God, War, and Violence
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This article was compiled by Lance Landall from the writings of other authors in various articles and books.
Some refrain from becoming Christians because they cannot accept the idea of an Old Testament God who orders killing and extermination. However, the Old Testament is often misread and misunderstood. In assessing the Old Testament God, we should look again at the picture the Old Testament provides. The first violent act recorded in the Bible is Cain’s murder of his brother (Gen 4:1-8). However, before his destructive act, God spoke with Cain, trying to bring him to his senses (Gen 4:6,7). Without success. The Creator disapproved of Cain’s action and made clear to him that he would have to bear its consequences (Gen 4:10-12). God took a risk in modeling us in His image and giving us freedom to act and decide (Gen 1:26,27). But, of course, we must face the consequences of our actions (Gen 3:17-24). The Bible records only a few occasions where God decided to interfere with humanity’s violent behaviour. One occasion was during the time of Noah, when violence was so great on the earth that it threatened the existence of life.
God intervened and wiped out an entire generation with the flood. The situation was bad. Whereas God had created everything “good,” (Gen 1:31) people were doing exactly the opposite of what they had been designed to do (Gen 6:5,6). The Bible writer records that instead of continuing the process of creation in a positive way, people were thinking and doing evil constantly. The earth was full of violence (Gen 6:13). And this threatened the existence of the human race, the animals, and all of nature. Life is precious to the Creator. There was only one option for Him—to act as a surgeon in cutting away. Thus, God saved humanity and the animal world.
On another occasion God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Once again, human evil had reached its peak (Gen 18:28; 19:6,7,9,13). And the evil of these cities threatened the people surrounding them. But God did not act in a blind, choleric way. The recorded dialogue between God and Abraham, who lived near the cities, reveals that God had thoroughly and responsibly investigated the case (Gen 18:16-33). And He saved all He could from destruction. As with the people in Noah’s time, the residents of these cities would have destroyed themselves in time. But at least God was able to intervene first and save the destruction of others.
To a great degree, people’s fate lies in their own hands. This is demonstrated in the case of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. If any people deserved to be wiped out in the ancient Near East, it was the Assyrians (Jonah 1:2). It was the most violent nation of the time. It had strongly established its reputation by committing atrocities on its numerous defeated enemies. However, God cancelled His verdict of extermination on the city because it genuinely reversed its conduct.
Nineveh stopped its violence. And the Ruler of the universe responded. Nineveh was not annihilated (Jonah 3:7-10). This incident demonstrates God’s character. The Old Testament God only carried out a definite sentence when there was no sign of reversal, and when the existence of others and their environment was at stake.
But what about God ordering the Israelite wars? How can all that killing be justified? In trying to answer these questions, each situation needs to be looked at to avoid generalization and exaggeration. From the time God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt, He wanted it to become a model nation (Ex 19:5,6). Obviously, if He was going to give the Hebrews independence, He would also have to give them a home and country. In the setting of the ancient Near East, where warfare was the order of the day, it was impossible for God to require Israel to be pacifist. The struggle for survival was conducted with a spade in one hand and a weapon in the other. God assigned to Israel an area populated by the Amorites. The Bible records that these people had a contempt for human life—as reflected in their human sacrifices (Deut 9:4; 12:29-31; Gen 15:16). It would have been impossible for Israel to co-exist with them. Israel learned that the inevitable result of wickedness is death. And Israel had to learn to perform like a student surgeon, by cutting out evil where it had proved irreversible.
It was not easy to educate Israel as a model people. It was composted of slaves, adventurers, Egyptians and other nationalities (Ex 12:38; Num 11:4). This complex group of people operated at low levels of ethics, hygiene and human relationships. God’s plan to make them a model nation, a “holy” people,” a “royal priesthood,” was ambitious. God gave Israel commandments and prescriptions—not to enslave them again, but to lift them to a higher level of human existence. They included laws to regulate warfare. And against the background of the ancient Near East, they stand out as humane and idealistic. For example, when going to war, those who had marriage plans, or who had just bought a house or a field and had not yet enjoyed the benefits of it, were allowed to remain home. Further, all who feared to face the enemy were also allowed to remain home (Deut 20:1-9). Who today would dare to run an army on those terms? Yet the God of Israel did. And it shows how deeply He appreciates human life. Only those who were committed and had already benefited from the joy and value of life were invited to risk their lives.
But even more startling, these Mosaic warfare laws required a liberal and humane attitude toward the enemy (Deut 20:10-15). For example, when marching to war, the Israelites had to offer peace to the enemy, with the guarantee of no bloodshed. If the offer was refused, only males were to be killed in battle. Women and children, who represented the future of their people, had to be kept alive. At all cost, life had to be safeguarded. Soldiers were even forbidden to cut the enemy’s fruit trees (Deut 20:19,20). Later generations had to be able to eat and live.
Israelite men also had to show respect to female captives. Raping or any violent treatment was forbidden. If an Israelite was attracted by a conquered woman, he had to allow her a month to mourn before marrying her. She then had to be treated as his wife with full Israelite rights (Deut 21:10-14).
A God who orders such war ethics in a period when hardly any existed cannot be called a God of violence. Of course, not all Israelites applied the rules strictly. Even King David was at times cruel (2 Sam 8:2,4). But the Old Testament pronounces its verdict on him. God refused to let him build the temple—the thing he most desired to do—because he had shed too much blood (1 Chron 22:7,8).
Finally, there is an extra dimension in the Old Testament history that should not be overlooked. On several occasions, military conflicts were solved by a conscious choice of non-violence. For example, the Israelite prophet Elijah confronted the Arameans who were attacking Israel. The Bible records that he was given power to temporarily blind them. He then brought them to Samaria, the capital, and handed them over to the Israelite king. The king asked Elijah if he should annihilate them. But Elijah prohibited him from doing them any harm, and instead ordered the king to offer them a meal. This action would have done Gandhi or Martin Luther King proud. And it must have impressed the Arameans. They did not raid Israel again (2 Kings 6:15-23). In such instances, when conflict was solved non-violently, God was showing to His people that He does not like bloodshed.
The prophet Isaiah expresses God’s ideal well. He pictures the world to come where nations will express their desire to be with God and to be taught by Him (Isa 2:4-6). In his vision, Isaiah sees these people beating their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Thus, God considers life to be sacred and valuable. In Old Testament times He allowed violence only when there was no other solution, and when the life of others was at risk. God hoped to lift Israel to a higher, more humane level of morality, and to thereby influence the other nations.
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