The Old Testament contains some graphic descriptions of violence. Some Christians are disturbed by the thought that God commanded his people to totally annihilate the people of Canaan. The bloody violence seems to be inconsistent with one of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not murder". It also seems to be inconsistent with the message of the gospel. Jesus urged his followers to turn the other cheek, when some one strikes them. The violence of the Old Testament does not make sense in the light of the gospel.
A common response to this violence is to reject the validity of the Old Testament as a revelation of God. Many people just assume that the Old Testament people got things wrong.
My approach is different. I agree that the Old Testament characters often got things wrong. They misunderstood the character of God and they did not understand his attitude to violence. Their behaviour was often tainted by the violence of the cultures in which they lived. However, I am not prepared to accept that the Old Testament describes a God who loves violence. The picture of a violent and blood thirsty God that many authors see in the Old Testament is totally wrong
1.2 Three Flaws
There are three reasons why this misunderstanding of the Old Testament has taken such a strong hold on Christian thinking.
Modern translators of the Old Testament generally choose the harshest possible translation of Hebrew word that often have a broad range of meanings. It seems that they want to portray God as being really harsh on evil. I can see why Jewish commentators would prefer the harshest meaning, because it vindicates their history of violence. However, I cannot understand why Christians with a New Testament revelation of God should take "harsh" as their default position, when the context does not require it. A change in the way that these passages are translated would give a totally different view of God.
Christians have misunderstood the way that God works in the world to bring his judgement against nations and societies that choose evil. He does not use his people to execute judgement, but he may use one evil group to bring judgment against another group that is worse.
Christians have tended to confuse the Israelites' behaviour with God's character. There is a big difference between what God actually commanded and what his people did. When studying the Old Testament, I focus on God's words and actions. This gives quite a different picture of God. He is not bloodthirsty and violent in the way that many people claim. His people were sometimes aggressive and bloodthirsty, but they were acting presumptively rather than obeying him. He did not command their violence and bloody destruction.
This article will expand on these issues with particular reference to Moses, Joshua and Samuel. I will look at a few other incidents along the way.
2. Harsh Translation
2.1 Insults God
One reason why Christians get the impression that God is violent and harsh is that the Old Testament is translated into English this way. Translators seem to like portraying God as tough on evil. Judging from modern English translations, "harsh" seems to be the default position when a Hebrew word has a range of possible meanings. If we toned down this aggressive translation, we would get a very different view of the character of God.
I can understand why Jewish translators and commentators would prefer the harshest meaning, because it vindicates their history of violence and trust in the power of war. The problem with this is that they justify their own actions at the expense of harming God's name and character. Given that Christians have a fuller revelation of God's character, we should avoid the harsher meanings of Hebrew words, unless the context requires it. We do not need to honour the warmongering and violence of the Israelites. Our primary objective should be to honour God.
A good example of the translation problem is the Hebrew word mrx, usually transliterated as "herem" or "charam". Interpreting this word is pivotal to understanding the Deuteronomy and Joshua. Herem is usually translated as "totally destroy" or "ban", despite the fact that the word can take a variety of meanings.
Herem comes from a root meaning "seclude". It is related to an Arabic word meaning "to prohibit, especially in ordinary use" The word "harem," used to describe the special quarters for Muslim wives comes from the same root. This suggests that the core meaning of "herem" is not "destroy", but "set apart" or "exclude from normal use". Herem means the exclusion of an object from the use or abuse of man and its irrevocable surrender to God (Leon Wood in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).
"Herem" is translated in a variety of ways in the Old Testament. Here are some examples:
Things dedicated to the God were given to the priests and levites.
Everything in Israel that is devoted to the LORD is yours (Num 18:14).
Things dedicated to God cannot be bought or sold.
But nothing that a man owns and devotes to the LORD -whether man or animal or family land-may be sold or redeemed (Lev 27:28).
Gold dedicated to God was put in the treasury.
But all the silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are consecrated to the LORD; they shall come into the treasury of the LORD (Jos 6:19).
They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah (Num 21:3).
The name of Mt Hermon is a form of herem.
So at that time we took from these two kings of the Amorites the territory east of the Jordan, from the Arnon Gorge as far as Mount Hermon (Deut 3:8).
Old Testament scholars are not sure about the correct meaning of this word. No one has been able to come up with an explanation of that covers all these uses. Given this uncertainty, sensible translators should be cautious about assuming that "herem" mostly means "destruction".
Using the harshest possible translation of a word is unwise (unless you want to make the Old Testament seem harsh). The primary meaning of "herem" is not destruction, but "separation" and "setting apart" or "exclusion". This should be the starting point for our understanding of what God said to Israel.
2.3 Other Examples
Christian translators seem to choose the harshest possible meaning for "herem". A link with "herem" is then used to assign a severe meaning to the associated with it. Here is an example.
For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses (Jos 11:20).
This verse makes God sound really harsh, but it is not the only possible translation of the Hebrew words. The expression "totally destroy" is "herem" discussed above. The word translated "exterminate" is "shamad". "Exterminate" is also the strongest possible translation of this word. "Destroy" is a more common translation. Even that is a little misleading, because in Deuteronomy 28:62-63, it is translated "destroy" although many people actually survived. "Shamad" can also mean "bring to nothing". The expression "without mercy" is also misleading. A more literal translation would be "so as not to become grace to them". The implication is that the Canaanites were excluded from receiving God's grace.
These comments mean that a very different translation is also legitimate.
For it was from the LORD to harden their hearts to come against Israel in battle, so that he might totally exclude from his grace and bring them to nothing, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
This describes God acting as a righteous judge. This is quite different from the vindictive God portrayed by the usual English translation of the verse.
This example is repeated again and again in the Old Testament. Translators of Deuteronomy and Joshua seem to prefer the harshest possible translation. I can understand why the early Christian translators and expositors, like Calvin and Luther might choose a harsh version. They were supported by kings and emperors who lived by the power of the sword and whose ruthless violence makes Joshua look like a wimp.
We now live in a different world and have a better understanding of God's ways. Given Jesus' non-violent life and death, Christian translators should default to the milder meanings of these words where that is consistent with the context. I mention a few examples in the rest of this article, but my knowledge Hebrew is limited. We really need a Hebrew expert who is not bound by the traditional approach to re-translate these books with the mildest possible meaning that is possible within the context. We would then get a totally different picture of God.
Christians have misunderstood the way that God works in the world to bring his judgement against nations and societies that choose evil.
3.1 God is Good
God created a world that is good. Violence came into this world when human sin freed up demonic forces to work their wickedness. Sin and evil spiritual forces are the source of violence, but God has not left them unrestrained. Judgment is an important restraint on evil.
God is a god of judgment. He has created this world in such a way that evil people and wicked nations are eventually destroyed. God sometimes intervenes directly to ensure that judgment occurs. He does this without sinning, because just judgment is part of his nature.
God controls this judging process himself. Humans can never understand all the circumstances surrounding the behaviour of a nation, so we cannot decide when a particular nation deserves judgment. We cannot decide when more mercy might give the nation opportunity to repent. Judging a nation requires enormous wisdom and knowledge, so it is best left to God.
It is mine to avenge; I will repay (Deut 32:35).
God sometimes uses a wicked nation to execute judgement on another. The Medes and Persians were used to bring judgment against Babylon.
This is what the LORD says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor (Is 45:1).
I am glad that God judges wickedness, because it limits the damage that evil people can do. If wickedness was given full reign to multiply, life on earth might be terrible. God's judgment ensures that evil is constantly brought down to size, giving peace a chance.
The theme of God's judgement continues in the New Testament. While Jesus required his people to love one another, he also warned that those persisting in wickedness would eventually face judgment. Here are two examples.
Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them-do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish (Luke 13:4-5).
Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering (Luke 11:52).
Judgement did not end at the cross. Jesus saw God's judgment of wickedness as continuing. The Revelation of John described further judgments in history after Jesus ministry on earth was complete.
With regard to God's activity in judgment, there is no inconsistency between the Old and the New Testament. Righteous judging is part of his character.
3.2 Inhabitants of Canaan
When God led Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land the people of Canaan were under judgment. They had been treading a dangerous course for 400 years. God promised Canaan to Abraham, but he said that he would not receive it until the existing inhabitants faced judgment.
Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure (Gen 15:13-16).
God was merciful towards the people of Canaan, giving them four hundred years to repent or change. He would not remove them until they were beyond redemption, with hearts totally hardened in sin. By the time of Moses, the Amorites' sin had reached its full measure. They had moved under the judgment of God, so they had lost their right to live in Canaan.
3.3 Who Judges
This raises an important question. How did God intend to bring about this judgement? Most Christians believe that God told the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites. They see Joshua as carrying out the judgment of God. The problem with this view is that it is inconsistent with the scriptures.
Jesus told us not take matters into our own hands. Paul said that we should leave judgment to God (Rom 12:17-21). Christians are to preach a gospel of peace. We support the gospel by demonstrating the love of God in the way we live. When Christians have used violence and war to advance the gospel, the result has been disaster, even if the victims deserved God's judgment.
Prophetic people may sometimes be called upon to announce God's judgment upon a nation in advance. These warnings are an expression of God's mercy, as they give the wicked nation an opportunity to repent. Prophets must not attempt to fulfil their prophecies by inflicting judgement. That is God's job.
In the past, I thought that God used the children of Israel to inflict judgment on the inhabitants of Canaan. I assumed that their violence was justified because God had told Moses to destroy the Canaanites. However, when I did some serious study of this issue, I found something quite different. God actually reserved responsibility for administering this judgement to himself.
The truth is that the Israelites disobeyed God and were over-zealous in pursuing the Canaanites. God responded to the excessive violence of Israel by allowing some Canaanites to survive and live on in the land. These people escaped God's judgement and became a thorn in the flesh for the Israelites.
3.4 Judgement of Children
The Egyptians soldiers drowned in the Red Sea were ruthless men, who probably deserved their fate. However, the children who died in Canaan were too young to have participated in their parent's sin. It seems unfair that they should die, just because their parents faced a time of judgment. This view forgets that issues of fairness will only be fully resolved at the last judgment. The innocent children who died during the judgment on there parents will get their reward when they stand before Jesus. The have effectively died for their parents sin. Dying for the sin of another person has value in heaven. I do not know if that will be sufficient to get them into eternal life, but they will receive full credit for any unjustified suffering. That will be fair.
4. God's Command for the Conquest
Christians have tended to confuse the Israelites' behaviour with God's character. There is a big difference between God's command and what his people did. In this section I focus on God's words and actions. When I look carefully at what God told the Israelites to do when entering the land of Canaan and what he said should be done to the Canaanites, I get quite a different picture of God. He was not bloodthirsty and violent.
God did not order his people to slaughter the Canaanites. Rather, he promised that he would drive the Canaanites out of the land in the same way that he freed his people from slavery in Egypt. He would do mighty signs and wonders that would fill the people of Canaan with fear and cause them to flee.
The children of Israel did not understand this promise. They thought that they had to take the land using military force, so they became aggressive and bloodthirsty. However, they were acting presumptively rather than obeying God, because he had not authorised their violence and bloody destruction. He intended them to gain victory in a better way, but they did not have enough faith to trust him for it.
When God called Moses to lead Israel, this is what he said.
I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex 3:7,8).
God promised to come down and do it all. He did not promise to deliver them from Egypt, but leave them to fight for the good land.
4.1 Flee in Fear
In Exodus 23, when God was speaking to Israel directly, he told them that he would drive the Canaanites out of the land. He explained it would happen.
Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out
I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you (Ex 23, 20:22,23,27,28).
God promised to do the job himself. He would send his angel before them to drive out their enemies. The enemy hearts would be filled with confusion and fear. The angel would strike the Canaanites with discomfit and fear. Hornets would come and frighten them. They would turn their backs and flee.
At the same time, God told Israel that they should not mix with the Canaanites or have anything to do with the people who lived in the land. When they had fled, the Israelites should break down and destroy the Canaanite's idols.
You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works; but you shall utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars For if you serve their gods (Ex 23:24,33).
God gave the Israelites very clear instructions, but he did not tell them to destroy the Canaanites. He said three times that he would "drive them out".
Little by little I will drive them out before you (Ex 23:30)
This shows that God wanted the Canaanites to be expelled from the land.
4.2 Clear Statement
God said over and over again that he would drive the Canaanites out of the land. He repeated this message in Exodus 34.
Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.
God said three things to Israel:
- He promised that he would drive out the people of Canaan.
- They must not make have any contact with the Canaanites.
- They must smash their idols and sacred things.
God did not tell Israel to kill or destroy them the Canaanite. The only thing they were to destroy was the altars and Asherah poles.
Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God "Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same (Ex 34:11-16).
God repeated his warning about mixing with the people of the land. They must not make treaties with them because this would lead to compromise.
These passages are quite clear. Firstly, God had declared judgment against the Canaanites. They have lost their right to live in the land and will be evicted. God would execute that judgment by forcing them out of the land. The Canaanites would flee leaving most of their wealth behind. God did not say that they should be slaughtered. There judgement was being "driven out" of the land.
Secondly, God declared that he would bring this judgment himself. The Israelites would reap the benefit, but they were not to inflict it.
4.3 Spiritual Protection
God had a good reason for expelling the Canaanites. Their wickedness has increased enormously, so their land was full of evil spirits. Canaan had become the haunt of every foul demon and bad spirit. The children of Israel had already demonstrated a vulnerability to the practices of the people around them, so God was running an enormous risk by bringing his people into this land without any spiritual protection.
In the Old Testament age, there was no cure for evil spirits. When King Saul was attacked by a spirit, he could be calmed by David's singing, but he could never escape their torment (1 Sam 16:14-23). Jesus had not yet died for sin, so evil spirits had not been defeated. The Holy Spirit had not come on all people, so evil spirits could not be cast out. The only way to keep safe from evil spirits was to keep separate from people who carried them.
Going into a land that was a stronghold of evil spirits was not a good idea. In the hostile spiritual environment of Canaan, the children of Israel needed serious protection from spiritual attack. The only protection from evil spirits was to keep separate from the people who carried them. Forcing out the inhabitants of the land would get rid of the demonic powers they carried.
4.4 Spiritual Danger
God did not want the inhabitants of Canaan killed, because eviction was more effective for dealing with evil spirits than destruction. If the people possessed by spirits were killed, the evil spirits would remain in the land and seek out other victims to control. The most vulnerable person would be the soldier who killed their previous home. Fighting hand to hand with people carrying evil spirits is very dangerous. Evicting them is risky too, but not as bad, because most demons will leave with the people who carry them.
If the Israelites had allowed God to expel the inhabitants of Canaan, they would have got rid of most the demonic activity that dominated the region. Because Joshua slaughtered many of the inhabitants of Canaan, he allowed an army of evil of spirits to remain in the land. This is one reason why the people of Israel were so easily led into evil. By slaughtering the Canaanites, Joshua opened his people to spiritual defeat.
4.5 Destroy or Evict
Moses repeated God's promises to Israel in Deuteronomy 7. Most commentators say that God was telling the Israelites to totally destroy the Canaanites, but this is not correct. Moses begins by repeating God's promise to drive the inhabitants of Canaanites out of the land.
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations-the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you (Deut 7:1).
This is quite straightforward. God will "drive out" these seven strong nations and the Israelites will take possession of the land.
The confusion comes from the next verses.
When the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods (Deut 7:2-4).
The phrase "destroy them totally" is "herem", but the message in the rest of the paragraph shows that "destroy" is not the appropriate translation in this context. Moses' message was that they must have nothing to do with the Canaanites. They must not make a treaty with them. They must not marry them. This would not make sense, if all the Canaanites had been destroyed, as there would be no one to marry and no one to make a treaty. In this context, herem would be better translated as "totally separate from them".
When the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must totally separate from them. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them.
God would deal with the Canaanites. The Israelites should avoid all contact.
Moses is very precise about what should be destroyed.
Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God (Deut 7:5,6).
God wanted the Israelites to destroy the idols and all sacred things that belonged to the previous inhabitants of the land, but he did not want the people destroyed. He would deal with them himself.
The LORD your God will clear away these nations (Deut 7:22).
Moses also explained how God would expel the people of Canaan.
Moreover, the LORD your God will send the hornet among them until even the survivors who hide from you have perished. Do not be terrified by them, for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome Godthrowing them into great confusion until they are destroyed (Deut 7:20,21,23).
The Lord will bring confusion, discomfort and vexation upon the Canaanites. He will send hornets among them to fill them with terror. They would realise that a mighty God is with the people of Israel and they will flee or hide. The word "perished" in verse 20 is "abad" which comes from a root meaning "wander away" or "escape". The word "destroyed" at the end of verse 23 is not "herem," but "shamad". It can mean "come to nothing". That is the fate of the Canaanites. They would escape in every direction and cease to be a people.
Rahab described the fulfilment of this word. She describes her people's response to hearing about what God had done.
When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below (Jos 2:11).
The spies reported to Joshua,
All the people are melting in fear because of us (Jos 2:24).
When they arrived at Jericho, the spies' words were confirmed.
Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in (Jos 6:1).
God had filled the Canaanite nations with fear and trepidation.
4.7 Deut Nine
Moses message was confirmed in Deuteronomy 9. He warned the children of Israel that they must not take credit for gaining the land, even though it belonged to a people who were mighty and strong.
Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourselves, cities great and fortified up to heaven. Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the LORD your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the LORD has promised you (Deut 9 1,3)
God would go ahead of the Israelites as a consuming fire and subdue the Canaanites. God might destroy some of the Canaanites, if he chose, but the Israelites should drive them out of the land. Bereft of land, they might perish, but the Israelites were not given permission to slaughter them.
Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,' whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you (Deut 9:4).
The children of Israel must not take credit, because the victory belonged to the Lord. He was the one who was thrusting the people out and driving them off their land. Moses message was very clear. The people living in the land were not to be slaughtered, because God would drive them out. This was God's judgment on their wickedness.
4.8 Laws for War
Laws defining the practice of war are outlined in Deuteronomy 20.
The Israelites were not to be afraid when facing an enemy, because God would be with them. He would give them victory. Men who did not trust God for victory should be sent home (Deut 20:1-4).
People living in a critical stage of their lives should be sent home from war. For example, men who have recently married, started building a house or started a business should be freed from service (Deut 20:5-8). The size of the army was not important, because God would bring them victory.
When they came to a city they should seek to negotiate peace.
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace (Deut 20:10).
This is evidence that God prefers peace to war. He is not a warmonger.
The Israelite army was only allowed to fight against men.
When the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword (Deut 20:13).
Fighting men was justified, but women and children were not to be attacked.
As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves (Deut 20:14).
Women and children were protected.
The soldiers were not to harm the land and the things that grew on it.
When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them (Deut 20:19)?
Wanton destruction was not justified.
The people of Canaan were to be expelled.
However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them-the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites-as the LORD your God has commanded you (Deut 20:6-17).
The translation of this passage carries on the misunderstanding of the word "herem". The translators just assume that God wanted the Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants of these cities. If he wanted the Israelites to be "totally separate from them", the following translation is equally valid and makes more sense, given God's earlier commands.
However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you, do not let any living being continue living there. Totally exclude them, as the LORD your God has commanded you.
The main difference was that the people of Canaan could not be absorbed into the Israelite nations.
5. Moses Mistakes
Moses did not fully understand his gifting. He had released his people from captivity to Pharaoh by working signs and wonders. He had destroyed the might Egyptian army by holding out his staff. Despite these amazing experiences, when attacked by the Amalekites, Moses mixed the power of the staff with the power of the sword.
Moses said to Joshua, "Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands (Ex 17:9).
God did not give this strategy to Moses, because Moses acted without consulting God. Moses stood on the hill with staff and prayed. Joshua stayed on the plain and fought with the sword. This was mixing God's power with human strength, so it became a struggle. Moses should have used the power of the staff with Joshua standing at his side. By mixing God's power with the power of the sword he set Joshua off in the direction of violence.
5.1 The Vow
A strange incident happened at Arad, before Israel crossed into the Promised Land. This partly explains why Israel was so violent.
When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. Then Israel made this vow to the LORD: "If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities." The LORD listened to Israel's plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah (Num 21:1-3).
Israel was under threat, so the nation made a vow to the Lord. God had not asked them to make this vow, but they promised that if he defeated the king of Arad, then they would destroy the cities of Arad. The vow showed that the children of Israel did not understand God's grace. Making a vow to get God's blessing is not grace, but manipulation.
5.2 Keeping Vows
The covenant people were not required to make vows, but were expected to fulfil them.
If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty (Deut 23:21-22).
Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: "This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said (Num 30:1-2).
God just wanted their loyalty and obedience. He did not want vows, but words are important. The covenant expected people keep their word.
I suspect that when Joshua slaughtered the Canaanites, he was fulfilling the vow made at Arad, rather than obeying God. This might explain why he was so destructive.
The other interesting aspect of the incident at Arad was that although they had promised to destroy the cities, they actually destroyed the people and the cities. Over zealousness was already at work. They responded to God's blessing by wrecking more destruction than they had vowed.
This study casts Joshua's behaviour in a very different light. I note that he is not listed among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. In fact the author of Hebrews specifically says that Joshua did not provide rest for his people.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day (Heb 4:8).
Yet God had promised Joshua that he would give the people rest.
Remember the command that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you: 'The LORD your God is giving you rest and has granted you this land (Josh 1:13).
Instead of resting in God by trusting him to do the fighting, Joshua tended to get stuck in himself. He constantly relied on the military power of Israel instead of trusting God. He depended on human strength, when he should have rested in God and watched him drive out the Canaanites. Joshua did not see all that God had promised or gain rest for his people. Unfortunately, Israel remained under threat of war, when it could have been at rest.
Part of Joshua's problem was that he was not good at hearing directly from God. Joshua was not a prophet as Moses had been (Deut 34:10). He was not skilled at hearing the voice of God. God sometimes had to send an angel to get him to hear (Jos 5:13-15).
Joshua also tended to do what he remembered God telling Moses to do.
As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses (Josh 11:15)
Unfortunately, Joshua did some things that God had not commanded. Getting your guidance second had is always dangerous. Joshua sometimes got things wrong, because he misunderstood what Moses had heard.
When they arrived at the Jordan, Joshua sent spies into the land (Jos 2:1). God has not commanded him to send spies. He acted on his own initiative. whereas Moses had a specific word from God to send spies (Num 1:13).
Joshua acted without consulting God when dealing with the people of Gibeon.
The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the LORD. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath (Jos 9:14,15).
Joshua did not inquire of the Lord, but trusted in the evidence in front of him. This serious mistake caused Joshua to make a covenant with his enemies, something that God had forbidden. Joshua had a habit of acting without consulting God. He often did more than God required.
6.1 Spiritual Warfare
Joshua was confused by an angelic visitor, thinking he was a lost soldier.
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?" (Jos 5:13,14).
When Joshua realised that the visitor was an angel, he asked for a message because he did not understand spiritual warfare. He did not understand that God had sent the commander of his spiritual hosts to drive out the Canaanites. We should also note that the angel said that he had not come to help Israel to fight better. He had come with the Lord's army to do the job.
6.2 Crossing the Jordan
Joshua's first task was to lead Israel over the Jordan River. God brought them to a river that was in flooded and dangerous, so that he could exalt Joshua as leader and set the tone of ministry. He told Joshua exactly what to do, but not what would happen.
And the LORD said to Joshua, "Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Tell the priests who carry the ark of the covenant: 'When you reach the edge of the Jordan's waters, go and stand in the river' " (Jos 3:7-8).
Joshua explained to the people what would follow.
And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the LORD -the Lord of all the earth-set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap (Jos 3:13).
He also explained the reason for this event.
This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites (Jos 3:10).
This is an amazing statement. God dried up the Jordan river to prove that he would drive the Canaanites our of the land. God confirmed what he was planning to do. Joshua knew that God wanted them driven out. He must have known that God did not want them slaughtered.
God also tried to set the tone for Joshua's ministry. By doing a repeat of the crossing of the Red Sea, God showed that Joshua had the same gift of miracles as Moses. He showed that Joshua could win a great victory by just obeying God. He did not have to anything but stand and watch do his work. That is what God intended for him. Joshua would make a declaration to release the power of God. The Canaanites would see the power of God and flee in fear. The Israelites would take the land as God undertook his works of power.
Joshua did not understand this. He worked one might miracle at Jericho, but slipped straight back into military action and slaughter. Despite seeing a mighty miracle of God at the Jordan River, he quickly fell Back to trusting in human strength and military power.
6.3 Joshua at Jericho
Joshua was much more violent than God. When he was leading the people against Jericho, God gave him very precise instructions.
Then the LORD said to Joshua, "See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams' horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in" (Jos 6:2-5).
God said they should march round and shout and blast trumpets. He said they should go "straight in". However, God did not tell Joshua to kill and destroy the inhabitants of Jericho.
Joshua told the Israelites to destroy the inhabitants of the city.
Joshua commanded the people, "Shout! For the LORD has given you the city! The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the LORD. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent (Jos 6:16,17).
Joshua told the people that only Rahab should be spared. There is no record of God telling Joshua to give a command to destroy the inhabitants.
6.4 Vow at Jericho
Joshua went even further and vowed that anyone who did not join in the destruction of Jericho would be under a curse.
Abstain from the accursed things, lest you become accursed when you take of the accursed things, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it (Jos 6:18).
Joshua went beyond what God commanded. God had told them to destroy the idols and altars, but he had not bound them under a curse. Joshua commanded Israel to destroy everything and put them under a curse if they disobeyed. Achan caused problems for Israel, not because he had disobeyed God, but because he failed to honour the vow that Joshua had made on behalf of the Israelites (Jos 7).
When Achan's actions were revealed, God did not accuse them of disobedience, but failure to keep the covenant.
Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep (Jos 7:11).
There was nothing in the covenant that forbade him plundering of silver and gold that was not part of an idol. However, Achan failed to fulfil the vow made on his behalf by Joshua. The curse came because he broke this vow.
6.5 Jericho Destroyed
The Israelites obeyed Joshua and slaughtered the people of Jericho.
They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it-men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the LORD's house (Jos 6:21,24).
The people of Jericho were massacred, but there is no evidence that God intended this to happen.
God's plan was that the people of Jericho would flee the city. He had sent his spiritual army to accomplish this purpose. Those who survived the earthquake and collapsing walls would have been trembling in fear. They would have done a runner as soon as the Israelites came in over the collapsed wall. God wanted the people of Jericho to leave the city and flee the land. Joshua slaughtered them before they could flee. He was more violent than God had intended.
6.6 Ambush at Ai
We see a similar pattern at Ai. Joshua slew more people than necessary. God told Joshua to set an ambush behind the city.
Lay an ambush for the city behind it (Jos 8:2).
Joshua did what God had commanded.
Joshua chose thirty thousand mighty men of valor and sent them away by night. And he commanded them, saying: "Behold, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind the city. Do not go very far from the city, but all of you be ready (Jos 8:3,4).
However, Joshua set a second ambush that was not part of God's plan.
So he took about five thousand men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city. And when they had set the people, all the army that was on the north of the city, and its rear guard on the west of the city (Jos 8:12,13).
This second ambush prevented the inhabitants of Ai from escaping. Under God's plan there was nothing to prevent the people of Ai from fleeing into the wilderness. Joshua twisted God's plan by blocking them in for slaughter.
When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. Twelve thousand men and women fell that day-all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed] all who lived in Ai (Jos 8:24-26).
Joshua decided how long the killing should continue. He personally hung the king of Ai on a tree without specific instruction from God (Jos 8:29).
6.7 Victory God's Way
Another victory by Joshua is recorded in Joshua 10. On this occasion five Amorite kings attacked the Gibeonites, whom Joshua had agreed to defend.
Then the five kings of the Amorites-the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon-joined forces. They moved up with all their troops and took up positions against Gibeon and attacked it (Josh 10:5).
Joshua marched up from Gigal with his entire army. This time he got a clear word from the Lord.
The LORD said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid of them; I have given them into your hand. Not one of them will be able to withstand you" (Jos 10:8).
The Lord promised that none of the Amorites would stand and fight. They would all flee from the Israelites.
The Amorites were surprised and the Lord threw into confusion.
Joshua therefore came upon them suddenly, having marched all night from Gilgal. So the LORD routed them before Israel, killed them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, chased them along the road that goes to Beth Horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah (Jos 10:9-10).
Some translations imply that Israel chased them, but the original text is clear that the Lord who pursued them.
And it happened, as they fled before Israel and were on the descent of Beth Horon, that the LORD cast down large hailstones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died from the hailstones than the children of Israel killed with the sword (Jos 10:11).
The Lord pursued the Amorites and rained down hailstones upon the fleeing army. The victory was achieved by the Lord. This is how he prefers to work.
6.8 Sun Stands Still
What happened next is bizarre. Joshua told the sun and moon to stand still so that Israel could slaughter the fleeing Amorites.
At that time Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon."
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies (Jos 9:12-13).
There are several odd things about this incident.
The Lord had already defeated the Amorites and chased them out of the area. I am not sure why Joshua wanted more time. It seems like he wanted to get in on the Lord's victory.
The Lord had said that he would bring the victory, he did not tell Joshua to slaughter the Amorites.
God did not instruct Joshua to make the sun stand still.
Joshua seemed to be trying to go one better. God had sent hail stones, Joshua would control the sun and moon. This seems like hubris.
I am not sure why God listened to Joshua's command to the sun. I suspect that because Joshua had made this reckless command in front of the Israelites, God did not want to dishonour his leadership at a critical time during the taking of the land.
Israel took vengeance on the Amorites, even though God had not commanded it. These particular people had only threatened Israel, so they were was actually nothing to avenge.
6.9 Gift of Miracles
The author of the book of Joshua noted the event as strange.
And there has been no day like that, before it or after it, that the LORD heeded the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel (Jos 10:14).
The Lord had fought for Israel and won a victory, but he listened to a human voice and allowed him to disobey and slaughter the fleeing army. Even the author of Joshua finds this hard to understand.
The problem is that Joshua misunderstood his calling. He had the gift of miracles. God had given him power to perform miracles. Joshua had used this gift at Jericho, when the walls came tumbling down. However, he was not content with this miracle and spoilt it by supplementing his gift with the sword, and the slaughter of all the inhabitants.
At Gibeon, God confirmed Joshua's gift of miracles by responding to Joshua's declaratory prayer, even though he prayed for the wrong reason. God is sometimes so keen to get us doing his stuff that he does stuff for us, even when we stuff up. The miracle of the sun standing still was God's blessing on Joshua's faith and gifting, not approval for the slaughter that followed.
God intended Joshua to release his miracle power to defeat the surrounding nations. They would see the awesome power of God and be so filled with fear that they would flee. Joshua did not get this and fell back on the power of the sword.
6.10 Moses Trained Joshua Wrong
Part of the problem is that Moses had not fully understood his gifting. He had experienced many miracles in Egypt and a great victory over the Egyptian army at the Red Sea.
Moses answered the people, "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still" (Ex 14:13,14).
Each time he had stretched out his staff, a miracle followed. God did the work. Moses and the people just had to be still.
Despite these amazing experiences, Moses mixed the power of the staff with the power of the sword when attacked by the Amalekites. He stood on the hill with staff and prayed. Joshua stayed on the plain and fought with the sword. Joshua did not see Moses praying, so he thought that he had won a victory with the sword.
So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword (Ex 17:13).
Joshua assumed that his fighting was the key to the victory. This was his first encounter with the nations and Moses had trained him to trust in the power of the sword.
God spoke to Moses after the event and tried to get him to understand how Joshua should operate.
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven (Jos 17:14).
The Amalekites had stretched out their hands against God's throne, so God's hand was against them (Ex 17:16). This meant that Joshua did not need to fight against them with the sword. God made sure this message was written on a scroll and read to Joshua. He wanted Joshua to trust him instead of relying on the power of the sword. Unfortunately, Joshua did not understand this message and became a man of war.
If Moses had used the used the power of the staff against the Amalekites with Joshua standing at his side, Joshua would have learned how to release the power of God. Instead he set him on the wrong path by sending him out against the Amalekites with the sword. He taught Joshua to use the sword, when he should have been training him to use his gift of miracles.
6.11 Different Perspectives
Here are two descriptions of an incident, one by Moses and one by Joshua.
And the LORD will do to them as He did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites and their land, when He (the Lord) destroyed them (Deut 31:4).
We have heard what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you (the people) completely destroyed (Josh 2:10)
Both men were present at this event. Moses saw the defeat of Sihon and Og as God's victory. Joshua saw this as a victory by the people, because he did not understand what God had done. This misunderstanding caused him to place too much reliance on human wisdom and ability.
6.12 Killing Spree
The victory over the five kings seemed to go to Joshua's head. In the remainder of chapter 10 11, Joshua did not hear God's voice once, yet he went on a great killing spree. He hung the Amorite kings (vv.16-27) and slaughtered the people of Makkedah (v.28). He attacked the city of Libnah and killed its citizens (v.29). The people of Lachish were put to the sword (v.32). Eglon and Hebron were massacred (vv.34-36). Debir and its surrounding villages were wiped out (v.39).
So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally excluded all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Jos 10:40).
Joshua emptied the land of its inhabitants, as the Lord had commanded, but he did not do in the way that the Lord required. Joshua slaughtered most of the people, when God really intended to drive them out. Joshua went beyond what God required.
6.14 The Northern Kings
When the northern kings heard about the defeat of the southern kings, they got together to attack Israel.
They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots-a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. All these kings joined forces and made camp together at the Waters of Merom, to fight against Israel (Jos 11:4-5).
God gave Joshua very clear instructions.
The LORD said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid of them, because by this time tomorrow I will hand all of them over to Israel, slain. You are to hamstring their horses and burn their chariots" (Jos 11:6).
The Lord would destroy the soldiers. Israel would just have deal with the horses and destroy the chariots. Hamstring is not a very good translation. God wanted Israel to hobble or lame the horses, so that they could not be used for warfare. They could use the horses for domestic purposes, but God did not want them using horses and chariots for warfare (Deut 17:16).
God did not say what he had planned for the northern army. Maybe he was going to strike them with sickness. We will never know, because as usual, Joshua rushed in without waiting for the Lord to do what he had promised.
So Joshua and his whole army came against them suddenly at the Waters of Merom and attacked them (Jos 11:7).
Despite their disobedience, God helped Israel to victory. The Israelites destroyed the horses and chariots, as the Lord had commanded, but he put all the people to the sword, even though the Lord had not commanded this.
Joshua took all these royal cities and their kings and put them to the sword (Jos 11:12).
This battle completed the victories of Joshua.
As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses (Jos 11:15).
Joshua did what the Lord had commanded Moses by clearing the land of inhabitants. However, he went beyond what Moses had commanded by exterminating so many people.
7. Defence against Attack
Although the Israelites were over zealous in slaughtering the inhabitants of Canaan, this does not mean that is never a justification for war. There were a few times when the nations attacked Israel and defence was justified.
7.1 Sihon of Heshbon
Sihon King of Heshbon is an interesting example. Moses sent a message to him asking if his people could pass by. Moses promised that they would stay on the main road and pay for any food that they used.
Let us pass through your country. We will stay on the main road; we will not turn aside to the right or to the left. Sell us food to eat and water to drink for their price in silver. Only let us pass through on foot (Deut 2:27-28).
Moses did everything possible to avoid picking a fight with them Heshbonites. He offered to pay for food and grazing. However, the heart of King Sihon was hardened. He responded to Moses' request by sending his army out against the Israelites at Jahaz. God spoke to Moses and promised to defeat this army.
The LORD said to me, "See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his country over to you. Now begin to conquer and possess his land (Deut 2:31).
The Lord helped the Israelites win this battle. Deuteronomy does not describe how God intervened, but Moses describes the outcome.
At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them-men, women and children. We left no survivors (Deut 2:34)
This verse seems to imply that the Israelites destroyed all the men, woman and children, but that is not the full story.
Firstly, there is no evidence that God commanded them to destroy everyone. God allowed the Israelites to defend themselves, if when they were attacked. He assisted them in these situations. However, he never commanded them to annihilate the women and children when they were defending themselves.
If they had destroyed all the woman and children, Moses would have been disobeying God. However, Moses was not disobedient. This is just another example of a verse being translated harshly for no reason. The last three words literally say "We left none to remain". This is not the same as "no survivors". If "herem" at the beginning of the verse is translated as "total separation", Moses may have been saying that they drove the people out and allowed no one to remain in the towns of this land. Moses was not claiming to have slaughtered all the women and children. This view is confirmed in Judges 11:23, where Jepthah sent the Ammonite king a message about the land taken from Sihon.
Now since the LORD, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over?
This confirms that the Israel did not destroy the people of Heshbon, but drove them out before the people of Israel. The harsh translation of herem in misrepresents Moses actions.
A further confirmation is the Greek version (Septuagint) of Isaiah 17:9, which says that the Hivites and Amorites deserted their cities.
7.2 Og of Bashan
The other Ammonite king who attacked Israel was Og of Bashan. The same thing happened to him.
So the LORD our God also gave into our hands Og king of Bashan and all his army. We struck them down, leaving no survivors (Deut 3:3).
This translation is also misleading. The word "nakah" is translated as "struck", but it can also mean "cast out". Moses might have been saying.
We cast them out, letting no one remain.
This is confirmed in the book of Joshua.
all the kingdom of Og in Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth and Edrei, who remained of the remnant of the giants; for Moses had defeated and cast out these (Jos 13:12).
The Hebrew word translated here as "cast out" is "yaresh", which means "to dispossess by eviction".
God allowed the Israelites to defend themselves when attacked. He promised he would assist them. He drove some who had attacked them off their land, but he did not give Israel permission to annihilate them or their families.
8. Faith Defeats Weapons
When the Israelites were at their best, they did not need to fight to defend themselves, because God threw their enemies into confusion or sent a trouble amongst them that caused them to flee.
The Philistines were defeated when God caused a flying stone to hit Goliath between the eyes. The Arameans were defeated when they heard a strange sound and fled in fear.
The Lord had caused the Arameans to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a great army. so they got up and fled in the dusk and abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys. They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives (2 Kings 7:6,7).
A huge Assyrian army was defeated by sickness.
That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning-there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there (2 Kings 19:35-36).
When King Amaziah hired a hundred thousand troops for 1000 talents of silver to defend his nation, God said he was wasting him money (2 Chron 25:7-9).
When Jehoshaphat was attacked by three armies, God won the victory.
The men of Ammon and Moab rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another. When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped (2 Chron 20:23-24).
When the people of Israel trusted in God, he protected them from invading armies. They did not need to use the weapons of war.
8.2 Trumpets and Torches
The defeat of the Midianites when Gideon was leader of Israel is another example of the way that God defends his people. The Israelites had turned away from God, so he gave them into the hands of Midianites for seven years. The Midianites were so oppressive that the children of Israel had to hide in the mountains and watch all their crops being stolen or destroyed. They were so impoverished that they called out to God. He raised up Gideon to deliver them. Gideon gathered together twenty-two thousand men, but God reduced his army to just thee hundred men.
The LORD said to Gideon, "With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place" (Jud 7:7).
These three hundred men did not have swords. All they had was trumpets. They surrounded the Midanite camp at night with a covered torch burning in one hand and a trumpet in the other. When Gideon gave the signal, the uncovered their torches, sounded their trumpets and shouted.
While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled. When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the LORD caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled (Jud 7:21-22)
Three hundred men armed only with trumpets and torches defeated an army too large to be counted (Jud 7:12) when God sent confusion and they killed each other as they fled in the dark. That is how God likes to defend his people
8.3 Over Zealous
Despites receiving God's grace, Gideon responded by going over the top.
Gideon sent messengers throughout the hill country of Ephraim, saying, "Come down against the Midianites and seize the waters of the Jordan ahead of them (Jud 7:24).
Although God had specifically told Gideon to send these people home, Gideon called them out again. These soldiers killed some of the Midianites who were fleeing. This is what usually happened in Israel. When God gave them victory, they responded with unnecessary destruction and slaughter.
8.4 Modern Israel
These principles are relevant to modern Israel. If God has brought them Back to their land, he will protect them. If they had his blessing, they would not need the weapons of war. God would deliver them from their enemies.
The reality is that Israel has always had extremely militaristic governments, a big armaments industry and many nuclear weapons. This is not surprising, because most modern Israelis are secular people, who do not trust in God. Those who do believe in God also believe that Deuteronomy and Joshua provide justification for using extreme military force to defend their land.
The strange thing is that many Christians also believe that Israel should use whatever military force is necessary to defeat their enemies. They would be happy for the United States to drop nuclear weapons on Iran to protect Israel. They see a million deaths in Iraq as justified, if it removes an enemy of Israel.
Those who hold this view have forgotten that God once delivered Israel using 300 men with trumpets. The belief that the defence of Israel justifies brutal military force is based on a false understanding of the Old Testament.
9. Prophets and Violence
The prophets of Israel often misunderstood God's attitude to violence. When reading about the prophets, we tend to assume that prophets always behaved correctly, but there is no reason that that should be true. We should not accept their actions uncritically, but test their behaviour against God's standards. We will fin that they often acted wrongly. We will find that God sometimes honoured their gifts, even when they were using them wrongly.
For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:29).
The Old Testament prophets frequently misused their powers. One example is Elisha and the cheeky children.
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!" He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. (1 Kings 2:23-24).
This incident demonstrates the power of a curse, but there is nothing in this passage to suggest that God approved Elisha's use of the curse. When James and John wanted to put a similar curse on a Samaritan village that rejected them, Jesus challenged them.
When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them (Luke 9:54-55).
Putting these two passages together, we can conclude two things. Words are powerful and curses have consequences. Prophets must be careful about the way they speak, because their words can produce both good and evil.
9.2 Samuel and the Philistines
Samuel was a great prophet, but he was also very human. He led the people to repentance and guided Israel to a great victory over the Philistines.
And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, "If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines" (1 Sam 7:3).
The people did repent, so the Lord delivered them from the Philistines.
The Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites (1 Sam 7:10).
This demonstrates the correct way for a Christian community to defend itself. The first step is to repent of all sin. This releases God to confuse the enemies and make them flee. In this case he used thunder to rout them.
The victory over the Philistines was a wonderful prophetic incident, but closer reading reveals several problems. Firstly, the Israelites responded to God's victory, by slaughtering the fleeing Philistines.
The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car (1 Sam 7:11).
God had not commanded the people of Israel to engage in this destruction. He had promised that he would deliver Israel, so their actions added human works to God grace. A great victory by God was spoiled by unnecessary vindictiveness.
9.4 Death of Agag
Samuel asked for Agag the king of the Amalekites to be brought to him. Agag thought this was good news, but Samuel had a different attitude.
And Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal (1 Sam 15:33).
Most commentators applaud Samuel for doing what God commanded, whereas Saul is condemned. I am not sure that we have got this right. Saul had certainly lost touch with God (1 Sam 15:11), but there is no record in the scriptures of God commanding Samuel to slaughter Agag.
The impression I get is that Samuel acted on his own initiative. The expression "before the Lord" could be translated "against the Lord". This would confirm that Samuel was not acting in obedience to the Lord.
Even if God wanted Agag dead, that did not make it right for Samuel to kill him. A prophet must not act as executioner or military commander. A true prophet should be totally separated to God, so they must not actas the executioner of criminals or military prisoners. Samuel went beyond his calling as a prophet by executing Agag.
These events are a serious warning to all prophets. They should be careful to stay within there calling. When a prophet thinks they are being ignored, they can be tempted to fulfil their own prophecies. This is dangerous for a prophet.
Many people are disturbed by the description of Samuel hacking Agag into pieces. They say that a God who would order this is not very nice. I agree with this view, but I also believe that God did not order this violent death. If I have interpreted this passage correctly, God did not command that Agag be hacked to hamburger.
This paints Samuel in a lesser light, but we should not cast aspersions on God just to protect Samuel's reputation. Samuel did not have the benefit of knowing Jesus, so it is not surprising that he was influenced by the culture of the time. On the other hand, we should not condemn him by Christian standards, because he did not have the benefits of the life and teaching of Jesus.
Samuel was a great prophet in a time when Israel was still confused about the role of the prophetic ministry (1 Sam (9:9). Given that he preceded Jesus and had no written scripture to guide him, it is amazing that the made so few mistakes. I discuss the ministry of Samuel more fully at Prophet Samuel).
10.1 History and Morality
God provided the Old Testament histories for our benefit.
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come (1 Cor 10:11).
The events recorded teach us about God's requirements for his people. We can learn a lot from reading the Old Testament, however we must not assume that because a situation is recorded that God approved the actions taken. Some incidents were recorded as warnings of bad behaviour.
In some histories, the Old Testament assesses the behaviour and states whether it was good or evil. However, many other events are just recorded without comment. In these cases, we need to assess the action against the moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments and against the lifestyle of Jesus.
10.2 Modern Wars
Old Testament violence has become an important issue in modern times. Many Christians use the Old Testament to justify the violence of war. If Joshua was justified in using destructive military force, destruction by modern armies is also justified, provided the war is justified. Many Christians believe that the destruction and death in Iraq is justified, because the war is accomplishing God's purposes. The same arguments are used to support the current Israeli government's partiality to military force. Unfortunately, the violence in the Old Testament is still being used to justify a multitude of wars.
10.3 Excessive Violence
Throughout the Old Testament, there is often a big difference between what God told the Israelites to do, and what they actually did. They often were far more violent than God commanded them to be. What God told them to do is usually far more consistent with the message of the gospel than the actions that followed. The Israelites often totally misunderstood God. Their actions were far more violent that what God commanded.
God is not a violent and bloodthirsty God. When the Israelites acted in this way they let God down. When Christians follow this example, they hinder the spread of the gospel.