deut 20:10-18 as we did in the last post, we find that that “a distinction is made between the way Israel is to treat those within ‘their’ land and the way Israel is to treat those outside those borders.  Those inside the borders are to be utterly annihilated with no exceptions.  No peace treaties are to be made with them.  Every last living thing that has breath is to be extinguished.  On the other hand, those outside the demarcated borders are to be offered terms of peace.  Israelite men may take women from outside the borders as wives and concubines, if they so desire.”  So notes Thom Stark in The Human Faces of God.

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho...

So they weren’t always to offer terms of peace.

[And in fact, when you read the stories of when Israel did offer terms of peace, the text generally notes that God inclined the other nations to not accept the terms of peace but rather be provoked to fight, so in some ways, the offer of peace was a bit of a sham. See Deut 2:24-34 or Joshua 11:18-20, where it says, “In the end not even one city made peace with Israel… because Yahweh hardened their hearts so that they could not do otherwise than to meet Israel in battle.  This way they would all be utterly destroyed and none of them would get any mercy.  They were to be exterminated, just as Yahweh ordered Moses to do.”  Exterminated?]

Why the differentiation of those inside and outside the borders?

Some say that perhaps it was due to the sinfulness of the various nations, and that they were getting the punishment they deserved.

Stark continues: “Did it just so happen that only the tribes living inside Israel’s borders happened to be sufficiently wicked to annihilate, whereas it also just so happened that everybody outside those borders were only slightly wicked, but not enough to merit annihilation?”

Hmmm…  As the church lady would put it, “Isn’t that convenient?

So Stark: “The convenience of this picture exposes once again that the appeal to “divine punishment” in order to justify the Canaanite genocides is another attempt to conceal the real motivation: the acquisition of land and consolidation of power.  If Yahweh wanted to use Israel to punish wicked nations, why did such a crusade conveniently terminate precisely at Israel’s borders?”

Really good questions.  Tough questions.

The third point above was that God is giving Israel a new identity and a new land.  It seems he was, but man, it certainly wasn’t an easy step, and you wonder if the opposing nations deserved what they got or if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But perhaps we need to understand it another way, within the broader framework of God’s overarching plan for Israel, expressed in the form of his promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

One theologian, Christopher Wright, puts it this way: “the overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.”

I certainly prefer this approach, and we’ll explore it more in the next post.


4 thoughts on “The Wars of the Lord 2

  1. Melanie…

    I’m of a similar mind as you. I’m certainly not a scholar, but after reading from all sorts of liberal and conservative historians and scholars, I simply wonder how much of the Old Testament is really the words of God, when men really did write it. And even though we don’t like to compare our faith to the faith’s of the world at large, most writers during the ancient times took great liberty when they wrote about their nation’s history and their divine conquest of other nations. I’m not trying to say that it wasn’t true, I just wonder if we can, with certainty, look back and read it as if it were the expressed desires and words of God that led Israel to do what they did, or if it was how they viewed God in light of the historical context they found themselves in. After all, it seems like many conquering nations all believed that they were the soldiers of their god’s, and when they conquered another nation, they believed it was because their god gave it to them.

    On a side note, the Orthodox church during the dark ages thought very similar things, and wrote about these thing, and attempted to conquer the “infidels” under the name of God; yet, we believe what they did was furthest from the love of God. I know there are fundamental differences, but at the same time, it seems a little too familiar.

    I know most Christians believe in the infallible word of God, but if we critically look at our faith as we look at everyone else’s, I simply cannot help but see problems with our assumptions.

    Just some thoughts…I don’t really know what to think though.


  2. I don’t have much of an opinion yet…I am not a Bible scholar by any means. The thought presented about our evolution (from war-like to more peacefully minded) and God’s treatment of us accordingly, resonates with me, but I am also somewhat skeptical that the Old Testament is completely infallible and not influenced heavily by one nation’s viewpoint.
    Again these are more questions I have, rather than opinions.


  3. I remember reading that the places where men, women & children were commanded by God to be annihilated were specific enemies of Israel as they entered the Promised Land–that these nations had done the same thing to the Israelites. I haven’t done my homework to verify this, but is this a possible correlation? Not sure these “acts of revenge” changes the overall questioning of the way God deals with people in a way that we today find troubling, but it might give insight into God’s nature–that those that oppose His favored people or His Will will suffer consequences–present or future. This is certainly a common thread throughout the Bible, with specific mention of those who oppose Israel will be punished accordingly. Lots of examples of God’s wrath & judgment, but here are a few: Nahum 1:2-8, Isaiah 27, Psalm 59:5, Romans 13:4, Numbers 24:9, Joel 3:1-3, Genesis 27:29, Zephaniah 3:8, etc.

    I do not understand why God chooses to deal with mankind in this way, but He (to my knowledge) never claimed to be different than other gods in this way . He claimed to be above all gods. He claimed to be the one living god. I trust that He is a just God who will judge rightly, according to His Mind, not our limited perspectives. Even though I don’t understand this part of Him and it turns my stomach to think of these difficult subjects, in the depth of my soul I trust that His ways are not our ways and that obedience to God has rewards & disobedience has consequences. Not sure if I shed anything new to this discussion, but I loved reading the comments on your last post. Maranatha…and we will soon know why. Blessings, Gaynor


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