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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 24: HOLY WARS
From Genesis to Jesus

Before he was arrested and sentenced to die, Jesus had been praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking for the courage to face whatever he needed to face and wrestling with the temptation to flee from what might be in store for him.

Even before he came to Jerusalem for Passover, he knew it had become dangerous for him to be there. During the three years of his public ministry he had become increas- ingly well known and was a target of those who said he was a danger to the established order.

Because he was committed to nonviolence, Jesus did not have the support of the various Jewish groups that were also considered dangerous by the authority of the religious leaders. Not only did he refuse to take part in the kind of violence that the Zealots and other religious patriots were endorsing, he refused to resort to violence even to safeguard his own mission.

After he prayed in Gethsemane he rejoined Peter, James and John, who had gone there with him. He told them he was about to be betrayed and even as he was speak-ing Judas arrived with “a large crowd armed with swords and clubs and sent by the priests and the elders of the people”[1] to arrest him.

The Apostle Peter drew his sword to try and protect him and prevent his arrest. But the man he attacked managed to sidestep the blade and Peter succeeded only in slicing off his ear. Before he could strike again, Jesus told him to put his sword away saying “all who draw the sword will die by the sword”[2] 

This was the ultimate repudiation of deadly force. A moral law was in effect and it could not be broken without repercussions; not even if the claim was made that violence was necessary in the service of a higher good. Knowing that violence always begot violence was not some kind of esoteric knowledge, known only to Jesus because he was such a highly developed soul. It was fact-based knowledge available to anyone willing to accept the historical record.

The history of the Jewish people, like the history of all people, witnessed to the fact that war did not bring peace and that violence against a person or a group insured that sooner or later there would be retaliation and more killing.

But with the introduction of Mosaic Law, an attempt had been made to set limits on the level of violence that would be tolerated. The Law of Moses included the concept of the lex talionis: it demanded that violence and retaliation be proportionate: “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”[3]  This law had been given to counteract the kind of open-ended violence that had been acceptable at an earlier time.

This claim of a right to unlimited violence was exemplified by a man named Lamech, who lived a long time before the birth of Moses. His story is told in the Book of Genesis, in which he boasted of his ruthlessness: “Listen to what I say: for I have slain a man (merely) for wounding me, and a young man (only) for striking and bruising me.”[4]  Lamech warned that if any one dared try and punish him for his violence they and all those close to them, would suffer endless reprisals.

The lex talionis was instituted to place limits on that kind of open-ended revenge. It had been given to the Hebrew people while they were still wandering in the wilder-ness, after escaping Egyptian slavery. It had the practical effect of insuring that a particular group of people did not self-destruct through their own internal violence.

But that law showed its limitations the moment the people entered Canaan because the limits on violence and retaliation were not applied to war. From the time they attacked Jericho and exterminated every man, woman, child and animal in that city, warriors were exempted from restrictions on violence.

For many centuries, there were endless bloodbaths. The Jews and the Philistines killed each other as they battled for possession of Canaan. And both groups made war on the native Canaanites who stood in the way of their territorial expansion.

The wars between various groups continued and ultimately led to civil war in 931 B.C.  that split the twelve tribes of Israel into the two separate nations of Israel and Judah. This was the record of war and violence that faced the Latter Prophets as they began their prophetic ministry in 792 B.C. The lex talionis that had worked as an adequate restriction on mayhem for tribes of people wandering in the wilderness did not work for a people who had become a nation and who had exempted war from its restrictions.

For hundreds of years the mass murders of war and the destruction of enemy homes and lands had been sanctioned by the state and supported by the nationalism that claimed God’s blessing. But the great Prophets of Israel intruded on this sanctification of violence. Not only did they demand an end to war, they said if it did not stop, the people would bring about the destruction of their own nation.

Prophets like Amos, Isaiah and Micah had dire warning for those who thought they could build a just society on the spoils of war. “Now hear this heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and twist everything that is straight, who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with violent injustice. . .on account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins.”[5]

And there were also warnings for the soldier who came home from battle, thinking he had left the violence and injustice of war behind him.  “Men return from battle think-ing they are safe at home, but there you are, waiting to steal the coats off their backs.”[6]  When he came home he would find his wife and children suffering from in-justice and abuse at the hands of those whose power and wealth had increased because of wartime profit taking- -those who were building Zion with bloodshed while he was gone.

“(They) drive the women of my people out of homes they love, and have robbed their children of my blessings forever. Get up and go; there is no safety here any more. Your sins have doomed this place to destruction.”[7]

The Prophets said the people must renounce their domestic culture of greed and injustice, as well as the wars that they fueled. The abuses of domestic injustice and the abuses of war were integral parts of the same problem. Only when they focused their energies on the pursuit of justice and peace would everyone be able to enjoy the blessings of prosperity and freedom from fear.

“They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. (Then) every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”[8]

But in spite of the prophetic oracles and their promise of the blessings of peace, many people continued to believe in the blessings of war; in territories gained; trade routes gained and slave labor acquired. The horrors of war were banished from consciousness. Forgotten were the death of friends and family, the loss of lands and the loss of economic stability. It was the stories of successful battles, the spoils of war and the ungodliness of other nations that were passed on to succeeding generations. This process was nourished by the professional prophets who served as spokesmen for the interests of kings and priests.

They were the product of a School for Prophets that had been in existence for many centuries and at any given time there were dozens of those men who were attached to the royal court or the Temple. They were upholders of the status quo and quick to oppose anything that threatened the established order. And to them, the prophetic oracles that insisted on nonviolence were seen as a major threat.

Joel, son of Pethuel, was one of those professional prophets. His pronouncements were diametrically opposed to the oracles of men like Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, who told their people that their domestic problems were spawned by the social and moral injustices rampant among them. Forget about sackcloth and ashes and religious rituals, they said: When you fast you spread out sackcloth and ashes. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that? The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor.”[9]  The solution to the nation’s problems was to treat the least power-ful among their people with justice, mercy and compassion.

But Joel had a different message: “Put on sackcloth, O priest, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar. Come spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God...Declare a holy feast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land, to the Temple of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord... Perhaps the Lord your God will change his mind and bless you with abun-dant crops.”[10]

Instead of presenting environmental and social problems in the way that Isaiah did, as being caused by the greed of men, Joel said they were disasters engineered by an angry God. The only solution needed was to placate that God by fasting, praying and begging Him to restore their land to productivity. And Joel’s prayers included a not-so-subtle reminder to God that when other nations saw how badly the Chosen people were faring, God himself would lose face with them: “Spare your people Yahweh! Do not make your heritage a thing of shame, a byword for the nations. Why should it be said among the nations, ‘Where is their God?’ ”[11]

Joel’s message was the antithesis of the oracles of Micah and Isaiah. In a scornful rejection of their teachings, Joel demanded that the people “Sanctify war!”[12]  And in the name of God, Joel issued a directive: all nations were to abandon peaceful pursuits and equip themselves for war. “Proclaim this among the nations: Rouse the warriors!. . .Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears.”[13]

And what would be the result of such violence? Joel prophesied that it would ultimately bring peace, prosperity and the favor of God. He said that because the enemies of the Israelites were also the enemies of God, “The Lord will judge all the surround-ing nations. They are very wicked; cut them down like grain at harvest time; crush them as grapes are crushed in a full wine press.”[14]

Joel also predicted that after the bloodshed of battle, nations like Egypt and Edom would forever lie desolate. But for Jerusalem, the aftermath of that violence would be God’s continuous blessing. “Jerusalem will be a sacred city; foreigners will never conquer it again. . .the mountains will be covered with vineyards. . .there will be plenty of water for all of Judah. A stream will flow from the Temple of the Lord.”[15]

The people accepted Joel’s guarantee that the violence of war was the way to obtain the blessings of peace. And they rejected the oracles of prophets like Micah who warned that the brutality of war would only bring destruction and “Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins.”[16]

But the people chose Joel’s way of war. The outcome was just as Micah had predicted: in 586 B.C. the southern kingdom of Judah was overrun by the Babylonian army. Jerusalem and the Temple were razed to the ground and the Hebrew people were deported to the land of their conquerors.

Fifty years passed and the ruins of Jerusalem were still overgrown with weeds and strewn with the rubble of its former glory. Then, the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, whose king issued an edict allowing those who wanted to go to return to their homeland. The majority of the Jewish people wanted to stay in Babylon where they had become assimilated and prosperous. But a remnant of the exiles did return to Jerusalem. They increased in numbers and once again became a strong and prosperous nation. And once again the people became embroiled in covert activities and alliances, in power plays and ultimately in a war against the Seleucid Greeks.

In 323 B.C., Alexander the Great had conquered both Egypt and Palestine. When he died, the conquered lands were divided between two of his generals, Ptolemy and Seleucus. Eventually those men warred over rulership of the conquered territories.   In this conflict the Jewish people took the part of the Seleucid King, Antiochus. The Ptolemies were defeated and in 198 B.C., Antiochus was welcomed to Jerusalem with great joy and jubilant celebrations.

The joy did not last very long. In just 30 years the alliance had deteriorated and by 164 B.C. the Jewish people had gone to war against the Seleucids. They were successful and then they set off to conquer nearby territories. The people in those territories had to convert to Judaism or be put to death.

The greed and brutality of war was also manifested in a civil war in which Pharisees and Sadducees tortured and murdered each other as mercilessly as any outsider could have done. This internal violence was the prime factor that led to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.[17]

That world of Roman occupation and religious factionalism was the world into which Jesus was born.   The history of his native land clearly demonstrated that war never brought lasting peace and violence always insured eventual retaliation and on-going destruction. Jesus knew that the endless claims that violence was God-ordained or justified by circumstances or the righteous cause it was supposed to serve, were only excuses to indulge the greed and power-seeking of fallen human beings.

The record of his own people showed that no matter how many times war proved to be a disaster for all those caught up in its brutality, the call-to-arms against those portrayed as the enemies of a people, a nation or their god(s), continued to be met with enthusiasm and a self-righteous determination to rid the earth of their presence.

The refusal of Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane, to allow violence even in the effort to save his own life and the mission to which he had been called, is often por-trayed as some kind of ultra-holy, irrational and utterly impractical way to live; a way that can only end in disaster. But history clearly demonstrates that it is the ongoing violence of war that is irrational and impractical and disastrous.

But, just as the Jewish people rejected the call to nonviolence by the great prophets of Israel, so also did those who came to call themselves Christians, reject the same call of Jesus.


[1]  Matthew 26:47 NIV

[2]  Matthew 26:52 JB

[3]  Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21 NIV

[4]  Genesis 4:23  AMP

[5]  Micah 3:9-10, 12  NAS

[6]  Micah 2:8  TEV

[7]  Micah 2:9-10  TEV

[8]  Micah 4:3-4;  Isaiah 2:4  NIV

[9]  Isaiah 58:5-7  TEV

[10]  Joel 1:13-14 NIV; 2:14 TEV

[11]  Joel 2:17  JB

[12]  Most translations use the less jarring work “prepare” for war. But the correct translation is a call to “sanctify” war. And the word is correctly translated as “sanctify” in four other places that it is used in the Book of Joel.  (Joel 1:14, 2:15-16)

[13]  Joel 3:9-10  NIV

[14]  Joel 3:12-13  TEV

[15]  Joel 3:17-18  TEV

[16]  Micah 3:9-10, 12  NAS

[17]  See Chapter 14, the Roman Occupation of Rome

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