So what about war in the Old Testament?

A challenge for pacifist Christians is understanding God’s role in Old Testament warfare. How does this fit with Jesus’ teachings and example?”Holy Wars” are found in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most important is the Exodus, as described in the book of Exodus. In this instance the Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt not by their own efforts but by the efforts of God. Note the victory song in Exodus 15 that celebrates God’s actions, not those of a human hero. The people don’t need weapons, because it is God who fights for them. This is in sharp contrast to the societies around them who wanted the most advanced weapons, and who celebrated their military heroes.

Israel at this time did not have a king, modern weapons, or a professional army, and didn’t rely on large numbers of fighters to win. Initially the people of Israel said no to a society of kings, rich and poor classes, and uneven land distribution.

But all of that changed as time went on and the people of Israel wanted to be like other nations. The people of Israel couldn’t get used to the idea of God protecting them. It was hard to do things in a manner that was so different from the societies around them, so they asked for a king. In 1 Samuel 8:10-22, God tells what a king will do to them. A king will form a standing army and draft their children into it. He will collect taxes and make the people his slaves.

Another troubling aspect of war in the Old Testament is the way the nation was called to mop up when a battle was over. In Joshua 6:15-21 , we see Israel called to kill all of the people, and destroy all of the spoils. Some of the reasons given for this are:

  • If the victory is God’s, the people shouldn’t benefit. Victorious armies normally collected slaves, animals and other booty.
  • If the defeated enemy is allowed to live, their pagan religions might influence the Israelites.
  • The defeated army deserves to die because they are fighting God and God’s people.
Throughout the prophets’ writings we see a call to live in a peaceable kingdom, one known for justice and mercy.

War in the Old Testament is plan B, not the first choice of God. Having a king other than God was not the first choice either. One of the reasons why King David in the Old Testament could not build the temple was that he had killed too many people or “shed too much blood.” So his son Solomon, described as “a man of peace,” would do the building instead (1 Chronicles 22).

Later, when the Israelites themselves were carried into captivity, God sent visions of the restoration of God’s kingdom. Though captives, some still remembered God and did not give in to the culture around them. In the Old Testament book of Daniel, Daniel and his friends are examples. This vision of restoration was really a vision of all the nations coming to God and living in peace there (Hosea 2:15-23; Isaiah 2:1-5, 25:6-9, 56:1-8).

In the book of Jonah, we see Jonah sent to one of the neighboring nations, not to conquer but to call for change, for repentance. The purpose was not to gain power over Ninevah, but to offer its people forgiveness and the chance to change. God’s purpose was not to use Israel to annihilate the other nations but to make Israel a beacon of light, offering God’s mercy.

In 2 Kings 6, Elisha calls on God to bring blindness on the army that has come to capture him. He then leads them away, removes their blindness, gives them a feast, and sends them back home. Earlier Elisha offered healing to Naaman, a commander in the enemies’ army, and refused to accept any reward for doing this. Naaman would not have sought Elisha’s help if it had not been for the captured Israelite girl who suggested this solution.

Throughout the prophets’ writings we see a call to live in a peaceable kingdom, one known for justice and mercy. This is God’s intent for nations, an intention God again demonstrated with the coming of Jesus.

Some concluding hypotheses:

  • The people of God are called to trust God. To trust one’s nation or its military strength is a form of idolatry.
  • We can trust in the nonviolent power of God instead of the violence of humans. We are called to practice justice, peace, and mercy in the same way God does.
  • War should not benefit the victor in any economic way.
  • Judgment or vengeance should rest with God, not with human organizations or institutions.
  • We are assured that some day God will bring a final victory over all evil. We are called to be faithful until that time. (See the Old Testament book of Habakkuk.)
  • The image as warrior is only one of many images we find in the Bible. God is also merciful, lover, shepherd, forgiver, mother, light, and rock, just to name a few. God has a global vision of all peoples coming to worship and becoming part of the kingdom of God. Israel’s special mission couldn’t be accomplished by killing people, but by serving as a light drawing all nations to walk in God’s ways.